Fraudsters redirected email and web traffic destined for several cryptocurrency trading platforms over the past week. The attacks were facilitated by scams targeting employees at GoDaddy, the world’s largest domain name registrar, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.
The incident is the latest incursion at GoDaddy that relied on tricking employees into transferring ownership and/or control over targeted domains to fraudsters. In March, a voice phishing scam targeting GoDaddy support employees allowed attackers to assume control over at least a half-dozen domain names, including transaction brokering site escrow.com.
And in May of this year, GoDaddy disclosed that 28,000 of its customers’ web hosting accounts were compromised following a security incident in Oct. 2019 that wasn’t discovered until April 2020.
This latest campaign appears to have begun on or around Nov. 13, with an attack on cryptocurrency trading platform liquid.com.
“A domain hosting provider ‘GoDaddy’ that manages one of our core domain names incorrectly transferred control of the account and domain to a malicious actor,” Liquid CEO Mike Kayamori said in a blog post. “This gave the actor the ability to change DNS records and in turn, take control of a number of internal email accounts. In due course, the malicious actor was able to partially compromise our infrastructure, and gain access to document storage.”
In the early morning hours of Nov. 18 Central European Time (CET), cyptocurrency mining service NiceHash disccovered that some of the settings for its domain registration records at GoDaddy were changed without authorization, briefly redirecting email and web traffic for the site. NiceHash froze all customer funds for roughly 24 hours until it was able to verify that its domain settings had been changed back to their original settings.
“At this moment in time, it looks like no emails, passwords, or any personal data were accessed, but we do suggest resetting your password and activate 2FA security,” the company wrote in a blog post.
NiceHash founder Matjaz Skorjanc said the unauthorized changes were made from an Internet address at GoDaddy, and that the attackers tried to use their access to its incoming NiceHash emails to perform password resets on various third-party services, including Slack and Github. But he said GoDaddy was impossible to reach at the time because it was undergoing a widespread system outage in which phone and email systems were unresponsive.
“We detected this almost immediately [and] started to mitigate [the] attack,” Skorjanc said in an email to this author. “Luckily, we fought them off well and they did not gain access to any important service. Nothing was stolen.”
Skorjanc said NiceHash’s email service was redirected to privateemail.com, an email platform run by Namecheap Inc., another large domain name registrar. Using Farsight Security, a service which maps changes to domain name records over time, KrebsOnSecurity instructed the service to show all domains registered at GoDaddy that had alterations to their email records in the past week which pointed them to privateemail.com. Those results were then indexed against the top one million most popular websites according to Alexa.com.
The result shows that several other cryptocurrency platforms also may have been targeted by the same group, including Bibox.com, Celsius.network, and Wirex.app. None of these companies responded to requests for comment.
In response to questions from KrebsOnSecurity, GoDaddy acknowledged that “a small number” of customer domain names had been modified after a “limited” number of GoDaddy employees fell for a social engineering scam. GoDaddy said the outage between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. PST on Nov. 17 was not related to a security incident, but rather a technical issue that materialized during planned network maintenance.
“Separately, and unrelated to the outage, a routine audit of account activity identified potential unauthorized changes to a small number of customer domains and/or account information,” GoDaddy spokesperson Dan Race said. “Our security team investigated and confirmed threat actor activity, including social engineering of a limited number of GoDaddy employees.”
“We immediately locked down the accounts involved in this incident, reverted any changes that took place to accounts, and assisted affected customers with regaining access to their accounts,” GoDaddy’s statement continued. “As threat actors become increasingly sophisticated and aggressive in their attacks, we are constantly educating employees about new tactics that might be used against them and adopting new security measures to prevent future attacks.”
Race declined to specify how its employees were tricked into making the unauthorized changes, saying the matter was still under investigation. But in the attacks earlier this year that affected escrow.com and several other GoDaddy customer domains, the assailants targeted employees over the phone, and were able to read internal notes that GoDaddy employees had left on customer accounts.
What’s more, the attack on escrow.com redirected the site to an Internet address in Malaysia that hosted fewer than a dozen other domains, including the phishing website servicenow-godaddy.com. This suggests the attackers behind the March incident — and possibly this latest one — succeeded by calling GoDaddy employees and convincing them to use their employee credentials at a fraudulent GoDaddy login page.
In August 2020, KrebsOnSecurity warned about a marked increase in large corporations being targeted in sophisticated voice phishing or “vishing” scams. Experts say the success of these scams has been aided greatly by many employees working remotely thanks to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
A typical vishing scam begins with a series of phone calls to employees working remotely at a targeted organization. The phishers often will explain that they’re calling from the employer’s IT department to help troubleshoot issues with the company’s email or virtual private networking (VPN) technology.
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.
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.
An alert issued jointly by the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) says the perpetrators of these vishing attacks compile dossiers on employees at their targeted companies using mass scraping of public profiles on social media platforms, recruiter and marketing tools, publicly available background check services, and open-source research.
The FBI/CISA advisory includes a number of suggestions that companies can implement to help mitigate the threat from 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.
An increasing number of websites are asking visitors to approve “notifications,” browser modifications that periodically display messages on the user’s mobile or desktop device. In many cases these notifications are benign, but several dodgy firms are paying site owners to install their notification scripts and then selling that communications pathway to scammers and online hucksters.
When a website you visit asks permission to send notifications and you approve the request, the resulting messages that pop up appear outside of the browser. For example, on Microsoft Windows systems they typically show up in the bottom right corner of the screen — just above the system clock. These so-called “push notifications” rely on an Internet standard designed to work similarly across different operating systems and web browsers.
But many users may not fully grasp what they are consenting to when they approve notifications, or how to tell the difference between a notification sent by a website and one made to appear like an alert from the operating system or another program that’s already installed on the device.
This is evident by the apparent scale of the infrastructure behind a relatively new company based in Montenegro called PushWelcome, which advertises the ability for site owners to monetize traffic from their visitors. The company’s site currently is ranked by Alexa.com as among the top 2,000 sites in terms of Internet traffic globally.
Website publishers who sign up with PushWelcome are asked to include a small script on their page which prompts visitors to approve notifications. In many cases, the notification approval requests themselves are deceptive — disguised as prompts to click “OK” to view video material, or as “CAPTCHA” requests designed to distinguish automated bot traffic from real visitors.
Approving notifications from a site that uses PushWelcome allows any of the company’s advertising partners to display whatever messages they choose, whenever they wish to, and in real-time. And almost invariably, those messages include misleading notifications about security risks on the user’s system, prompts to install other software, ads for dating sites, erectile disfunction medications, and dubious investment opportunities.
That’s according to a deep analysis of the PushWelcome network compiled by Indelible LLC, a cybersecurity firm based in Portland, Ore. Frank Angiolelli, vice president of security at Indelible, said rogue notifications can be abused for credential phishing, as well as foisting malware and other unwanted applications on users.
“This method is currently being used to deliver something akin to adware or click fraud type activity,” Angiolelli said. “The concerning aspect of this is that it is so very undetected by endpoint security programs, and there is a real risk this activity can be used for much more nefarious purposes.”
Angiolelli said the external Internet addresses, browser user agents and other telemetry tied to people who’ve accepted notifications is known to PushWelcome, which could give them the ability to target individual organizations and users with any number of fake system prompts.
Indelible also found browser modifications enabled by PushWelcome are poorly detected by antivirus and security products, although he noted Malwarebytes reliably flags as dangerous publisher sites that are associated with the notifications.
Indeed, Malwarebytes’ Pieter Arntz warned about malicious browser push notifications in a January 2019 blog post. That post includes detailed instructions on how to tell which sites you’ve allowed to send notifications, and how to remove them.
KrebsOnSecurity installed PushWelcome’s notifications on a brand new Windows test machine, and found that very soon after the system was peppered with alerts about malware threats supposedly found on the system. One notification was an ad for Norton antivirus; the other was for McAfee. Clicking either ultimately led to “buy now” pages at either Norton.com or McAfee.com.
It seems likely that PushWelcome and/or some of its advertisers are trying to generate commissions for referring customers to purchase antivirus products at these companies. McAfee has not yet responded to requests for comment. Norton issued the following statement:
“We do not believe this actor to be an affiliate of NortonLifeLock. We are continuing to investigate this matter. NortonLifeLock takes affiliate fraud and abuse seriously and monitors ongoing compliance. When an affiliate partner abuses its responsibilities and violates our agreements, we take necessary action to remove these affiliate partners from the program and swiftly terminate our relationships. Additionally, any potential commissions earned as a result of abuse are not paid. Furthermore, NortonLifeLock sends notification to all of our affiliate partner networks about the affiliate’s abuse to ensure the affiliate is not eligible to participate in any NortonLifeLock programs in the future.”
Requests for comment sent to PushWelcome via email were returned as undeliverable. Requests submitted through the contact form on the company’s website also failed to send.
While scammy notifications may not be the most urgent threat facing Internet users today, most people are probably unaware of how this communications pathway can be abused.
What’s more, dodgy notification networks could be used for less conspicuous and sneakier purposes, including spreading fake news and malware masquerading as update notices from the user’s operating system. I hope it’s clear that regardless of which browser, device or operating system you use, it’s a good idea to be judicious about which sites you allow to serve notifications.
If you’d like to prevent sites from ever presenting notification requests, check out this guide, which has instructions for disabling notification prompts in Chrome, Firefox and Safari. Doing this for any devices you manage on behalf of friends, colleagues or family members might end up saving everyone a lot of headache down the road.
Two young men from the eastern United States have been hit with identity theft and conspiracy charges for allegedly stealing bitcoin and social media accounts by tricking employees at wireless phone companies into giving away credentials needed to remotely access and modify customer account information.
Prosecutors say Jordan K. Milleson, 21 of Timonium, Md. and 19-year-old Kingston, Pa. resident Kyell A. Bryan hijacked social media and bitcoin accounts using a mix of voice phishing or “vishing” attacks and “SIM swapping,” a form of fraud that involves bribing or tricking employees at mobile phone companies.
Investigators allege the duo set up phishing websites that mimicked legitimate employee portals belonging to wireless providers, and then emailed and/or called employees at these providers in a bid to trick them into logging in at these fake portals.
According to the indictment (PDF), Milleson and Bryan used their phished access to wireless company employee tools to reassign the subscriber identity module (SIM) tied to a target’s mobile device. A SIM card is a small, removable smart chip in mobile phones that links the device to the customer’s phone number, and their purloined access to employee tools meant they could reassign any customer’s phone number to a SIM card in a mobile device they controlled.
That allowed them to seize control over a target’s incoming phone calls and text messages, which were used to reset the password for email, social media and cryptocurrency accounts tied to those numbers.
Interestingly, the conspiracy appears to have unraveled over a business dispute between the two men. Prosecutors say on June 26, 2019, “Bryan called the Baltimore County Police Department and falsely reported that he, purporting to be a resident of the Milleson family residence, had shot his father at the residence.”
“During the call, Bryan, posing as the purported shooter, threatened to shoot himself and to shoot at police officers if they attempted to confront him,” reads a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. “The call was a ‘swatting’ attack, a criminal harassment tactic in which a person places a false call to authorities that will trigger a police or special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team response — thereby causing a life-threatening situation.”
The indictment alleges Bryan swatted his alleged partner in retaliation for Milleson failing to share the proceeds of a digital currency theft. Milleson and Bryan are facing charges of wire fraud, unauthorized access to protected computers, aggravated identity theft and wire fraud conspiracy.
The indictment doesn’t specify the wireless companies targeted by the phishing and vishing schemes, but sources close to the investigation tell KrebsOnSecurity the two men were active members of OGusers, an online forum that caters to people selling access to hijacked social media accounts.
Bryan allegedly used the nickname “Champagne” on OGusers. On at least two occasions in the past few years, the OGusers forum was hacked and its user database — including private messages between forum members — were posted online. In a private message dated Nov. 15, 2019, Champagne can be seen asking another OGusers member to create a phishing site mimicking T-Mobile’s employee login page (t-mobileupdates[.]com).
Sources tell KrebsOnSecurity the two men are part of a larger conspiracy involving individuals from the United States and United Kingdom who’ve used vishing and phishing to trick work-at-home employees into giving away credentials needed to remotely access their employers’ networks.
There’s an old adage in information security: “Every company gets penetration tested, whether or not they pay someone for the pleasure.” Many organizations that do hire professionals to test their network security posture unfortunately tend to focus on fixing vulnerabilities hackers could use to break in. But judging from the proliferation of help-wanted ads for offensive pentesters in the cybercrime underground, today’s attackers have exactly zero trouble gaining that initial intrusion: The real challenge seems to be hiring enough people to help everyone profit from the access already gained.
One of the most common ways such access is monetized these days is through ransomware, which holds a victim’s data and/or computers hostage unless and until an extortion payment is made. But in most cases, there is a yawning gap of days, weeks or months between the initial intrusion and the deployment of ransomware within a victim organization.
That’s because it usually takes time and a good deal of effort for intruders to get from a single infected PC to seizing control over enough resources within the victim organization where it makes sense to launch the ransomware.
This includes pivoting from or converting a single compromised Microsoft Windows user account to an administrator account with greater privileges on the target network; the ability to sidestep and/or disable any security software; and gaining the access needed to disrupt or corrupt any data backup systems the victim firm may have.
Each day, millions of malware-laced emails are blasted out containing booby-trapped attachments. If the attachment is opened, the malicious document proceeds to quietly download additional malware and hacking tools to the victim machine (here’s one video example of a malicious Microsoft Office attachment from the malware sandbox service any.run). From there, the infected system will report home to a malware control server operated by the spammers who sent the missive.
At that point, control over the victim machine may be transferred or sold multiple times between different cybercriminals who specialize in exploiting such access. These folks are very often contractors who work with established ransomware groups, and who are paid a set percentage of any eventual ransom payments made by a victim company.
