aqua

Twitter Hacking for Profit and the LoLs

The New York Times last week ran an interview with several young men who claimed to have had direct contact with those involved in last week’s epic hack against Twitter. These individuals said they were only customers of the person who had access to Twitter’s internal employee tools, and were not responsible for the actual intrusion or bitcoin scams that took place that day. But new information suggests that at least two of them operated a service that resold access to Twitter employees for the purposes of modifying or seizing control of prized Twitter profiles.

As first reported here on July 16, prior to bitcoin scam messages being blasted out from such high-profile Twitter accounts @barackobama, @joebiden, @elonmusk and @billgates, several highly desirable short-character Twitter account names changed hands, including @L, @6 and @W.

A screenshot of a Discord discussion between the key Twitter hacker “Kirk” and several people seeking to hijack high-value Twitter accounts.

Known as “original gangster” or “OG” accounts, short-character profile names confer a measure of status and wealth in certain online communities, and such accounts can often fetch thousands of dollars when resold in the underground.

The people involved in obtaining those OG accounts on July 15 said they got them from a person identified only as “Kirk,” who claimed to be a Twitter employee. According to The Times, Kirk first reached out to the group through a hacker who used the screen name “lol” on OGusers, a forum dedicated to helping users hijack and resell OG accounts from Twitter and other social media platforms. From The Times’s story:

“The hacker ‘lol’ and another one he worked with, who went by the screen name ‘ever so anxious,’ told The Times that they wanted to talk about their work with Kirk in order to prove that they had only facilitated the purchases and takeovers of lesser-known Twitter addresses early in the day. They said they had not continued to work with Kirk once he began more high-profile attacks around 3:30 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday.

‘lol’ did not confirm his real-world identity, but said he lived on the West Coast and was in his 20s. “ever so anxious” said he was 19 and lived in the south of England with his mother.

Kirk connected with “lol” late Tuesday and then “ever so anxious” on Discord early on Wednesday, and asked if they wanted to be his middlemen, selling Twitter accounts to the online underworld where they were known. They would take a cut from each transaction.”

Twice in the past year, the OGUsers forum was hacked, and both times its database of usernames, email addresses and private messages was leaked online. A review of the private messages for “lol” on OGUsers provides a glimpse into the vibrant market for the resale of prized OG accounts.

On OGUsers, lol was known to other members as someone who had a direct connection to one or more people working at Twitter who could be used to help fellow members gain access to Twitter profiles, including those that had been suspended for one reason or another. In fact, this was how lol introduced himself to the OGUsers community when he first joined.

“I have a twitter contact who I can get users from (to an extent) and I believe I can get verification from,” lol explained.

In a direct message exchange on OGUsers from November 2019, lol is asked for help from another OGUser member whose Twitter account had been suspended for abuse.

“hello saw u talking about a twitter rep could you please ask if she would be able to help unsus [unsuspend] my main and my friends business account will pay 800-1k for each,” the OGUusers profile inquires of lol.

Lol says he can’t promise anything but will look into it. “I sent her that, not sure if I will get a reply today bc its the weekend but ill let u know,” Lol says.

In another exchange, an OGUser denizen quizzes lol about his Twitter hookup.

“Does she charge for escalations? And how do you know her/what is her department/job. How do you connect with them if I may ask?”

“They are in the Client success team,” lol replies. “No they don’t charge, and I know them through a connection.”

As for how he got access to the Twitter employee, lol declines to elaborate, saying it’s a private method. “It’s a lil method, sorry I cant say.”

In another direct message, lol asks a fellow OGUser member to edit a comment in a forum discussion which included the Twitter account “@tankska,” saying it was his IRL (in real life) Twitter account and that he didn’t want to risk it getting found out or suspended (Twitter says this account doesn’t exist, but a simple text search on Twitter shows the profile was active until late 2019).

“can u edit that comment out, @tankska is a gaming twitter of mine and i dont want it to be on ogu :D’,” lol wrote. “just dont want my irl getting sus[pended].”

Still another OGUser member would post lol’s identifying information into a forum thread, calling lol by his first name — “Josh” — in a post asking lol what he might offer in an auction for a specific OG name.

“Put me down for 100, but don’t note my name in the thread please,” lol wrote.

WHO IS LOL?

The information in lol’s OGUsers registration profile indicates he was probably being truthful with The Times about his location. The hacked forum database shows a user “tankska” registered on OGUsers back in July 2018, but only made one post asking about the price of an older Twitter account for sale.

