The Coming Storm

Sendgrid Under Siege from Hacked Accounts

Email service provider Sendgrid is grappling with an unusually large number of customer accounts whose passwords have been cracked, sold to spammers, and abused for sending phishing and email malware attacks. Sendgrid’s parent company Twilio says it is working on a plan to require multi-factor authentication for all of its customers, but that solution may not come fast enough for organizations having trouble dealing with the fallout in the meantime.

Image: Wikipedia

Many companies use Sendgrid to communicate with their customers via email, or else pay marketing firms to do that on their behalf using Sendgrid’s systems. Sendgrid takes steps to validate that new customers are legitimate businesses, and that emails sent through its platform carry the proper digital signatures that other companies can use to validate that the messages have been authorized by its customers.

But this also means when a Sendgrid customer account gets hacked and used to send malware or phishing scams, the threat is particularly acute because a large number of organizations allow email from Sendgrid’s systems to sail through their spam-filtering systems.

To make matters worse, links included in emails sent through Sendgrid are obfuscated (mainly for tracking deliverability and other metrics), so it is not immediately clear to recipients where on the Internet they will be taken when they click.

Dealing with compromised customer accounts is a constant challenge for any organization doing business online today, and certainly Sendgrid is not the only email marketing platform dealing with this problem. But according to multiple emails from readers, recent threads on several anti-spam discussion lists, and interviews with people in the anti-spam community, over the past few months there has been a marked increase in malicious, phishous and outright spammy email being blasted out via Sendgrid’s servers.

Rob McEwen is CEO of Invaluement.com, an anti-spam firm whose data on junk email trends are used to improve the spam-blocking technologies deployed by several Fortune 100 companies. McEwen said no other email service provider has come close to generating the volume of spam that’s been emanating from Sendgrid accounts lately.

“As far as the nasty criminal phishes and viruses, I think there’s not even a close second in terms of how bad it’s been with Sendgrid over the past few months,” he said.

Trying to filter out bad emails coming from a major email provider that so many legitimate companies rely upon to reach their customers can be a dicey business. If you filter the emails too aggressively you end up with an unacceptable number of “false positives,” i.e., benign or even desirable emails that get flagged as spam and sent to the junk folder or blocked altogether.

But McEwen said the incidence of malicious spam coming from Sendgrid has gotten so bad that he recently launched a new anti-spam block list specifically to filter out email from Sendgrid accounts that have been known to be blasting large volumes of junk or malicious email.

“Before I implemented this in my own filtering system a week ago, I was getting three to four phone calls or stern emails a week from angry customers wondering why these malicious emails were getting through to their inboxes,” McEwen said. “And I just am not seeing anything this egregious in terms of viruses and spams from the other email service providers.”

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Sendgrid parent firm Twilio acknowledged the company had recently seen an increase in compromised customer accounts being abused for spam. While Sendgrid does allow customers to use multi-factor authentication (also known as two-factor authentication or 2FA), this protection is not mandatory.

But Twilio Chief Security Officer Steve Pugh said the company is working on changes that would require customers to use some form of 2FA in addition to usernames and passwords.

“Twilio believes that requiring 2FA for customer accounts is the right thing to do, and we’re working towards that end,” Pugh said. “2FA has proven to be a powerful tool in securing communications channels. This is part of the reason we acquired Authy and created a line of account security products and services. Twilio, like other platforms, is forming a plan on how to better secure our customers’ accounts through native technologies such as Authy and additional account level controls to mitigate known attack vectors.”

Requiring customers to use some form of 2FA would go a long way toward neutralizing the underground market for compromised Sendgrid accounts, which are sold by a variety of cybercriminals who specialize in gaining access to accounts by targeting users who re-use the same passwords across multiple websites.

One such individual, who goes by the handle “Kromatix” on several forums, is currently selling access to more than 400 compromised Sendgrid user accounts. The pricing attached to each account is based on volume of email it can send in a given month. Accounts that can send up to 40,000 emails a month go for $15, whereas those capable of blasting 10 million missives a month sell for $400.

“I have a large supply of cracked Sendgrid accounts that can be used to generate an API key which you can then plug into your mailer of choice and send massive amounts of emails with ensured delivery,” Kromatix wrote in an Aug. 23 sales thread. “Sendgrid servers maintain a very good reputation with [email service providers] so your content becomes much more likely to get into the inbox so long as your setup is correct.”

Neil Schwartzman, executive director of the anti-spam group CAUCE, said Sendgrid’s 2FA plans are long overdue, noting that the company bought Authy back in 2015.

Single-factor authentication for a company like this in 2020 is just ludicrous given the potential damage and malicious content we’re seeing,” Schwartzman said.

“I understand that it’s a task to invoke 2FA, and given the volume of customers Sendgrid has that’s something to consider because there’s going to be a lot of customer overhead involved,” he continued. “But it’s not like your bank, social media account, email and plenty of other places online don’t already insist on it.”

Schwartzman said if Twilio doesn’t act quickly enough to fix the problem on its end, the major email providers of the world (think Google, Microsoft and Apple) — and their various machine-learning anti-spam algorithms — may do it for them.

“There is a tipping point after which receiving firms start to lose patience and start to more aggressively filter this stuff,” he said. “If seeing a Sendgrid email according to machine learning becomes a sign of abuse, trust me the machines will make the decisions even if the people don’t.”

FBI, CISA Echo Warnings on ‘Vishing’ Threat

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) on Thursday issued a joint alert to warn about the growing threat from voice phishing or “vishing” attacks targeting companies. The advisory came less than 24 hours after KrebsOnSecurity published an in-depth look at a crime group offering a service that people can hire to steal VPN credentials and other sensitive data from employees working remotely during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a mass shift to working from home, resulting in increased use of corporate virtual private networks (VPNs) and elimination of in-person verification,” the alert reads. “In mid-July 2020, cybercriminals started a vishing campaign—gaining access to employee tools at multiple companies with indiscriminate targeting — with the end goal of monetizing the access.”

