Posts Tagged: fbi


16
May 13

Ragebooter: ‘Legit’ DDoS Service, or Fed Backdoor?

On Monday, I profiled asylumbooter.com, one of several increasingly public DDoS-for-hire services posing as Web site “stress testing” services. Today, we’ll look at ragebooter.net, yet another attack service except for one secret feature which sets it apart from the competition: According the site’s proprietor, ragebooter.net includes a hidden backdoor that lets the FBI monitor customer activity.

Ddos-for-hire site ragebooter.net

Ddos-for-hire site ragebooter.net

This bizarre story began about a week ago, when I first started trying to learn who was responsible for running RageBooter. In late March, someone hacked and leaked the users table for ragebooter.net. The database showed that the very first user registered on the site picked the username “Justin,” and signed up with the email address “primalpoland@gmail.com.”

That email address is tied to a now-defunct Facebook account for 22-year-old Justin Poland from Memphis, Tenn. Poland’s personal Facebook account used the alias “PRIMALRAGE,” and was connected to a Facebook page for an entity called Rage Productions. Shortly after an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Poland’s personal Facebook page was deleted, and his name was removed from the Rage Productions page.

Ragebooter.net’s registration records are hidden behind WHOIS privacy protection services. But according to a historic WHOIS lookup at domaintools.com, that veil of secrecy briefly fell away when the site was moved behind Cloudflare.com, a content distribution network that also protects sites against DDoS attacks like the ones Ragebooter and its ilk help to create (as I noted in Monday’s story, some of the biggest targets of booter services are in fact other booter services). For a brief period in Oct. 2012, the WHOIS records showed that ragebooter.net was registered by a Justin Poland in Memphis.

I “friended” Poland on Facebook and said I wanted to interview him. He accepted my request and sent me a chat to ask why I wanted to speak with him. I said I was eager to learn more about his business, and in particular why he thought it was okay to run a DDoS-for-hire service. While we were chatting, I took the liberty of perusing his profile pictures, which included several of a large tattoo he’d had inked across the top of his back — “Primal Rage” in a typeface fashioned after the text used in the Transformers movie series.

Poland is serious about his business.

Poland is serious about his business.

“Since it is a public service on a public connection to other public servers this is not illegal,” Poland explained, saying that he’d even consulted with an attorney about the legality of his business. When I asked whether launching reflected DNS attacks was okay, Poland said his service merely took advantage of the default settings of some DNS servers.

“Nor is spoofing the sender address [illegal],” he wrote. “If the root user of the server does not want that used they can simple disable recursive DNS. My service is a legal testing service. How individuals use it is at there [sic] own risk and responsibilitys [sic].  I do not advertise this service anywhere nor do I entice or encourage illegal usage of the product. How the user uses it is at their own risk. I provide logs to any legal law enforcement and keep logs for up to 7 days.”

The conversation got interesting when I asked the logical follow-up question: Had the police or federal authorities ever asked for information about his customers?

That was when Poland dropped the bomb, informing me that he was actually working for the FBI.

“I also work for the FBI on Tuesdays at 1pm in memphis, tn,” Poland wrote. “They allow me to continue this business and have full access. The FBI also use the site so that they can moniter [sic] the activitys [sic] of online users.. They even added a nice IP logger that logs the users IP when they login.”

When I asked Poland to provide more information that I might use to verify his claims that he was working for the FBI, the conversation turned combative, and he informed me that I wasn’t allowed to use any of the information he’d already shared with me. I replied that I hadn’t and wouldn’t agree that any of our discussion was to be off the record, and he in turn promised to sue me if I ran this story. That was more or less the end of that conversation.

As to the relative legality of booter services, I consulted Mark Rasch, a security expert and former attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. Rasch said companies hire stress testing services all the time, but usually as part of a more inclusive penetration testing engagement. In such engagements, Rasch said, it is common for the parties conducting the tests to insist upon and obtain beforehand a “get out of jail free card,” essentially a notarized letter from the customer stating that the testing firm was hired to break into and otherwise probe the security and stability of the targeted Web site.

“This is also why locksmiths generally force you to show ID that proves your address before they’ll break into a house for you,” Rasch said. “The standard in the security industry is not only to require proof that you own the sites that are going to be shut down or attacked, but also an indemnification provision.”

On Monday, I pinged Mr. Poland once more, again using Facebook’s chat function. I wanted to hear more about his claim that he was working for the feds. To my surprise, he gave me the number of a Memphis man he referred to as his FBI contact, a man Poland said he knew only as “Agent Lies.”

The man who answered at the phone number supplied by Poland declined to verify his name, seemed peeved that I’d called, and demanded to know who gave me his phone number. When I told him that I was referred to him by Mr. Poland, the person on the other end of the line informed me that he was not authorized to to speak with the press directly. He rattled off the name and number of the press officer in the FBI’s Memphis field office, and hung up.

