Oct 15

Scottrade Breach Hits 4.6 Million Customers

Welcome to Day 2 of Cybersecurity (Breach) Awareness Month! Today’s awareness lesson is brought to you by retail brokerage firm Scottrade Inc., which just disclosed a breach involving contact information and possibly Social Security numbers on 4.6 million customers.

scottradeIn an email sent today to customers, St. Louis-based Scottrade said it recently heard from federal law enforcement officials about crimes involving the theft of information from Scottrade and other financial services companies.

“Based upon our subsequent internal investigation coupled with information provided by the authorities, we believe a list of client names and street addresses was taken from our system,” the email notice reads. “Importantly, we have no reason to believe that Scottrade’s trading platforms or any client funds were compromised. All client passwords remained encrypted at all times and we have not seen any indication of fraudulent activity as a result of this incident.”

The notice said that although Social Security numbers, email addresses and other sensitive data were contained in the system accessed, “it appears that contact information was the focus of the incident.” The company said the unauthorized access appears to have occurred over a period between late 2013 and early 2014.

Asked about the context of the notification from federal law enforcement officials, Scottrade spokesperson Shea Leordeanu said the company couldn’t comment on the incident much more than the information included in its Web site notice about the attack. But she did say that Scottrade learned about the data theft from the FBI, and that the company is working with agents from FBI field offices in Atlanta and New York. FBI officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

It may well be that the intruders were after Scottrade user data to facilitate stock scams, and that a spike in spam email for affected Scottrade customers will be the main fallout from this break-in.

In July 2015, prosecutors in Manhattan filed charges against five people — including some suspected of having played a role in the 2014 breach at JPMorgan Chase that exposed the contact information on more than 80 million consumers. The authorities in that investigation said they suspect that group sought to use email addresses stolen in the JPMorgan hacking to further stock manipulation schemes involving spam emails to pump up the price of otherwise worthless penny stocks.

Scottrade said despite the fact that it doesn’t believe Social Security numbers were stolen, the company is offering a year’s worth of free credit monitoring services to affected customers. Readers who are concerned about protecting their credit files from identity thieves should read How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Security Freeze.

Oct 15

Experian Breach Affects 15 Million Consumers

Kicking off National Cybersecurity Awareness Month with a bang, credit bureau and consumer data broker Experian North America disclosed Thursday that a breach of its computer systems exposed approximately 15 million Social Security numbers and other data on people who applied for financing from wireless provider T-Mobile USA Inc.

experianExperian said the compromise of an internal server exposed names, dates of birth, addresses, Social Security numbers and/or drivers’ license numbers, as well as additional information used in T-Mobile’s own credit assessment. The Costa Mesa, Calif.-based data broker stressed that no payment card or banking details were stolen, and that the intruders never touched its consumer credit database.

Based on the wording of Experian’s public statement, many publications have reported that the breach lasted for two years from Sept. 1, 2013 to Sept. 16, 2015. But according to Experian spokesperson Susan Henson, the forensic investigation is ongoing, and it remains unclear at this point the exact date that the intruders broke into Experian’s server.

Henson told KrebsOnSecurity that Experian detected the breach on Sept. 15, 2015, and confirmed the theft of a single file containing the T-Mobile data on Sept. 22, 2015.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere blasted Experian in a statement posted to T-Mobile’s site. “Obviously I am incredibly angry about this data breach and we will institute a thorough review of our relationship with Experian, but right now my top concern and first focus is assisting any and all consumers affected,” Legere wrote.


Experian said it will be notifying affected consumers by snail mail, and that it will be offering affected consumers free credit monitoring through its “Protect MyID” service. Take them up on this offer if you want , but I would strongly encourage anyone affected by this breach to instead place a security freeze on their credit files at Experian and at the other big three credit bureaus, including Equifax, Trans Union and Innovis.