As noted in Wednesday’s story, the agencies said the phishing sites set up by the attackers tend to include hyphens, the target company’s name, and certain words — such as “support,” “ticket,” and “employee.” The perpetrators focus on social engineering new hires at the targeted company, and impersonate staff at the target company’s IT helpdesk.

The joint FBI/CISA alert (PDF) says the vishing gang also compiles dossiers on employees at the specific companies using mass scraping of public profiles on social media platforms, recruiter and marketing tools, publicly available background check services, and open-source research. From the alert:

“Actors first began using unattributed Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) numbers to call targeted employees on their personal cellphones, and later began incorporating spoofed numbers of other offices and employees in the victim company. The actors used social engineering techniques and, in some cases, posed as members of the victim company’s IT help desk, using their knowledge of the employee’s personally identifiable information—including name, position, duration at company, and home address—to gain the trust of the targeted employee.”

“The actors then convinced the targeted employee that a new VPN link would be sent and required their login, including any 2FA [2-factor authentication] or OTP [one-time passwords]. The actor logged the information provided by the employee and used it in real-time to gain access to corporate tools using the employee’s account.”

The alert notes that in some cases the unsuspecting employees approved the 2FA or OTP prompt, either accidentally or believing it was the result of the earlier access granted to the help desk impersonator. In other cases, the attackers were able to intercept the one-time codes by targeting the employee with SIM swapping, which involves social engineering people at mobile phone companies into giving them control of the target’s phone number.

The agencies said crooks use the vished VPN credentials to mine the victim company databases for their customers’ personal information to leverage in other attacks.

“The actors then used the employee access to conduct further research on victims, and/or to fraudulently obtain funds using varying methods dependent on the platform being accessed,” the alert reads. “The monetizing method varied depending on the company but was highly aggressive with a tight timeline between the initial breach and the disruptive cashout scheme.”

The advisory includes a number of suggestions that companies can implement to help mitigate the threat from these vishing attacks, including:

• Restrict VPN connections to managed devices only, using mechanisms like hardware checks or installed certificates, so user input alone is not enough to access the corporate VPN.

• Restrict VPN access hours, where applicable, to mitigate access outside of allowed times.

• Employ domain monitoring to track the creation of, or changes to, corporate, brand-name domains.

• Actively scan and monitor web applications for unauthorized access, modification, and anomalous activities.

• Employ the principle of least privilege and implement software restriction policies or other controls; monitor authorized user accesses and usage.

• Consider using a formalized authentication process for employee-to-employee communications made over the public telephone network where a second factor is used to
authenticate the phone call before sensitive information can be discussed.

• Improve 2FA and OTP messaging to reduce confusion about employee authentication attempts.

• Verify web links do not have misspellings or contain the wrong domain.

• Bookmark the correct corporate VPN URL and do not visit alternative URLs on the sole basis of an inbound phone call.

• Be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls, visits, or email messages from unknown individuals claiming to be from a legitimate organization. Do not provide personal information or information about your organization, including its structure or networks, unless you are certain of a person’s authority to have the information. If possible, try to verify the caller’s identity directly with the company.

• If you receive a vishing call, document the phone number of the caller as well as the domain that the actor tried to send you to and relay this information to law enforcement.

• Limit the amount of personal information you post on social networking sites. The internet is a public resource; only post information you are comfortable with anyone seeing.

• Evaluate your settings: sites may change their options periodically, so review your security and privacy settings regularly to make sure that your choices are still appropriate.

Voice Phishers Targeting Corporate VPNs

The COVID-19 epidemic has brought a wave of email phishing attacks that try to trick work-at-home employees into giving away credentials needed to remotely access their employers’ networks. But one increasingly brazen group of crooks is taking your standard phishing attack to the next level, marketing a voice phishing service that uses a combination of one-on-one phone calls and custom phishing sites to steal VPN credentials from employees.

According to interviews with several sources, this hybrid phishing gang has a remarkably high success rate, and operates primarily through paid requests or “bounties,” where customers seeking access to specific companies or accounts can hire them to target employees working remotely at home.

And over the past six months, the criminals responsible have created dozens if not hundreds of phishing pages targeting some of the world’s biggest corporations. For now at least, they appear to be focusing primarily on companies in the financial, telecommunications and social media industries.

“For a number of reasons, this kind of attack is really effective,” said Allison Nixon, chief research officer at New York-based cyber investigations firm Unit 221B. “Because of the Coronavirus, we have all these major corporations that previously had entire warehouses full of people who are now working remotely. As a result the attack surface has just exploded.”

TARGET: NEW HIRES

A typical engagement begins with a series of phone calls to employees working remotely at a targeted organization. The phishers will explain that they’re calling from the employer’s IT department to help troubleshoot issues with the company’s virtual private networking (VPN) technology.

The employee phishing page bofaticket[.]com. Image: urlscan.io

The goal is to convince the target either to divulge their credentials over the phone or to input them manually at a website set up by the attackers that mimics the organization’s corporate email or VPN portal.

Zack Allen is director of threat intelligence for ZeroFOX, a Baltimore-based company that helps customers detect and respond to risks found on social media and other digital channels. Allen has been working with Nixon and several dozen other researchers from various security firms to monitor the activities of this prolific phishing gang in a bid to disrupt their operations.

Allen said the attackers tend to focus on phishing new hires at targeted companies, and will often pose as new employees themselves working in the company’s IT division. To make that claim more believable, the phishers will create LinkedIn profiles and seek to connect those profiles with other employees from that same organization to support the illusion that the phony profile actually belongs to someone inside the targeted firm.

