A Little Sunshine


20
Aug 14

Counterfeit U.S. Cash Floods Crime Forums

One can find almost anything for sale online, particularly in some of the darker corners of the Web and on the myriad cybercrime forums. These sites sell everything from stolen credit cards and identities to hot merchandise, but until very recently one illicit good I had never seen for sale on the forums was counterfeit U.S. currency.

Counterfeit Series 1996 $100 bill.

Counterfeit Series 1996 $100 bill.

That changed in the past month with the appearance on several top crime boards of a new fraudster who goes by the hacker alias “MrMouse.” This individual sells counterfeit $20s, $50s and $100s, and claims that his funny money will pass most of the tests that merchants use to tell bogus bills from the real thing.

MrMouse markets his fake funds as “Disney Dollars,” and in addition to blanketing some of the top crime forums with Flash-based ads for his service he has boldly paid for a Reddit stickied post  in the official Disney Market Place.

Judging from images of his bogus bills, the fake $100 is a copy of the Series 1996 version of the note — not the most recent $100 design released by the U.S. Treasury Department in October 2013. Customers who’ve purchased his goods say the $20 notes feel a bit waxy, but that the $50s and $100s are quite good fakes.

MrMouse says his single-ply bills do not have magnetic ink, and so they won’t pass machines designed to look for the presence of this feature. However, this fraudster claims his $100 bill includes most of the other security features that store clerks and cashiers will look for to detect funny money, including the watermark, the pen test, and the security strip.

MrMouse's ads for counterfeit $20s, $50s and $100s now blanket many crime forums.

MrMouse’s ads for counterfeit $20s, $50s and $100s now blanket many crime forums.

In addition, MrMouse says his notes include “microprinting,” tiny lettering that can only be seen under magnification (“USA 100″ is repeated within the number 100 in the lower left corner, and “The United States of America” appears as a line in the left lapel of Franklin’s coat). The sourdough vendor also claims his hundreds sport “color-shifting ink,” an advanced feature that gives the money an appearance of changing color when held at different angles.

I checked with the U.S. Secret Service and with counterfeiting experts, none of whom had previously seen serious counterfeit currency marketed and sold on Internet crime forums.

“That’s a first for me, but I guess they can sell anything online these days,” said Jason Kersten, author of The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter, a true crime story about a counterfeiter who made millions before his capture by the Secret Service.

Kersten said that outside of so-called “supernote” counterfeits made by criminals within North Korea, it is rare to find vendors advertising features that MrMouse is claiming on his C-notes, including Intaglio (pronounced “in-tal-ee-oh”) and offset printing. Both features help give U.S. currency a certain tactile feel, and it is rare to find that level of quality in fake bills, he said.

Continue reading →


18
Aug 14

Lorem Ipsum: Of Good & Evil, Google & China

Imagine discovering a secret language spoken only online by a knowledgeable and learned few. Over a period of weeks, as you begin to tease out the meaning of this curious tongue and ponder its purpose, the language appears to shift in subtle but fantastic ways, remaking itself daily before your eyes. And just when you are poised to share your findings with the rest of the world, the entire thing vanishes.

loremipsumThis fairly describes my roller coaster experience of curiosity, wonder and disappointment over the past few weeks, as I’ve worked alongside security researchers in an effort to understand how “lorem ipsum” — common placeholder text on countless Web sites — could be transformed into so many apparently geopolitical and startlingly modern phrases when translated from Latin to English using Google Translate. (If you have no idea what “lorem ipsum” is, skip ahead to a brief primer here).

Admittedly, this blog post would make more sense if readers could fully replicate the results described below using Google Translate. However, as I’ll explain later, something important changed in Google’s translation system late last week that currently makes the examples I’ll describe impossible to reproduce.

CHINA, NATO, SEXY, SEXY

It all started a few months back when I received a note from Lance James, head of cyber intelligence at Deloitte. James pinged me to share something discovered by FireEye researcher Michael Shoukry and another researcher who wished to be identified only as “Kraeh3n.” They noticed a bizarre pattern in Google Translate: When one typed “lorem ipsum” into Google Translate, the default results (with the system auto-detecting Latin as the language) returned a single word: “China.”

Capitalizing the first letter of each word changed the output to “NATO” — the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Reversing the words in both lower- and uppercase produced “The Internet” and “The Company” (the “Company” with a capital “C” has long been a code word for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency). Repeating and rearranging the word pair with a mix of capitalization generated even stranger results. For example, “lorem ipsum ipsum ipsum Lorem” generated the phrase “China is very very sexy.”