Experian’s offer to sign victims up for its credit monitoring service to address a breach of its own making is pretty rich. Moreover, credit monitoring services aren’t really built to prevent ID theft. The most you can hope for from a credit monitoring service is that they give you a heads up when ID theft does happen, and then help you through the often labyrinthine process of getting the credit bureaus and/or creditors to remove the fraudulent activity and to fix your credit score. Continue reading →

Sep 15

ATM Skimmer Gang Firebombed Antivirus Firm

It’s notable whenever cybercime spills over into real-world, physical attacks. This is the story of a Russian security firm whose operations were pelted with Molotov cocktail attacks after exposing an organized crime gang that developed and sold malicious software to steal cash from ATMs.

molotovThe threats began not long after December 18, 2013, when Russian antivirus firm Dr.Web posted a writeup about a new Trojan horse program designed to steal card data from infected ATMs. Dr.Web received an email warning the company to delete all references to the ATM malware from its site.

The anonymous party, which self-identified as the “International Carders Syndicate,” said Dr.Web’s ATM Shield product designed to guard cash machines from known malware “threatens activity of Syndicate with multi-million dollar profit.”

The threat continued:

“Hundreds of criminal organizations throughout the world can lose their earnings. You have a WEEK to delete all references about ATM Skimmer from your web resource. Otherwise syndicate will stop cash-out transactions and send criminal for your programmers’ heads. The end of Doctor Web will be tragic.”

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Dr.Web CEO Boris Sharov said the company did not comply with the demands. On March 9, 2014, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the office of a third-party company that was distributing Dr.Web’s ATM Shield product. Shortly after that, someone attacked the same office again. Each time, the damage was minimal, but it rattled company employees nonetheless.

Less than two weeks later, Dr.Web received a follow-up warning letter:

“Dear Dr.Web, the International carder syndicate has warned you about avoidance of interference (unacceptable interference) in the ATM sphere. Taking into account the fact that you’ve ignored syndicate’s demands, we employed sanctions. To emphasis the syndicate’s purpose your office at Blagodatnaya st. was burnt twice.

If you don’t delete all references about atmskimmer viruses from your products and all products for ATM, the International carder syndicate will destroy Doctor Web’s offices throughout the world, In addition, syndicate will lobby the Prohibition of usage of Russian anti-viruses Law in countries that have representation offices of the syndicate under the pretext of protection against Russian intelligence service.”

After a third attack on the St. Petersburg office, a suspect who was seen running away from the scene of the attack was arrested but later released because no witnesses came forward to confirm he was the one who threw the bomb.

Meanwhile, Sharov said Dr.Web detected two physical intrusions into its Moscow office.

“This is an office where we have much more security than any other, but also many more visitors,” he said. “We had been on high alert after the fire bombings, and we’ve never had intrusions before and never had them after this. But during that period, we had three attempts to enter the perimeter and to do something bad, but I won’t go into details about that.”

Sharov said Dr.Web analysts believe the group that threatened the attacks were not cyber thieves themselves but instead an organized group of programmers that had sold — but not yet delivered — a crimeware product to multiple gangs that specialize in cashing out hacked ATM cards.

“We think this group got very nervous by the fact that we had published exactly what they’d done, and it was very untimely for them, they were really desperate,” Sharov said. “We believe our reports came out just after development of the ATM Trojan had finished but before it was released to customers.” Continue reading →

Sep 15

With Stolen Cards, Fraudsters Shop to Drop

A time-honored method of extracting cash from stolen credit cards involves “reshipping” scams, which manage the purchase, reshipment and resale of carded consumer goods from America to Eastern Europe — primarily Russia. A new study suggests that some 1.6 million credit and debit cards are used to commit at least $1.8 billion in reshipping fraud each year, and identifies some choke points for disrupting this lucrative money laundering activity.

Many retailers long ago stopped allowing direct shipments of consumer goods from the United States to Russia and Eastern Europe, citing the high rate of fraudulent transactions for goods destined to those areas. As a result, fraudsters have perfected the reshipping service, a criminal enterprise that allows card thieves and the service operators essentially split the profits from merchandise ordered with stolen credit and debit cards.

Source: Drops for Stuff research paper.

Source: Drops for Stuff research paper.

Much of the insight in this story comes from a study released last week called “Drops for Stuff: An Analysis of Reshipping Mule Scams,” which has multiple contributors (including this author). To better understand reshipping scheme, it helps to have a quick primer on the terminology thieves use to describe different actors in the scam.

The “operator” of the reshipping service specializes in recruiting “reshipping mules” or “drops” — essentially unwitting consumers in the United States who are enlisted through work-at-home job scams and promised up to $2,500 per month salary just for receiving and reshipping packages.

