Target: Small Businesses

Business ID Theft Soars Amid COVID Closures

Identity thieves who specialize in running up unauthorized lines of credit in the names of small businesses are having a field day with all of the closures and economic uncertainty wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, KrebsOnSecurity has learned. This story is about the victims of a particularly aggressive business ID theft ring that’s spent years targeting small businesses across the country and is now pivoting toward using that access for pandemic assistance loans and unemployment benefits.

Most consumers are likely aware of the threat from identity theft, which occurs when crooks apply for new lines of credit in your name. But the same crime can be far more costly and damaging when thieves target small businesses. Unfortunately, far too many entrepreneurs are simply unaware of the threat or don’t know how to be watchful for it.

What’s more, with so many small enterprises going out of business or sitting dormant during the COVID-19 pandemic, organized fraud rings have an unusually rich pool of targets to choose from.

Short Hills, N.J.-based Dun & Bradstreet [NYSE:DNB] is a data analytics company that acts as a kind of de facto credit bureau for companies: When a business owner wants to open a new line of credit, creditors typically check with Dun & Bradstreet to gauge the business’s history and trustworthiness.

In 2019, Dun & Bradstreet saw more than a 100 percent increase in business identity theft. For 2020, the company estimates an overall 258 percent spike in the crime. Dun & Bradstreet said that so far this year it has received over 4,700 tips and leads where business identity theft or malfeasance are suspected.

“The ferocity of cyber criminals to take advantage of COVID-19 uncertainties by preying on small businesses is disturbing,” said Andrew LaMarca, who leads the global high-risk and fraud team at Dun & Bradstreet.

For the past several months, Milwaukee, Wisc. based cyber intelligence firm Hold Security has been monitoring the communications between and among a businesses ID theft gang apparently operating in Georgia and Florida but targeting businesses throughout the United States. That surveillance has helped to paint a detailed picture of how business ID thieves operate, as well as the tricks they use to gain credit in a company’s name.

Hold Security founder Alex Holden said the group appears to target both active and dormant or inactive small businesses. The gang typically will start by looking up the business ownership records at the Secretary of State website that corresponds to the company’s state of incorporation. From there, they identify the officers and owners of the company, acquire their Social Security and Tax ID numbers from the dark web and other sources online.

To prove ownership over the hijacked firms, they hire low-wage image editors online to help fabricate and/or modify a number of official documents tied to the business — including tax records and utility bills.

The scammers frequently then file phony documents with the Secretary of State’s office in the name(s) of the business owners, but include a mailing address that they control. They also create email addresses and domain names that mimic the names of the owners and the company to make future credit applications appear more legitimate, and submit the listings to business search websites, such as yellowpages.com.

For both dormant and existing businesses, the fraudsters attempt to create or modify the target company’s accounts at Dun & Bradstreet. In some cases, the scammers create dashboard accounts in the business’s names at Dun & Bradstreet’s credit builder portal; in others, the bad guys have actually hacked existing business accounts at DNB, requesting a new DUNS numbers for the business (a DUNS number is a unique, nine-digit identifier for businesses).

Finally, after the bogus profiles are approved by Dun & Bradstreet, the gang waits a few weeks or months and then starts applying for new lines of credit in the target business’s name at stores like Home Depot, Office Depot and Staples. Then they go on a buying spree with the cards issued by those stores.

Usually, the first indication a victim has that they’ve been targeted is when the debt collection companies start calling.

“They are using mostly small companies that are still active businesses but currently not operating because of COVID-19,” Holden said. “With this gang, we see four or five people working together. The team leader manages the work between people. One person seems to be in charge of getting stolen cards from the dark web to pay for the reactivation of businesses through the secretary of state sites. Another team member works on revising the business documents and registering them on various sites. The others are busy looking for specific businesses they want to revive.”

Holden said the gang appears to find success in getting new lines of credit with about 20 percent of the businesses they target.

“One’s personal credit is nothing compared to the ability of corporations to borrow money,” he said. “That’s bad because while the credit system may be flawed for individuals, it’s an even worse situation on average when we’re talking about businesses.”

Holden said over the past few months his firm has seen communications between the gang’s members indicating they have temporarily shifted more of their energy and resources to defrauding states and the federal government by filing unemployment insurance claims and apply for pandemic assistance loans with the Small Business Administration.

“It makes sense, because they’ve already got control over all these dormant businesses,” he said. “So they’re now busy trying to get unemployment payments and SBA loans in the names of these companies and their employees.”

PHANTOM OFFICES

Hold Security shared data intercepted from the gang that listed the personal and financial details of dozens of companies targeted for ID theft, including Dun & Bradstreet logins the crooks had created for the hijacked businesses. Dun & Bradstreet declined to comment on the matter, other than to say it was working with federal and state authorities to alert affected businesses and state regulators.

Among those targeted was Environmental Safety Consultants Inc. (ESC), a 37-year-old environmental engineering firm based in Bradenton, Fla. ESC owner Scott Russell estimates his company was initially targeted nearly two years ago, and that he first became aware something wasn’t right when he recently began getting calls from Home Depot’s corporate offices inquiring about the company’s delinquent account.

But Russell said he didn’t quite grasp the enormity of the situation until last year, when he was contacted by the manager of a virtual office space across town who told him about a suspiciously large number of deliveries at an office space that was rented out in his name.