The person who registered the tankska account on OGUsers did so with the email address [email protected], and from an Internet address tied to the San Ramon Unified School District in Danville, Calif.

According to 4iq.com, a service that indexes account details like usernames and passwords exposed in Web site data breaches, the jperry94526 email address was used to register accounts at several other sites over the years, including one at the apparel store Stockx.com under the profile name Josh Perry.

Tankska was active only briefly on OGUsers, but the hacked OGUsers database shows that “lol” changed his username three times over the years. Initially, it was “freej0sh,” followed by just “j0sh.”

lol did not respond to requests for comment sent to email addresses tied to his various OGU profiles and Instagram accounts.

ALWAYS IN DISCORD

Last week’s story on the Twitter compromise noted that just before the bitcoin scam tweets went out, several OG usernames changed hands. The story traced screenshots of Twitter tools posted online back to a moniker that is well-known in the OGUsers circle: PlugWalkJoe, a 21-year-old from the United Kingdom.

Speaking with The Times, PlugWalkJoe — whose real name is Joseph O’Connor — said while he acquired a single OG Twitter account (@6) through one of the hackers in direct communication with Kirk, he was otherwise not involved in the conversation.

“I don’t care,” O’Connor told The Times. “They can come arrest me. I would laugh at them. I haven’t done anything.”

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, O’Connor likewise asserted his innocence, suggesting at least a half dozen other hacker handles that may have been Kirk or someone who worked with Kirk on July 15, including “Voku,” “Crim/Criminal,” “Promo,” and “Aqua.”

“That twit screenshot was the first time in a while I joke[d], and evidently I shouldn’t have,” he said. “Joking is what got me into this mess.”

O’Connor shared a number of screenshots from a Discord chat conversation on the day of the Twitter hack between Kirk and two others: “Alive,” which is another handle used by lol, and “Ever So Anxious.” Both were described by The Times as middlemen who sought to resell OG Twitter names obtained from Kirk. O’Connor is referenced in these screenshots as both “PWJ” and by his Discord handle, “Beyond Insane.”

The negotiations over highly-prized OG Twitter usernames took place just prior to the hijacked celebrity accounts tweeting out bitcoin scams.

Ever So Anxious told Kirk his OGU nickname was “Chaewon,” which corresponds to a user in the United Kingdom. Just prior to the Twitter compromise, Chaewon advertised a service on the forum that could change the email address tied to any Twitter account for around $250 worth of bitcoin. O’Connor said Chaewon also operates under the hacker alias “Mason.”

“Ever So Anxious” tells Kirk his OGUsers handle is “Chaewon,” and asks Kirk to modify the display names of different OG Twitter handles to read “lol” and “PWJ”.

At one point in the conversation, Kirk tells Alive and Ever So Anxious to send funds for any OG usernames they want to this bitcoin address. The payment history of that address shows that it indeed also received approximately $180,000 worth of bitcoin from the wallet address tied to the scam messages tweeted out on July 15 by the compromised celebrity accounts.

The Twitter hacker “Kirk” telling lol/Alive and Chaewon/Mason/Ever So Anxious where to send the funds for the OG Twitter accounts they wanted.

SWIMPING

My July 15 story observed there were strong indications that the people involved in the Twitter hack have connections to SIM swapping, an increasingly rampant form of crime that involves bribing, hacking or coercing employees at mobile phone and social media companies into providing access to a target’s account.

The account “@shinji,” a.k.a. “PlugWalkJoe,” tweeting a screenshot of Twitter’s internal tools interface.

SIM swapping was thought to be behind the hijacking of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey‘s Twitter account last year. As recounted by Wired.com, @jack was hijacked after the attackers conducted a SIM swap attack against AT&T, the mobile provider for the phone number tied to Dorsey’s Twitter account.

Immediately after Jack Dorsey’s Twitter handle was hijacked, the hackers tweeted out several shout-outs, including one to @PlugWalkJoe. O’Connor told KrebsOnSecurity he has never been involved in SIM swapping, although that statement was contradicted by two law enforcement sources who closely track such crimes.

However, Chaewon’s private messages on OGusers indicate that he very much was involved in SIM swapping. Use of the term “SIM swapping” was not allowed on OGusers, and the forum administrators created an automated script that would watch for anyone trying to post the term into a private message or discussion thread.