In practice, virtually all drops are cut loose after approximately 30 days of their first shipment — just before the promised paycheck is due. Because of this constant churn, the operator must be constantly recruiting new drops.

The operator sells access to his stable of drops to card thieves, also known as “stuffers.” The stuffers use stolen cards to purchase high-value products from merchants and have the merchants ship the items to the drops’ address. Once the drops receive the packages, the stuffers provide them with prepaid shipping labels that the mules will use to ship the packages to the stuffers themselves. After they receive the packaged relayed by the drops, the stuffers then sell the products on the local black market.

The shipping service operator will either take a percentage cut (up to 50 percent) where stuffers pay a portion of the product’s retail value to the site operator as the reshipping fee. On the other hand, those operations that target lower-priced products (clothing, e.g.) may simply charge a flat-rate fee of $50 to $70 per package. Depending on the sophistication of the reshipping service, stuffers can either buy shipping labels directly from the service — generally at a volume discount — or provide their own [for a discussion of ancillary criminal services that resell stolen USPS labels purchased wholesale, check out this story from 2014].

The researchers found that reshipping sites typically guarantee a certain level of customer satisfaction for successful package delivery, with some important caveats. If a drop who is not marked as problematic embezzles the package, reshipping sites offer free shipping for the next package or pay up to 15% of the item’s value as compensation to stuffers (e.g., as compensation for “burning” the credit card or the already-paid reshipping label).

However, in cases where the authorities identify the drop and intercept the package, the reshipping sites provide no compensation — it calls these incidents “acts of God” over which it has no control.

“For a premium, stuffers can rent private drops that no other stuffers will have access to,” the researchers wrote. “Such private drops are presumably more reliable and are shielded from interference by other stuffers and, in turn, have a reduced risk to be discovered (hence, lower risk of losing packages).” Continue reading →

Sep 15

Banks: Card Breach at Hilton Hotel Properties

Multiple sources in the banking industry say they have traced a pattern of credit card fraud that suggests hackers have compromised point-of-sale registers in gift shops and restaurants at a large number of Hilton Hotel and franchise properties across the United States. Hilton says it is investigating the claims.

hiltonIn August, Visa sent confidential alerts to numerous financial institutions warning of a breach at a brick-and-mortar entity that is known to have extended from April 21, 2015 to July 27, 2015. The alerts to each bank included card numbers that were suspected of being compromised, but per Visa policy those notifications did not name the breached entity.

However, sources at five different banks say they have now determined that the common point-of-purchase for cards included in that alert had only one commonality: They were all were used at Hilton properties, including the company’s flagship Hilton locations as well as Embassy Suites, DoubletreeHampton Inn and Suites, and the upscale Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts.

In a written statement, a Hilton spokesperson said the company is investigating the breach claims.

“Hilton Worldwide is strongly committed to protecting our customers’ credit card information,” the company said. “We have many systems in place and work with some of the top experts in the field to address data security.  Unfortunately the possibility of fraudulent credit card activity is all too common for every company in today’s marketplace.  We take any potential issue very seriously, and we are looking into this matter.”

As with other recent card breaches at major hotel chains — including Mandarin Oriental and White Lodging properties — the breach does not appear to be related to the guest reservation systems at the affected locations. Rather, sources say the fraud seems to stem from compromised point-of-sale devices inside of franchised restaurants, coffee bars and gift shops within Hilton properties.

It remains unclear how many Hilton properties may be affected by this apparent breach. Several sources in the financial industry told KrebsOnSecurity that the incident may date back to November 2014, and may still be ongoing.

This is a developing story. More as updates become available.

Sep 15

Bidding for Breaches, Redefining Targeted Attacks

A growing community of private and highly-vetted cybercrime forums is redefining the very meaning of “targeted attacks.” These bid-and-ask forums match crooks who are looking for access to specific data, resources or systems within major corporations with hired muscle who are up to the task or who already have access to those resources.

A good example of this until recently could be found at a secretive online forum called “Enigma,” a now-defunct community that was built as kind of eBay for data breach targets. Vetted users on Enigma were either bidders or buyers — posting requests for data from or access to specific corporate targets, or answering such requests with a bid to provide the requested data. The forum, operating on the open Web for months until recently, was apparently scuttled when the forum administrators (rightly) feared that the community had been infiltrated by spies.

