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21
Sep 17

Experian Site Can Give Anyone Your Credit Freeze PIN

An alert reader recently pointed my attention to a free online service offered by big-three credit bureau Experian that allows anyone to request the personal identification number (PIN) needed to unlock a consumer credit file that was previously frozen at Experian.

Experian's page for retrieving someone's credit freeze PIN requires little more information than has already been leaked by big-three bureau Equifax and a myriad other breaches.

Experian’s page for retrieving someone’s credit freeze PIN requires little more information than has already been leaked by big-three bureau Equifax and a myriad other breaches.

The first hurdle for instantly revealing anyone’s freeze PIN is to provide the person’s name, address, date of birth and Social Security number (all data that has been jeopardized in breaches 100 times over — including in the recent Equifax breach — and that is broadly for sale in the cybercrime underground).

After that, one just needs to input an email address to receive the PIN and swear that the information is true and belongs to the submitter. I’m certain this warning would deter all but the bravest of identity thieves!

The final authorization check is that Experian asks you to answer four so-called “knowledge-based authentication” or KBA questions. As I have noted in countless stories published here previously, the problem with relying on KBA questions to authenticate consumers online is that so much of the information needed to successfully guess the answers to those multiple-choice questions is now indexed or exposed by search engines, social networks and third-party services online — both criminal and commercial.

What’s more, many of the companies that provide and resell these types of KBA challenge/response questions have been hacked in the past by criminals that run their own identity theft services.

“Whenever I’m faced with KBA-type questions I find that database tools like Spokeo, Zillow, etc are my friend because they are more likely to know the answers for me than I am,” said Nicholas Weaver, a senior researcher in networking and security for the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI).

The above quote from Mr. Weaver came in a story from May 2017 which looked at how identity thieves were able to steal financial and personal data for over a year from TALX, an Equifax subsidiary that provides online payroll, HR and tax services. Equifax says crooks were able to reset the 4-digit PIN given to customer employees as a password and then steal W-2 tax data after successfully answering KBA questions about those employees.

In short: Crooks and identity thieves broadly have access to the data needed to reliably answer KBA questions on most consumers. That is why this offering from Experian completely undermines the entire point of placing a freeze.  Continue reading →


20
Sep 17

Equifax Breach: Setting the Record Straight

Bloomberg published a story this week citing three unnamed sources who told the publication that Equifax experienced a breach earlier this year which predated the intrusion that the big-three credit bureau announced on Sept. 7. To be clear, this earlier breach at Equifax is not a new finding and has been a matter of public record for months. Furthermore, it was first reported on this Web site in May 2017.

equihaxIn my initial Sept. 7 story about the Equifax breach affecting more than 140 million Americans, I noted that this was hardly the first time Equifax or another major credit bureau has experienced a breach impacting a significant number of Americans.

On May 17, KrebsOnSecurity reported that fraudsters exploited lax security at Equifax’s TALX payroll division, which provides online payroll, HR and tax services.

That story was about how Equifax’s TALX division let customers who use the firm’s payroll management services authenticate to the service with little more than a 4-digit personal identification number (PIN).

Identity thieves who specialize in perpetrating tax refund fraud figured out that they could reset the PINs of payroll managers at various companies just by answering some multiple-guess questions — known as “knowledge-based authentication” or KBA questions — such as previous addresses and dates that past home or car loans were granted.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, Bloomberg ran a piece with reporting from no fewer than five journalists there who relied on information provided by three anonymous sources. Those sources reportedly spoke in broad terms about an earlier breach at Equifax, and told the publication that these two incidents were thought to have been perpetrated by the same group of hackers.

The Bloomberg story did not name TALX. Only post-publication did Bloomberg reporters update the piece to include a statement from Equifax saying the breach was unrelated to the hack announced on Sept. 7, and that it had to do with a security incident involving a payroll-related service during the 2016 tax year.

I have thus far seen zero evidence that these two incidents are related. Equifax has said the unauthorized access to customers’ employee tax records (we’ll call this “the March breach” from here on) happened between April 17, 2016 and March 29, 2017.

The criminals responsible for unauthorized activity in the March breach were participating in an insidious but common form of cybercrime known as tax refund fraud, which involves filing phony tax refund requests with the IRS and state tax authorities using the personal information from identity theft victims.