The script would replace the term with “I do not condone illegal activities.” Hence, a portmanteau was sometimes used: “Swimping.”

“Are you still swimping?” one OGUser member asks of Chaewon on Mar. 24, 2020. “If so and got targs lmk your discord.” Chaewon responds in the affirmative, and asks the other user to share his account name on Wickr, an encrypted online messaging app that automatically deletes messages after a few days.

Chaewon/Ever So Anxious/Mason did not respond to requests for comment.

O’Connor told KrebsOnSecurity that one of the individuals thought to be associated with the July 15 Twitter hack — a young man who goes by the nickname “Voku” — is still actively involved in SIM-swapping, particularly against customers of AT&T and Verizon.

Voku is one of several hacker handles used by a Canton, Mich. youth whose mom turned him in to the local police in February 2018 when she overheard him talking on the phone and pretending to be an AT&T employee. Officers responding to the report searched the residence and found multiple cell phones and SIM cards, as well as files on the kid’s computer that included “an extensive list of names and phone numbers of people from around the world.”

The following month, Michigan authorities found the same individual accessing personal consumer data via public Wi-Fi at a local library, and seized 45 SIM cards, a laptop and a Trezor wallet — a hardware device designed to store crytpocurrency account data. In April 2018, Voku’s mom again called the cops on her son — identified only as confidential source #1 (“CS1”) in the criminal complaint against him — saying he’d obtained yet another mobile phone.

Voku’s cooperation with authorities led them to bust up a conspiracy involving at least nine individuals who stole millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency and other items of value from their targets.

CONSPIRACY

Samy Tarazi, an investigator with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, has spent hundreds of hours tracking young hackers during his tenure with REACT, a task force set up to combat SIM swapping and bring SIM swappers to justice.

According to Tarazi, multiple actors in the cybercrime underground are constantly targeting people who work in key roles at major social media and online gaming platforms, from Twitter and Instagram to Sony, Playstation and Xbox.

Tarazi said some people engaged in this activity seek to woo their targets, sometimes offering them bribes in exchange for the occasional request to unban or change the ownership of specific accounts.

All too often, however, employees at these social media and gaming platforms find themselves the object of extremely hostile and persistent personal attacks that threaten them and their families unless and until they give in to demands.

“In some cases, they’re just hitting up employees saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a business opportunity for you, do you want to make some money?’” Tarazi explained. “In other cases, they’ve done everything from SIM swapping and swatting the victim many times to posting their personal details online or extorting the victims to give up access.”

Allison Nixon is chief research officer at Unit 221B, a cyber investigations company based in New York. Nixon says she doesn’t buy the idea that PlugWalkJoe, lol, and Ever So Anxious are somehow less culpable in the Twitter compromise, even if their claims of not being involved in the July 15 Twitter bitcoin scam are accurate.

“You have the hackers like Kirk who can get the goods, and the money people who can help them profit — the buyers and the resellers,” Nixon said. “Without the buyers and the resellers, there is no incentive to hack into all these social media and gaming companies.”

Mark Rasch, Unit 221B’s general counsel and a former U.S. federal prosecutor, said all of the players involved in the Twitter compromise of July 15 can be charged with conspiracy, a legal concept in the criminal statute which holds that any co-conspirators are liable for the acts of any other co-conspirator in furtherance of the crime, even if they don’t know who those other people are in real life or what else they may have been doing at the time.

“Conspiracy has been called the prosecutor’s friend because it makes the agreement the crime,” Rasch said. “It’s a separate crime in addition to the underlying crime, whether it be breaking in to a network, data theft or account takeover. The ‘I just bought some usernames and gave or sold them to someone else’ excuse is wrong because it’s a conspiracy and these people obviously don’t realize that.”

In a statement on its ongoing investigation into the July 15 incident, Twitter said it resulted from a small number of employees being manipulated through a social engineering scheme. Twitter said at least 130 accounts were targeted by the attackers, who succeeded in sending out unauthorized tweets from 45 of them and may have been able to view additional information about those accounts, such as direct messages.

On eight of the compromised accounts, Twitter said, the attackers managed to download the account history using the Your Twitter Data tool. Twitter added that it is working with law enforcement and is rolling out additional company-wide training to guard against social engineering tactics.