Until very recently, the words on the left were transformed to the words on the right using Google Translate.

Until very recently, the words on the left were transformed to the words on the right using Google Translate.

Kraeh3n said she discovered the strange behavior while proofreading a document for a colleague, a document that had the standard lorem ipsum placeholder text. When she began typing “l-o-r..e..” and saw “China” as the result, she knew something was strange.

“I saw words like Internet, China, government, police, and freedom and was curious as to how this was happening,” Kraeh3n said. “I immediately contacted Michael Shoukry and we began looking into it further.”

And so the duo started testing the limits of these two words using a mix of capitalization and repetition. Below is just one of many pages of screenshots taken from their results:

ipsumlorem

The researchers wondered: What was going on here? Has someone outside of Google figured out how to map certain words to different meanings in Google Translate? Was it a secret or covert communications channel? Perhaps a form of communication meant to bypass the censorship erected by the Chinese government with the Great Firewall of China? Or was this all just some coincidental glitch in the Matrix?

For his part, Shoukry checked in with contacts in the U.S. intelligence industry, quietly inquiring if divulging his findings might in any way jeopardize important secrets. Weeks went by and his sources heard no objection. One thing was for sure, the results were subtly changing from day to day, and it wasn’t clear how long these two common but obscure words would continue to produce the same results.

“While Google translate may be incorrect in the translations of these words, it’s puzzling why these words would be translated to things such as ‘China,’ ‘NATO,’ and ‘The Free Internet,’” Shoukry said. “Could this be a glitch? Is this intentional? Is this a way for people to communicate? What is it?”

When I met Shoukry at the Black Hat security convention in Las Vegas earlier this month, he’d already alerted Google to his findings. Clearly, it was time for some intense testing, and the clock was already ticking: I was convinced (and unfortunately, correct) that much of it would disappear at any moment. Continue reading →


15
Aug 14

Why So Many Card Breaches? A Q&A

The news wires today are buzzing with stories about another potentially major credit/debit card breach at yet another retail chain: This time, the apparent victim is AB Acquisition, which operates Albertsons stores under a number of brands, including ACME Markets, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s and Star Markets. Today’s post includes no special insight into this particular retail breach, but rather seeks to offer answers to some common questions regarding why we keep hearing about them.

QWhy do we keep hearing about breaches involving bricks-and-mortar stores?

Credit and debit cards stolen from bricks-and-mortar stores (called “dumps”) usually sell for at least ten times the price of cards stolen from online merchants (referred to in the underground as “CVVs” or just “credit cards”). As a result, dumps are highly prized by today’s cyber crooks, and there are dozens of underground “card shops” online that will happily buy the cards from hackers and resell them on the open market. For a closer look at how these shops work (and how, for example, the people responsible for these retail break-ins very often also are actually running the card shops themselves) see Peek Inside a Carding Shop.

Okay, I’ll bite: Why are dumps so much more expensive and valuable to attackers?

A big part of the price difference has to do with the number of steps it takes for the people buying these stolen cards (a.k.a. “carders”) to “cash out” or gain value from the stolen cards. For example, which of these processes is likely to be more successful, hassle-free and lucrative for the bad guy?

1. Armed with a stack of dumps, a carder walks into a big box store and walks out with high-priced electronics or gift cards that he can easily turn into cash.

2. Armed with a list of CVVs, a carder searches online for stores that will ship to an address that is different from the one on the card. Assuming the transaction is approved, he has the goods shipped to a guy he knows at another address who will take a cut of the action. That is, *if* the fraudulently purchased goods don’t get stopped or intercepted along the way by the merchant or shipping company when someone complains about a fraudulent transaction.

If you guessed #1, you’re already thinking like a carder!

Snap! But it seems like these breaches are becoming more common. Is that true?

It’s always hard to say whether something is becoming more common, or if we’re just becoming more aware of the thing in question. I think it’s safe to say that more people are looking for patterns that reveal these retail breaches (including yours truly, but somehow this one caught me– and just about everyone I’ve asked — unawares).

Certainly, banks — which shoulder much of the immediate cost from such breaches — are out for blood and seem more willing than ever to dig deep into their own fraud data for patterns that would reveal which merchants got hacked. Visa and MasterCard each have systems in place for the banks to recover at least a portion of the costs associated with retail credit and debit card fraud (such as the cost of re-issuing compromised cards), but the banks still need to be able to tie specific compromised cards to specific merchant breaches. Continue reading →


15
Aug 14

How Secure is Your Security Badge?