My original report on the March breach was based on public breach disclosures that Equifax was required by law to file with several state attorneys general.

Because the TALX incident exposed the tax and payroll records of its customers’ employees, the victim customers were in turn required to notify their employees as well. That story referenced public breach disclosures from five companies that used TALX, including defense contractor giant Northrop Grumman; staffing firm Allegis GroupSaint-Gobain Corp.; Erickson Living; and the University of Louisville.

When asked Tuesday about previous media coverage of the March breach, Equifax pointed National Public Radio (NPR) to coverage in KrebsonSecurity.

One more thing before I move on to the analysis. For more information on why KBA is a woefully ineffective method of stopping fraudsters, see this story from 2013 about how some of the biggest vendors of these KBA questions were all hacked by criminals running an identity theft service online.

Or, check out these stories about how tax refund fraudsters used weak KBA questions to steal personal data on hundreds of thousands of taxpayers directly from the Internal Revenue Service‘s own Web site. It’s probably worth mentioning that Equifax provided those KBA questions as well.

ANALYSIS

Over the past two weeks, KrebsOnSecurity has received an unusually large number of inquiries from reporters at major publications who were seeking background interviews so that they could get up to speed on Equifax’s spotty security history (sadly, Bloomberg was not among them).

These informational interviews — in which I agree to provide context and am asked to speak mainly on background — are not unusual; I sometimes field two or three of these requests a month, and very often more when time permits. And for the most part I am always happy to help fellow journalists make sure they get the facts straight before publishing them.

But I do find it slightly disturbing that there appear to be so many reporters on the tech and security beats who apparently lack basic knowledge about what these companies do and their roles in perpetuating — not fighting — identity theft.

It seems to me that some of the world’s most influential publications have for too long given Equifax and the rest of the credit reporting industry a free pass — perhaps because of the complexities involved in succinctly explaining the issues to consumers. Indeed, I would argue the mainstream media has largely failed to hold these companies’ feet to the fire over a pattern of lax security and a complete disregard for securing the very sensitive consumer data that drives their core businesses.

To be sure, Equifax has dug themselves into a giant public relations hole, and they just keep right on digging. On Sept. 8, I published a story equating Equifax’s breach response to a dumpster fire, noting that it could hardly have been more haphazard and ill-conceived.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Since then, Equifax’s response to this incident has been even more astonishingly poor.

EQUIPHISH

On Tuesday, the official Equifax account on Twitter replied to a tweet requesting the Web address of the site that the company set up to give away its free one-year of credit monitoring service. That site is https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, but the company’s Twitter account told users to instead visit securityequifax2017[dot]com, which is currently blocked by multiple browsers as a phishing site.

equiphish

Continue reading →


14
Sep 17

Equifax Hackers Stole 200k Credit Card Accounts in One Fell Swoop

Visa and MasterCard are sending confidential alerts to financial institutions across the United States this week, warning them about more than 200,000 credit cards that were stolen in the epic data breach announced last week at big-three credit bureau Equifax. At first glance, the private notices obtained by KrebsOnSecurity appear to suggest that hackers initially breached Equifax starting in November 2016. But Equifax says the accounts were all stolen at the same time — when hackers accessed the company’s systems in mid-May 2017.

equifax-hq

Both Visa and MasterCard frequently send alerts to card-issuing financial institutions with information about specific credit and debit cards that may have been compromised in a recent breach. But it is unusual for these alerts to state from which company the accounts were thought to have been pilfered.

In this case, however, Visa and MasterCard were unambiguous, referring to Equifax specifically as the source of an e-commerce card breach.

In a non-public alert sent this week to sources at multiple banks, Visa said the “window of exposure” for the cards stolen in the Equifax breach was between Nov. 10, 2016 and July 6, 2017. A similar alert from MasterCard included the same date range.

“The investigation is ongoing and this information may be amended as new details arise,” Visa said in its confidential alert, linking to the press release Equifax initially posted about the breach on Sept. 7, 2017.

The card giant said the data elements stolen included card account number, expiration date, and the cardholder’s name. Fraudsters can use this information to conduct e-commerce fraud at online merchants.