Russian Cybercrime Boss Burkov Pleads Guilty

Aleksei Burkov, an ultra-connected Russian hacker once described as “an asset of supreme importance” to Moscow, has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to running a site that sold stolen payment card data and to administering a highly secretive crime forum that counted among its members some of the most elite Russian cybercrooks.

Aleksei Burkov, seated second from right, attends a hearing in Jerusalem in 2015. Andrei Shirokov / Tass via Getty Images.

Burkov, 29, admitted to running CardPlanet, a site that sold more than 150,000 stolen credit card accounts, and to being the founder and administrator of DirectConnection — a closely guarded underground community that attracted some of the world’s most-wanted Russian hackers. He pleaded guilty last week in a Virginia court to access device fraud and conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, identity theft, wire fraud and money laundering.

As KrebsOnSecurity noted in a November 2019 profile of Burkov’s hacker nickname ‘k0pa,’ “a deep dive into the various pseudonyms allegedly used by Burkov suggests this individual may be one of the most connected and skilled malicious hackers ever apprehended by U.S. authorities, and that the Russian government is probably concerned that he simply knows too much.”

Membership in the DirectConnection fraud forum was heavily restricted. New members had to be native Russian speakers, provide a $5,000 deposit, and be vouched for by three existing crime forum members. Also, members needed to have a special encryption certificate installed in their Web browser before the forum’s login page would even load.

DirectConnection was something of a Who’s Who of major cybercriminals, and many of its most well-known members have likewise been extradited to and prosecuted by the United States. Those include Sergey “Fly” Vovnenko, who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for operating a botnet and stealing login and payment card data. Vovnenko also served as administrator of his own cybercrime forum, which he used in 2013 to carry out a plan to have Yours Truly framed for heroin possession.

As noted in last year’s profile of Burkov, an early and important member of DirectConnection was a hacker who went by the moniker “aqua” and ran the banking sub-forum on Burkov’s site. In December 2019, the FBI offered a $5 million bounty leading to the arrest and conviction of aqua, who’s been identified as Maksim Viktorovich Yakubets. The Justice Department says Yakubets/aqua ran a transnational cybercrime organization called “Evil Corp.” that stole roughly $100 million from victims.

In this 2011 screenshot of DirectConnection, we can see the nickname of “aqua,” who ran the “banking” sub-forum on DirectConecttion. Aqua, a.k.a. Maksim V. Yakubets of Russia, now has a $5 million bounty on his head from the FBI.

According to a statement of facts in Burkov’s case, the author of the infamous SpyEye banking trojanAleksandr “Gribodemon” Panin — was personally vouched for by Burkov. Panin was sentenced in 2016 to more than nine years in prison.

Other top DirectConnection members include convicted credit card fraudsters Vladislav “Badb” Horohorin and Sergey “zo0mer” Kozerev, as well as the infamous spammer and botnet master Peter “Severa” Levashov.

Burkov was arrested in 2015 on an international warrant while he was visiting Israel, and over the ensuing four years the Russian government aggressively sought to keep him from being extradited to the United States. When Israeli authorities turned down requests to send him back to Russia — supposedly to face separate hacking charges there — the Russians then imprisoned a young Israeli woman on trumped-up drug charges in a bid to trade prisoners.

As the news outlet Haaretz reported in October, Naama Issachar was arrested while changing planes in Russia on her way home from a yoga course in India. Russian police said they found approximately 10 grams of marijuana in Issachar’s bag. Issachar denied smuggling drugs, saying she had not sought to enter Russia during her layover and had no access to her luggage during her brief stay in the Russian airport.

Haaretz noted that the Russian government pressed Israel to exchange Burkov for Issachar. When Israel’s supreme court cleared the way for Burkov’s extradition to the United States, Issachar was found guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced to 7.5 years in jail.

But according to a story today in The Times of Israel, the Kremlin has signaled that Russian President Vladimir Putin may make a decision “in the near future,” on a possible pardon for Issachar, whose mother reportedly met with Putin while the Russian leader was visiting Israel last week.

Burkov currently is scheduled to be sentenced on May 8. He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Inside ‘Evil Corp,’ a $100M Cybercrime Menace

The U.S. Justice Department this month offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a Russian man indicted for allegedly orchestrating a vast, international cybercrime network that called itself “Evil Corp” and stole roughly $100 million from businesses and consumers. As it happens, for several years KrebsOnSecurity closely monitored the day-to-day communications and activities of the accused and his accomplices. What follows is an insider’s look at the back-end operations of this gang.