THE DOCTOR IS IN
Enter subcontractors like “Dr. Samuil,” a cybercriminal who has maintained a presence on more than a dozen top Russian-language cybercrime forums over the past 15 years. In a series of recent advertisements, Dr. Samuil says he’s eagerly hiring experienced people who are familiar with tools used by legitimate pentesters for exploiting access once inside of a target company — specifically, post-exploit frameworks like the closely-guarded Cobalt Strike.
“You will be regularly provided select accesses which were audited (these are about 10-15 accesses out of 100) and are worth a try,” Dr. Samuil wrote in one such help-wanted ad. “This helps everyone involved to save time. We also have private software that bypasses protection and provides for smooth performance.”
From other classified ads he posted in August and September 2020, it seems clear Dr. Samuil’s team has some kind of privileged access to financial data on targeted companies that gives them a better idea of how much cash the victim firm may have on hand to pay a ransom demand. To wit:
“There is huge insider information on the companies which we target, including information if there are tape drives and clouds (for example, Datto that is built to last, etc.), which significantly affects the scale of the conversion rate.
– experience with cloud storage, ESXi.
– experience with Active Directory.
– privilege escalation on accounts with limited rights.
* Serious level of insider information on the companies with which we work. There are proofs of large payments, but only for verified LEADs.
* There is also a private MEGA INSIDE , which I will not write about here in public, and it is only for experienced LEADs with their teams.
* We do not look at REVENUE / NET INCOME / Accountant reports, this is our MEGA INSIDE, in which we know exactly how much to confidently squeeze to the maximum in total.
According to cybersecurity firm Intel 471, Dr. Samuil’s ad is hardly unique, and there are several other seasoned cybercriminals who are customers of popular ransomware-as-a-service offerings that are hiring sub-contractors to farm out some of the grunt work.
“Within the cybercriminal underground, compromised accesses to organizations are readily bought, sold and traded,” Intel 471 CEO Mark Arena said. “A number of security professionals have previously sought to downplay the business impact cybercriminals can have to their organizations.”
“But because of the rapidly growing market for compromised accesses and the fact that these could be sold to anyone, organizations need to focus more on efforts to understand, detect and quickly respond to network compromises,” Arena continued. “That covers faster patching of the vulnerabilities that matter, ongoing detection and monitoring for criminal malware, and understanding the malware you are seeing in your environment, how it got there, and what it has or could have dropped subsequently.”
WHO IS DR. SAMUIL?
In conducting research for this story, KrebsOnSecurity learned that Dr. Samuil is the handle used by the proprietor of multi-vpn[.]biz, a long-running virtual private networking (VPN) service marketed to cybercriminals who are looking to anonymize and encrypt their online traffic by bouncing it through multiple servers around the globe.
MultiVPN is the product of a company called Ruskod Networks Solutions (a.k.a. ruskod[.]net), which variously claims to be based in the offshore company havens of Belize and the Seychelles, but which appears to be run by a guy living in Russia.
The domain registration records for ruskod[.]net were long ago hidden by WHOIS privacy services. But according to Domaintools.com [an advertiser on this site], the original WHOIS records for the site from the mid-2000s indicate the domain was registered by a Sergey Rakityansky.
This is not an uncommon name in Russia or in many surrounding Eastern European nations. But a former business partner of MultiVPN who had a rather public falling out with Dr. Samuil in the cybercrime underground told KrebsOnSecurity that Rakityansky is indeed Dr. Samuil’s real surname, and that he is a 32- or 33-year-old currently living in Bryansk, a city located approximately 200 miles southwest of Moscow.
Neither Dr. Samuil nor MultiVPN have responded to requests for comment.
When a reliable method of scamming money out of people, companies or governments becomes widely known, underground forums and chat networks tend to light up with activity as more fraudsters pile on to claim their share. And that’s exactly what appears to be going on right now as multiple U.S. states struggle to combat a tsunami of phony Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims. Meanwhile, a number of U.S. states are possibly making it easier for crooks by leaking their citizens’ personal data from the very websites the unemployment scammers are using to file bogus claims.
Last week, the U.S. Secret Service warned of “massive fraud” against state unemployment insurance programs, noting that false filings from a well-organized Nigerian crime ring could end up costing the states and federal government hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.
Since then, various online crime forums and Telegram chat channels focused on financial fraud have been littered with posts from people selling tutorials on how to siphon unemployment insurance funds from different states.
Yes, for roughly $50 worth of bitcoin, you too can quickly jump on the unemployment fraud “wave” and learn how to swindle unemployment insurance money from different states. The channel pictured above and others just like it are selling different “methods” for defrauding the states, complete with instructions on how best to avoid getting your phony request flagged as suspicious.
Although, at the rate people in these channels are “flexing” — bragging about their fraudulent earnings with screenshots of recent multiple unemployment insurance payment deposits being made daily — it appears some states aren’t doing a whole lot of fraud-flagging.
A federal fraud investigator who’s helping to trace the source of these crimes and who spoke with KrebsOnSecurity on condition of anonymity said many states have few controls in place to spot patterns in fraudulent filings, such as multiple payments going to the same bank accounts, or filings made for different people from the same Internet address.
In too many cases, he said, the deposits are going into accounts where the beneficiary name does not match the name on the bank account. Worse still, the source said, many states have dramatically pared back the amount of information required to successfully request an unemployment filing.
“The ones we’re seeing worst hit are the states that aren’t aren’t asking where you worked,” the investigator said. “It used to be they’d have a whole list of questions about your previous employer, and you had to show you were trying to find work. But now because of the pandemic, there’s no such requirement. They’ve eliminated any controls they had at all, and now they’re just shoveling money out the door based on Social Security number, name, and a few other details that aren’t hard to find.”
CANARY IN THE GOLDMINE
Earlier this week, email security firm Agari detailed a fraud operation tied to a seasoned Nigerian cybercrime group it dubbed “Scattered Canary,” which has been busy of late bilking states and the federal government out of economic stimulus and unemployment payments. Agari said this group has been filing hundreds of successful claims, all effectively using the same email address.
“Scattered Canary uses Gmail ‘dot accounts’ to mass-create accounts on each target website,” Agari’s Patrick Peterson wrote. “Because Google ignores periods when interpreting Gmail addresses, Scattered Canary has been able to create dozens of accounts on state unemployment websites and the IRS website dedicated to processing CARES Act payments for non-tax filers (freefilefillableforms.com).”
Indeed, the very day the IRS unveiled its site for distributing CARES Act payments last month, KrebsOnSecurity warned that it was very likely to be abused by fraudsters to intercept stimulus payments from U.S. citizens, mainly because the only information required to submit a claim was name, date of birth, address and Social Security number.
Agari notes that since April 29, Scattered Canary has filed at least 174 fraudulent claims for unemployment with the state of Washington.
“Based on communications sent to Scattered Canary, these claims were eligible to receive up to $790 a week for a total of $20,540 over a maximum of 26 weeks,” Peterson wrote. “Additionally, the CARES Act includes $600 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation each week through July 31. This adds up to a maximum potential loss as a result of these fraudulent claims of $4.7 million.”
STATE WEB SITE WOES
A number of states have suffered security issues with the PUA websites that exposed personal details of citizens filing unemployment insurance claims. Perhaps the most galling example comes from Arkansas, whose site exposed the SSNs, bank account and routing numbers for some 30,000 applicants.
In that instance, The Arkansas Times alerted the state after hearing from a computer programmer who was filing for unemployment on the site and found he could see other applicants’ data simply by changing the site’s URL slightly. State officials reportedly ignored the programmer’s repeated attempts to get them to fix the issue, and when it was covered by the newspaper the state governor accused the person who found it of breaking the law.
Almost daily now there is news about flaws in commercial software that lead to computers getting hacked and seeded with malware. But the reality is most malicious software also has its share of security holes that open the door for security researchers or ne’er-do-wells to liberate or else seize control over already-hacked systems. Here’s a look at one long-lived malware vulnerability testing service that is used and run by some of the Dark Web’s top cybercriminals.
It is not uncommon for crooks who sell malware-as-a-service offerings such as trojan horse programs and botnet control panels to include backdoors in their products that let them surreptitiously monitor the operations of their customers and siphon data stolen from victims. More commonly, however, the people writing malware simply make coding mistakes that render their creations vulnerable to compromise.
At the same time, security companies are constantly scouring malware code for vulnerabilities that might allow them peer to inside the operations of crime networks, or to wrest control over those operations from the bad guys. There aren’t a lot of public examples of this anti-malware activity, in part because it wades into legally murky waters. More importantly, talking publicly about these flaws tends to be the fastest way to get malware authors to fix any vulnerabilities in their code.
Enter malware testing services like the one operated by “RedBear,” the administrator of a Russian-language security site called Krober[.]biz, which frequently blogs about security weaknesses in popular malware tools.
For the most part, the vulnerabilities detailed by Krober aren’t written about until they are patched by the malware’s author, who’s paid a small fee in advance for a code review that promises to unmask any backdoors and/or harden the security of the customer’s product.
RedBear’s service is marketed not only to malware creators, but to people who rent or buy malicious software and services from other cybercriminals. A chief selling point of this service is that, crooks being crooks, you simply can’t trust them to be completely honest.
“We can examine your (or not exactly your) PHP code for vulnerabilities and backdoors,” reads his offering on several prominent Russian cybercrime forums. “Possible options include, for example, bot admin panels, code injection panels, shell control panels, payment card sniffers, traffic direction services, exchange services, spamming software, doorway generators, and scam pages, etc.”
As proof of his service’s effectiveness, RedBear points to almost a dozen articles on Krober[.]biz which explain in intricate detail flaws found in high-profile malware tools whose authors have used his service in the past, including; the Black Energy DDoS bot administration panel; malware loading panels tied to the Smoke and Andromeda bot loaders; the RMS and Spyadmin trojans; and a popular loan scan script.
RedBear doesn’t operate this service on his own. Over the years he’s had several partners in the project, including two very high-profile cybercriminals (or possibly just one, as we’ll see in a moment) who until recently operated under the hacker aliases “upO” and “Lebron.”
From 2013 to 2016, upO was a major player on Exploit[.]in — one of the most active and venerated Russian-language cybercrime forums in the underground — authoring almost 1,500 posts on the forum and starting roughly 80 threads, mostly focusing on malware. For roughly one year beginning in 2016, Lebron was a top moderator on Exploit.
In 2016, several members began accusing upO of stealing source code from malware projects under review, and then allegedly using or incorporating bits of the code into malware projects he marketed to others.
up0 would eventually be banned from Exploit for getting into an argument with another top forum contributor, wherein both accused the other of working for or with Russian and/or Ukrainian federal authorities, and proceeded to publish personal information about the other that allegedly outed their real-life identities.
Lebron first appeared on Exploit in September 2016, roughly two months before upO was banished from the community. After serving almost a year on the forum while authoring hundreds of posts and threads (including many articles first published on Krober), Lebron abruptly disappeared from Exploit.
His departure was prefaced by a series of increasingly brazen accusations by forum members that Lebron was simply upO using a different nickname. His final post on Exploit in May 2017 somewhat jokingly indicated he was joining an upstart ransomware affiliate program.
According to research from cyber intelligence firm Intel 471, upO had a strong interest in ransomware and had partnered with the developer of the Cerber ransomware strain, an affiliate program operating between Feb. 2016 and July 2017 that sought to corner the increasingly lucrative and competitive market for ransomware-as-a-service offerings.
Intel 471 says a rumor has been circulating on Exploit and other forums upO frequented that he was the mastermind behind GandCrab, another ransomware-as-a-service affiliate program that first surfaced in January 2018 and later bragged about extorting billions of dollars from hacked businesses when it closed up shop in June 2019.
Multiple security companies and researchers (including this author) have concluded that GandCrab didn’t exactly go away, but instead re-branded to form a more exclusive ransomware-as-a-service offering dubbed “REvil” (a.k.a. “Sodin” and “Sodinokibi”). REvil was first spotted in April 2019 after being installed by a GandCrab update, but its affiliate program didn’t kick into high gear until July 2019.
Last month, the public face of the REvil ransomware affiliate program — a cybercriminal who registered on Exploit in July 2019 using the nickname “UNKN” (a.k.a. “Unknown”) — found himself the target of a blackmail scheme publicly announced by a fellow forum member who claimed to have helped bankroll UNKN’s ransomware business back in 2016 but who’d taken a break from the forum on account of problems with the law.
That individual, using the nickname “Vivalamuerte,” said UNKN still owed him his up-front investment money, which he reckoned amounted to roughly $190,000. Vivalamuerte said he would release personal details revealing UNKN’s real-life identity unless he was paid what he claims he is owed.
Vivalamuerte also claimed UNKN has used four different nicknames, and that the moniker he interacted with back in 2016 began with the letter “L.” The accused’s full nickname was likely redacted by forum administrators because a search on the forum for “Lebron” brings up the same post even though it is not visible in any of Vivalamuerte’s threatening messages.
Reached by KrebsOnSecurity, Vivalamuerte declined to share what he knew about UNKN, saying the matter was still in arbitration. But he said he has proof that Lebron was the principle coder behind the GandCrab ransomware, and that the person behind the Lebron identity plays a central role in the REvil ransomware extortion enterprise as it exists today.
A well-organized Nigerian crime ring is exploiting the COVID-19 crisis by committing large-scale fraud against multiple state unemployment insurance programs, with potential losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a new alert issued by the U.S. Secret Service.
A memo seen by KrebsOnSecurity that the Secret Service circulated to field offices around the United States on Thursday says the ring has been filing unemployment claims in different states using Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information (PII) belonging to identity theft victims, and that “a substantial amount of the fraudulent benefits submitted have used PII from first responders, government personnel and school employees.”