The screen shot below shows several bids on Enigma from March through June 2015, requesting data and services related to HSBC UK, Citibank, Air Berlin and Bank of America:

Enigma, an exclusive forum for cyber thieves to buy and sell access to or data stolen from companies.

Enigma, an exclusive forum for cyber thieves to buy and sell access to or data stolen from companies.

One particularly active member, shown in the screen shot above and the one below using the nickname “Demander,” posts on Jan. 10, 2015 that he is looking for credentials from Cisco and that the request is urgent (it’s unclear from the posting whether he’s looking for access to Cisco Corp. or simply to a specific Cisco router). Demander also was searching for services related to Bank of America ATMs and unspecified data or services from Wells Fargo.

More bids on Enigma forum for services.

More bids on Enigma forum for services, data, and access to major corporations.

Much of the information about Enigma comes from Noam Jolles, a senior intelligence expert at Diskin Advanced Technologies. The employees at Jolles’ firm are all former members of Shin Bet, a.k.a. the Israel Security Agency/General Security Service — Israel’s counterespionage and counterterrorism agency, and similar to the British MI5 or the American FBI. The firm’s namesake comes from its founder, Yuval Diskin, who headed Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011.

“On Enigma, members post a bid and call on people to attack certain targets or that they are looking for certain databases for which they are willing to pay,” Jolles said. “And people are answering it and offering their merchandise.”

Those bids can take many forms, Jolles said, from requests to commit a specific cyberattack to bids for access to certain Web servers or internal corporate networks.

“I even saw bids regarding names of people who could serve as insiders,” she said. “Lists of people who might be susceptible to being recruited or extorted.”

Many experts believe the breach that exposed tens of millions user accounts at AshleyMadison.com — an infidelity site that promises to hook up cheating spouses — originated from or was at least assisted by an insider at the company. Interestingly, on June 25, 2015 — three weeks before news of the breach broke — a member on a related secret data-trading forum called the “Gentlemen’s Club” solicits “data and service” related to AshleyMadison, saying “Don’t waste time if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Big job opportunity.”

On June 26, 2015, a forum member named "Diablo" requests data and services related to AshleyMadison.com.

On June 26, 2015, a “Gentlemen’s Club” forum member named “Diablo” requests data and services related to AshleyMadison.com.

Cybercrime forums like Enigma vet new users and require non-refundable deposits of virtual currency (such as Bitcoin). More importantly, they have strict rules: If the forum administrators notice you’re not trading with others on the forum, you’ll soon be expelled from the community. This policy means that users who are not actively involved in illicit activities — such as buying or selling access to hacked resources — aren’t allowed to remain on the board for long. Continue reading →

Sep 15

Adobe Flash Patch, Plus Shockwave Shocker

Adobe has released a critical software update to fix nearly two-dozen security holes in its Flash Player browser plugin. Separately, I want to take a moment to encourage users who have Adobe Shockwave Player installed to finally junk this program; turns out Shockwave — which comes with its own version of Flash — is still many versions behind in bundling the latest Flash fixes.

brokenflash-aIf you use and need Flash Player, it’s time to update the program (the latest version is for Windows and Mac users). Google Chrome and Internet Explorer bundle their own versions of Flash (also now at v.; each should auto-update to the latest. Find out if you have Flash installed and its current version number by visiting this page.

Adobe said it was unaware of any exploits in the wild for the vulnerabilities fixed in this Flash release. Nevertheless, I would recommend that if you use Flash that you strongly consider removing it, or at least hobbling it until and unless you need it. Disabling Flash in Chrome is simple enough, and can be easily reversed: On a Windows, Mac, Linux or Chrome OS installation of Chrome, type “chrome:plugins” into the address bar, and on the Plug-ins page look for the “Flash” listing: To disable Flash, click the disable link (to re-enable it, click “enable”). Windows users can remove Flash from the Add/Remove Programs panel, or use Adobe’s uninstaller for Flash Player.

If you’re concerned about removing Flash altogether, consider a dual-browser approach. That is, unplugging Flash from the browser you use for everyday surfing, and leaving it plugged in to a second browser that you only use for sites that require Flash.