Image: FBI

The $5 million reward is being offered for 32 year-old Maksim V. Yakubets, who the government says went by the nicknames “aqua,” and “aquamo,” among others. The feds allege Aqua led an elite cybercrime ring with at least 16 others who used advanced, custom-made strains of malware known as “JabberZeus” and “Bugat” (a.k.a. “Dridex“) to steal banking credentials from employees at hundreds of small- to mid-sized companies in the United States and Europe.

From 2009 to the present, Aqua’s primary role in the conspiracy was recruiting and managing a continuous supply of unwitting or complicit accomplices to help Evil Corp. launder money stolen from their victims and transfer funds to members of the conspiracy based in Russia, Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. These accomplices, known as “money mules,” are typically recruited via work-at-home job solicitations sent out by email and to people who have submitted their resumes to job search Web sites.

Money mule recruiters tend to target people looking for part-time, remote employment, and the jobs usually involve little work other than receiving and forwarding bank transfers. People who bite on these offers sometimes receive small commissions for each successful transfer, but just as often end up getting stiffed out of a promised payday, and/or receiving a visit or threatening letter from law enforcement agencies that track such crime (more on that in a moment).

HITCHED TO A MULE

KrebsOnSecurity first encountered Aqua’s work in 2008 as a reporter for The Washington Post. A source said they’d stumbled upon a way to intercept and read the daily online chats between Aqua and several other mule recruiters and malware purveyors who were stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly from hacked businesses.

The source also discovered a pattern in the naming convention and appearance of several money mule recruitment Web sites being operated by Aqua. People who responded to recruitment messages were invited to create an account at one of these sites, enter personal and bank account data (mules were told they would be processing payments for their employer’s “programmers” based in Eastern Europe) and then log in each day to check for new messages.

Each mule was given busy work or menial tasks for a few days or weeks prior to being asked to handle money transfers. I believe this was an effort to weed out unreliable money mules. After all, those who showed up late for work tended to cost the crooks a lot of money, as the victim’s bank would usually try to reverse any transfers that hadn’t already been withdrawn by the mules.

One of several sites set up by Aqua and others to recruit and manage money mules.

When it came time to transfer stolen funds, the recruiters would send a message through the mule site saying something like: “Good morning [mule name here]. Our client — XYZ Corp. — is sending you some money today. Please visit your bank now and withdraw this payment in cash, and then wire the funds in equal payments — minus your commission — to these three individuals in Eastern Europe.”

Only, in every case the company mentioned as the “client” was in fact a small business whose payroll accounts they’d already hacked into.

Here’s where it got interesting. Each of these mule recruitment sites had the same security weakness: Anyone could register, and after logging in any user could view messages sent to and from all other users simply by changing a number in the browser’s address bar. As a result, it was trivial to automate the retrieval of messages sent to every money mule registered across dozens of these fake company sites.

So, each day for several years my morning routine went as follows: Make a pot of coffee; shuffle over to the computer and view the messages Aqua and his co-conspirators had sent to their money mules over the previous 12-24 hours; look up the victim company names in Google; pick up the phone to warn each that they were in the process of being robbed by the Russian Cyber Mob.

My spiel on all of these calls was more or less the same: “You probably have no idea who I am, but here’s all my contact info and what I do. Your payroll accounts have been hacked, and you’re about to lose a great deal of money. You should contact your bank immediately and have them put a hold on any pending transfers before it’s too late. Feel free to call me back afterwards if you want more information about how I know all this, but for now please just call or visit your bank.”

Messages to and from a money mule working for Aqua’s crew, circa May 2011.

In many instances, my call would come in just minutes or hours before an unauthorized payroll batch was processed by the victim company’s bank, and some of those notifications prevented what otherwise would have been enormous losses — often several times the amount of the organization’s normal weekly payroll. At some point I stopped counting how many tens of thousands of dollars those calls saved victims, but over several years it was probably in the millions.

Just as often, the victim company would suspect that I was somehow involved in the robbery, and soon after alerting them I would receive a call from an FBI agent or from a police officer in the victim’s hometown. Those were always interesting conversations. Needless to say, the victims that spun their wheels chasing after me usually suffered far more substantial financial losses (mainly because they delayed calling their financial institution until it was too late).