“It is assumed the fraud ring behind this possesses a substantial PII database to submit the volume of applications observed thus far,” the Secret Service warned. “The primary state targeted so far is Washington, although there is also evidence of attacks in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Florida.”
The Secret Service said the fraud network is believed to consist of hundred of “mules,” a term used to describe willing or unwitting individuals who are recruited to help launder the proceeds of fraudulent financial transactions.
“In the state of Washington, individuals residing out-of-state are receiving multiple ACH deposits from the State of Washington Unemployment Benefits Program, all in different individuals’ names with no connection to the account holder,” the notice continues.
The Service’s memo suggests the crime ring is operating in much the same way as crooks who specialize in filing fraudulent income tax refund requests with the states and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a perennial problem that costs the states and the U.S. Treasury hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year.
In those schemes, the scammers typically recruit people — often victims of online romance scams or those who also are out of work and looking for any source of income — to receive direct deposits from the fraudulent transactions, and then forward the bulk of the illicit funds to the perpetrators.
A federal fraud investigator who spoke with KrebsOnSecurity on condition of anonymity said many states simply don’t have enough controls in place to detect patterns that might help better screen out fraudulent unemployment applications, such as looking for multiple applications involving the same Internet addresses and/or bank accounts. The investigator said in some states fraudsters need only to submit someone’s name, Social Security number and other basic information for their claims to be processed.
The alert follows news reports by media outlets in Washington and Rhode Island about millions of dollars in fraudulent unemployment claims in those states. On Thursday, The Seattle Times reported that the activity had halted unemployment payments for two days after officials found more than $1.6 million in phony claims.
“Between March and April, the number of fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits jumped 27-fold to 700,” the state Employment Security Department (ESD) told The Seattle Times. The story noted that the ESD’s fraud hotline has been inundated with calls, and received so many emails last weekend that it temporarily shut down.
WPRI in Rhode Island reported on May 4 that the state’s Department of Labor and Training has received hundreds of complaints of unemployment insurance fraud, and that “the number of purportedly fraudulent accounts is keeping pace with the unprecedented number of legitimate claims for unemployment insurance.”
The surge in fraud comes as many states are struggling to process an avalanche of jobless claims filed as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. government reported Thursday that nearly three million people filed unemployment claims last week, bringing the total over the last two months to more than 36 million. The Treasury Department says unemployment programs delivered $48 billion in payments in April alone.
A few of the states listed as key targets of this fraud ring are experiencing some of the highest levels of unemployment claims in the country. Washington has seen nearly a million unemployment claims, with almost 30 percent of its workforce currently jobless, according to figures released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Rhode Island is even worse off, with 31.4 percent of its workforce filing for unemployment, the Chamber found.
“The banks targeted have been at all levels including local banks, credit unions, and large national banks,” the Secret Service alert concluded. “It is extremely likely every state is vulnerable to this scheme and will be targeted if they have not been already.”
In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon to cybercriminals: With unprecedented numbers of people working from home and anxious for news about the virus outbreak, it’s hard to imagine a more target-rich environment for phishers, scammers and malware purveyors. In addition, many crooks are finding the outbreak has helped them better market their cybercriminal wares and services. But it’s not all good news: The Coronavirus also has driven up costs and disrupted key supply lines for many cybercriminals. Here’s a look at how they’re adjusting to these new realities.
FUELED BY MULES
One of the more common and perennial cybercriminal schemes is “reshipping fraud,” wherein crooks buy pricey consumer goods online using stolen credit card data and then enlist others to help them collect or resell the merchandise.
Most online retailers years ago stopped shipping to regions of the world most frequently associated with credit card fraud, including Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Russia. These restrictions have created a burgeoning underground market for reshipping scams, which rely on willing or unwitting residents in the United States and Europe — derisively referred to as “reshipping mules” — to receive and relay high-dollar stolen goods to crooks living in the embargoed areas.
But apparently a number of criminal reshipping services are reporting difficulties due to the increased wait time when calling FedEx or UPS (to divert carded goods that merchants end up shipping to the cardholder’s address instead of to the mule’s). In response, these operations are raising their prices and warning of longer shipping times, which in turn could hamper the activities of other actors who depend on those services.
That’s according to Intel 471, a cyber intelligence company that closely monitors hundreds of online crime forums. In a report published today, the company said since late March 2020 it has observed several crooks complaining about COVID-19 interfering with the daily activities of their various money mules (people hired to help launder the proceeds of cybercrime).
“One Russian-speaking actor running a fraud network complained about their subordinates (“money mules”) in Italy, Spain and other countries being unable to withdraw funds, since they currently were afraid to leave their homes,” Intel 471 observed. “Also some actors have reported that banks’ customer-support lines are being overloaded, making it difficult for fraudsters to call them for social-engineering activities (such as changing account ownership, raising withdrawal limits, etc).”
Still, every dark cloud has a silver lining: Intel 471 noted many cybercriminals appear optimistic that the impending global economic recession (and resultant unemployment) “will make it easier to recruit low-level accomplices such as money mules.”
Alex Holden, founder and CTO of Hold Security, agreed. He said while the Coronavirus has forced reshipping operators to make painful shifts in several parts of their business, the overall market for available mules has never looked brighter.
“Reshipping is way up right now, but there are some complications,” he said.
For example, reshipping scams have over the years become easier for both reshipping mule operators and the mules themselves. Many reshipping mules are understandably concerned about receiving stolen goods at their home and risking a visit from the local police. But increasingly, mules have been instructed to retrieve carded items from third-party locations.
“The mules don’t have to receive stolen goods directly at home anymore,” Holden said. “They can pick them up at Walgreens, Hotel lobbies, etc. There are a ton of reshipment tricks out there.”
But many of those tricks got broken with the emergence of COVID-19 and social distancing norms. In response, more mule recruiters are asking their hires to do things like reselling goods shipped to their homes on platforms like eBay and Amazon.
“Reshipping definitely has become more complicated,” Holden said. “Not every mule will run 10 times a day to the post office, and some will let the goods sit by the mailbox for days. But on the whole, mules are more compliant these days.”
GIVE AND TAKE
KrebsOnSecurity recently came to a similar conclusion: Last month’s story, “Coronavirus Widens the Money Mule Pool,” looked at one money mule operation that had ensnared dozens of mules with phony job offers in a very short period of time. Incidentally, the fake charity behind that scheme — which promised to raise money for Coronavirus victims — has since closed up shop and apparently re-branded itself as the Tessaris Foundation.
Charitable cybercriminal endeavors were the subject of a report released this week by cyber intel firm Digital Shadows, which looked at various ways computer crooks are promoting themselves and their hacking services using COVID-19 themed discounts and giveaways.
Like many commercials on television these days, such offers obliquely or directly reference the economic hardships wrought by the virus outbreak as a way of connecting on an emotional level with potential customers.
“The illusion of philanthropy recedes further when you consider the benefits to the threat actors giving away goods and services,” the report notes. “These donors receive a massive boost to their reputation on the forum. In the future, they may be perceived as individuals willing to contribute to forum life, and the giveaways help establish a track record of credibility.”
Brian’s Club — one of the underground’s largest bazaars for selling stolen credit card data and one that has misappropriated this author’s likeness and name in its advertising — recently began offering “pandemic support” in the form of discounts for its most loyal customers.
It stands to reason that the virus outbreak might depress cybercriminal demand for “dumps,” or stolen account data that can be used to create physical counterfeit credit cards. After all, dumps are mainly used to buy high-priced items from electronics stores and other outlets that may not even be open now thanks to the widespread closures from the pandemic.
If that were the case, we’d also expect to see dumps prices fall significantly across the cybercrime economy. But so far, those price changes simply haven’t materialized, says Gemini Advisory, a New York based company that monitors the sale of stolen credit card data across dozens of stores in the cybercrime underground.
Stas Alforov, Gemini’s director of research and development, said there’s been no notable dramatic changes in pricing for both dumps and card data stolen from online merchants (a.k.a. “CVVs”) — even though many cybercrime groups appear to be massively shifting their operations toward targeting online merchants and their customers.
“Usually, the huge spikes upward or downward during a short period is reflected by a large addition of cheap records that drive the median price change,” Alforov said, referring to the small and temporary price deviations depicted in the graph above.
Intel 471 said it came to a similar conclusion.
“You might have thought carding activity, to include support aspects such as checker services, would decrease due to both the global lockdown and threat actors being infected with COVID-19,” the company said. “We’ve even seen some actors suggest as much across some shops, but the reality is there have been no observations of major changes.”
CONSCIENCE VS. COMMERCE
Interestingly, the Coronavirus appears to have prompted discussion on a topic that seldom comes up in cybercrime communities — i.e., the moral and ethical ramifications of their work. Specifically, there seems to be much talk these days about the potential karmic consequences of cashing in on the misery wrought by a global pandemic.
For example, Digital Shadows said some have started to question the morality of targeting healthcare providers, or collecting funds in the name of Coronavirus causes and then pocketing the money.
“One post on the gated Russian-language cybercriminal forum Korovka laid bare the question of threat actors’ moral obligation,” the company wrote. “A user initiated a thread to canvass opinion on the feasibility of faking a charitable cause and collecting donations. They added that while they recognized that such a plan was ‘cruel,’ they found themselves in an ‘extremely difficult financial situation.’ Responses to the proposal were mixed, with one forum user calling the plan ‘amoral,’ and another pointing out that cybercrime is inherently an immoral affair.”
You may have heard that today’s phone fraudsters like to use caller ID spoofing services to make their scam calls seem more believable. But you probably didn’t know that these fraudsters also can use caller ID spoofing to trick your bank into giving up information about recent transactions on your account — data that can then be abused to make their phone scams more believable and expose you to additional forms of identity theft.
Last week, KrebsOnSecurity told the harrowing tale of a reader (a security expert, no less) who tried to turn the tables on his telephonic tormentors and failed spectacularly. In that episode, the people impersonating his bank not only spoofed the bank’s real phone number, but they were also pretending to be him on a separate call at the same time with his bank.
This foiled his efforts to make sure it was really his bank that called him, because he called his bank with another phone and the bank confirmed they currently were in a separate call with him discussing fraud on his account (however, the other call was the fraudster pretending to be him).
Shortly after that story ran, I heard from another reader — we’ll call him “Jim” since he didn’t want his real name used for this story — whose wife was the target of a similar scam, albeit with an important twist: The scammers were armed with information about a number of her recent financial transactions, which he claims they got from the bank’s own automated phone system just by spoofing her phone number.
“When they originally called my wife, there were no fraudulent transactions on her account, but they were able to specify the last three transactions she had made, which combined with the caller-ID had mistakenly earned her trust,” Jim explained. “After we figured out what was going on, we were left asking ourselves how the crooks had obtained her last three transactions without breaking into her account online. As it turned out, calling the phone number on the back of the credit card from the phone number linked with the card provided the most recent transactions without providing any form of authentication.”
Jim said he was so aghast at this realization that he called the same number from his phone and tried accessing his account, which is also at Citi but wholly separate from his spouse’s. Sure enough, he said, as long as he was calling from the number on file for his account, the automated system let him review recent transactions without any further authentication.
“I confirmed on my separate Citi card that they often (but not quite always) were providing the transaction details,” Jim said. “I was appalled that Citi would do that. So, it seemed the crooks would spoof caller ID when calling Citibank, as well as when calling the target/victim.”
The incident Jim described happened in late January 2020, and Citi may have changed its procedures since then. But in a phone interview with KrebsOnSecurity earlier this week, Jim made a call to Citi’s automated system from his mobile phone on file with the bank, and I could hear Citi’s systems asking him to enter the last four digits of his credit card number before he could review recent transactions.
The request for the last four of the customer’s credit card number was consistent with my own testing, which relied on a caller ID spoofing service advertised in the cybercrime underground and aimed at a Citi account controlled by this author.
In one test, the spoofed call let KrebsOnSecurity hear recent transaction data — where and when the transaction was made, and how much was spent — after providing the automated system the last four digits of the account’s credit card number. In another test, the automated system asked for the account holder’s full Social Security number.
Citi declined to discuss specific actions it takes to detect and prevent fraud. But in a written statement provided to this author it said the company continuously monitors and analyzes threats and looks for opportunities to strengthen its controls.
“We see regular attempts by fraudsters to gain access to information and we are constantly monitoring for emerging threats and taking preventive action for our clients’ protection,” the statement reads. “For inbound calls to call centers, we continue to adapt and implement detection capabilities to identify suspicious or spoofed phone numbers. We also encourage clients to install and use our mobile app and sign up for push notifications and alerts in the mobile app.”
PREGNANT PAUSES AND BULGING EMAIL BOMBS
Jim said the fraudster who called his wife clearly already knew her mailing and email addresses, her mobile number and the fact that her card was an American Airlines-branded Citi card. The caller said there had been a series of suspicious transactions, and proceeded to read back details of several recent transactions to verify if those were purchases she’d authorized.
Jim’s wife quickly logged on to her Citi account and saw that the amounts, dates and places of the transactions referenced by the caller indeed corresponded to recent legitimate transactions. But she didn’t see any signs of unauthorized charges.
After verifying the recent legitimate transactions with the caller, the person on the phone asked for her security word. When she provided it, there was a long hold before the caller came back and said she’d provided the wrong answer.
When she corrected herself and provided a different security word, there was another long pause before the caller said the second answer she provided was correct. At that point, the caller said Citi would be sending her a new card and that it had prevented several phony charges from even posting to her account.
She didn’t understand until later that the pauses were points at which the fraudsters had to put her on hold to relay her answers in their own call posing as her to Citi’s customer service department.
Not long after Jim’s spouse hung up with the caller, her inbox quickly began filling up with hundreds of automated messages from various websites trying to confirm an email newsletter subscription she’d supposedly requested.