Security conferences are a great place to learn about the latest hacking tricks, tools and exploits, but they also remind us of important stuff that was shown to be hackable in previous years yet never really got fixed. Perhaps the best example of this at last week’s annual DefCon security conference in Las Vegas came from hackers who built on research first released in 2010 to show just how trivial it still is to read, modify and clone most HID cards — the rectangular white plastic “smart” cards that organizations worldwide distribute to employees for security badges.

HID iClass proximity card.

HID iClass proximity card.

Nearly four years ago, researchers at the Chaos Communication Congress (CCC), a security conference in Berlin, released a paper (PDF) demonstrating a serious vulnerability in smart cards made by Austin, Texas-based HID Global, by far the largest manufacturer of these devices. The CCC researchers showed that the card reader device that HID sells to validate the data stored on its then-new line of iClass proximity cards includes the master encryption key needed to read data on those cards.

More importantly, the researchers proved that anyone with physical access to one of these readers could extract the encryption key and use it to read, clone, and modify data stored on any HID cards made to work with those readers.

At the time, HID responded by modifying future models of card readers so that the firmware stored inside them could not be so easily dumped or read (i.e., the company removed the external serial interface on new readers). But according to researchers, HID never changed the master encryption key for its readers, likely because doing so would require customers using the product to modify or replace all of their readers and cards — a costly proposition by any measure given HID’s huge market share.

Unfortunately, this means that anyone with a modicum of hardware hacking skills, an eBay account, and a budget of less than $500 can grab a copy of the master encryption key and create a portable system for reading and cloning HID cards. At least, that was the gist of the DefCon talk given last week by the co-founders of Lares Consulting, a company that gets hired to test clients’ physical and network security.

Lares’ Joshua Perrymon and Eric Smith demonstrated how an HID parking garage reader capable of reading cards up to three feet away was purchased off of eBay and modified to fit inside of a common backpack. Wearing this backpack, an attacker looking to gain access to a building protected by HID’s iClass cards could obtain that access simply by walking up to a employee of the targeted organization and asking for directions, a light of a cigarette, or some other pretext.

Card cloning gear fits in a briefcase. Image: Lares Consulting.

Card cloning gear fits in a briefcase. Image: Lares Consulting.

Continue reading →


13
Aug 14

Tenn. Firm Sues Bank Over $327K Cyberheist

An industrial maintenance and construction firm in Tennessee that was hit by a $327,000 cyberheist is suing its financial institution to recover the stolen funds, charging the bank with negligence and breach of contract. Court-watchers say the lawsuit — if it proceeds to trial — could make it easier and cheaper for cyberheist victims to recover losses.

teciIn May, 2012, Kingsport, Tenn.-based Tennessee Electric Company Inc. (now TEC Industrial) was the target of a corporate account takeover that saw cyber thieves use a network of more than four dozen money mules to siphon $327,804 out of the company’s accounts at TriSummit Bank.

TriSummit was able to claw back roughly $135,000 of those unauthorized transfers, leaving Tennessee Electric with a loss of $192,656. Earlier this month, the company sued TriSummit in state court, alleging negligence, breach of contract, gross negligence and fraudulent concealment.

Both companies declined to comment for this story. But as Tennessee Electric’s complaint (PDF) notes (albeit by misspelling my name), I called Tennessee Electric on May 10, 2012 to alert the company about a possible cyberheist targeting its accounts. I’d contacted the company after speaking with a money mule who’d acknowledged receiving thousands of dollars pulled from the firm’s accounts at TriSummit.

According to the complaint, the attackers first struck on May 8, after Tennessee Electric’s controller tried, unsuccessfully, to log into the bank’s site and upload that week’s payroll batch (typically from $200,000 to $240,000 per week). When the controller called TriSummit to inquire about the site problems, the bank said the site was probably undergoing maintenance and that the controller was welcome to visit the local bank branch and upload the file there. The controller did just that, uploading four payroll batches worth $202,664.47.

[SIDE NOTE: When I spoke with Tennessee Electric's controller back in 2012, the controller for the company told me she was asked for and supplied the output of a one-time token upon login. This would make sense given the controller's apparent problems accessing the bank's Web site. Cyber thieves involved in these heists typically use password-stealing malware to control what the victim sees in his or her browser; when a victim logs in at a bank that requires a one-time token, the malware will intercept that token and then redirect the victim's browser to an error page or a "down for maintenance" message -- all the while allowing the thieves to use the one-time token and the victim's credentials to log in as the legitimate user.]