“They’ll say ‘Hey, I’m new to the company, but you can check me out on LinkedIn’ or Microsoft Teams or Slack, or whatever platform the company uses for internal communications,” Allen said. “There tends to be a lot of pretext in these conversations around the communications and work-from-home applications that companies are using. But eventually, they tell the employee they have to fix their VPN and can they please log into this website.”

SPEAR VISHING

The domains used for these pages often invoke the company’s name, followed or preceded by hyphenated terms such as “vpn,” “ticket,” “employee,” or “portal.” The phishing sites also may include working links to the organization’s other internal online resources to make the scheme seem more believable if a target starts hovering over links on the page.

Allen said a typical voice phishing or “vishing” attack by this group involves at least two perpetrators: One who is social engineering the target over the phone, and another co-conspirator who takes any credentials entered at the phishing page and quickly uses them to log in to the target company’s VPN platform in real-time.

Time is of the essence in these attacks because many companies that rely on VPNs for remote employee access also require employees to supply some type of multi-factor authentication in addition to a username and password — such as a one-time numeric code generated by a mobile app or text message. And in many cases, those codes are only good for a short duration — often measured in seconds or minutes.

But these vishers can easily sidestep that layer of protection, because their phishing pages simply request the one-time code as well.

A phishing page (helpdesk-att[.]com) targeting AT&T employees. Image: urlscan.io

Allen said it matters little to the attackers if the first few social engineering attempts fail. Most targeted employees are working from home or can be reached on a mobile device. If at first the attackers don’t succeed, they simply try again with a different employee.

And with each passing attempt, the phishers can glean important details from employees about the target’s operations, such as company-specific lingo used to describe its various online assets, or its corporate hierarchy.

Thus, each unsuccessful attempt actually teaches the fraudsters how to refine their social engineering approach with the next mark within the targeted organization, Nixon said.

“These guys are calling companies over and over, trying to learn how the corporation works from the inside,” she said.

NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T

All of the security researchers interviewed for this story said the phishing gang is pseudonymously registering their domains at just a handful of domain registrars that accept bitcoin, and that the crooks typically create just one domain per registrar account.

“They’ll do this because that way if one domain gets burned or taken down, they won’t lose the rest of their domains,” Allen said.

More importantly, the attackers are careful to do nothing with the phishing domain until they are ready to initiate a vishing call to a potential victim. And when the attack or call is complete, they disable the website tied to the domain.

This is key because many domain registrars will only respond to external requests to take down a phishing website if the site is live at the time of the abuse complaint. This requirement can stymie efforts by companies like ZeroFOX that focus on identifying newly-registered phishing domains before they can be used for fraud.

“They’ll only boot up the website and have it respond at the time of the attack,” Allen said. “And it’s super frustrating because if you file an abuse ticket with the registrar and say, ‘Please take this domain away because we’re 100 percent confident this site is going to be used for badness,’ they won’t do that if they don’t see an active attack going on. They’ll respond that according to their policies, the domain has to be a live phishing site for them to take it down. And these bad actors know that, and they’re exploiting that policy very effectively.”

A phishing page (github-ticket[.]com) aimed at siphoning credentials for a target organization’s access to the software development platform Github. Image: urlscan.io

SCHOOL OF HACKS

Both Nixon and Allen said the object of these phishing attacks seems to be to gain access to as many internal company tools as possible, and to use those tools to seize control over digital assets that can quickly be turned into cash. Primarily, that includes any social media and email accounts, as well as associated financial instruments such as bank accounts and any cryptocurrencies.

Nixon said she and others in her research group believe the people behind these sophisticated vishing campaigns hail from a community of young men who have spent years learning how to social engineer employees at mobile phone companies and social media firms into giving up access to internal company tools.

Traditionally, the goal of these attacks has been gaining control over highly-prized social media accounts, which can sometimes fetch thousands of dollars when resold in the cybercrime underground. But this activity gradually has evolved toward more direct and aggressive monetization of such access.

On July 15, a number of high-profile Twitter accounts were used to tweet out a bitcoin scam that earned more than $100,000 in a few hours. According to Twitter, that attack succeeded because the perpetrators were able to social engineer several Twitter employees over the phone into giving away access to internal Twitter tools.

Nixon said it’s not clear whether any of the people involved in the Twitter compromise are associated with this vishing gang, but she noted that the group showed no signs of slacking off after federal authorities charged several people with taking part in the Twitter hack.

“A lot of people just shut their brains off when they hear the latest big hack wasn’t done by hackers in North Korea or Russia but instead some teenagers in the United States,” Nixon said. “When people hear it’s just teenagers involved, they tend to discount it. But the kinds of people responsible for these voice phishing attacks have now been doing this for several years. And unfortunately, they’ve gotten pretty advanced, and their operational security is much better now.”

A phishing page (vzw-employee[.]com) targeting employees of Verizon. Image: DomainTools

PROPER ADULT MONEY-LAUNDERING

While it may seem amateurish or myopic for attackers who gain access to a Fortune 100 company’s internal systems to focus mainly on stealing bitcoin and social media accounts, that access — once established — can be re-used and re-sold to others in a variety of ways.

“These guys do intrusion work for hire, and will accept money for any purpose,” Nixon said. “This stuff can very quickly branch out to other purposes for hacking.”

For example, Allen said he suspects that once inside of a target company’s VPN, the attackers may try to add a new mobile device or phone number to the phished employee’s account as a way to generate additional one-time codes for future access by the phishers themselves or anyone else willing to pay for that access.

Nixon and Allen said the activities of this vishing gang have drawn the attention of U.S. federal authorities, who are growing concerned over indications that those responsible are starting to expand their operations to include criminal organizations overseas.