It would be tempting to conclude from these alerts that the card breach at Equifax dates back to November 2016, and that perhaps the intruders then managed to install software capable of capturing customer credit card data in real-time as it was entered on one of Equifax’s Web sites.

Indeed, that was my initial hunch in deciding to report out this story. But according to a statement from Equifax, the hacker(s) downloaded the data in one fell swoop in mid-May 2017.

“The attacker accessed a storage table that contained historical credit card transaction related information,” the company said. “The dates that you provided in your e-mail appear to be the transaction dates. We have found no evidence during our investigation to indicate the presence of card harvesting malware, or access to the table before mid-May 2017.” Continue reading →


13
Sep 17

Adobe, Microsoft Plug Critical Security Holes

Adobe and Microsoft both on Tuesday released patches to plug critical security vulnerabilities in their products. Microsoft’s patch bundles fix close to 80 separate security problems in various versions of its Windows operating system and related software — including two vulnerabilities that already are being exploited in active attacks. Adobe’s new version of its Flash Player software tackles two flaws that malware or attackers could use to seize remote control over vulnerable computers with no help from users.

brokenwindows

Of the two zero-day flaws being fixed this week, the one in Microsoft’s ubiquitous .NET Framework (CVE-2017-8759) is perhaps the most concerning. Despite this flaw being actively exploited, it is somehow labeled by Microsoft as “important” rather than “critical” — the latter being the most dire designation.

More than two dozen flaws Microsoft remedied with this patch batch come with a “critical” warning, which means they could be exploited without any assistance from Windows users — save for perhaps browsing to a hacked or malicious Web site.

Regular readers here probably recall that I’ve often recommended installing .NET updates separately from any remaining Windows updates, mainly because in past instances in which I’ve experienced problems installing Windows updates, a .NET patch was usually involved.

For the most part, Microsoft now bundles all security updates together in one big patch ball for regular home users — no longer letting people choose which patches to install. One exception is patches for the .NET Framework, and I stand by my recommendation to install the patch roll-ups separately, reboot, and then tackle the .NET updates. Your mileage may vary. Continue reading →


12
Sep 17

Ayuda! (Help!) Equifax Has My Data!

Equifax last week disclosed a historic breach involving Social Security numbers and other sensitive data on as many as 143 million Americans. The company said the breach also impacted an undisclosed number of people in Canada and the United Kingdom. But the official list of victim countries may not yet be complete: According to information obtained by KrebsOnSecurity, Equifax can safely add Argentina — if not also other Latin American nations where it does business — to the list as well.

equihaxEquifax is one of the world’s three-largest consumer credit reporting bureaus, and a big part of what it does is maintain records on consumers that businesses can use to learn how risky it might be to loan someone money or to extend them new lines of credit. On the flip side, Equifax is somewhat answerable to those consumers, who have a legal right to dispute any information in their credit report which may be inaccurate.

Earlier today, this author was contacted by Alex Holden, founder of Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Hold Security LLC. Holden’s team of nearly 30 employees includes two native Argentinians who spent some time examining Equifax’s South American operations online after the company disclosed the breach involving its business units in North America.

It took almost no time for them to discover that an online portal designed to let Equifax employees in Argentina manage credit report disputes from consumers in that country was wide open, protected by perhaps the most easy-to-guess password combination ever: “admin/admin.”

We’ll speak about this Equifax Argentina employee portal — known as Veraz or “truthful” in Spanish — in the past tense because the credit bureau took the whole thing offline shortly after being contacted by KrebsOnSecurity this afternoon. The specific Veraz application being described in this post was dubbed Ayuda or “help” in Spanish on internal documentation.

The landing page for the internal administration page of Equifax’s Veraz portal. Click to enlarge.

Once inside the portal, the researchers found they could view the names of more than 100 Equifax employees in Argentina, as well as their employee ID and email address. The “list of users” page also featured a clickable button that anyone authenticated with the “admin/admin” username and password could use to add, modify or delete user accounts on the system. A search on “Equifax Veraz” at Linkedin indicates the unit currently has approximately 111 employees in Argentina.

A partial list of active and inactive Equifax employees in Argentina. This page also let anyone add or remove users at will, or modify existing user accounts.