As the recipient of several of these “email bombing” attacks, I can verify that crooks often will use services offered in the cybercrime underground to flood a target’s inbox with these junk newsletter subscriptions shortly after committing fraud in the target’s name when they wish to bury an email notification from a target’s bank.
In the case of Jim’s wife, the inbox flood backfired, and only made her more suspicious about the true nature of the recent phone call. So she called the number on the back of her Citi card and was told that she had indeed just called Citi and requested what’s known as an “overpayment reimbursement.” The couple have long had their credit cards on auto-payment, and the most recent payment was especially high — nearly $4,000 — thanks to a flurry of Christmas present purchases for friends and family.
In an overpayment reimbursement, a customer can request that the bank refund any amount paid toward a previous bill that exceeds the minimum required monthly payment. Doing so causes any back-due interest on that unpaid amount to accrue to the account as well.
In this case, the caller posing as Jim’s wife requested an overpayment reimbursement to the tune of just under $4,000. It’s not clear how or where the fraudsters intended this payment to be sent, but for whatever reason Citi ended up saying they would cut a physical check and mail it to the address on file. Probably not what the fraudsters wanted, although since then Jim and his wife say they have been on alert for anyone suspicious lurking near their mailbox.
“The person we spoke with at Citi’s fraud department kept insisting that yes, it was my wife that called because the call came from her mobile number,” Jim said. “The Citi employee was alarmed because she didn’t understand the whole notion of caller ID spoofing. And we both found it kind of disturbing that someone in fraud at such a major bank didn’t even understand that such a thing was possible.”
SHOPPING FOR ‘CVVs’
Fraud experts say the scammers behind the types of calls that targeted Jim’s family are most likely fueled by the rampant sale of credit card records stolen from hacked online merchants. This data, known as “CVVs” in the cybercrime underground, is sold in packages for about $15 to $20 per record, and very often includes the customer’s name, address, phone number, email address and full credit or debit card number, expiration date, and card verification value (CVV) printed on the back of the card.
Dozens of cybercrime shops traffic in this stolen data, which is more traditionally used to defraud online merchants. But such records are ideally suited for criminals engaged in the type of phone scams that are the subject of this article.
That’s according to Andrei Barysevich, CEO and co-founder of Gemini Advisory, a New York-based company that monitors dozens of underground shops selling stolen card data.
“If the fraudsters already have the target’s cell phone number, in many cases they already have the target’s credit card information as well,” Barysevich said.
Gemini estimates there are currently some 13 million CVV records for sale across the dark web, and that more than 40 percent of these records put up for sale over the past year included the cardholder’s phone number.
Data from recent financial transactions can not only help fraudsters better impersonate your bank, it can also be useful in linking a customer’s account to another account the fraudsters control. That’s because PayPal and a number of other pure-play online financial institutions allow customers to link accounts by verifying the value of microdeposits.
For example, if you wish to be able to transfer funds between PayPal and a bank account, the company will first send a couple of tiny deposits — a few cents, usually — to the account you wish to link. Only after verifying those exact amounts will the account-linking request be granted.
JUST HANG UP
Both this and last week’s story illustrate why the only sane response to a call purporting to be from your bank is to hang up, look up your bank’s customer service number from their Web site or from the back of your card, and call them back yourself.
Meanwhile, fraudsters who hack peoples’ finances with nothing more than a telephone have been significantly upping the volume of attacks in recent months, new research suggests. Fraud prevention company Next Caller said this week it has tracked “massive increases in call volumes and high-risk calls across Fortune 500 companies as a result of COVID-19.”
“After a brief reprieve in Week 4 (April 6-12), Week 5 (April 13-19) saw call volume across Next Caller’s clients in the telecom and financial services sectors spike 40% above previous highs,” the company found. “Particularly worrisome is the activity taking place in the financial services sector, where call traffic topped previous highs by 800%.”
Next Caller said it’s likely some of that increase was due to numerous online and mobile app outages for many major financial institutions at a time when more than 80 million Americans were simultaneously trying to track the status of their stimulus deposits. But it said that surge also brought with it an influx of fraudsters looking to capitalize on all the chaos.
“High-risk calls to financial services surged to 50% above pre-COVID levels, with one Fortune 100 bank suffering a high-risk increase of 60% during Week 5,” the company wrote in a recent report.
Security experts are poring over thousands of new Coronavirus-themed domain names registered each day, but this often manual effort struggles to keep pace with the flood of domains invoking the virus to promote malware and phishing sites, as well as non-existent healthcare products and charities. As a result, domain name registrars are under increasing pressure to do more to combat scams and misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By most measures, the volume of new domain registrations that include the words “Coronavirus” or “Covid” has closely tracked the spread of the deadly virus. The Cyber Threat Coalition (CTC), a group of several thousand security experts volunteering their time to fight COVID-related criminal activity online, recently published data showing the rapid rise in new domains began in the last week of February, around the same time the Centers for Disease Control began publicly warning that a severe global pandemic was probably inevitable.
“Since March 20th, the number of risky domains registered per day has been decreasing, with a notable spike around March 30th,” wrote John Conwell, principal data scientist at DomainTools [an advertiser on this site]. “Interestingly, legitimate organizations creating domains in response to the COVID-19 crisis were several weeks behind the curve from threat actors trying to take advantage of this situation. This is a pattern DomainTools hasn’t seen before in other crises.”
Security vendor Sophos looked at telemetry from customer endpoints to illustrate the number of new COVID-related domains that actually received traffic of late. As the company noted, one challenge in identifying potentially malicious domains is that many of them can sit dormant for days or weeks before being used for anything.
“We can see a rapid and dramatic increase of visits to potentially malicious domains exploiting the Coronavirus pandemic week over week, beginning in late February,” wrote Sophos’ Rich Harang. “Even though still a minority of cyber threats use the pandemic as a lure, some of these new domains will eventually be used for malicious purposes.”
CTC spokesman Nick Espinosa said the first spike in visits was on February 25, when group members saw about 4,000 visits to the sites they were tracking.
“The following two weeks starting on March 9 saw rapid growth, and from March 23 onwards we’re seeing between 75,000 to 130,000 visits per weekday, and about 40,000 on the weekends,” Espinosa said. “Looking at the data collected, the pattern of visits are highest on Monday and Friday, and the lowest visit count is on the weekend. Our data shows that there were virtually no customer hits on COVID-related domains prior to February 23.”
Milwaukee-based Hold Security has been publishing daily and weekly lists of all COVID-19 related domain registrations (without any scoring assigned). Here’s a graph KrebsOnSecurity put together based on that data set, which also shows a massive spike in new domain registrations in the third week of March, trailing off considerably over the past couple of weeks.
Not everyone is convinced we’re measuring the right things, or that the current measurements are accurate. Neil Schwartzman, executive director of the anti-spam group CAUCE, said he believes DomainTool’s estimates on the percentage of new COVID/Coronavirus-themed domains that are malicious are too high, and that many are likely benign and registered by well-meaning people seeking to share news or their own thoughts about the outbreak.
“But there’s the rub,” he said. “Bad guys get to hide amidst the good really effectively, so each one needs to be reviewed on its own. And that’s a substantial amount of work.”
At the same time, Schwartzman said, focusing purely on domains may obscure the true size and scope of the overall threat. That’s because scammers very often will establish multiple subdomains for each domain, meaning that a single COVID-related new domain registration could eventually be tied to a number of different scammy or malicious sites.
Subdomains can not only make phishing domains appear more legitimate, but they also tend to lengthen the domain so that key parts of it get pushed off the URL bar in mobile browsers.
To that end, he said, it makes perhaps the most sense to focus on new domain registrations that have encryption certificates tied to them, since the issuance of an SSL certificate for a domain is usually a sign that it is about to be put to use. As noted in previous stories here, roughly 75 percent of all phishing sites now have the padlock (start with “https://”), mainly because the major Web browsers display security alerts on sites that don’t.
Schwartzman said more domain registrars should follow the example of Los Angeles-based Namecheap Inc., which last month pledged to stop accepting the automated registration of website names that include words or phrases tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, a handful of other registrars have said they plan to manually review all such registrations going forward.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that oversees the registrar industry, recently sent a letter urging registrars to be more proactive, but stopped short of mandating any specific actions.
Schwartzman called ICANN’s response “weak tea.”
“It’s absolutely ludicrous that ICANN hasn’t stepped up, and they will bear significant responsibility for any deaths that may happen as a result of all this,” Schwartzman said. “This is a CYA response at best, and dictates to no one that they should do anything.”
Michael Daniel, president of the Cyber Threat Alliance — a cybersecurity industry group that’s also been working to fight COVID-19 related fraud — agreed, saying more pressure needs to be applied to the registrar community.
“It’s really hard to do anything about this unless the registrars step up and do something on their own,” Daniel said. “It’s either that or the government gets involved. That doesn’t mean some [registrars] aren’t doing what they can, but in general what the industry is doing is nowhere near as fast as the bad guys are generating these domains.”
The U.S. government may well soon get more involved. Earlier this week, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) sent letters to eight domain name company leaders, demanding to know what they were doing to combat the threat of malicious domains, and urging them to do more.
“As cybercriminals and other malevolent actors seek to take advantage of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is critical that domain name registrars like yours (1) exercise diligence and ensure that only legitimate organizations can register Coronavirus-related domain names and domain names referencing online communications platforms; (2) act quickly to suspend, cancel, or terminate registrations for domains that are involved in unlawful or harmful activity; and (3) cooperate with law enforcement to help bring to justice cybercriminals profiting from the Coronavirus pandemic,” the senators wrote.
In December 2018, KrebsOnSecurity looked at how dozens of U.S. political campaigns, cities and towns had paid a shady company called Web Listings Inc. after receiving what looked like a bill for search engine optimization (SEO) services rendered on behalf of their domain names. The story concluded that this dubious service had been scamming people and companies for more than a decade, and promised a Part II to explore who was behind Web Listings. What follows are some clues that point to a very convincing answer to that question.
Since at least 2007, Web Listings Inc. has been sending snail mail letters to domain registrants around the world. The missives appear to be an $85 bill for an “annual search engine listing” service. The notice does disclose that it is in fact a solicitation and not a bill, but wording of the notice asserts the recipient has already received the services in question.
The mailer references the domain name web-listings.net, one of several similarly-named domains registered sometime in 2007 or later to a “James Madison,” who lists his address variously as a university in New Britain, Connecticut or a UPS Store mailbox in Niagara Falls, New York.
Some others include: weblistingservices.com, webservicescorp.net, websiteservicescorp.com, web-listingsinc.com, weblistingsinc.net, and weblistingsreports.net. At some point, each of these domains changes the owner’s name from James Madison to “Mark Carter.” As we’ll see, Mark is a name that comes up quite a bit in this investigation.
A Twitter account for Web Listings Inc. has posts dating back to 2010, and points to even more Web Listings domains, including weblistingsinc.org. Cached versions of weblistingsinc.org at archive.org show logos similar to the one featured on the Web Listings mailer, and early versions of the site reference a number of “business partners” in India that also perform SEO services.
Searching the Internet for some of these Web listing domains mentioned in the company’s Twitter account brings up a series of press releases once issued on behalf of the company. One from May 2011 at onlineprnews.com sings the praises of Weblistingsinc.info, weblistingsinc.org and web-listings.net in the same release, and lists the point of contact simply as “Mark.”
Historic WHOIS registration records from Domaintools [an advertiser on this blog] say Weblistingsinc.org was registered in Nov. 2010 to a Mark Scott in Blairgowrie, Scotland, using the email address [email protected].
Reputationmanagementfor.com bills itself as an online service for “fighting negative and incorrect content on the internet,” which is especially interesting for reasons that should become clearer in a few paragraphs. The site says Mark Scott, 46, is an employee of Reputationmanagementfor.com, and that he is also involved with two other companies:
-GoBananas, a business that sets up group outings, with a focus on bachelor and bachelorette parties;
-HelpMeGo.to, an entity in Scotland that did online marketing and travel tourism both in Scotland (via sites like Scotland.org.uk and marketinghotelsonline.co.uk) and on India’s coastal Kerala state where HelpMeGo.to employed a number of people involved in the SEO business. Helpmego.to now simply redirects to GoBananas.
According to Farsight Security, a company that keeps historic records of which Web sites were hosted at which Internet addresses, Weblistingsinc.org was for a while hosted at the IP address 184.108.40.206 with just six other domains, including travelingalberta.com, which was a blog about traveling and living in Alberta, Canada registered to Mark Scott and the email address [email protected]. Cached versions of this site from 2011 show it naming Web Listings Inc. as a business partner.
That same [email protected] email address is tied to the WHOIS records for markscottblog.com, gobananas.co.uk, gobananas.com. Cached copies of markscottblog.com from 2010 at Archive.org show his profile page on blogger.com links to another blog with much the same content, images and links called internetmadness.blogspot.com.
Among the 2011 entries from the Internetmadness blog is a post promoting the wonders of benefits of Web Listings Inc.
THE COBRA/APPCO GROUP
Aha! But wait, there’s more. You see, for years Weblistingsinc.org was hosted on the same servers along with a handful of other domains that all switched Internet addresses at the same times, including gobananas.com, gobananasworld.com and the IP addresses 220.127.116.11 (17 hosts), 18.104.22.168 (6 hosts).
Most of the other domains at these IPs historically have been tied to other domains connected to Mark Scott and his various companies and business partners, including chrisniarchos.net, redwoodsadvance.net, gdsinternationalus.com, staghensscotlands.com, cobra-group.blogspot.com, the-cobra-group.com, appcogroup.co.uk, and reputationmanagementfor.com.
I found a similar pattern with domains stemming from a Crunchbase company profile on Web Listings Inc., which says the firm is based in Toronto, Canada, with the Web site webtechnologiesinc.net, and email address [email protected]. Historic WHOIS data from Domaintools.com says Webtechnologiesinc.net was registered in 2013 to a Marcus Ruskov in Toronto.