“What we see now is this group is really good on the intrusion part, and really weak on the cashout part,” Nixon said. “But they are learning how to maximize the gains from their activities. That’s going to require interactions with foreign gangs and learning how to do proper adult money laundering, and we’re already seeing signs that they’re growing up very quickly now.”

WHAT CAN COMPANIES DO?

Many companies now make security awareness and training an integral part of their operations. Some firms even periodically send test phishing messages to their employees to gauge their awareness levels, and then require employees who miss the mark to undergo additional training.

Such precautions, while important and potentially helpful, may do little to combat these phone-based phishing attacks that tend to target new employees. Both Allen and Nixon — as well as others interviewed for this story who asked not to be named — said the weakest link in most corporate VPN security setups these days is the method relied upon for multi-factor authentication.

A U2F device made by Yubikey, plugged into the USB port on a computer.

One multi-factor option — physical security keys — appears to be immune to these sophisticated scams. The most commonly used security keys are inexpensive USB-based devices. A security key implements a form of multi-factor authentication known as Universal 2nd Factor (U2F), which allows the user to complete the login process simply by inserting the USB device and pressing a button on the device. The key works without the need for any special software drivers.

The allure of U2F devices for multi-factor authentication is that even if an employee who has enrolled a security key for authentication tries to log in at an impostor site, the company’s systems simply refuse to request the security key if the user isn’t on their employer’s legitimate website, and the login attempt fails. Thus, the second factor cannot be phished, either over the phone or Internet.

In July 2018, Google disclosed that it had not had any of its 85,000+ employees successfully phished on their work-related accounts since early 2017, when it began requiring all employees to use physical security keys in place of one-time codes.

Probably the most popular maker of security keys is Yubico, which sells a basic U2F Yubikey for $20. It offers regular USB versions as well as those made for devices that require USB-C connections, such as Apple’s newer Mac OS systems. Yubico also sells more expensive keys designed to work with mobile devices. [Full disclosure: Yubico was recently an advertiser on this site].

Nixon said many companies will likely balk at the price tag associated with equipping each employee with a physical security key. But she said as long as most employees continue to work remotely, this is probably a wise investment given the scale and aggressiveness of these voice phishing campaigns.

“The truth is some companies are in a lot of pain right now, and they’re having to put out fires while attackers are setting new fires,” she said. “Fixing this problem is not going to be simple, easy or cheap. And there are risks involved if you somehow screw up a bunch of employees accessing the VPN. But apparently these threat actors really hate Yubikey right now.”

Hacked Data Broker Accounts Fueled Phony COVID Loans, Unemployment Claims

A group of thieves thought to be responsible for collecting millions in fraudulent small business loans and unemployment insurance benefits from COVID-19 economic relief efforts gathered personal data on people and businesses they were impersonating by leveraging several compromised accounts at a little-known U.S. consumer data broker, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

In June, KrebsOnSecurity was contacted by a cybersecurity researcher who discovered that a group of scammers was sharing highly detailed personal and financial records on Americans via a free web-based email service that allows anyone who knows an account’s username to view all email sent to that account — without the need of a password.

The source, who asked not to be identified in this story, said he’s been monitoring the group’s communications for several weeks and sharing the information with state and federal authorities in a bid to disrupt their fraudulent activity.

The source said the group appears to consist of several hundred individuals who collectively have stolen tens of millions of dollars from U.S. state and federal treasuries via phony loan applications with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and through fraudulent unemployment insurance claims made against several states.

KrebsOnSecurity reviewed dozens of emails the fraud group exchanged, and noticed that a great many consumer records they shared carried a notation indicating they were cut and pasted from the output of queries made at Interactive Data LLC, a Florida-based data analytics company.

Interactive Data, also known as IDIdata.com, markets access to a “massive data repository” on U.S. consumers to a range of clients, including law enforcement officials, debt recovery professionals, and anti-fraud and compliance personnel at a variety of organizations.

The consumer dossiers obtained from IDI and shared by the fraudsters include a staggering amount of sensitive data, including:

-full Social Security number and date of birth;
-current and all known previous physical addresses;
-all known current and past mobile and home phone numbers;
-the names of any relatives and known associates;
-all known associated email addresses
-IP addresses and dates tied to the consumer’s online activities;
-vehicle registration, and property ownership information
-available lines of credit and amounts, and dates they were opened
-bankruptcies, liens, judgments, foreclosures and business affiliations

Reached via phone, IDI Holdings CEO Derek Dubner acknowledged that a review of the consumer records sampled from the fraud group’s shared communications indicates “a handful” of authorized IDI customer accounts had been compromised.

“We identified a handful of legitimate businesses who are customers that may have experienced a breach,” Dubner said.

Dubner said all customers are required to use multi-factor authentication, and that everyone applying for access to its services undergoes a rigorous vetting process.

“We absolutely credential businesses and have several ways do that and exceed the gold standard, which is following some of the credit bureau guidelines,” he said. “We validate the identity of those applying [for access], check with the applicant’s state licensor and individual licenses.”

Citing an ongoing law enforcement investigation into the matter, Dubner declined to say if the company knew for how long the handful of customer accounts were compromised, or how many consumer records were looked up via those stolen accounts.

“We are communicating with law enforcement about it,” he said. “There isn’t much more I can share because we don’t want to impede the investigation.”

The source told KrebsOnSecurity he’s identified more than 2,000 people whose SSNs, DoBs and other data were used by the fraud gang to file for unemployment insurance benefits and SBA loans, and that a single payday can land the thieves $20,000 or more. In addition, he said, it seems clear that the fraudsters are recycling stolen identities to file phony unemployment insurance claims in multiple states.

ANALYSIS

Hacked or ill-gotten accounts at consumer data brokers have fueled ID theft and identity theft services of various sorts for years. In 2013, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that the U.S. Secret Service had arrested a 24-year-old man named Hieu Minh Ngo for running an identity theft service out of his home in Vietnam.