If you decide to proceed with Flash and update, the most recent versions of Flash should be available from the Flash home page, but beware potentially unwanted add-ons, like McAfee Security Scan. To avoid this, uncheck the pre-checked box before downloading, or grab your OS-specific Flash download from here. Windows users who browse the Web with anything other than Internet Explorer may need to apply this patch twice, once with IE and again using the alternative browser (Firefox, Opera, e.g.).


In other Adobe patch news, on Sept. 8, 2015 I urged readers who have the Shockwave media player installed to update to the latest version or else junk the program altogether. In a post more than a year ago, I outlined Why You Should Ditch Adobe Shockwave, noting that the program bundles a component of Adobe Flash that was more than 15 months behind on security updates. Continue reading →

Sep 15

Inside Target Corp., Days After 2013 Breach

In December 2013, just days after a data breach exposed 40 million customer debit and credit card accounts, Target Corp. hired security experts at Verizon to probe its networks for weaknesses. The results of that confidential investigation — until now never publicly revealed — confirm what pundits have long suspected: Once inside Target’s network, there was nothing to stop attackers from gaining direct and complete access to every single cash register in every Target store.

targetsmashAccording to an internal corporate report obtained by KrebsOnSecurity, Target commissioned the study “in anticipation of litigation” from banks that might join together to sue the retailer in a bid to recoup the costs of reissuing cards to their customers. Last week, a federal judge cleared those claims to go forward in a class action suit.

The Verizon assessment, conducted between December 21, 2013 to March 1, 2014, notably found “no controls limiting their access to any system, including devices within stores such as point of sale (POS) registers and servers.”

The report noted that Verizon consultants were able to directly communicate with point-of-sale registers and servers from the core network. In one instance, they were able to communicate directly with cash registers in checkout lanes after compromising a deli meat scale located in a different store.

Verizon’s findings lend credence to the working theory about how hackers initially broke into Target. In February 2014, KrebsOnSecurity was the first to report that investigators had zeroed in on the source of the breach: Fazio Mechanical, a small heating and air conditioning firm in Pennsylvania that worked with Target and had suffered its own breach via malware delivered in an email. In that intrusion, the thieves managed to steal the virtual private network credentials that Fazio’s technicians used to remotely connect to Target’s network.

Verizon’s report offers a likely playbook for how the Target hackers used that initial foothold provided by Fazio’s hack to push malicious software down to all of the cash registers at more than 1,800 stores nationwide.

Target spokesperson Molly Snyder would neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the documents referenced in this report, but she maintained that Target has made great strides and is now an industry leader on cybersecurity.

“We’ve brought in new leaders, built teams, and opened a state-of-the-art cyber fusion center,” Snyder said. “We are proud of where we stand as a company and will be absolutely committed to being a leader on cybersecurity going forward.”

Snyder said Target believes “that sharing accurate and actionable information – with consumers, policy makers, and even other companies and industries – will help make all of us safer and stronger,” she said in an emailed statement. “Sometimes that means providing information directly to consumers, other times that means sharing information about possible industry threats with other companies or through our participation in the Financial Services and Retail Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs), and sometimes that means working with law enforcement. What we don’t think it means is continuing to rehash a narrative that is nearly two years old.”

A high-level graphic showing the various routes that Verizon penetration testers were able to use to get all the way down to Target's cash registers in 2013 and 2014.

A high-level graphic showing the various routes that Verizon penetration testers were able to use to get all the way down to Target’s cash registers in 2013 and 2014.


The report notes that “while Target has a password policy, the Verizon security consultants discovered that it was not being followed. The Verizon consultants discovered a file containing valid network credentials being stored on several servers. The Verizon consultants also discovered systems and services utilizing either weak or default passwords. Utilizing these weak passwords the consultants were able to instantly gain access to the affected systems.”

Default passwords in key internal systems and servers also allowed the Verizon consultants to assume the role of a system administrator with complete freedom to move about Target’s sprawling internal network.

“The Verizon security consultants identified several systems that were using misconfigured services, such as several Microsoft SQL servers that had a weak administrator password, and Apache Tomcat servers using the default administrator password,” the report observes. “Through these weaknesses, the Verizon consultants were able to gain initial access to the corporate network and to eventually gain domain administrator access.”