Information about who registered Webtechnologiesletter.com is completely hidden behind privacy protection services. But Farsight says the domain was in 2015 hosted at the Internet address 22.214.171.124, along with just 70 other domains, including the same list of domains mentioned above, chrisniarchos.net, redwoodsadvance.net, gdsinternationalus.com, et cetera.
What do all of these domains have in common? They are tied to companies for which Mark Scott was listed as a key contact. For example, this press release from 2o11 says Mark Scott is the contact person for a company called Appco Group UK which bills itself as a market leader in face-to-face marketing and sales.
“Worldwide, Appco Group has raised hundreds of millions of pounds for some of the world’s biggest charities, delivered pay-TV and broadband services, financial services, security and many other successful marketing solutions on a diverse range of products,” the press release enthuses.
The Appco Group is the re-branded name of a family of marketing and sales companies originally created under the name The Cobra Group, whose Wikipedia page states that it is a door-to-door selling and marketing company headquartered in Hong Kong. It says investigations by the media have found the company promises much larger compensation rates that employees actually receive.
“It is also criticized for being a cult, a scam and a pyramid scheme,” the entry reads.
The Cobra Group and its multifariously named direct sales and marketing companies are probably best described as “multi-level marketing” schemes; that is, entities which often sell products and/or services of dubious quality, use high-pressure sales tactics and misleading if not deceptive advertising practices, and offer little to no employee payment for anything other than direct sales.
Even the most cursory amount of time spent searching the Internet for information on some of the companies named above (Appco Group, Cobra Group, Redwoods Advance, GDS International) reveals a mountain of bad press and horrible stories from former employees.
For example, Appco salespeople became known as “charity muggers” because they were trained to solicit donations on behalf of charities from random people on the street, and because media outlets later discovered that the people running Appco kept the majority of the millions of dollars they raised for the charities.
This exhaustive breakdown on the door-to-door sales industry traces Cobra and Appco Group back to a long line of companies that simply renamed and rebranded each time a scandal inevitably befell them.
Now it makes sense why Web Listings Inc. had so many confusingly-named domain names. And this might also explain the primary role of Mr. Scott’s business — the online reputation management company reputationmanagementfor.com — in relation to the Cobra Group/Appco’s efforts to burnish its reputation online.
Mark Scott did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent to various email addresses and phone numbers tied to his name. However, KrebsOnSecurity did receive a response from Cobra Group founder Chris Niarchos, a Toronto native who said this was the first he’d heard of the Web Listings scam.
“Mark used to provide some services to us but my understanding was that stopped a long time ago,” Niarchos said. “He used to own a marketing company that we supplied but that contract ended maybe 12 years ago. That’s how we met. After that he did start some internet based businesses where he sold services to us as a customer at arms length. That also stopped many years ago again as we did it all in house. As far as I know he did this for many companies and we were simply a customer of his. In my dealings with him we got what we paid for but never did we have any closer relationship than that.”
Two more small — possibly insignificant — but interesting things. First, if we go back and look at archived posts from markscottblog.com in 2010, we can see a number of entries where he defends the honor of Cobra Group, Appco, and other multi-level marketing programs he supports, saying they’re not scams. If we go back further to 2008 and look at Mark Scott’s profile on Blogger.com, we can see at the bottom of the page a link called “Enquiries and Emails.”
Visiting that link brings up what looks like a public shaming page of emails apparently sent to Mr. Scott from scammers trying to set him up for some kind of fake check scheme in connection with renting one of the U.K. properties listed by his various travel accommodations Web sites. Click the “Contact” tab at the top right of that page and you’ll see Travel Scotland has a U.S. phone number that potential customers here in the states can use to make reservations toll-free.
That number happens to be in Connecticut. Recall that the address listed in the ownership records for many of the Web Listings domains tied to the “James Madison/Mark Carter” identities were for an address in Connecticut.
Finally, I wanted to mention something that has stumped me (until very recently) since I began this investigation a couple of years ago. There are two unexpected domains returned when one performs a reverse search on a couple of different persistent data points in the WHOIS registration records for the Web Listings domains. See if you can spot the odd duck in this list produced by running a reverse search at Domaintools on [email protected] (the contact email address shown on the mailed letter above):
Domain Name Create Date Registrar
finzthegoose.com 2010-08-03 enom, inc.
web-listings.net 2007-04-24 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
web-listingsinc.com 2015-11-06 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
weblistingservices.com 2007-04-23 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
weblistingsinc.com 2014-06-21 GODADDY.COM, LLC
weblistingsinc.net 2016-02-09 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
weblistingsreports.net 2015-11-06 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
webservicescorp.net 2007-06-03 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
websiteservicescorp.com 2007-06-03 —
Ten points if you said “finzthegoose.com.” Now let’s run a search on the phone number for Mark Carter — the phony persona behind all the Web Listings domains registered to the Niagara Falls address — +1.716-285-3575. What stands out about this list?
Domain Name Create Date Registrar
aquariumofniagara.org 2001-01-11 GODADDY.COM, LLC
web-listings.net 2007-04-24 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
web-listingsinc.com 2015-11-06 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
weblistingservices.com 2007-04-23 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
weblistingsinc.com 2014-06-21 GODADDY.COM, LLC
weblistingsinc.net 2016-02-09 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
weblistingsreports.net 2015-11-06 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
webservicescorp.net 2007-06-03 ENOM, INC.,ENOM, LLC
websiteservicescorp.com 2007-06-03 —
If you’re picking up an aquatic and marine life theme here, you’re two for two. That is actually the real phone number for the Aquarium of Niagara; the Web-Listings people just for some reason decided to list it in their WHOIS records as theirs.
It appears that a Scotsman named Robert Paul Graham Scott — perhaps Mark’s older brother — was in the same line of work (SEO and advertising) and pimping the exact same companies as Mark. According to a listing at Companies House, the official ledger of corporations in the United Kingdom, Paul Scott was for four years until Sept. 2019 a director in HMGT Services Ltd. (HMGT stands for the aforementioned HelpMeGo.To business).
Paul Scott’s own Internet presence says he lives in Perth — a short distance from Mark’s hometown in Blairgowrie, Scotland. Like Mark, Paul Scott did not respond to requests for comment. But Paul Scott’s Twitter profile — @scubadog_uk — shows him tweeting out messages supporting many of the same companies and causes as Mark over the past decade.
More to the point, Paul’s Website — scubadog.co.uk — says he has an abiding interest in underwater photography, scuba diving, and all things marine-related.
With many people being laid off or working from home thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, cybercrooks are almost certain to have more than their usual share of recruitable “money mules” — people who get roped into money laundering schemes under the pretense of a work-at-home job offer. Here’s the story of one upstart mule factory that spoofs a major nonprofit and tells new employees they’ll be collecting and transmitting donations for an international “Coronavirus Relief Fund.”
On the surface, the Web site for the Vasty Health Care Foundation certainly looks legitimate. It includes various sections on funding relief efforts around the globe, explaining that it “connects nonprofits, donors, and companies in nearly every country around the world.” The site says it’s a nonprofit with offices based in Nebraska and Quebec, Canada.
The “Vasty Health Care Foundation” is one of several fraudulent Web sites that recruit money mules in the name of helping Coronavirus victims. The content on Vasty’s site was lifted almost entirely from globalgiving.org, a legitimate charity that actually is trying to help people affected by the pandemic.
“We have been contacted by job seekers asking if we are related to some of these job opportunities they’ve been finding on Indeed.com and Monster.com,” said Kevin Conroy, chief product officer at GlobalGiving. “And we always tell them no that’s not from us, and not to cash any checks someone may be giving them in relation to those offers.”
The Vasty domain — vastyhealthcarefoundation[.]com — was registered just weeks ago, although the site claims its organization has been around for years.
The crooks behind this scheme also seem to have submitted the Vasty name in custom links at vetting sites like The Better Business Bureau and Guidestar that ultimately take one to a summary of data on GlobalGiving. No doubt this is part of an effort to lend legitimacy to the Vasty name (hovering over the links above reveals the trickery).
What proof is there that Vasty isn’t a legitimate charity? None of the dozens of Canadian mules contacted by this author responded to requests for comment. But KrebsOnSecurity received copious amounts of information about this scam from Milwaukee, Wisc. based Hold Security, which managed to intercept key file exchanges between threat actors through public file sharing services.
Among those files were a set of form letters and boilerplate email messages that describe the ideal candidate for the job at Vasty and welcome new recruits to the Vasty payroll. Here’s a look at part of the job description, which includes (not pictured) a description of the healthcare plans and other benefits allegedly offered to Vasty employees.
After congratulating applicants (everyone who applies is “hired”) on their new positions, Vasty asks the recruits to do some busy work. In this case, new hires are sent to local pharmacies on some bogus errand, such as to inspect the pricing of face masks and hand sanitizer products for price-gouging.
“Now we have the first task for you. You will have to perform a trip within your city. So that we can compensate for transportation costs along with your hourly rate, I ask you to keep receipts confirming your expenses.
LOCATION: Sam’s Geneva Street Pharmacy
ADDRESS: 284 Geneva St, St. Catharines, ON L2N 2E8
I ask you to go to the pharmacy at the specified address. We are increasingly receiving reports of private sellers violating the pricing policy for products such as: aspirin, face masks are loose surgical masks with elastic loops that go around the ears, hand sanitizers.”
New recruits are then asked to assemble and submit a written report of their observations at the store in question.
These types of menial, meaningless tasks are a typical tactic of money mule recruitment schemes and they serve two main purposes: They separate out slackers from people who really need and want a job, and they help the employee feel like he’s doing something useful and legitimate (aside from just moving money around, which if brought up too soon might make him question whether the job is legit).
Eventually, after successfully completing one or more of these busy work tasks, the new hire is asked to process a “donation” from someone who wants to help fight the Coronavirus outbreak:
“Please read the instructions carefully. One donor wants to make donations to help fight the coronavirus. As you know, this is a big problem for most countries of the world. Every day we receive information from the World Health Organization that more and more people are sick. Quite a lot of people died from this virus. Some people simply don’t have enough funds to provide themselves with standard face masks and disinfectants to fight the virus.”
“The donor requests that Bitcoins be bought with his funds. For this task, you need to create your Bitcoin wallet, or use the QR code that we send you in this letter. You will receive from the donor up to 3000 CAD. Your commission up to 150 CAD will be included in this amount to cover your expenses. I remind you that you do not need to use your funds to buy bitcoins. The funds will be sent to you. You will need to receive cash atm or at your bank branch.”
What happens next is the employee then receives an electronic transfer of money into his bank account, is asked to withdraw the cash, and to keep 150 Canadian dollars for himself. He’s then instructed to take the remainder of the funds to a Bitcoin ATM and scan an emailed QR code with his mobile phone. This causes the cash he deposits into the Bitcoin ATM to be sent in an irreversible transaction to a Bitcoin wallet controlled by the scammers.
What’s going on behind the scenes is the funds that get deposited in the employee’s account are invariably stolen from other hacked bank accounts, and the employee is merely helping the crooks launder the stolen money into a form of payment that can’t be reversed.
Another boilerplate email intercepted by Hold Security shows Vasty’s new hires manager offering advice to employees who are asked by nosey bank employees about the nature of the funds withdrawal.
“Important: If you receive any questions from the bank regarding the purpose of the payment, you can open part of the instructions if necessary and inform that these funds are intended for payment of medicines. In any case, it is a personal payment and it will not be taxed. However, I strongly recommend that you not divulge the rest of the instructions for paying for medicines against coronavirus so as not to aggravate panic among the population.”
Americans shouldn’t feel left out of the scam: Hold Security founder Alex Holden says his analysts also intercepted a nearly identical set of scam templates targeting job seekers in the United States.
Money mule scammers specialize in hacking employer accounts at job recruitment Web sites like Monster.com, Hotjobs.com and other popular employment search services. Armed with the employer accounts, the crooks are free to search through millions of resumes and reach out to people who are currently between jobs or seeking part-time employment.
If you receive a job solicitation via email that sounds too-good-to-be-true, it probably is related in some way to one of these money-laundering schemes. Even if you can’t see the downside to you, someone is likely getting ripped off. Also, know that money mules — however unwitting — may find themselves in hot water with local police, and may be asked by their bank to pay back funds that were illegally transferred into the mules’ account.
Overall, Holden said, established cybercriminals who specialize in recruiting and grooming money mules for financial crimes have been cooing of late over the potential glut of new mules. One mule vendor on a popular Russian-language crime forum posted Tuesday that his “drops” — the hacker slang term for money mules — weren’t scared of Coronavirus concerns.
“We got drops in masks!,” one vendor proclaimed.
“We continue to work despite the Coronavirus,” declared another drops vendor.
Any readers interested in helping others affected by the Coronavirus outbreak should consider giving through the organization Vasty is impersonating here; Global Giving. Alternatively, these two stories link to a number of other reputable organizations facilitating Coronavirus relief efforts.
Earlier today, KrebsOnSecurity alerted the 10th largest food distributor in the United States that one of its Web sites had been hacked and retrofitted with code that steals credit card and login data. While such Web site card skimming attacks are not new, this intrusion leveraged a sneaky new domain that hides quite easily in a hacked site’s source code: “http[.]ps” (the actual malicious domain does not include the brackets, which are there to keep readers from being able to click on it).
This crafty domain was hidden inside the checkout and login pages for grandwesternsteaks.com, a meat delivery service owned by Cheney Bros. Inc., a major food distributor based in Florida. Here’s what a portion of the login page looked like until earlier today when you right-clicked on the page and selected “view-source”:
Viewing the HTML source for the malicious link highlighted in the screenshot above reveals the obfuscated card-skimming code, a snippet of which is pictured below:
A simple search on the malicious domain “http[.]ps” at HTML search service publicwww.com shows this code is present on nearly a dozen other sites, including a music instrument retailer, an herbal pharmacy shop in Europe, and a business in Spain that sells programmable logic controllers — expensive computers and circuit boards designed to control large industrial operations.