Ngo’s service, variously named superget[.]info and findget[.]me, gave customers access to personal and financial data on more than 200 million Americans. He gained that access by posing as a private investigator to a data broker subsidiary acquired by Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus in the United States.

Ngo’s ID theft service superget.info

Experian was hauled before Congress to account for the lapse, and assured lawmakers there was no evidence that consumers had been harmed by Ngo’s access. But as follow-up reporting showed, Ngo’s service was frequented by ID thieves who specialized in filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the Internal Revenue Service, and was relied upon heavily by an identity theft ring operating in the New York-New Jersey region.

Also in 2013, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that ssndob[.]ms, then a major identity theft service in the cybercrime underground, had infiltrated computers at some of America’s large consumer and business data aggregators, including LexisNexis Inc., Dun & Bradstreet, and Kroll Background America Inc.

The now defunct SSNDOB identity theft service.

In 2006, The Washington Post reported that a group of five men used stolen or illegally created accounts at LexisNexis subsidiaries to lookup SSNs and other personal information more than 310,000 individuals. And in 2004, it emerged that identity thieves masquerading as customers of data broker Choicepoint had stolen the personal and financial records of more than 145,000 Americans.

Those compromises were noteworthy because the consumer information warehoused by these data brokers can be used to find the answers to so-called knowledge-based authentication (KBA) questions used by companies seeking to validate the financial history of people applying for new lines of credit.

In that sense, thieves involved in ID theft may be better off targeting data brokers like IDI and their customers than the major credit bureaus, said Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and lecturer at UC Berkeley.

“This means you have access not only to the consumer’s SSN and other static information, but everything you need for knowledge-based authentication because these are the types of companies that are providing KBA data.”

The fraud group communications reviewed by this author suggest they are cashing out primarily through financial instruments like prepaid cards and a small number of online-only banks that allow consumers to establish accounts and move money just by providing a name and associated date of birth and SSN.

While most of these instruments place daily or monthly limits on the amount of money users can deposit into and withdraw from the accounts, some of the more popular instruments for ID thieves appear to be those that allow spending, sending or withdrawal of between $5,000 to $7,000 per transaction, with high limits on the overall number or dollar value of transactions allowed in a given time period.

KrebsOnSecurity is investigating the extent to which a small number of these financial instruments may be massively over-represented in the incidence of unemployment insurance benefit fraud at the state level, and in SBA loan fraud at the federal level. Anyone in the financial sector or state agencies with information about these apparent trends may confidentially contact this author at krebsonsecurity @ gmail dot com, or via the encrypted message service Wickr at “krebswickr“.

The looting of state unemployment insurance programs by identity thieves has been well documented of late, but far less public attention has centered on fraud targeting Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and advance grant programs run by the U.S. Small Business Administration in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Late last month, the SBA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a scathing report (PDF) saying it has been inundated with complaints from financial institutions reporting suspected fraudulent EIDL transactions, and that it has so far identified $250 million in loans given to “potentially ineligible recipients.” The OIG said many of the complaints were about credit inquiries for individuals who had never applied for an economic injury loan or grant.

The figures released by the SBA OIG suggest the financial impact of the fraud may be severely under-reported at the moment. For example, the OIG said nearly 3,800 of the 5,000 complaints it received came from just six financial institutions (out of several thousand across the United States). One credit union reportedly told the U.S. Justice Department that 59 out of 60 SBA deposits it received appeared to be fraudulent.

Is Your Chip Card Secure? Much Depends on Where You Bank

Chip-based credit and debit cards are designed to make it infeasible for skimming devices or malware to clone your card when you pay for something by dipping the chip instead of swiping the stripe. But a recent series of malware attacks on U.S.-based merchants suggest thieves are exploiting weaknesses in how certain financial institutions have implemented the technology to sidestep key chip card security features and effectively create usable, counterfeit cards.

A chip-based credit card. Image: Wikipedia.

Traditional payment cards encode cardholder account data in plain text on a magnetic stripe, which can be read and recorded by skimming devices or malicious software surreptitiously installed in payment terminals. That data can then be encoded onto anything else with a magnetic stripe and used to place fraudulent transactions.

Newer, chip-based cards employ a technology known as EMV that encrypts the account data stored in the chip. The technology causes a unique encryption key — referred to as a token or “cryptogram” — to be generated each time the chip card interacts with a chip-capable payment terminal.

Virtually all chip-based cards still have much of the same data that’s stored in the chip encoded on a magnetic stripe on the back of the card. This is largely for reasons of backward compatibility since many merchants — particularly those in the United States — still have not fully implemented chip card readers. This dual functionality also allows cardholders to swipe the stripe if for some reason the card’s chip or a merchant’s EMV-enabled terminal has malfunctioned.

But there are important differences between the cardholder data stored on EMV chips versus magnetic stripes. One of those is a component in the chip known as an integrated circuit card verification value or “iCVV” for short — also known as a “dynamic CVV.”

The iCVV differs from the card verification value (CVV) stored on the physical magnetic stripe, and protects against the copying of magnetic-stripe data from the chip and the use of that data to create counterfeit magnetic stripe cards. Both the iCVV and CVV values are unrelated to the three-digit security code that is visibly printed on the back of a card, which is used mainly for e-commerce transactions or for card verification over the phone.

The appeal of the EMV approach is that even if a skimmer or malware manages to intercept the transaction information when a chip card is dipped, the data is only valid for that one transaction and should not allow thieves to conduct fraudulent payments with it going forward.