Each employee record included a company username in plain text, and a corresponding password that was obfuscated by a series of dots.

The “edit users” page obscured the Veraz employee’s password, but the same password was exposed by sloppy coding on the Web page.

However, all one needed to do in order to view said password was to right-click on the employee’s profile page and select “view source,” a function that displays the raw HTML code which makes up the Web site. Buried in that HTML code was the employee’s password in plain text.

Continue reading →


11
Sep 17

The Equifax Breach: What You Should Know

It remains unclear whether those responsible for stealing Social Security numbers and other data on as many as 143 million Americans from big-three credit bureau Equifax intend to sell this data to identity thieves. But if ever there was a reminder that you — the consumer — are ultimately responsible for protecting your financial future, this is it. Here’s what you need to know and what you should do in response to this unprecedented breach.

Some of the Q&As below were originally published in a 2015 story, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Security Freeze. It has been updated to include new information specific to the Equifax intrusion.

Q: What information was jeopardized in the breach?

A: Equifax was keen to point out that its investigation is ongoing. But for now, the data at risk includes Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses on 143 million Americans. Equifax also said the breach involved some driver’s license numbers (although it didn’t say how many or which states might be impacted), credit card numbers for roughly 209,000 U.S. consumers, and “certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 U.S. consumers.”

Q: Was the breach limited to Americans?

A: No. Equifax said it believes the intruders got access to “limited personal information for certain UK and Canadian residents.” It has not disclosed what information for those residents was at risk or how many from Canada and the UK may be impacted.

Q: What is Equifax doing about this breach?

A: Equifax is offering one free year of their credit monitoring service. In addition, it has put up a Web site — www.equifaxsecurity2017.com — that tried to let people determine whether they were affected.

Q: That site tells me I was not affected by the breach. Am I safe?

A: As noted in this story from Friday, the site seems hopelessly broken, often returning differing results for the same data submitted at different times. In the absence of more reliable information from Equifax, it is safer to assume you ARE compromised.

Q: I read that the legal language in the terms of service that consumers must accept before enrolling in the free credit monitoring service from Equifax requires one to waive their rights to sue the company in connection with this breach. Is that true?

A: Not according to Equifax. The company issued a statement over the weekend saying that nothing in that agreement applies to this cybersecurity incident.

Q: So should I take advantage of the credit monitoring offer?

A: It can’t hurt, but I wouldn’t count on it protecting you from identity theft.

Q: Wait, what? I thought that was the whole point of a credit monitoring service?

A: The credit bureaus sure want you to believe that, but it’s not true in practice. These services do not prevent thieves from using your identity to open new lines of credit, and from damaging your good name for years to come in the process. The most you can hope for is that credit monitoring services will alert you soon after an ID thief does steal your identity.

Q: Well then what the heck are these services good for?

A: Credit monitoring services are principally useful in helping consumers recover from identity theft. Doing so often requires dozens of hours writing and mailing letters, and spending time on the phone contacting creditors and credit bureaus to straighten out the mess. In cases where identity theft leads to prosecution for crimes committed in your name by an ID thief, you may incur legal costs as well. Most of these services offer to reimburse you up to a certain amount for out-of-pocket expenses related to those efforts. But a better solution is to prevent thieves from stealing your identity in the first place.

Q: What’s the best way to do that?

A: File a security freeze — also known as a credit freeze — with the four major credit bureaus.

Q: What is a security freeze?

A: A security freeze essentially blocks any potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, unless you affirmatively unfreeze or thaw your file beforehand. With a freeze in place on your credit file, ID thieves can apply for credit in your name all they want, but they will not succeed in getting new lines of credit in your name because few if any creditors will extend that credit without first being able to gauge how risky it is to loan to you (i.e., view your credit file). And because each credit inquiry caused by a creditor has the potential to lower your credit score, the freeze also helps protect your score, which is what most lenders use to decide whether to grant you credit when you truly do want it and apply for it.

Q: What’s involved in freezing my credit file?