Russell had never rented that particular office. Rather, the thieves had done it for him, using his name and the name of his business. The office manager said the deliveries came virtually non-stop, even though there was apparently no business operating within the rented premises. And in each case, shortly after the shipments arrived someone would show up and cart them away.

“She said we don’t think it’s you,” he recalled. “Turns out, they had paid for a lease in my name with someone else’s credit card. She shared with me a copy of the lease, which included a fraudulent ID and even a vehicle insurance card for a Land Cruiser we got rid of like 15 years ago. The application listed our home address with me and some woman who was not my wife’s name.”

The crates and boxes being delivered to his erstwhile office space were mostly computers and other high-priced items ordered from 10 different Office Depot credit cards that also were not in his name.

“The total value of the electronic equipment that was bought and delivered there was something like $75,000,” Russell said, noting that it took countless hours and phone calls with Office Depot to make it clear they would no longer accept shipments addressed to him or his company. “It was quite spine-tingling to see someone penned a lease in the name of my business and personal identity.”

Even though the virtual office manager had the presence of mind to take photocopies of the driver’s licenses presented by the people arriving to pick up the fraudulent shipments, the local police seemed largely uninterested in pursuing the case, Russell said.

“I went to the local county sheriff’s office and showed them all the documentation I had and the guy just yawned and said he’d get right on it,” he recalled. “The place where the office space was rented was in another county, and the detective I spoke to there about it was interested, but he could never get anyone from my county to follow up.”

RECYCLING VICTIMS

Russell said he believes the fraudsters initially took out new lines of credit in his company’s name and then used those to defraud others in a similar way. One of those victims is another victim on the gang’s target list obtained by Hold Security — Mary McMahan, owner of Fan Experiences, an event management company in Winter Park, Fla.

McMahan also had stolen goods from Office Depot and other stores purchased in her company’s name and delivered to the same office space rented in Russell’s name. McMahan said she and her businesses have suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraud, and spent nearly as much in legal fees fending off collections firms and restoring her company’s credit.

McMahan said she first began noticing trouble almost four years ago, when someone started taking out new credit cards in her company’s name. At the same time, her business was used to open a new lease on a virtual office space in Florida that also began receiving packages tied to other companies victimized by business ID theft.

“About four years back, they hit my credit hard for a year, getting all these new lines of credit at Home Depot, Office Depot, Office Max, you name it,” she said. “Then they came back again two years ago and hit it hard for another year. They even went to the [Florida Department of Motor Vehicles] to get a driver’s license in my name.”

McMahan said the thieves somehow hacked her DNB account, and then began adding new officers and locations for her business listing.

“They changed the email and mailing address, and even went on Yelp and Google and did the same,” she said.

McMahan said she’s since locked down her personal and business credit to the point where even she would have a tough time getting a new line of credit or mortgage if she tried.

“There’s no way they can even utilize me anymore because there’s so many marks on my credit stating that it’s been stolen” she said. “These guys are relentless, and they recycle victims to defraud others until they figure out they can’t recycle them anymore.”

SAY…THAT’S A NICE CREDIT PROFILE YOU GOT THERE…

McMahan says she, too, has filed multiple reports about the crimes with local police, but has so far seen little evidence that anyone is interested in following up on the matter. For now, she is paying Dun and Bradstreet more than a $100 a month to monitor her business credit profile.

Dun & Bradstreet does offer a free version of credit monitoring called Credit Signal that lets business owners check their business credit scores and any inquiries made in the previous 14 days up to four times a year. However, those looking for more frequent checks or additional information about specific credit inquiries beyond 14 days are steered toward DNB’s subscription-based services.

Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a California-based nonprofit that assists ID theft victims, said she finds that troubling.

“When we look at these institutions that are necessary for us to operate and function in society and they start to charge us a fee for a service to fix a problem they helped create through their infrastructure, that’s just unconscionable,” Velasquez said. “We need to take a hard look at the infrastructures that businesses are beholden to and make sure the risk minimization protections they’re entitled to are not fee-based — particularly if it’s a problem created by the very infrastructure of the system.”

Velasquez said it’s unfortunate that small business owners don’t have the same protections afforded to consumers. For example, only recently did the three major consumer reporting bureaus allow all U.S. residents to place a freeze on their credit files for free.

“We’ve done a good job in educating the public that anyone can be victim of identity theft, and in compelling our infrastructure to provide robust consumer protection and risk minimization processes that are more uniform,” she said. “It’s still not good by any means, but it’s definitely better for consumers than it is for businesses. We currently put all the responsibility on the small business owner, and very little on the infrastructure and processes that should be designed to protect them but aren’t doing a great job, frankly.”

Rather, the onus continues to be on the business owner to periodically check with DNB and state agencies to monitor for any signs of unauthorized changes. Worse still, too many private and public organizations still don’t do a good enough job protecting employee identification and tax ID numbers that are so often abused in business identity theft, Velasquez said.

“You can put alerts and other protections in place but the problem is you have to go on a department by department and case by case basis,” she said. “The place to begin is your secretary of state’s office or wherever you file your documents to operate your business.

For its part, Dun & Bradstreet recently published a blog post outlining recommendations for businesses to ward off identity thieves. DNB says anyone who suspects fraudulent activity on their account should contact its support team.

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