However, for EMV’s security protections to work, the back-end systems deployed by card-issuing financial institutions are supposed to check that when a chip card is dipped into a chip reader, only the iCVV is presented; and conversely, that only the CVV is presented when the card is swiped. If somehow these do not align for a given transaction type, the financial institution is supposed to decline the transaction.

The trouble is that not all financial institutions have properly set up their systems this way. Unsurprisingly, thieves have known about this weakness for years. In 2017, I wrote about the increasing prevalence of “shimmers,” high-tech card skimming devices made to intercept data from chip card transactions.

A close-up of a shimmer found on a Canadian ATM. Source: RCMP.

More recently, researchers at Cyber R&D Labs published a paper detailing how they tested 11 chip card implementations from 10 different banks in Europe and the U.S. The researchers found they could harvest data from four of them and create cloned magnetic stripe cards that were successfully used to place transactions.

There are now strong indications the same method detailed by Cyber R&D Labs is being used by point-of-sale (POS) malware to capture EMV transaction data that can then be resold and used to fabricate magnetic stripe copies of chip-based cards.

Earlier this month, the world’s largest payment card network Visa released a security alert regarding a recent merchant compromise in which known POS malware families were apparently modified to target EMV chip-enabled POS terminals.

“The implementation of secure acceptance technology, such as EMV® Chip, significantly reduced the usability of the payment account data by threat actors as the available data only included personal account number (PAN), integrated circuit card verification value (iCVV) and expiration date,” Visa wrote. “Thus, provided iCVV is validated properly, the risk of counterfeit fraud was minimal. Additionally, many of the merchant locations employed point-to-point encryption (P2PE) which encrypted the PAN data and further reduced the risk to the payment accounts processed as EMV® Chip.”

Visa did not name the merchant in question, but something similar seems to have happened at Key Food Stores Co-Operative Inc., a supermarket chain in the northeastern United States. Key Food initially disclosed a card breach in March 2020, but two weeks ago updated its advisory to clarify that EMV transaction data also was intercepted.

“The POS devices at the store locations involved were EMV enabled,” Key Food explained. “For EMV transactions at these locations, we believe only the card number and expiration date would have been found by the malware (but not the cardholder name or internal verification code).”

While Key Food’s statement may be technically accurate, it glosses over the reality that the stolen EMV data could still be used by fraudsters to create magnetic stripe versions of EMV cards presented at the compromised store registers in cases where the card-issuing bank hadn’t implemented EMV correctly.

Earlier today, fraud intelligence firm Gemini Advisory released a blog post with more information on recent merchant compromises — including Key Food — in which EMV transaction data was stolen and ended up for sale in underground shops that cater to card thieves.

“The payment cards stolen during this breach were offered for sale in the dark web,” Gemini explained. “Shortly after discovering this breach, several financial institutions confirmed that the cards compromised in this breach were all processed as EMV and did not rely on the magstripe as a fallback.”

Gemini says it has verified that another recent breach — at a liquor store in Georgia — also resulted in compromised EMV transaction data showing up for sale at dark web stores that sell stolen card data. As both Gemini and Visa have noted, in both cases proper iCVV verification from banks should render this intercepted EMV data useless to crooks.

Gemini determined that due to the sheer number of stores affected, it’s extremely unlikely the thieves involved in these breaches intercepted the EMV data using physically installed EMV card shimmers.

“Given the extreme impracticality of this tactic, they likely used a different technique to remotely breach POS systems to collect enough EMV data to perform EMV-Bypass Cloning,” the company wrote.

Stas Alforov, Gemini’s director of research and development, said financial institutions that aren’t performing these checks risk losing the ability to notice when those cards are used for fraud.

That’s because many banks that have issued chip-based cards may assume that as long as those cards are used for chip transactions, there is virtually no risk that the cards will be cloned and sold in the underground. Hence, when these institutions are looking for patterns in fraudulent transactions to determine which merchants might be compromised by POS malware, they may completely discount any chip-based payments and focus only on those merchants at which a customer has swiped their card.

“The card networks are catching on to the fact that there’s a lot more EMV-based breaches happening right now,” Alforov said. “The larger card issuers like Chase or Bank of America are indeed checking [for a mismatch between the iCVV and CVV], and will kick back transactions that don’t match. But that is clearly not the case with some smaller institutions.”

For better or worse, we don’t know which financial institutions have failed to properly implement the EMV standard. That’s why it always pays to keep a close eye on your monthly statements, and report any unauthorized transactions immediately. If your institution lets you receive transaction alerts via text message, this can be a near real-time way to keep an eye out for such activity.

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.

NY Charges First American Financial for Massive Data Leak

In May 2019, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that the website of mortgage title insurance giant First American Financial Corp. had exposed approximately 885 million records related to mortgage deals going back to 2003. On Wednesday, regulators in New York announced that First American was the target of their first ever cybersecurity enforcement action in connection with the incident, charges that could bring steep financial penalties.

First American Financial Corp.

Santa Ana, Calif.-based First American [NYSE:FAF] is a leading provider of title insurance and settlement services to the real estate and mortgage industries. It employs some 18,000 people and brought in $6.2 billion in 2019.

As first reported here last year, First American’s website exposed 16 years worth of digitized mortgage title insurance records — including bank account numbers and statements, mortgage and tax records, Social Security numbers, wire transaction receipts, and drivers license images.

The documents were available without authentication to anyone with a Web browser.

According to a filing (PDF) by the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS), the weakness that exposed the documents was first introduced during an application software update in May 2014 and went undetected for years.

Worse still, the DFS found, the vulnerability was discovered in a penetration test First American conducted on its own in December 2018.

“Remarkably, Respondent instead allowed unfettered access to the personal and financial data of millions of its customers for six more months until the breach and its serious ramifications were widely publicized by a nationally recognized cybersecurity industry journalist,” the DFS explained in a statement on the charges.