A: Freezing your credit involves notifying each of the major credit bureaus that you wish to place a freeze on your credit file. This can usually be done online, but in a few cases you may need to contact one or more credit bureaus by phone or in writing. Once you complete the application process, each bureau will provide a unique personal identification number (PIN) that you can use to unfreeze or “thaw” your credit file in the event that you need to apply for new lines of credit sometime in the future. Depending on your state of residence and your circumstances, you may also have to pay a small fee to place a freeze at each bureau. There are four consumer credit bureaus, including EquifaxExperianInnovis and Trans Union.  It’s a good idea to keep your unfreeze PIN(s) in a folder in a safe place (perhaps along with your latest credit report), so that when and if you need to undo the freeze, the process is simple.

Q: How much is the fee, and how can I know whether I have to pay it?

A: The fee ranges from $0 to $15 per bureau, meaning that it can cost upwards of $60 to place a freeze at all four credit bureaus (recommended). However, in most states, consumers can freeze their credit file for free at each of the major credit bureaus if they also supply a copy of a police report and in some cases an affidavit stating that the filer believes he/she is or is likely to be the victim of identity theft. In many states, that police report can be filed and obtained online. The fee covers a freeze as long as the consumer keeps it in place. Consumers Union has a useful breakdown of state-by-state fees. Continue reading →


8
Sep 17

Equifax Breach Response Turns Dumpster Fire

I cannot recall a previous data breach in which the breached company’s public outreach and response has been so haphazard and ill-conceived as the one coming right now from big-three credit bureau Equifax, which rather clumsily announced Thursday that an intrusion jeopardized Social security numbers and other information on 143 million Americans.

WEB SITE WOES

As noted in yesterday’s breaking story on this breach, the Web site that Equifax advertised as the place where concerned Americans could go to find out whether they were impacted by this breach — equifaxsecurity2017.com
is completely broken at best, and little more than a stalling tactic or sham at worst.

In the early hours after the breach announcement, the site was being flagged by various browsers as a phishing threat. In some cases, people visiting the site were told they were not affected, only to find they received a different answer when they checked the site with the same information on their mobile phones.

phonelaptopequifax

Others (myself included) received not a yes or no answer to the question of whether we were impacted, but instead a message that credit monitoring services we were eligible for were not available and to check back later in the month. The site asked users to enter their last name and last six digits of their SSN, but at the prompting of a reader’s comment I confirmed that just entering gibberish names and numbers produced the same result as the one I saw when I entered my real information: Come back on Sept. 13.

Who’s responsible for this debacle? Well, Equifax of course. But most large companies that can afford to do so hire outside public relations or disaster response firms to walk them through the safest ways to notify affected consumers. In this case, Equifax appears to have hired global PR firm Edelman PR.

What gives me this idea? Until just a couple of hours ago, the copy of WordPress installed at equifaxsecurity2017.com included a publicly accessible user database entry showing a user named “Edelman” was the first (and only?) user registered on the site.

Code that was publicly available on equifaxsecurity2017.com until very recently showed account information for an outside PR firm.

I reached out to Edelman for more information and will update this story when I hear from them.

EARLY WARNING?

In its breach disclosure Thursday, Equifax said it hired an outside computer security forensic firm to investigate as soon as it discovered unauthorized access to its Web site. ZDNet published a story Thursday saying that the outside firm was Alexandria, Va.-based Mandiant — a security firm bought by FireEye in 2014.

Interestingly, anyone who happened to have been monitoring look-alike domains for Equifax.com prior to yesterday’s breach announcement may have had an early clue about the upcoming announcement. One interesting domain that was registered on Sept. 5, 2017 is “equihax.com,” which according to domain registration records was purchased by an Alexandria, Va. resident named Brandan Schondorfer.

A quick Google search shows that Schondorfer works for Mandiant. Ray Watson, a cybersecurity researcher who messaged me this morning on Twitter about this curiosity, said it is likely that Mandiant has been registering domains that might be attractive to phishers hoping to take advantage of public attention to the breach and spoof Equifax’s domain.

Watson said it’s equally likely the equihax.com domain was registered to keep it out of the hands of people who may be looking for domain names they can use to lampoon Equifax for its breach. Schondorfer has not yet returned calls seeking comment.

EQUIFAX EXECS PULL GOLDEN PARACHUTES?