Collectively, these notifications to Evil Corp.’s victims led to dozens of stories over several years about small businesses battling their financial institutions to recover their losses. I don’t believe I ever wrote about a single victim that wasn’t okay with my calling attention to their plight and to the sophistication of the threat facing other companies.

LOW FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Yakubets/Aqua served as leader of Evil Corp. and was responsible for managing and supervising the group’s cybercrime activities in deploying and using the Jabberzeus and Dridex banking malware. The DOJ notes that prior to serving in this leadership role for Evil Corp, Yakubets was also directly associated with Evgeniy “Slavik” Bogachev, a previously designated Russian cybercriminal responsible for the distribution of the Zeus, Jabber Zeus, and GameOver Zeus malware schemes who currently has a $3 million FBI bounty on his head.

Evgeniy M. Bogachev, in undated photos.

As noted in previous stories here, during times of conflict with Russia’s neighbors, Slavik was known to retool his crime machines to search for classified information on victim systems in regions of the world that were of strategic interest to the Russian government – particularly in Turkey and Ukraine.

“Cybercriminals are recruited to Russia’s national cause through a mix of coercion, payments and appeals to patriotic sentiment,” reads a 2017 story from The Register on security firm Cybereason’s analysis of the Russian cybercrime scene. “Russia’s use of private contractors also has other benefits in helping to decrease overall operational costs, mitigating the risk of detection and gaining technical expertise that they cannot recruit directly into the government. Combining a cyber-militia with official state-sponsored hacking teams has created the most technically advanced and bold cybercriminal community in the world.”

This is interesting because the U.S. Treasury Department says Yukabets as of 2017 was working for the Russian FSB, one of Russia’s leading intelligence organizations.

“As of April 2018, Yakubets was in the process of obtaining a license to work with Russian classified information from the FSB,” notes a statement from the Treasury.

The Treasury Department’s role in this action is key because it means the United States has now imposed economic sanctions on Yukabets and 16 accused associates, effectively freezing all property and interests of these persons (subject to U.S. jurisdiction) and making it a crime to transact with these individuals.

The Justice Department’s criminal complaint against Yukabets (PDF) mentions several intercepted chat communications between Aqua and his alleged associates in which they puzzle over why KrebsOnSecurity seemed to know so much about their internal operations and victims. In the following chat conversations (translated from Russian), Aqua and others discuss a story I wrote for The Washington Post in 2009 about their theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the payroll accounts of Bullitt County, Ky:

tank: [Are you] there?
indep: Yeah.
indep: Greetings.
tank: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/securityfix/2009/07/an_odyssey_of_fraud_part_ii.html#more
tank: This is still about me.
tank: Originator: BULLITT COUNTY FISCAL Company: Bullitt County Fiscal Court
tank: He is the account from which we cashed.
tank: Today someone else send this news.
tank: I’m reading and thinking: Let me take a look at history. For some reason this name is familiar.
tank: I’m on line and I’ll look. Ah, here is this shit.
indep: How are you?
tank: Did you get my announcements?
indep: Well, I congratulate [you].
indep: This is just fuck when they write about you in the news.
tank: Whose [What]?
tank: 😀
indep: Too much publicity is not needed.
tank: Well, so nobody knows who they are talking about.

tank: Well, nevertheless, they were writing about us.
aqua: So because of whom did they lock Western Union for Ukraine?
aqua: Tough shit.
tank: *************Originator: BULLITT COUNTY FISCAL Company: Bullitt
County Fiscal Court
aqua: So?
aqua: This is the court system.
tank: Shit.
tank: Yes
aqua: This is why they fucked [nailed?] several drops.
tank: Yes, indeed.
aqua: Well, fuck. Hackers: It’s true they stole a lot of money.

At roughly the same time, one of Aqua’s crew had a chat with Slavik, who used the nickname “lucky12345” at the time:

tank: Are you there?
tank: This is what they damn wrote about me.
tank: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/securityfix/2009/07/an_odyssey_of_fraud_part_ii.html#more
tank: I’ll take a quick look at history
tank: Originator: BULLITT COUNTY FISCAL Company: Bullitt County Fiscal Court
tank: Well, you got [it] from that cash-in.
lucky12345: From 200K?
tank: Well, they are not the right amounts and the cash out from that account was shitty.
tank: Levak was written there.
tank: Because now the entire USA knows about Zeus.
tank: 😀
lucky12345: It’s fucked.