A redacted screenshot of one of many millions of sensitive records exposed by First American’s Web site.

Reuters reports that the penalties could be significant for First American: The DFS considers each instance of exposed personal information a separate violation, and the company faces penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.

In a written statement, First American said it strongly disagrees with the DFS’s findings, and that its own investigation determined only a “very limited number” of consumers — and none from New York — had personal data accessed without permission.

In August 2019, the company said a third-party investigation into the exposure identified just 32 consumers whose non-public personal information likely was accessed without authorization.

When KrebsOnSecurity asked last year how long it maintained access logs or how far back in time that review went, First American declined to be more specific, saying only that its logs covered a period that was typical for a company of its size and nature.

But in Wednesday’s filing, the DFS said First American was unable to determine whether records were accessed prior to Jun 2018.

“Respondent’s forensic investigation relied on a review of web logs retained from June 2018 onward,” the DFS found. “Respondent’s own analysis demonstrated that during this 11-month period, more than 350,000 documents were accessed without authorization by automated ‘bots’ or ‘scraper’ programs designed to collect information on the Internet.

The records exposed by First American would have been a virtual gold mine for phishers and scammers involved in so-called Business Email Compromise (BEC) scams, which often impersonate real estate agents, closing agencies, title and escrow firms in a bid to trick property buyers into wiring funds to fraudsters. According to the FBI, BEC scams are the most costly form of cybercrime today.

First American’s stock price fell more than 6 percent the day after news of their data leak was published here. In the days that followed, the DFS and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission each announced they were investigating the company.

First American released its first quarter 2020 earnings today. A hearing on the charges alleged by the DFS is slated for Oct. 26.

Breached Data Indexer ‘Data Viper’ Hacked

Data Viper, a security startup that provides access to some 15 billion usernames, passwords and other information exposed in more than 8,000 website breaches, has itself been hacked and its user database posted online. The hackers also claim they are selling on the dark web roughly 2 billion records Data Viper collated from numerous breaches and data leaks, including data from several companies that likely either do not know they have been hacked or have not yet publicly disclosed an intrusion.

The apparent breach at St. Louis, Mo. based Data Viper offers a cautionary and twisted tale of what can happen when security researchers seeking to gather intelligence about illegal activity online get too close to their prey or lose sight of their purported mission. The incident also highlights the often murky area between what’s legal and ethical in combating cybercrime.

Data Viper is the brainchild of Vinny Troia, a security researcher who runs a cyber threat intelligence company called Night Lion Security. Since its inception in 2018, Data Viper has billed itself as a “threat intelligence platform designed to provide organizations, investigators and law enforcement with access to the largest collection of private hacker channels, pastes, forums and breached databases on the market.”

Many private companies sell access to such information to vetted clients — mainly law enforcement officials and anti-fraud experts working in security roles at major companies that can foot the bill for these often pricey services.

Data Viper has sought to differentiate itself by advertising “access to private and undisclosed breach data.” As KrebsOnSecurity noted in a 2018 story, Troia has acknowledged posing as a buyer or seller on various dark web forums as a way to acquire old and newly-hacked databases from other forum members.

But this approach may have backfired over the weekend, when someone posted to the deep web a link to an “e-zine” (electronic magazine) describing the Data Viper hack and linking to the Data Viper user base. The anonymous poster alleged he’d been inside Data Viper for months and had exfiltrated hundreds of gigabytes of breached data from the service without notice.

The intruder also linked to several dozen new sales threads on the dark web site Empire Market, where they advertise the sale of hundreds of millions of account details from dozens of leaked or hacked website databases that Data Viper allegedly acquired via trading with others on cybercrime forums.

An online post by the attackers who broke into Data Viper.

Some of the databases for sale tie back to known, publicly reported breaches. But others correspond to companies that do not appear to have disclosed a security incident. As such, KrebsOnSecurity is not naming most of those companies and is currently attempting to ascertain the validity of the claims.

KrebsOnSecurity did speak with Victor Ho, the CEO of Fivestars.com, a company that helps smaller firms run customer loyalty programs. The hackers claimed they are selling 44 million records taken from Fivestars last year. Ho said he was unaware of any data security incident and that no such event had been reported to his company, but that Fivestars is now investigating the claims. Ho allowed that the number of records mentioned in the dark web sales thread roughly matches the number of users his company had last year.

But on Aug. 3, 2019, Data Viper’s Twitter account casually noted, “FiveStars — 44m breached records added – incl Name, Email, DOB.” The post, buried among a flurry of similar statements about huge caches of breached personal information added to Data Viper, received hardly any attention and garnered just one retweet.

GNOSTIC PLAYERS, SHINY HUNTERS

Reached via Twitter, Troia acknowledged that his site had been hacked, but said the attackers only got access to the development server for Data Viper, and not the more critical production systems that power the service and which house his index of compromised credentials.

Troia said the people responsible for compromising his site are the same people who hacked the databases they are now selling on the dark web and claiming to have obtained exclusively from his service.

What’s more, Troia believes the attack was a preemptive strike in response to a keynote he’s giving in Boston this week: On June 29, Troia tweeted that he plans to use the speech to publicly expose the identities of the hackers, who he suspects are behind a large number of website break-ins over the years.

Hacked or leaked credentials are prized by cybercriminals engaged in “credential stuffing,” a rampant form of cybercrime that succeeds when people use the same passwords across multiple websites. Armed with a list of email addresses and passwords from a breached site, attackers will then automate login attempts using those same credentials at hundreds of other sites.

Password re-use becomes orders of magnitude more dangerous when website developers engage in this unsafe practice. Indeed, a January 2020 post on the Data Viper blog suggests credential stuffing is exactly how the group he plans to discuss in his upcoming talk perpetrated their website compromises.