Bloomberg moved a story yesterday indicating that three top executives at Equifax sold millions of dollars worth of stock during the time between when the company says it discovered the breach and when it notified the public and investors.

Shares of Equifax’s stock on the New York Stock Exchange [NSYE:EFX] were down more than 13 percent at time of publication versus yesterday’s price.

The executives reportedly told Bloomberg they didn’t know about the breach when they sold their shares. A law firm in New York has already announced it is investigating potential insider trading claims against Equifax. Continue reading →


7
Sep 17

Breach at Equifax May Impact 143M Americans

Equifax, one of the “big-three” U.S. credit bureaus, said today a data breach at the company may have affected 143 million Americans, jeopardizing consumer Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and some driver’s license numbers.

In a press release today, Equifax [NYSE:EFX] said it discovered the “unauthorized access” on July 29, after which it hired an outside forensics firm to investigate. Equifax said the investigation is still ongoing, but that the breach also jeopardized credit card numbers for roughly 209,000 U.S. consumers and “certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 U.S. consumers.”

In addition, the company said it identified unauthorized access to “limited personal information for certain UK and Canadian residents,” and that it would work with regulators in those countries to determine next steps.

“This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do. I apologize to consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes,” said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard F. Smith in a statement released to the media, along with a video message. “We pride ourselves on being a leader in managing and protecting data, and we are conducting a thorough review of our overall security operations.”

Equifax said the attackers were able to break into the company’s systems by exploiting an application vulnerability to gain access to certain files. It did not say which application or which vulnerability was the source of the breach.

Equifax has set up a Web site — https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com — that anyone concerned can visit to see if they may be impacted by the breach. The site also lets consumers enroll in TrustedID Premier, a 3-bureau credit monitoring service (Equifax, Experian and Trans Union) which also is operated by Equifax.

According to Equifax, when you begin, you will be asked to provide your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. Based on that information, you will receive a message indicating whether your personal information may have been impacted by this incident. Regardless of whether your information may have been impacted, the company says it will provide everyone the option to enroll in TrustedID Premier. The offer ends Nov. 21, 2017.

ANALYSIS

At time of publication, the Trustedid.com site Equifax is promoting for free credit monitoring services was only intermittently available, likely because of the high volume of traffic following today’s announcement.

As many readers here have shared in the comments already, the site Equifax has available for people to see whether they were impacted by the breach may not actually tell you whether you were affected. When I entered the last six digits of my SSN and my last name, the site threw a “system unavailable” page, asking me to try again later.

equifaxtry

When I tried again later, I received a notice stating my enrollment date for TrustedID Premier is Sept. 13, 2017, but it asked me to return again on or after that date to enroll. The message implied but didn’t say I was impacted.

enrollmentequifax

Maybe Equifax simply isn’t ready to handle everyone in America asking for credit protection all at once, but this could be seen as a ploy by the company assuming that many people simply won’t return again after news of the breach slips off of the front page.

Update, 11:40 p.m. ET: At a reader’s suggestion, I used a made-up last name and the last six digits of my Social Security number: The system returned the same response: Come back on Sept. 13. It’s difficult to tell if the site is just broken or if there is something more sinister going on here.

Also, perhaps because the site is so new and/or because there was a problem with one of the site’s SSL certificates, some browsers may be throwing a cert error when the site tries to load. This is the message that OpenDNS users are seeing right now if they try to visit www.equifaxsecurity2017.com:

opendns-equifax

Original story:

Several readers who have taken my advice and placed security freezes (also called a credit freeze) on their file with Equifax have written in asking whether this intrusion means cybercriminals could also be in possession of the unique PIN code needed to lift the freeze.

So far, the answer seems to be “no.” Equifax was clear that its investigation is ongoing. However, in a FAQ about the breach, Equifax said it has found no evidence to date of any unauthorized activity on the company’s core consumer or commercial credit reporting databases. Continue reading →


5
Sep 17

Who Is Marcus Hutchins?

In early August 2017, FBI agents in Las Vegas arrested 23-year-old British security researcher Marcus Hutchins on suspicion of authoring and/or selling “Kronos,” a strain of malware designed to steal online banking credentials. Hutchins was virtually unknown to most in the security community until May 2017 when the U.K. media revealed him as the “accidental hero” who inadvertently halted the global spread of WannaCry, a ransomware contagion that had taken the world by storm just days before.