Within one week, the security consultants reported that they were able to crack 472,308 of Target’s 547,470 passwords (86 percent) that allowed access to various internal networks, including; target.com, corp.target.com; email.target.com; stores.target.com;  hq.target.com; labs.target.com; and olk.target.com. Continue reading →

Sep 15

Who’s Behind Bluetooth Skimming in Mexico?

In the previous two stories, I documented the damage wrought by an organized crime gang in Mexico that has been systematically bribing ATM technicians to install Bluetooth skimming components that allow thieves to steal card and PIN data wirelessly. What follows is a look at a mysterious new ATM company in Mexico that sources say may be tied to the skimming activity.

One ATM company operating in the Cancun area whose machines were apparently free from these skimming devices is a relatively new entity called Intacash. This company’s ATMs positively blanketed many of the areas I visited, particularly in the heavy tourist and commercial areas of downtown Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. For example, in a single city block on Boulevard Kukulcan in Zona Hotelera — probably the busiest tourist spot in Cancun — I counted no fewer than ten Intacash ATMs, most of which were all less than a couple hundred yards from each another.

Intacash ATMs positively blanket downtown Cancun.

Intacash ATMs positively blanket the most busy area of downtown Cancun and in very tight proximity to one another.

The experts I spoke with said they were mystified by Intacash’s strategy of placing so many cash machines in the region. Even for areas like Zona Hotelera with plenty of continuous foot traffic, adding so many cash machines in such a small space produces diminishing returns.

Two different ATM experts familiar with rates charged to place ATMs in the area and who asked to remain anonymous said there is no way Intacash could afford the rent required to place so many ATMs in such close proximity on public property and still turn a monthly profit. No way, that is, unless the company had a different profit motive in mind.

Intacash is a relative newcomer to the ATM scene in Mexico, bringing its first ATMs online there a little more than a year ago. It’s not at all clear who runs or owns Intacash, and there is precious little public information available about this company.

Intacash.com, registered in early 2014, consists of just  four Web pages. There is no contact information for the firm on its site, which to this day has exactly zero sites linking in to it. From its inception, the site’s registration records have been hidden behind WHOIS privacy protection services. Intacash hosts its sites along with more than 6,000 other sites on a shared server at GoDaddy.com (for security and other reasons, financial institutions and service providers more typically spring for their own, dedicated servers).

Despite the presence of nearly 70 Intacash ATMs in Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum and other tourist areas in the Yucatan Peninsula, this company seems to have gone out of its way not to be noticed online. What’s more, a review of the text on Intacash.com suggests that much of the Web content on the site has been copied verbatim from other sites that preceded Intacash’s existence on the Internet.

Multiple emails sent to the contact addresses and forms on Intacash’s Web site went unreturned. Intacash’s sponsor bank in Mexico – Multiva — also did not respond to messages seeking comment.


Why was I so keen to learn more about Intacash? My source in the ATM industry who tipped me off about the Bluetooth skimming activity showcased in the first two stories here said his technicians began receiving bribes to let strangers install skimming components inside their machines around the same time that Intacash came online in Mexico. By early this year, all of my source’s ATM technicians had reported being approached by one of two guys who were trying to buy access to ATMs. The employees who reported these incidents to my ATM industry source said the men had Eastern European accents.

Intacash.com's home page

Intacash.com’s home page

Several of my source’s employees later identified the men who approached them after managing to locate their profile pages on Whatsapp, a popular mobile messaging service.

“My partner was at a meeting with the operating manager of [a major hotel] in Cancun, doing his sales pitch,” my source recalled in a recent interview. “And the fellow at the hotel told my guy that just the day before he’d been approached by another ATM company, and that the guys were Eastern European.”

My source said that, when pressed, the hotel manager acknowledged that the other company was indeed Intacash. My source said his business partner happened to have bookmarked on his smartphone the Whatsapp profiles of the men who’d tried to bribe his technicians, and that he opened the profiles one by one and showed them to the hotel manager.