On Dec. 13, 2009, one of the Jabberzeus gang’s money mule recruiters –- a crook who used the pseudonym “Jim Rogers” — somehow learned about something I hadn’t shared beyond a few trusted friends at that point: That The Washington Post had eliminated my job in the process of merging the newspaper’s Web site (where I worked at the time) with the dead tree edition. The following is an exchange between Jim Rogers and the above-quoted “tank”:

jim_rogers: There is a rumor that our favorite (Brian) didn’t get his contract extension at Washington Post. We are giddily awaiting confirmation 🙂 Good news expected exactly by the New Year! Besides us no one reads his column 🙂

tank: Mr. Fucking Brian Fucking Kerbs!

In March 2010, Aqua would divulge in an encrypted chat that his crew was working directly with the Zeus author (Slavik/Lucky12345), but that they found him abrasive and difficult to tolerate:

dimka: I read about the king of seas, was it your handy work?
aqua: what are you talking about? show me
dimka: zeus
aqua: 🙂
aqua: yes, we are using it right now
aqua: its developer sits with us on the system
dimka: it’s a popular thing
aqua: but, he, fucker, annoyed the hell out of everyone, doesn’t want to write bypass of interactives (scans) and trojan penetration 35-40%, bitch
aqua: yeah, shit
aqua: we need better
aqua: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/securityfix read it 🙂 here you find almost everything about us 🙂
dimka: I think everything will be slightly different, if you think so
aqua: we, in this system, the big dog, the rest on the system are doing small crap

Later that month, Aqua bemoaned even more publicity about their work, pointing to a KrebsOnSecurity story about a sophisticated attack in which their malware not only intercepted a one-time password needed to log in to the victim’s bank account, but even modified the bank’s own Web site as displayed in the victim’s browser to point to a phony customer support number.

Ironically, the fake bank phone number was what tipped off the victim company employee. In this instance, the victim’s bank — Fifth Third Bank (referred to as “53” in the chat below) was able to claw back the money stolen by Aqua’s money mules, but not funds that were taken via fraudulent international wire transfers. The cybercriminals in this chat also complain they will need a newly-obfuscated version of their malware due to public exposure:

aqua: tomorrow, everything should work.
aqua: fuck, we need to find more socks for spam.
aqua: okay, so tomorrow Petro [another conspirator who went by the nickname Petr0vich] will give us a [new] .exe
jtk: ok
jim_rogers: this one doesn’t work
jim_rogers: http://www.krebsonsecurity.com/2010/03/crooks-crank-up-volume-of-e-banking-attacks/
jim_rogers: here it’s written about my transfer from 53. How I made a number of wires like it said there. And a woman burnt the deal because of a fake phone number.

ANTI-MULE INITIATIVE

In tandem with the indictments against Evil Corp, the Justice Department joined with officials from Europol to execute a law enforcement action and public awareness campaign to combat money mule activity.

“More than 90% of money mule transactions identified through the European Money Mule Actions are linked to cybercrime,” Europol wrote in a statement about the action. “The illegal money often comes from criminal activities like phishing, malware attacks, online auction fraud, e-commerce fraud, business e-mail compromise (BEC) and CEO fraud, romance scams, holiday fraud (booking fraud) and many others.”

The DOJ said U.S. law enforcement disrupted mule networks that spanned from Hawaii to Florida and from Alaska to Maine. Actions were taken to halt the conduct of over 600 domestic money mules, including 30 individuals who were criminally charged for their roles in receiving victim payments and providing the fraud proceeds to accomplices.

Some tips from Europol on how to spot money mule recruitment scams dressed up as legitimate job offers.

It’s good to see more public education about the damage that money mules inflict, because without them most of these criminal schemes simply fall apart. Aside from helping to launder funds from banking trojan victims, money mules often are instrumental in fleecing elderly people taken in by various online confidence scams.

It’s also great to see the U.S. government finally wielding its most powerful weapon against cybercriminals based in Russia and other safe havens for such activity: Economic sanctions that severely restrict cybercriminals’ access to ill-gotten gains and the ability to launder the proceeds of their crimes by investing in overseas assets.

Further reading:

DOJ press conference remarks on Yakubets
FBI charges announced in malware conspiracy
2019 indictment of Yakubets, Turashev. et al.
2010 Criminal complaint vs. Yukabets, et. al.
FBI “wanted” alert on Igor “Enki” Turashev
US-CERT alert on Dridex