Relatively few knew it before his arrest, but Hutchins has for many years authored the popular cybersecurity blog MalwareTech. When this fact became more widely known — combined with his hero status for halting Wannacry — a great many MalwareTech readers quickly leapt to his defense to denounce his arrest. They reasoned that the government’s case was built on flimsy and scant evidence, noting that Hutchins has worked tirelessly to expose cybercriminals and their malicious tools. To date, some 226 supporters have donated more than $14,000 to his defense fund.

Marcus Hutchins, just after he was revealed as the security expert who stopped the WannaCry worm. Image: twitter.com/malwaretechblog

Marcus Hutchins, just after he was revealed as the security expert who stopped the WannaCry worm. Image: twitter.com/malwaretechblog

At first, I did not believe the charges against Hutchins would hold up under scrutiny. But as I began to dig deeper into the history tied to dozens of hacker forum pseudonyms, email addresses and domains he apparently used over the past decade, a very different picture began to emerge.

In this post, I will attempt to describe and illustrate more than three weeks’ worth of connecting the dots from what appear to be Hutchins’ earliest hacker forum accounts to his real-life identity. The clues suggest that Hutchins began developing and selling malware in his mid-teens — only to later develop a change of heart and earnestly endeavor to leave that part of his life squarely in the rearview mirror.

GH0STHOSTING/IARKEY

I began this investigation with a simple search of domain name registration records at domaintools.com [full disclosure: Domain Tools recently was an advertiser on this site]. A search for “Marcus Hutchins” turned up a half dozen domains registered to a U.K. resident by the same name who supplied the email address “surfallday2day@hotmail.co.uk.”

One of those domains — Gh0sthosting[dot]com (the third character in that domain is a zero) — corresponds to a hosting service that was advertised and sold circa 2009-2010 on Hackforums[dot]net, a massively popular forum overrun with young, impressionable men who desperately wish to be elite coders or hackers (or at least recognized as such by their peers).

The surfallday2day@hotmail.co.uk address tied to Gh0sthosting’s initial domain registration records also was used to register a Skype account named Iarkey that listed its alias as “Marcus.” A Twitter account registered in 2009 under the nickname “Iarkey” points to Gh0sthosting[dot]com.

Gh0sthosting was sold by a Hackforums user who used the same Iarkey nickname, and in 2009 Iarkey told fellow Hackforums users in a sales thread for his business that Gh0sthosting was “mainly for blackhats wanting to phish.” In a separate post just a few days apart from that sales thread, Iarkey responds that he is “only 15” years old, and in another he confirms that his email address is surfallday2day@hotmail.co.uk.

daloseronly15

A review of the historic reputation tied to the Gh0sthosting domain suggests that at least some customers took Iarkey up on his offer: Malwaredomainlist.com, for example, shows that around this same time in 2009 Gh0sthosting was observed hosting plenty of malware, including trojan horse programs, phishing pages and malware exploits.

A “reverse WHOIS” search at Domaintools.com shows that Iarkey’s surfallday2day email address was used initially to register several other domains, including uploadwith[dot]us and thecodebases[dot]com.

Shortly after registering Gh0sthosting and other domains tied to his surfallday2day@hotmail.co.uk address, Iarkey evidently thought better of including his real name and email address in his domain name registration records. Thecodebases[dot]com, for example, changed its WHOIS ownership to a “James Green” in the U.K., and switched the email to “herpderpderp2@hotmail.co.uk.”

A reverse WHOIS lookup at domaintools.com for that email address shows it was used to register a Hackforums parody (or phishing?) site called Heckforums[dot]net. The domain records showed this address was tied to a Hackforums clique called “Atthackers.” The records also listed a Michael Chanata from Florida as the owner. We’ll come back to Michael Chanata and Atthackers at the end of this post. Continue reading →


30
Aug 17

Twitter Bots Use Likes, RTs for Intimidation

I awoke this morning to find my account on Twitter (@briankrebs) had attracted almost 12,000 new followers overnight. Then I noticed I’d gained almost as many followers as the number of re-tweets (RTs) earned for a tweet I published on Tuesday. The tweet stated how every time I tweet something related to Russian President Vladimir Putin I get a predictable stream of replies that are in support of President Trump — even in cases when neither Trump nor the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign were mentioned.