“My partner asked, ‘Just out of curiosity was it one of these guys?'” my source said. “The hotel manager said why, yes it was.” Continue reading →

Sep 15

Tracking Bluetooth Skimmers in Mexico, Part II

I spent four days last week in Mexico, tracking the damage wrought by an organized crime ring that is bribing ATM technicians to place Bluetooth skimmers inside of cash machines in and around the tourist areas of Cancun. Today’s piece chronicles the work of this gang in coastal regions farther south, following a trail of hacked ATMs from Playa Del Camen down to the ancient Mayan ruins in Tulum.

As I noted in yesterday’s story, the skimmers that this gang is placing in hacked ATMs consist of two Bluetooth components: One connected to the card reader inside each machine, and another attached to the PIN pad. Both components beacon out a Bluetooth signal called “Free2Move.” The thieves can retrieve the purloined card and PIN data just by strolling up to the hacked ATM with a smartphone, entering a secret passcode, and downloading all of the collected information.

Having found two hacked ATMs in Cancun — including one in the lobby of my hotel (the Marriott CasaMagna) — I decided to check out other tourist destinations in the region. On the way to Tulum, I dropped in at the Barcelo, a huge, all-inclusive resort. The security guards at the front gate at the resort initially prevented me from entering the complex because I didn’t have reservations.

After 10 minutes of Googling on my phone and a call to the front desk, the guards seemed satisfied that I was interested in buying a day pass to the hotel’s various facilities. The gate lifted and I was let in. Five minutes later, the very first ATM I stopped at was found to be emanating the telltale Free2Move Bluetooth signals indicating a compromise.

No sooner had I finished documenting that hacked ATM than a security guard rode up on a motorcycle and asked if I was having trouble finding the day-pass desk. I replied that I’d be headed that way shortly.

The Barcelo security guard followed me closely as I returned to my rented Jetta and drove to a different building in the complex. Multiple security guards were beginning to shadow me at a respectful distance. I decided it was best to at least demonstrate that I had an intention of buying a day pass.

The Barcelo reception desk said the price would be USD $80 per person. Feigning shock over the hefty price tag, I declared loudly that I had to hit the hotel’s ATM to withdraw more cash in order to pay such exorbitant prices. That ATM also was beaconing the Free2Move Bluetooth signal, but the ATM itself returned errors stating that it was temporarily offline and unable to dispense cash.

That outage turned out to be the perfect excuse to visit a third ATM in the complex, as I again loudly explained to the security guy following a few paces behind.  By this point, a much more stern and beefy guard began following me around on foot, his walkie-talkie buzzing periodically as I crossed the hotel campus. The third and final ATM I checked also was compromised. While I was sure there were more ATMs I hadn’t checked in other areas of the resort, I decided not to press my luck, and hopped back in the Jetta and resumed my journey to Tulum.


Halfway down the southbound four-lane highway from Cancun to the ancient ruins in Tulum, traffic inexplicably slowed to a halt. There was some sort of checkpoint ahead by the Mexican Federal Police. I began to wonder whether it was a good idea to have brought along the ATM skimmer I’d received from a source instead of leaving it in the hotel safe. If the cops searched my stuff, how could I explain having ultra-sophisticated Bluetooth ATM skimmer components in my backpack?

A sign across the street from the police department in Tulum.

A sign across the street from the police department in Tulum.

After several nervous minutes of creeping traffic, I was waved on through the checkpoint and immediately felt silly for having gotten so worked up about it. However, upon my arrival 20 minutes later in Tulum — a popular tourist destination due to its proximity to the Mayan ruins — I would have a much closer encounter with the police.

As I pulled into the area where tour buses normally drop off passengers by the hundreds each hour, a number of men stood waving pamphlets and offering “Cheap!” parking that was anything but (or at least I thought at the time). Each was trying to direct me to park the Volkswagen in one of several large, dusty lots.

“I’ll just be about five minutes,” I said, stupidly putting the vehicle in park on the main street right in front of the tourist lot. The attendants just shook their heads and began hailing other newcomers.

The Tulum visit yielded another three ATMs within a few hundred meters of each other that were all emanating the Free2Move signal. But unfortunately, that jaunt took more than five minutes: When I returned to the Volkswagen, I found a parking ticket on the windshield and the parking attendants smirking, gleefully shouting in Spanish that I should have listened to them and parked in their lot. Continue reading →