The http[.]ps domain is hosted in Russia, and sits on a server with one other malicious domain — autocapital[.]pw. According a Mar. 3 Twitter post by security researcher and blogger Denis Sinegubko, the autocapital domain acts as a collector of data hoovered up by the http[.]ps skimming script.
Jerome Segura over at Malwarebytes recently wrote about a similar attack in which the intruders used http[.]ps to spoof the location of a script that helps improve page load times for sites that rely on Web infrastructure firm Cloudflare.
“There is a subtle difference in the URI path loading both scripts,” Segura wrote. “The malicious one uses a clever way to turn the domain name http.ps (note the dot ‘.’ , extra ‘p’ and double slash ‘//’) into something that looks like ‘https://’. The threat actors are taking advantage of the fact that since Google Chrome version 76, the “https” scheme (and special-case subdomain “www”) is no longer shown to users.”
Segura says there are two ways e-commerce sites are being compromised here:
Malwarebytes assesses that the tricks this domain uses to obfuscate the malicious code are tied to various site-hacking malware campaigns dating back to 2016. By the way, an installation of Malwarebytes on a test machine used for this investigation blocked the http[.]ps script from loading on each of the compromised sites I found.
Finally, the “.ps” bit of the malicious skimming domain refers to the country code top-level-domain (ccTLD) for the State of Palestine. The domain was registered on Feb. 7.
If you run an e-commerce Web site, it would be a great idea to read up on leveraging Content Security Policy (CSP) response headers and Subresource Integrity security features offered by modern Web browsers. These offer mitigation options to prevent your site from being used in these card skimming attacks. Ryan Barnett at Akamai penned a comprehensive blog post on these approaches not long ago that is well worth reading [full disclosure: Akamai is an advertiser on this site].
I’ve been playing recently with privacy.com, which among other things offers a free service that allows users to generate a unique, one-time credit card number for each online transaction (privacy.com makes money from the interchange fees paid by merchants). The beauty of this approach is if your credit card details do get swiped by one of these site skimmers, you won’t have to change your credit card information at dozens of other sites and services you frequent.
A new email-based extortion scheme apparently is making the rounds, targeting Web site owners serving banner ads through Google’s AdSense program. In this scam, the fraudsters demand bitcoin in exchange for a promise not to flood the publisher’s ads with so much bot and junk traffic that Google’s automated anti-fraud systems suspend the user’s AdSense account for suspicious traffic.
Earlier this month, KrebsOnSecurity heard from a reader who maintains several sites that receive a fair amount of traffic. The message this reader shared began by quoting from an automated email Google’s systems might send if they detect your site is seeking to benefit from automated clicks. The message continues:
“Very soon the warning notice from above will appear at the dashboard of your AdSense account undoubtedly! This will happen due to the fact that we’re about to flood your site with huge amount of direct bot generated web traffic with 100% bounce ratio and thousands of IP’s in rotation — a nightmare for every AdSense publisher. More also we’ll adjust our sophisticated bots to open, in endless cycle with different time duration, every AdSense banner which runs on your site.”
The message goes on to warn that while the targeted site’s ad revenue will be briefly increased, “AdSense traffic assessment algorithms will detect very fast such a web traffic pattern as fraudulent.”
“Next an ad serving limit will be placed on your publisher account and all the revenue will be refunded to advertisers. This means that the main source of profit for your site will be temporarily suspended. It will take some time, usually a month, for the AdSense to lift your ad ban, but if this happens we will have all the resources needed to flood your site again with bad quality web traffic which will lead to second AdSense ban that could be permanent!”
The message demands $5,000 worth of bitcoin to forestall the attack. In this scam, the extortionists are likely betting that some publishers may see paying up as a cheaper alternative to having their main source of advertising revenue evaporate.
The reader who shared this email said while he considered the message likely to be a baseless threat, a review of his recent AdSense traffic statistics showed that detections in his “AdSense invalid traffic report” from the past month had increased substantially.
The reader, who asked not to be identified in this story, also pointed to articles about a recent AdSense crackdown in which Google announced it was enhancing its defenses by improving the systems that identify potentially invalid traffic or high risk activities before ads are served.
Google defines invalid traffic as “clicks or impressions generated by publishers clicking their own live ads,” as well as “automated clicking tools or traffic sources.”
“Pretty concerning, thought it seems this group is only saying they’re planning their attack,” the reader wrote.
Google declined to discuss this reader’s account, saying its contracts prevent the company from commenting publicly on a specific partner’s status or enforcement actions. But in a statement shared with KrebsOnSecurity, the company said the message appears to be a classic threat of sabotage, wherein an actor attempts to trigger an enforcement action against a publisher by sending invalid traffic to their inventory.
“We hear a lot about the potential for sabotage, it’s extremely rare in practice, and we have built some safeguards in place to prevent sabotage from succeeding,” the statement explained. “For example, we have detection mechanisms in place to proactively detect potential sabotage and take it into account in our enforcement systems.”
Google said it has extensive tools and processes to protect against invalid traffic across its products, and that most invalid traffic is filtered from its systems before advertisers and publishers are ever impacted.
“We have a help center on our website with tips for AdSense publishers on sabotage,” the statement continues. “There’s also a form we provide for publishers to contact us if they believe they are the victims of sabotage. We encourage publishers to disengage from any communication or further action with parties that signal that they will drive invalid traffic to their web properties. If there are concerns about invalid traffic, they should communicate that to us, and our Ad Traffic Quality team will monitor and evaluate their accounts as needed.”
If you’re running a business online, few things can be as disruptive or destructive to your brand as someone stealing your company’s domain name and doing whatever they wish with it. Even so, most major Web site owners aren’t taking full advantage of the security tools available to protect their domains from being hijacked. Here’s the story of one recent victim who was doing almost everything possible to avoid such a situation and still had a key domain stolen by scammers.
On December 23, 2019, unknown attackers began contacting customer support people at OpenProvider, a popular domain name registrar based in The Netherlands. The scammers told the customer representatives they had just purchased from the original owner the domain e-hawk.net — which is part of a service that helps Web sites detect and block fraud — and that they were having trouble transferring the domain from OpenProvider to a different registrar.
The real owner of e-hawk.net is Raymond Dijkxhoorn, a security expert and entrepreneur who has spent much of his career making life harder for cybercrooks and spammers. Dijkxhoorn and E-HAWK’s CEO Peter Cholnoky had already protected their domain with a “registrar lock,” a service that requires the registrar to confirm any requested changes with the domain owner via whatever communications method is specified by the registrant.
In the case of e-hawk.net, however, the scammers managed to trick an OpenProvider customer service rep into transferring the domain to another registrar with a fairly lame social engineering ruse — and without triggering any verification to the real owners of the domain.
Specifically, the thieves contacted OpenProvider via WhatsApp, said they were now the rightful owners of the domain, and shared a short screen grab video showing the registrar’s automated system blocking the domain transfer (see video below).
“The support agent helpfully tried to verify if what the [scammers] were saying was true, and said, ‘Let’s see if we can move e-hawk.net from here to check if that works’,” Dijkxhoorn said. “But a registrar should not act on instructions coming from a random email address or other account that is not even connected to the domain in question.”
Dijkxhoorn shared records obtained from OpenProvider showing that on Dec. 23, 2019, the e-hawk.net domain was transferred to a reseller account within OpenProvider. Just three days later, that reseller account moved e-hawk.net to another registrar — Public Domain Registry (PDR).
“Due to the previously silent move to another reseller account within OpenProvider, we were not notified by the registrar about any changes,” Dijkxhoorn said. “This fraudulent move was possible due to successful social engineering towards the OpenProvider support team. We have now learned that after the move to the other OpenProvider account, the fraudsters could silently remove the registrar lock and move the domain to PDR.”
Dijkxhoorn said one security precaution his company had not taken with their domain prior to the fraudulent transfer was a “registry lock,” a more stringent, manual (and sometimes offline) process that effectively neutralizes any attempts by fraudsters to social engineer your domain registrar.
With a registry lock in place, your registrar cannot move your domain to another registrar on its own. Doing so requires manual contact verification by the appropriate domain registry, such as Verisign — which is the authoritative registry for all domains ending in .com, .net, .name, .cc, .tv, .edu, .gov and .jobs. Other registries handle locks for specific top-level or country-code domains, including Nominet (for .co.uk or .uk domains), EURID (for .eu domains), CNNIC for (for .cn) domains, and so on.
According to data provided by digital brand protection firm CSC, while domains created in the top three most registered top-level domains (.com, .jp and .cn) are eligible for registry locks, just 22 percent of domain names tracked in Forbes’ list of the World’s Largest Public Companies have secured registry locks.
Unfortunately, not all registrars support registry locks (a list of top-level domains that do allow registry locks is here, courtesy of CSC). But as we’ll see in a moment, there are other security precautions that can and do help if your domain somehow ends up getting hijacked.
Dijkxhoorn said his company first learned of the domain theft on Jan. 13, 2020, which was the date the fraudsters got around to changing the domain name system (DNS) settings for e-hawk.net. That alert was triggered by systems E-HAWK had previously built in-house that continually monitor their stable of domains for any DNS changes.
By the way, this continuous monitoring of one’s DNS settings is a powerful approach to help blunt attacks on your domains and DNS infrastructure. Anyone curious about why this might be a good approach should have a look at this deep-dive from 2019 on “DNSpionage,” the name given to the exploits of an Iranian group that has successfully stolen countless passwords and VPN credentials from major companies via DNS-based attacks.
Shortly after pointing e-hawk.net’s DNS settings to a server they controlled, the attackers were able to obtain at least one encryption certificate for the domain, which could have allowed them to intercept and read encrypted Web and email communications tied to e-hawk.net.
But that effort failed because E-HAWK’s owners also had enabled DNSSEC for their domains (a.k.a. “DNS Security Extensions”), which protects applications from using forged or manipulated DNS data by requiring that all DNS queries for a given domain or set of domains be digitally signed.
With DNSSEC properly enabled, if a name server determines that the address record for a given domain has not been modified in transit, it resolves the domain and lets the user visit the site. If, however, that record has been modified in some way or doesn’t match the domain requested, the name server blocks the user from reaching the fraudulent address.
While fraudsters who have hijacked your domain and/or co-opted access to your domain registrar can and usually will try to remove any DNSSEC records associated with the hijacked domain, it generally takes a few days for these updated records to be noticed and obeyed by the rest of the Internet.
As a result, having DNSSEC enabled for its domains bought E-HAWK an additional 48 hours or so with which to regain control over its domain before any encrypted traffic to and from e-hawk.net could have been intercepted.
In the end, E-HAWK was able to wrest back its hijacked domain in less than 48 hours, but only because its owners are on a first-name basis with many of the companies that manage the Internet’s global domain name system. Perhaps more importantly, they happened to know key people at PDR — the registrar to which the thieves moved the stolen domain.
Dijkxhoorn said without that industry access, E-HAWK probably would still be waiting to re-assume control over its domain.
“This process is normally not that quick,” he said, noting that most domains can’t be moved for at least 60 days after a successful transfer to another registrar.
In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, OpenProvider CEO and Founder Arno Vis said said OpenProvider is reviewing its procedures and building systems to prevent support employees from overriding security checks that come with a registrar lock.
“We are building an extra layer of approval for things that support engineers shouldn’t be doing in the first place,” Vis said. “As far as I know, this is the first time something like this has happened to us.”
As in this case, crooks who specialize in stealing domains often pounce during holidays, when many registrars are short on well-trained staff. But Vis said the attack against E-HAWK targeted the company’s most senior support engineer.
“This is why social engineering is such a tricky thing, because in the end you still have a person who has to make a decision about something and in some cases they don’t make the right decision,” he said.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
To recap, for maximum security on your domains, consider adopting some or all of the following best practices:
-Use registration features like Registry Lock that can help protect domain name records from being changed. Note that this may increase the amount of time it takes going forward to make key changes to the locked domain (such as DNS changes).
-Use DNSSEC (both signing zones and validating responses).
-Use access control lists for applications, Internet traffic and monitoring.
-Use 2-factor authentication, and require it to be used by all relevant users and subcontractors.
-In cases where passwords are used, pick unique passwords and consider password managers.
-Review the security of existing accounts with registrars and other providers, and make sure you have multiple notifications in place when and if a domain you own is about to expire.
-Monitor the issuance of new SSL certificates for your domains by monitoring, for example, Certificate Transparency Logs.
Anyone searching for a primer on how to spot clever phishing links need look no further than those targeting customers of Apple, whose brand by many measures remains among the most-targeted. Past stories here have examined how scammers working with organized gangs try to phish iCloud credentials from Apple customers who have a mobile device that is lost or stolen. Today’s piece looks at the well-crafted links used in some of these lures.
KrebsOnSecurity heard from a reader in South Africa who recently received a text message stating his lost iPhone X had been found. The message addressed him by name and said he could view the location of his wayward device by visiting the link https://maps-icloud[.]com — which is most definitely not a legitimate Apple or iCloud link and is one of countless spoofing Apple’s “Find My” service for locating lost Apple devices.
While maps-icloud[.]com is not a particularly convincing phishing domain, a review of the Russian server where that domain is hosted reveals a slew of far more persuasive links spoofing Apple’s brand. Almost all of these include encryption certificates (start with “https://) and begin with the subdomains “apple.” or “icloud.” followed by a domain name starting with “com-“.