This tweet about Putin generated more than 12,000 retweets and likes in a few hours.

This tweet about Putin generated more than 12,000 retweets and likes in a few hours.

Upon further examination, it appears that almost all of my new followers were compliments of a social media botnet that is being used to amplify fake news and to intimidate journalists, activists and researchers. The botnet or botnets appear to be targeting people who are exposing the extent to which sock puppet and bot accounts on social media platforms can be used to influence public opinion.

After tweeting about my new bounty of suspicious-looking Twitter friends I learned from my legitimate followers on Twitter that @briankrebs wasn’t alone and that several journalists and nonprofit groups that have written recently about bot-like activity on Twitter experienced something similar over the past few days.

These tweet and follow storms seem capable of tripping some kind of mechanism at Twitter that seeks to detect when accounts are suspected of artificially beefing up their follower counts by purchasing followers (for more on that dodgy industry, check out this post).

Earlier today, Daily Beast cybersecurity reporter Joseph Cox had his Twitter account suspended temporarily after the account was the beneficiary of hundreds of bot followers over a brief period on Tuesday. This likely was the goal in the campaign against my site as well.

Cox observed the same likely bot accounts that followed him following me and a short list of other users in the same order.

Cox observed the same likely bot accounts that followed him following me and a short list of other users in the same order.

“Right after my Daily Beast story about suspicious activity by pro-Kremlin bots went live, my own account came under attack,” Cox wrote.

Let that sink in for a moment: A huge collection of botted accounts — the vast majority of which should be easily detectable as such — may be able to abuse Twitter’s anti-abuse tools to temporarily shutter the accounts of real people suspected of being bots!

Overnight between Aug. 28 and 29, a large Twitter botnet took aim at the account for the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a project run by the Atlantic Council, a political think-tank based in Washington, D.C. In a post about the incident, DFRLab said the attack used fake accounts to impersonate and attack its members.

Those personal attacks — which included tweets and images lamenting the supposed death of DFR senior fellow Ben Nimmo — were then amplified and re-tweeted by tens of thousands of apparently automated accounts, according to a blost post published today by DFRLab.

Suspecting that DFRLab was now being followed by many more botted accounts that might retweet or otherwise react to any further tweets mentioning bot attacks, Nimmo cleverly composed another tweet about the bot attack — only this time CC’ing the @Twitter and @Twittersupport accounts. Sure enough, that sly tweet was retweeted by bots more than 73,000 times before the tweet storm died down.

tweetbotattack

“We considered that the bots had probably been programmed to react to a relatively simple set of triggers, most likely the words ‘bot attack’ and the @DFRLab handle,” Nimmo wrote. “To test the hypothesis, we posted a tweet mentioning the same words, and were retweeted over 500 times in nine minutes — something which, admittedly, does not occur regularly with our human followers.” Read more about the DFRLab episode here.

This week’s Twitter bot drama follows similar attacks on public interest groups earlier this month. On Aug. 19, the award-winning investigative journalism site ProPublica.org published the story, Leading Tech Companies Help Extremist Sites Monetize Hate.

On the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 22, several ProPublica reporters began receiving email bombs — email list subscription attacks that can inundate a targeted inbox with dozens or even hundreds of email list subscription confirmation requests per minute. These attacks are designed to deluge the victim’s inbox with so many subscription confirmation requests that it becomes extremely time-consuming to fish out the legitimate messages amid the dross.

On Wednesday ProPublica author Jeff Larson saw a tweet he sent about the email attacks get re-tweeted 1,200 times. Later that evening, senior reporting fellow Lauren Kirchner noticed a similar sized response to her tweet about how the subscription attack was affecting her ability to respond to messages.

On top of that, several ProPublica staffers suddenly gained about 500 new followers. On Thursday, ProPublica’s managing editor Eric Umansky noticed that a tweet accusing ProPublica of being an “alt-left #HateGroup and #FakeNews site funded by Soros” had received more than 23,000 re-tweets. Continue reading →