On May 9, Tennessee Electric alleges, TriSummit Bank called to confirm the $202,664.47 payroll batch — as per an agreement the bank and the utility had which called for the bank to verbally verify all payment orders by phone. But according to Tennessee Electric, the bank for some reason had already approved a payroll draft of $327,804 to be sent to 55 different accounts across the United States — even though the bank allegedly never called to get verification of that payment order.

Tennessee Electric alleges that the bank only called to seek approval for the fraudulent batch on May 10, more than a day after having approved it and after I contacted Tennessee Electric to let them know they’d been robbed by the Russian cyber mob.

ANALYSIS

This lawsuit, if it heads to trial, could help set a more certain and even standard for figuring out who’s at fault when businesses are hit by cyberheists (for better or worse, most such legal challenges are overwhelmingly weighted toward banks and quietly settled for a fraction of the loss).

Consumers who bank online are protected by Regulation E, which dramatically limits the liability for consumers who lose money from unauthorized account activity online (provided the victim notifies their financial institution of the fraudulent activity within 60 days of receiving a disputed account statement).

Businesses, however, do not enjoy such protections. States across the country have adopted the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which holds that a payment order received by the [bank] is “effective as the order of the customer, whether or not authorized, if the security procedure is a commercially reasonable method of providing security against unauthorized payment orders, and the bank proves that it accepted the payment order in good faith and in compliance with the security procedure and any written agreement or instruction of the customer restricting acceptance of payment orders issued in the name of the customer.”

Under state interpretations of the UCC, the most that a business hit with a cyberheist can hope to recover is the amount that was stolen. That means that it’s generally not in the business’s best interests to sue their bank unless the amount of theft was quite high, because the litigation fees required to win a court battle can quickly equal or surpass the amount stolen. Continue reading →


11
Aug 14

Personalize Your Copy of Spam Nation

Good news for fans of this blog who have not yet pre-ordered a copy of my upcoming book, Spam Nation. Politics & Prose, a literary landmark in the District of Columbia, will be helping me launch a six-city book tour, and is offering a personalized message from this author for anyone who pre-orders a copy of Spam Nation through the D.C. store’s Web site.

Politics&ProseLogoUse this link to purchase from Politics & Prose and receive a signed and personalized print copy of Spam Nation. The offer is good through November 18. Please send your proof-of-purchase to spamnation@sourcebookspr.com. Buyers have the option of picking the book up in the store, or having it shipped.

Other cities that we will visit on the book tour include Austin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Stay tuned for more information about those events.

And as always, thank you for your readership!


6
Aug 14

New Site Recovers Files Locked by Cryptolocker Ransomware

Until today, Microsoft Windows users who’ve been unfortunate enough to have the personal files on their computer encrypted and held for ransom by a nasty strain of malware called CryptoLocker have been faced with a tough choice: Pay cybercrooks a ransom of a few hundred to several thousand dollars to unlock the files, or kiss those files goodbye forever. That changed this morning, when two security firms teamed up to launch a free new online service that can help victims unlock and recover files scrambled by the malware.

clssFirst spotted in September 2013, CryptoLocker is a prolific and very damaging strain of malware that uses strong encryption to lock files that are likely to be the most valued by victim users, including Microsoft Office documents, photos, and MP3 files.

Infected machines typically display a warning that the victim’s files have been locked and can only be decrypted by sending a certain fraction or number of Bitcoins to a decryption service run by the perpetrators. Victims are given 72 hours to pay the ransom — typically a few hundred dollars worth of Bitcoins — after which time the ransom demand increases fivefold or more.

But early Wednesday morning, two security firms – Milpitas, Calf. based FireEye and Fox-IT in the Netherlands — launched decryptcryptolocker.com, a site that victims can use to recover their files. Victims need to provide an email address and upload just one of the encrypted files from their computer, and the service will email a link that victims can use to download a recovery program to decrypt all of their scrambled files.

The free decryption service was made possible because Fox-IT was somehow able to recover the private keys that the cybercriminals who were running the CryptoLocker scam used on their own (not free) decryption service. Neither company is disclosing much about how exactly those keys were recovered other than to say that the opportunity arose as the crooks were attempting to recover from Operation Tovar, an international effort in June that sought to dismantle the infrastructure that CryptoLocker used to infect PCs.

Continue reading →


6
Aug 14

Q&A on the Reported Theft of 1.2B Email Accounts

My phone and email have been flooded with questions and interview requests from various media outlets since security consultancy Hold Security dropped the news that a Russian gang has stolen more than a billion email account credentials. Rather than respond to each of these requests in turn, allow me to add a bit of perspective here in the most direct way possible: The Q&A.