Here are just a few examples (the phishing links in this post have been hobbled with brackets to keep them from being clickable):
Savvy readers here no doubt already know this, but to find the true domain referenced in a link, look to the right of “http(s)://” until you encounter the first forward slash (/). The domain directly to the left of that first slash is the true destination; anything that precedes the second dot to the left of that first slash is a subdomain and should be ignored for the purposes of determining the true domain name.
For instance, in the case of the imaginary link below, example.com is the true destination, not apple.com:
Of course, any domain can be used as a redirect to any other domain. Case in point: Targets of the phishing domains above who are undecided on whether the link refers to a legitimate Apple site might seek to load the base domain into a Web browser (minus the customization in the remainder of the link after the first forward slash). To assuage such concerns, the phishers in this case will forward anyone visiting those base domains to Apple’s legitimate iCloud login page (icloud.com).
The best advice to sidestep phishing scams is to avoid clicking on links that arrive unbidden in emails, text messages and other mediums. Most phishing scams invoke a temporal element that warns of dire consequences should you fail to respond or act quickly. If you’re unsure whether the message is legitimate, take a deep breath and visit the site or service in question manually — ideally, using a browser bookmark so as to avoid potential typosquatting sites.
Late last year saw the re-emergence of a nasty phishing tactic that allows the attacker to gain full access to a user’s data stored in the cloud without actually stealing the account password. The phishing lure starts with a link that leads to the real login page for a cloud email and/or file storage service. Anyone who takes the bait will inadvertently forward a digital token to the attackers that gives them indefinite access to the victim’s email, files and contacts — even after the victim has changed their password.
Before delving into the details, it’s important to note two things. First, while the most recent versions of this stealthy phish targeted corporate users of Microsoft’s Office 365 service, the same approach could be leveraged to ensnare users of many other cloud providers. Second, this attack is not exactly new: In 2017, for instance, phishers used a similar technique to plunder accounts at Google’s Gmail service.
Still, this phishing tactic is worth highlighting because recent examples of it received relatively little press coverage. Also, the resulting compromise is quite persistent and sidesteps two-factor authentication, and it seems likely we will see this approach exploited more frequently in the future.
In early December, security experts at PhishLabs detailed a sophisticated phishing scheme targeting Office 365 users that used a malicious link which took people who clicked to an official Office 365 login page — login.microsoftonline.com. Anyone suspicious about the link would have seen nothing immediately amiss in their browser’s address bar, and could quite easily verify that the link indeed took them to Microsoft’s real login page:
Only by copying and pasting the link or by scrolling far to the right in the URL bar can we detect that something isn’t quite right:
As we can see from the URL in the image directly above, the link tells Microsoft to forward the authorization token produced by a successful login to the domain officesuited[.]com. From there, the user will be presented with a prompt that says an app is requesting permissions to read your email, contacts, OneNote notebooks, access your files, read/write to your mailbox settings, sign you in, read your profile, and maintain access to that data.
According to PhishLabs, the app that generates this request was created using information apparently stolen from a legitimate organization. The domain hosting the malicious app pictured above — officemtr[.]com — is different from the one I saw in late December, but it was hosted at the same Internet address as officesuited[.]com and likely signed using the same legitimate company’s credentials.
PhishLabs says the attackers are exploiting a feature of Outlook known as “add-ins,” which are applications built by third-party developers that can be installed either from a file or URL from the Office store.
“By default, any user can apply add-ins to their outlook application,” wrote PhishLabs’ Michael Tyler. “Additionally, Microsoft allows Office 365 add-ins and apps to be installed via side loading without going through the Office Store, and thereby avoiding any review process.”
In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Tyler said he views this attack method more like malware than traditional phishing, which tries to trick someone into giving their password to the scammers.
“The difference here is instead of handing off credentials to someone, they are allowing an outside application to start interacting with their Office 365 environment directly,” he said.
Many readers at this point may be thinking that they would hesitate before approving such powerful permissions as those requested by this malicious application. But Tyler said this assumes the user somehow understands that there is a malicious third-party involved in the transaction.
“We can look at the reason phishing is still around, and it’s because people are making decisions they shouldn’t be making or shouldn’t be able to make,” he said. “Even employees who are trained on security are trained to make sure it’s a legitimate site before entering their credentials. Well, in this attack the site is legitimate, and at that point their guard is down. I look at this and think, would I be more likely to type my password into a box or more likely to click a button that says ‘okay’?”
The scary part about this attack is that once a user grants the malicious app permissions to read their files and emails, the attackers can maintain access to the account even after the user changes his password. What’s more, Tyler said the malicious app they tested was not visible as an add-in at the individual user level; only system administrators responsible for managing user accounts could see that the app had been approved.
Furthermore, even if an organization requires multi-factor authentication at sign-in, recall that this phish’s login process takes place on Microsoft’s own Web site. That means having two-factor enabled for an account would do nothing to prevent a malicious app that has already been approved by the user from accessing their emails or files.
Once given permission to access the user’s email and files, the app will retain that access until one of two things happen: Microsoft discovers and disables the malicious app, or an administrator on the victim user’s domain removes the program from the user’s account.
Expecting swift action from Microsoft might not be ideal: From my testing, Microsoft appears to have disabled the malicious app being served from officesuited[.]com sometime around Dec. 19 — roughly one week after it went live.
In a statement provided to KrebsOnSecurity, Microsoft Senior Director Jeff Jones said the company continues to monitor for potential new variations of this malicious activity and will take action to disable applications as they are identified.
“The technique described relies on a sophisticated phishing campaign that invites users to permit a malicious Azure Active Directory Application,” Jones said. “We’ve notified impacted customers and worked with them to help remediate their environments.”
Microsoft’s instructions for detecting and removing illicit consent grants in Office 365 are here. Microsoft says administrators can enable a setting that blocks users from installing third-party apps into Office 365, but it calls this a “drastic step” that “isn’t strongly recommended as it severely impairs your users’ ability to be productive with third-party applications.”
PhishLabs’ Tyler said he disagrees with Microsoft here, and encourages Office 365 administrators to block users from installing apps altogether — or at the very least restrict them to apps from the official Microsoft store.
Apart from that, he said, it’s important for Office 365 administrators to periodically look for suspicious apps installed on their Office 365 environment.
“If an organization were to fall prey to this, your traditional methods of eradicating things involve activating two-factor authentication, clearing the user’s sessions, and so on, but that won’t do anything here,” he said. “It’s important that response teams know about this tactic so they can look for problems. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, at least make sure you have security logging turned on so it’s generating an alert when people are introducing new software into your infrastructure.”
A top executive at the nonprofit entity responsible for doling out chunks of Internet addresses to businesses and other organizations in Africa has resigned his post following accusations that he secretly operated several companies which sold tens of millions of dollars worth of the increasingly scarce resource to online marketers. The allegations stemmed from a three-year investigation by a U.S.-based researcher whose findings shed light on a murky area of Internet governance that is all too often exploited by spammers and scammers alike.
There are fewer than four billion so-called “Internet Protocol version 4” or IPv4 addresses available for use, but the vast majority of them have already been allocated. The global dearth of available IP addresses has turned them into a commodity wherein each IP can fetch between $15-$25 on the open market. This has led to boom times for those engaged in the acquisition and sale of IP address blocks, but it has likewise emboldened those who specialize in absconding with and spamming from dormant IP address blocks without permission from the rightful owners.
Perhaps the most dogged chronicler of this trend is California-based freelance researcher Ron Guilmette, who since 2016 has been tracking several large swaths of IP address blocks set aside for use by African entities that somehow found their way into the hands of Internet marketing firms based in other continents.
Over the course of his investigation, Guilmette unearthed records showing many of these IP addresses were quietly commandeered from African businesses that are no longer in existence or that were years ago acquired by other firms. Guilmette estimates the current market value of the purloined IPs he’s documented in this case exceeds USD $50 million.
In collaboration with journalists based in South Africa, Guilmette discovered tens of thousands of these wayward IP addresses that appear to have been sold off by a handful of companies founded by the policy coordinator for The African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC), one of the world’s five regional Internet registries which handles IP address allocations for Africa and the Indian Ocean region.
That individual — Ernest Byaruhanga — was only the second person hired at AFRINIC back in 2004. Byaruhanga did not respond to requests for comment. However, he abruptly resigned from his position in October 2019 shortly after news of the IP address scheme was first detailed by Jan Vermeulen, a reporter for the South African tech news publication Mybroadband.co.za who assisted Guilmette in his research.
KrebsOnSecurity sought comment from AFRINIC’s new CEO Eddy Kayihura, who said the organization was aware of the allegations and is currently conducting an investigation into the matter.
“Since the investigation is ongoing, you will understand that we prefer to complete it before we make a public statement,” Kayihura said. “Mr. Byauhanga’s resignation letter did not mention specific reasons, though no one would be blamed to think the two events are related.”
Guilmette said the first clue he found suggesting someone at AFRINIC may have been involved came after he located records suggesting that official AFRINIC documents had been altered to change the ownership of IP address blocks once assigned to Infoplan (now Network and Information Technology Ltd), a South African company that was folded into the State IT Agency in 1998.
“This guy was shoveling IP addresses out the backdoor and selling them on the streets,” said Guilmette, who’s been posting evidence of his findings for years to public discussion lists on Internet governance. “To say that he had an evident conflict of interest would be a gross understatement.”
For example, documents obtained from the government of Uganda by Guilmette and others show Byaruhanga registered a private company called ipv4leasing after joining AFRINIC. Historic WHOIS records from domaintools.com [a former advertiser on this site] indicate Byaruhanga was the registrant of two domain names tied to this company — ipv4leasing.org and .net — back in 2013.
Guilmette and his journalist contacts in South Africa uncovered many instances of other companies tied to Byaruhanga and his immediate family members that appear to have been secretly selling AFRINIC IP address blocks to just about anyone willing to pay the asking price. But the activities of ipv4leasing are worth a closer look because they demonstrate how this type of shadowy commerce is critical to operations of spammers and scammers, who are constantly sullying swaths of IP addresses and seeking new ones to keep their operations afloat.
Historic AFRINIC record lookups show ipv4leasing.org tied to at least six sizable blocks of IP addresses that once belonged to a now defunct company from Cameroon called ITC that also did business as “Afriq*Access.”
In 2013, Anti-spam group Spamhaus.org began tracking floods of junk email originating from this block of IPs that once belonged to Afriq*Access. Spamhaus says it ultimately traced the domains advertised in those spam emails back to Adconion Direct, a U.S. based email marketing company that employs several executives who are now facing federal criminal charges for allegedly paying others to hijack large ranges of IP addresses used in wide-ranging spam campaigns.
Bill Woodcock is executive director of Packet Clearing House, a non-profit research institute dedicated to understanding and supporting Internet traffic exchange technology, policy, and economics. Woodcock said it’s not unheard of for employees at regional Internet registries (RIRs) to get caught selling off IP addresses as a side hustle, but that this case is by far the longest-running alleged scheme to date.
“It’s not unprecedented in the sense that there have been insider deals in the past done illicitly by employees of other RIRs,” he said. “But typically they’ve been one-off or short-lived before getting caught or fired.”
Anyone interested in a deeper dive on Guilmette’s years-long investigation — including the various IP address blocks in question — should check out MyBroadband’s detailed Dec. 4 story, How Internet Resources Worth R800 Million (USD $54M) Were Stolen and Sold on the Black Market.
Many readers probably believe they can trust links and emails coming from U.S. federal government domain names, or else assume there are at least more stringent verification requirements involved in obtaining a .gov domain versus a commercial one ending in .com or .org. But a recent experience suggests this trust may be severely misplaced, and that it is relatively straightforward for anyone to obtain their very own .gov domain.
Earlier this month, KrebsOnSecurity received an email from a researcher who said he got a .gov domain simply by filling out and emailing an online form, grabbing some letterhead off the homepage of a small U.S. town that only has a “.us” domain name, and impersonating the town’s mayor in the application.
“I used a fake Google Voice number and fake Gmail address,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous for this story but who said he did it mainly as a thought experiment. “The only thing that was real was the mayor’s name.”
The email from this source was sent from exeterri[.]gov, a domain registered on Nov. 14 that at the time displayed the same content as the .us domain it was impersonating — town.exeter.ri.us — which belongs to the town of Exeter, Rhode Island (the impostor domain is no longer resolving).
“I had to [fill out] ‘an official authorization form,’ which basically just lists your admin, tech guy, and billing guy,” the source continued. “Also, it needs to be printed on ‘official letterhead,’ which of course can be easily forged just by Googling a document from said municipality. Then you either mail or fax it in. After that, they send account creation links to all the contacts.”
Technically, what my source did was wire fraud (obtaining something of value via the Internet/telephone/fax through false pretenses); had he done it through the U.S. mail, he could be facing mail fraud charges if caught.
But a cybercriminal — particularly a state-sponsored actor operating outside the United States — likely would not hesitate to do so if he thought registering a .gov was worth it to make his malicious website, emails or fake news social media campaign more believable.
“I never said it was legal, just that it was easy,” the source said. “I assumed there would be at least ID verification. The deepest research I needed to do was Yellow Pages records.”
Earlier today, KrebsOnSecurity contacted officials in the real town of Exeter, RI to find out if anyone from the U.S. General Services Administration — the federal agency responsible for managing the .gov domain registration process — had sought to validate the request prior to granting a .gov in their name.
A person who called back from the town clerk’s office but who asked not to be named said someone from the GSA did phone the mayor’s office on Nov. 24 — which was four days after I reached out to the federal agency about the domain in question and approximately 10 days after the GSA had already granted the phony request.
WHO WANTS TO BE A GOVERNMENT?
Responding today via email, a GSA spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on open investigations.
“GSA is working with the appropriate authorities and has already implemented additional fraud prevention controls,” the agency wrote, without elaborating on what those additional controls might be.
KrebsOnSecurity did get a substantive response from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which is leading efforts to protect the federal .gov domain of civilian government networks [NB: The head of CISA, Christopher C. Krebs, is of no relation to this author].