In that post, Troia wrote that the hacker group, known variously as “Gnostic Players” and “Shiny Hunters,” plundered countless website databases using roughly the same method: Targeting developers using credential stuffing attacks to log into their GitHub accounts.

“While there, they would pillage the code repositories, looking for AWS keys and similar credentials that were checked into code repositories,” Troia wrote.

Troia said the intrusion into his service wasn’t the result of the credential re-use, but instead because his developer accidentally left his credentials exposed in documents explaining how customers can use Data Viper’s application programming interface.

“I will say the irony of how they got in is absolutely amazing,” Troia said. “But all of this stuff they claim to be selling is [databases] they were already selling. All of this is from Gnostic players. None of it came from me. It’s all for show to try and discredit my report and my talk.”

Troia said he didn’t know how many of the databases Gnostic Players claimed to have obtained from his site were legitimate hacks or even public yet.

“As for public reporting on the databases, a lot of that will be in my report Wednesday,” he said. “All of my ‘reporting’ goes to the FBI.”

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

The e-zine produced by the Data Viper hackers claimed that Troia used many nicknames on various cybercrime forums, including the moniker “Exabyte” on OGUsers, a forum that’s been closely associated with account takeovers.

In a conversation with KrebsOnSecurity, Troia acknowledged that this Exabyte attribution was correct, noting that he was happy about the exposure because it further solidified his suspicions about who was responsible for hacking his site.

This is interesting because some of the hacked databases the intruders claimed to have acquired after compromising Data Viper correspond to discoveries credited to Troia in which companies inadvertently exposed tens of millions of user details by leaving them publicly accessible online at cloud services like Amazon’s EC2.

For example, in March 2019, Troia said he’d co-discovered a publicly accessible database containing 150 gigabytes of plaintext marketing data — including 763 million unique email addresses. The data had been exposed online by Verifications.io, an email validation firm.

On Oct 12, 2019, a new user named Exabyte registered on RaidForums — a site dedicated to sharing hacked databases and tools to perpetrate credential stuffing attacks. That Exabyte account was registered less than two weeks after Troia created his Exabyte identity on OGUsers. The Exabyte on RaidForums posted on Dec. 26, 2019 that he was providing the community with something of a belated Christmas present: 200 million accounts leaked from Verifications.io.

“Verifications.io is finally here!” Exabyte enthused. “This release contains 69 of 70 of the original verifications.io databases, totaling 200+ million accounts.”

Exabyte’s offer of the Verifications.io database on RaidForums.

In May 2018, Troia was featured in Wired.com and many other publications after discovering that sales intelligence firm Apollo left 125 million email addresses and nine billion data points publicly exposed in a cloud service. As I reported in 2018, prior to that disclosure Troia had sought my help in identifying the source of the exposed data, which he’d initially and incorrectly concluded was exposed by LinkedIn.com. Rather, Apollo had scraped and collated the data from many different sites, including LinkedIn.

Then in August 2018, someone using the nickname “Soundcard” posted a sales thread to the now-defunct Kickass dark web forum offering the personal information of 212 million LinkedIn users in exchange for two bitcoin (then the equivalent of ~$12,000 USD). Incredibly, Troia had previously told me that he was the person behind that Soundcard identity on the Kickass forum.

Soundcard, a.k.a. Troia, offering to sell what he claimed was all of LinkedIn’s user data, on the Dark Web forum Kickass.

Asked about the Exabyte posts on RaidForums, Troia said he wasn’t the only one who had access to the Verifications.io data, and that the full scope of what’s been going on would become clearer soon.

“More than one person can have the same name ‘Exabyte,” Troia said. “So much from both sides you are seeing is smoke and mirrors.”

Smoke and mirrors, indeed. It’s entirely possible this incident is an elaborate and cynical PR stunt by Troia to somehow spring a trap on the bad guys. Troia recently published a book on threat hunting, and on page 360 (PDF) he describes how he previously staged a hack against his own site and then bragged about the fake intrusion on cybercrime forums in a bid to gather information about specific cybercriminals who took the bait — the same people, by the way, he claims are behind the attack on his site.

MURKY WATERS

While the trading of hacked databases may not technically be illegal in the United States, it’s fair to say the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) takes a dim view of those who operate services marketed to cybercriminals.

In January 2020, U.S. authorities seized the domain of WeLeakInfo.com, an online service that for three years sold access to data hacked from other websites. Two men were arrested in connection with that seizure. In February 2017, the Justice Department took down LeakedSource, a service that operated similarly to WeLeakInfo.

The DOJ recently released guidance (PDF) to help threat intelligence companies avoid the risk of prosecution when gathering and purchasing data from illicit sources online. The guidelines suggest that some types of intelligence gathering — particularly exchanging ill-gotten information with others on crime forums as a way to gain access to other data or to increase one’s status on the forum — could be especially problematic.

“If a practitioner becomes an active member of a forum and exchanges information and communicates directly with other forum members, the practitioner can quickly become enmeshed in illegal conduct, if not careful,” reads the Feb. 2020 DOJ document.

The document continues:

“It may be easier for an undercover practitioner to extract information from sources on the forum who have learned to trust the practitioner’s persona, but developing trust and establishing bona fides as a fellow criminal may involve offering useful information, services, or tools that can be used to commit crimes.”

“Engaging in such activities may well result in violating federal criminal law. Whether a crime has occurred usually hinges on an individual’s actions and intent. A practitioner must avoid doing anything that furthers the criminal objectives of others on the forums. Even though the practitioner has no intention of committing a crime, assisting others engaged in criminal conduct can constitute the federal offense of aiding and abetting.”

“An individual may be found liable for aiding and abetting a federal offense if her or she takes an affirmative act — even an act that is lawful on its own — that is in furtherance of the crime and conducted with the intent of facilitating the crime’s commission.”