Q: Who the heck is Alex Holden?

A: I’ve known Hold Security’s Founder Alex Holden for nearly seven years. Coincidentally, I initially met him in Las Vegas at the Black Hat security convention (where I am now). Alex is a talented and tireless researcher, as well as a forthright and honest guy. He is originally from Ukraine, and speaks/reads Russian and Ukrainian fluently. His research has been central to several of my big scoops over the past year, including the breach at Adobe that exposed tens of millions of customer records.

Q: Is this for real?

A: Alex isn’t keen on disclosing his methods, but I have seen his research and data firsthand and can say it’s definitely for real. Without spilling his secrets or methods, it is clear that he has a first-hand view on the day-to-day activities of some very active organized cybercrime networks and actors.

Q: Ok, but more than a billion credentials? That seems like a lot.

A: For those unfamiliar with the operations of large-scale organized crime syndicates, yes, it does. Unfortunately, there are more than a few successful cybercrooks who are quite good at what they do, and do it full-time. These actors — mostly spammers and malware purveyors (usually both) — focus on acquiring as many email addresses and account credentials as they can. Their favorite methods of gathering this information include SQL injection (exploiting weaknesses in Web sites that can be used to force the site to cough up user data) and abusing stolen credentials to steal even more credentials from victim organizations.

One micro example of this: Last year, I wrote about a botnet that enslaved thousands of hacked computers which disguised itself as a legitimate add-on for Mozilla Firefox and forced infected PCs to scour Web sites for SQL vulnerabilities. Continue reading →


21
Jul 14

Banks: Card Breach at Goodwill Industries

Heads up, bargain shoppers: Financial institutions across the country report that they are tracking what appears to be a series of credit card breaches involving Goodwill locations nationwide. For its part, Goodwill Industries International Inc. says it is working with the U.S. Secret Service on an investigation into these reports.

goodwillHeadquartered in Rockville, Md., Goodwill Industries International, Inc. is a network of 165 independent agencies in the United States and Canada with a presence in 14 other countries. The organizations sell donated clothing and household items, and use the proceeds to fund job training programs, employment placement services and other community-based initiatives.

According to sources in the financial industry, multiple locations of Goodwill Industries stores have been identified as a likely point of compromise for an unknown number of credit and debit cards.

In a statement sent to KrebsOnSecurity, Goodwill Industries said it first learned about a possible incident last Friday, July 18. The organization said it has not yet confirmed a breach, but that it is working with federal authorities on an investigation into the matter.

“Goodwill Industries International was contacted last Friday afternoon by a payment card industry fraud investigative unit and federal authorities informing us that select U.S. store locations may have been the victims of possible theft of payment card numbers,” the company wrote in an email. Continue reading →


18
Jul 14

Even Script Kids Have a Right to Be Forgotten

Indexeus, a new search engine that indexes user account information acquired from more than 100 recent data breaches, has caught many in the hacker underground off-guard. That’s because the breached databases crawled by this search engine are mostly sites frequented by young ne’er-do-wells who are just getting their feet wet in the cybercrime business.

Indexeus[dot]org

Indexeus[dot]org

Indexeus boasts that it has a searchable database of “over 200 million entries available to our customers.” The site allows anyone to query millions of records from some of the larger data breaches of late — including the recent break-ins at Adobe and Yahoo! – listing things like email addresses, usernames, passwords, Internet address, physical addresses, birthdays and other information that may be associated with those accounts.

Who are Indexeus’s target customers? Denizens of hackforums[dot]net, a huge forum that is overrun by novice teenage hackers (a.k.a “script kiddies”) from around the world who are selling and buying a broad variety of services designed to help attack, track or otherwise harass people online.

Few services are as full of irony and schadenfreude as Indexeus. You see, the majority of the 100+ databases crawled by this search engine are either from hacker forums that have been hacked, or from sites dedicated to offering so-called “booter” services — powerful servers that can be rented to launch denial-of-service attacks aimed at knocking Web sites and Web users offline.

The brains behind Indexeus — a gaggle of young men in their mid- to late teens or early 20s — envisioned the service as a way to frighten fellow hackers into paying to have their information removed or “blacklisted” from the search engine. Those who pay “donations” of approximately $1 per record (paid in Bitcoin) can not only get their records expunged, but that price also buys insurance against having their information indexed by the search engine in the event it shows up in future database leaks. Continue reading →