The CISA said this matter is so critical to maintaining the security and integrity of the .gov space that DHS is now making a play to assume control over the issuance of all .gov domains.
“The .gov top-level domain (TLD) is critical infrastructure for thousands of federal, state and local government organizations across the country,” reads a statement CISA sent to KrebsOnSecurity. “Its use by these institutions should instill trust. In order to increase the security of all US-based government organizations, CISA is seeking the authority to manage the .gov TLD and assume governance from the General Services Administration.”
The statement continues:
“This transfer would allow CISA to modernize the .gov registrar, enhance the security of individual .gov domains, ensure that only authorized users obtain a .gov domain, proactively validate existing .gov holders, and better secure everyone that relies on .gov. We are appreciative of Congress’ efforts to put forth the DOTGOV bill [link added] that would grant CISA this important authority moving forward. GSA has been an important partner in these efforts and our two agencies will continue to work hand-in-hand to identify and implement near-term security enhancements to the .gov.”
In an era when the nation’s top intelligence agencies continue to warn about ongoing efforts by Russia and other countries to interfere in our elections and democratic processes, it may be difficult to fathom that an attacker could so easily leverage such a simple method for impersonating state and local authorities.
Despite the ease with which apparently anyone can get their own .gov domain, there are plenty of major U.S. cities that currently do not have one, probably because they never realized they could with very little effort or expense. A review of the Top 10 most populous U.S. cities indicates only half of them have obtained .gov domains, including Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, and San Diego.
Yes, you read that right: houston.gov, losangeles.gov, newyorkcity.gov, and philadelphia.gov are all still available. As is the .gov for San Jose, Calif., the economic, cultural and political center of Silicon Valley. No doubt a great number of smaller cities also haven’t figured out they’re eligible to secure their own .gov domains. That said, some of these cities do have .gov domains (e.g. nyc.gov), but it’s not clear whether the GSA would allow the same city to have multiple .gov domains.
In addition to being able to convincingly spoof communications from and websites for cities and towns, there are almost certainly a myriad other ways that possessing a phony .gov domain could be abused. For example, my source said he was able to register his domain in Facebook’s law enforcement subpoena system, although he says he did not attempt to abuse that access.
Now consider what a well-funded adversary could do on Election Day armed with a handful of .gov domains for some major cities in Democrat strongholds within key swing states: The attackers register their domains a few days in advance of the election, and then on Election Day send out emails signed by .gov from, say, miami.gov (also still available) informing residents that bombs had gone off at polling stations in Democrat-leaning districts. Such a hoax could well decide the fate of a close national election.
“Back in the day, everyone not in the federal government was supposed to register in the .us space,” Levine said. “At some point, someone decided .gov is going to be more democratic and let everyone in the states register. But as we see, there’s still no validation.”
Levine, who served three years as mayor of the village of Trumansburg, New York, said it would not be terribly difficult for the GSA to do a better job of validating .gov domain requests, but that some manual verification would probably be required.
“When I was a mayor, I was in frequent contact with the state, and states know who all their municipalities are and how to reach people in charge of them,” Levine said. “Also, every state has a Secretary of State that keeps track of what all the subdivisions are, and including them in the process could help as well.”
Levine said like the Internet itself, this entire debacle is yet another example of an important resource with potentially explosive geopolitical implications that was never designed with security or authentication in mind.
“It turns out that the GSA is pretty good at doing boring clerical stuff,” he said. “But as we keep discovering, what we once thought was a boring clerical thing now actually has real-world security implications.”
Banking industry giant NCR Corp. [NYSE: NCR] late last month took the unusual step of temporarily blocking third-party financial data aggregators Mint and QuickBooks Online from accessing Digital Insight, an online banking platform used by hundreds of financial institutions. That ban, which came in response to a series of bank account takeovers in which cybercriminals used aggregation sites to surveil and drain consumer accounts, has since been rescinded. But the incident raises fresh questions about the proper role of digital banking platforms in fighting password abuse.
On Oct. 29, KrebsOnSecurity heard from a chief security officer at a U.S.-based credit union and Digital Insight customer who said his institution just had several dozen customer accounts hacked over the previous week.
My banking source said the attackers appeared to automate the unauthorized logins, which took place over a week in several distinct 12-hour periods in which a new account was accessed every five to ten minutes.
Most concerning, the source said, was that in many cases the aggregator service did not pass through prompts sent by the credit union’s site for multi-factor authentication, meaning the attackers could access customer accounts with nothing more than a username and password.
“The weird part is sometimes the attackers are getting the multi-factor challenge, and sometimes they aren’t,” said the source, who added that he suspected a breach at Mint and/QuickBooks because NCR had just blocked the two companies from accessing bank Web sites on its platform.
In a statement provided to KrebsOnSecurity, NCR said that on Friday, Oct. 25, the company notified Digital Insight customers “that the aggregation capabilities of certain third-party product were being temporarily suspended.”
“The notification was sent while we investigated a report involving a single user and a third-party product that aggregates bank data,” reads their statement, which was sent to customers on Oct. 29. After confirming that the incident was contained, NCR restored connectivity that is used for account aggregation. “As we noted, the criminals are getting aggressive and creative in accessing tools to access online information, NCR continues to evaluate and proactively defend against these activities.””
What were these sophisticated methods? NCR wouldn’t say, but it seems clear the hacked accounts are tied to customers re-using their online banking passwords at other sites that got hacked.
As I noted earlier this year in The Risk of Weak Online Banking Passwords, if you bank online and choose weak or re-used passwords, there’s a decent chance your account could be pilfered by cyberthieves — even if your bank offers multi-factor authentication as part of its login process.
Crooks are constantly probing bank Web sites for customer accounts protected by weak or recycled passwords. Most often, the attacker will use lists of email addresses and passwords stolen en masse from hacked sites and then try those same credentials to see if they permit online access to accounts at a range of banks.
From there, thieves can take the list of successful logins and feed them into apps that rely on application programming interfaces (API)s from one of several personal financial data aggregators, including Mint, Plaid, QuickBooks, Yodlee, and YNAB.
A number of banks that do offer customers multi-factor authentication — such as a one-time code sent via text message or an app — have chosen to allow these aggregators the ability to view balances and recent transactions without requiring that the aggregator service supply that second factor.
If the thieves are able to access a bank account via an aggregator service or API, they can view the customer’s balance(s) and decide which customers are worthy of further targeting.
But beyond targeting customers for outright account takeovers, the data available via financial aggregators enables a far more insidious type of fraud: The ability to link the target’s bank account(s) to other accounts that the attackers control.
That’s because PayPal, Zelle, and a number of other pure-play online financial institutions allow customers to link accounts by verifying the value of microdeposits. For example, if you wish to be able to transfer funds between PayPal and a bank account, the company will first send a couple of tiny deposits — a few cents, usually — to the account you wish to link. Only after verifying those exact amounts will the account-linking request be granted.
The temporary blocking of data aggregators by NCR brings up a point worthy of discussion by regulators: Namely, in the absence of additional security measures put in place by the aggregators, do the digital banking platform providers like NCR, Fiserv, Jack Henry, and FIS have an obligation to help block or mitigate these large-scale credential exploitation attacks?
KrebsOnSecurity would argue they do, and that the crooks who attacked the customers of my source’s credit union have probably already moved on to using the same attack against one of several thousand other dinky banks across the country.
Intuit Inc., which owns both Mint and QuickBooks, has not responded to requests for comment.
NCR declined to discuss specifics about how it plans to respond to similar attacks going forward.
“BriansClub,” one of the largest underground stores for buying stolen credit card data, has itself been hacked. The data stolen from BriansClub encompasses more than 26 million credit and debit card records taken from hacked online and brick-and-mortar retailers over the past four years, including almost eight million records uploaded to the shop in 2019 alone.
Last month, KrebsOnSecurity was contacted by a source who shared a plain text file containing what was claimed to be the full database of cards for sale both currently and historically through BriansClub[.]at, a thriving fraud bazaar named after this author. Imitating my site, likeness and namesake, BriansClub even dubiously claims a copyright with a reference at the bottom of each page: “© 2019 Crabs on Security.”
Multiple people who reviewed the database shared by my source confirmed that the same credit card records also could be found in a more redacted form simply by searching the BriansClub Web site with a valid, properly-funded account.
All of the card data stolen from BriansClub was shared with multiple sources who work closely with financial institutions to identify and monitor or reissue cards that show up for sale in the cybercrime underground.
The leaked data shows that in 2015, BriansClub added just 1.7 million card records for sale. But business would pick up in each of the years that followed: In 2016, BriansClub uploaded 2.89 million stolen cards; 2017 saw some 4.9 million cards added; 2018 brought in 9.2 million more.
Between January and August 2019 (when this database snapshot was apparently taken), BriansClub added roughly 7.6 million cards.
Most of what’s on offer at BriansClub are “dumps,” strings of ones and zeros that — when encoded onto anything with a magnetic stripe the size of a credit card — can be used by thieves to purchase electronics, gift cards and other high-priced items at big box stores.
As shown in the table below (taken from this story), many federal hacking prosecutions involving stolen credit cards will for sentencing purposes value each stolen card record at $500, which is intended to represent the average loss per compromised cardholder.
STOLEN BACK FAIR AND SQUARE
An extensive analysis of the database indicates BriansClub holds approximately $414 million worth of stolen credit cards for sale, based on the pricing tiers listed on the site. That’s according to an analysis by Flashpoint, a security intelligence firm based in New York City.
Allison Nixon, the company’s director of security research, said the data suggests that between 2015 and August 2019, BriansClub sold roughly 9.1 million stolen credit cards, earning the site $126 million in sales (all sales are transacted in bitcoin).
If we take just the 9.1 million cards that were confirmed sold through BriansClub, we’re talking about more than $4 billion in likely losses at the $500 average loss per card figure from the Justice Department.
Also, it seems likely the total number of stolen credit cards for sale on BriansClub and related sites vastly exceeds the number of criminals who will buy such data. Shame on them for not investing more in marketing!
There’s no easy way to tell how many of the 26 million or so cards for sale at BriansClub are still valid, but the closest approximation of that — how many unsold cards have expiration dates in the future — indicates more than 14 million of them could still be valid.
The archive also reveals the proprietor(s) of BriansClub frequently uploaded new batches of stolen cards — some just a few thousand records, and others tens of thousands.
That’s because like many other carding sites, BriansClub mostly resells cards stolen by other cybercriminals — known as resellers or affiliates — who earn a percentage from each sale. It’s not yet clear how that revenue is shared in this case, but perhaps this information will be revealed in further analysis of the purloined database.
In a message titled “Your site is hacked,’ KrebsOnSecurity requested comment from BriansClub via the “Support Tickets” page on the carding shop’s site, informing its operators that all of their card data had been shared with the card-issuing banks.
I was surprised and delighted to receive a polite reply a few hours later from the site’s administrator (“admin”):
“No. I’m the real Brian Krebs here
Correct subject would be the data center was hacked.
Will get in touch with you on jabber. Should I mention that all information affected by the data-center breach has been since taken off sales, so no worries about the issuing banks.”
Flashpoint’s Nixon said a spot check comparison between the stolen card database and the card data advertised at BriansClub suggests the administrator is not being truthful in his claims of having removed the leaked stolen card data from his online shop.
The admin hasn’t yet responded to follow-up questions, such as why BriansClub chose to use my name and likeness to peddle millions of stolen credit cards.
Almost certainly, at least part of the appeal is that my surname means “crab” (or cancer), and crab is Russian hacker slang for “carder,” a person who engages in credit card fraud.
Nixon said breaches of criminal website databases often lead not just to prevented cybercrimes, but also to arrests and prosecutions.
“When people talk about ‘hacking back,’ they’re talking about stuff like this,” Nixon said. “As long as our government is hacking into all these foreign government resources, they should be hacking into these carding sites as well. There’s a lot of attention being paid to this data now and people are remediating and working on it.”
By way of example on hacking back, she pointed to the 2016 breach of vDOS — at the time the largest and most powerful service for knocking Web sites offline in large-scale cyberattacks.
Soon after vDOS’s database was stolen and leaked to this author, its two main proprietors were arrested. Also, the database added to evidence of criminal activity for several other individuals who were persons of interest in unrelated cybercrime investigations, Nixon said.
“When vDOS got breached, that basically reopened cases that were cold because [the leak of the vDOS database] supplied the final piece of evidence needed,” she said.
THE TARGET BREACH OF THE UNDERGROUND?
After many hours spent poring over this data, it became clear I needed some perspective on the scope and impact of this breach. As a major event in the cybercrime underground, was it somehow the reverse analog of the Target breach — which negatively impacted tens of millions of consumers and greatly enriched a large number of bad guys? Or was it more prosaic, like a Jimmy Johns-sized debacle?
For that insight, I spoke with Gemini Advisory, a New York-based company that works with financial institutions to monitor dozens of underground markets trafficking in stolen card data.
Andrei Barysevich, co-founder and CEO at Gemini, said the breach at BriansClub is certainly significant, given that Gemini currently tracks a total of 87 million credit and debit card records for sale across the cybercrime underground.
Contrary to popular belief, when these shops sell a stolen credit card record, that record is then removed from the inventory of items for sale. This allows companies like Gemini to determine roughly how many new cards are put up for sale and how many have sold.
Barysevich said the loss of so many valid cards may well impact how other carding stores compete and price their products.
“With over 78% of the illicit trade of stolen cards attributed to only a dozen of dark web markets, a breach of this magnitude will undoubtedly disturb the underground trade in the short term,” he said. “However, since the demand for stolen credit cards is on the rise, other vendors will undoubtedly attempt to capitalize on the disappearance of the top player.”
Liked this story and want to learn more about how carding shops operate? Check out Peek Inside a Professional Carding Shop.