Just minutes after I spoke with “Agent Lies,” Justin dropped me a line to say that he could not be my ‘friend’ any longer. “I have been asked to block you. Have a nice day,” Poland wrote in a Facebook chat, without elaborating. His personal Facebook page disappeared moments later.

Not long after that, I heard back from Joel Siskovic, spokesman for the Memphis FBI field office, who said he could neither confirm nor deny Poland’s claims. Siskovic also declined to verify whether the FBI had an Agent Lies.

“People come forward all the time and make claims they are working with us, and sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not,” Siskovic said. “But it wouldn’t be prudent for us to confirm that we have individuals helping us or assisting us, either because they’re being good citizens or because they’re somehow compelled to.”

Update, June 1: A little Googling shows that there is in fact an FBI Agent Lies in the Memphis area. Many of the public cases that Agent Lies has testified in appear to be child-exploitation related, such as this one (PDF).

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3
May 13

Alleged SpyEye Seller ‘Bx1′ Extradited to U.S.

A 24-year-old Algerian man arrested in Thailand earlier this year on suspicion of co-developing and selling the infamous SpyEye banking trojan was extradited this week to the United States, where he faces criminal charges for allegedly hijacking bank accounts at more than 200 financial institutions.

Bx1's profile page on darkode.com

Bx1′s profile page on darkode.com

Hamza Bendelladj, who authorities say used the nickname “Bx1″ online, is accused of operating a botnet powered by SpyEye, a complex banking trojan that he also allegedly sold and helped develop. Bendelladj was arraigned on May 2, 2013 in Atlanta, where he is accused of leasing a server from a local Internet company to help manage his SpyEye botnet.

A redacted copy of the indictment (PDF) against Bendelladj was unsealed this week; the document says Bendelladj developed and customized components of SpyEye that helped customers steal online banking credentials and funds from specific banks.

The government alleges that as Bx1, Bendelladj was an active member of darkode.com, an underground fraud forum that I’ve covered in numerous posts on this blog. Bx1′s core focus in the community was selling “web injects” — custom add-ons for SpyEye that can change the appearance and function of banking Web sites as displayed in a victim’s Web browser. More specifically, Bx1 sold a type of web inject called an automated transfer system or ATS; this type of malware component was used extensively with SpyEye — and with its close cousin the ZeuS Trojan — to silently and invisibly automate the execution of bank transfers just seconds after the owners of infected PCs logged into their bank accounts.

“Zeus/SpyEYE/Ice9 ATS for Sale,” Bx1 announced in a post on darkode.com thread dated Jan. 16, 2012:

“Hey all. I’m selling private ATS’s. Working and Tested.

We got  IT / DE / AT / UK / US / CO / NL / FR / AU

Contact me for bank.

can develop bank ATS from your choice.”

The government alleges that Bx1/Bendelladj made millions selling SpyEye, SpyEye components and harvesting financial data from victims in his own SpyEye botnet. But Bx1 customers and associates on darkode.com expressed strong doubts about this claim, noting that someone who was making that kind of money would not blab or be as open about his activities as Bx1 apparently was.

dk-symlinkarrested

Darkode discusses Symlink’s arrest

In my previous post on Bx1, I noted that he reached out to me on several occasions to brag about his botnet and to share information about his illicit activities. In one case, he even related a story about breaking into the networks of a rival ATS/web inject developer named Symlink. Bx1 said he told Symlink to expect a visit from the local cops if he didn’t pay Bx1 to keep his mouth shut. It’s not clear whether that story is true or if Symlink ever paid the money; in any case, Symlink was arrested on cybercrime charges in Oct. 2012 by authorities in Moldova.

The redacted portions of the government indictment of Bendelladj are all references to Bx1′s partner — the author of the SpyEye Trojan and a malware developer known in the underground alternatively as “Gribodemon” and “Harderman.” In a conference call with reporters today, U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said the real name of the principal author of SpyEye was redacted from the indictment because he had not yet been arrested.

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2
May 13

DHS: ‘OpUSA’ May Be More Bark Than Bite

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is warning that a group of mostly Middle East- and North Africa-based criminal hackers are preparing to launch a cyber attack campaign next week known as “OpUSA” against websites of high-profile US government agencies, financial institutions, and commercial entities. But security experts remain undecided on whether this latest round of promised attacks will amount to anything more than a public nuisance.

DHS-OpUSAA confidential alert, produced by DHS on May 1 and obtained by KrebsOnSecurity, predicts that the attacks “likely will result in limited disruptions and mostly consist of nuisance-level attacks against publicly accessible webpages and possibly data exploitation. Independent of the success of the attacks, the criminal hackers likely will leverage press coverage and social media to propagate an anti-US message.”

The DHS alert is in response to chest-thumping declarations from anonymous hackers who have promised to team up and launch a volley of online attacks against a range of U.S. targets beginning May 7. “Anonymous will make sure that’s this May 7th will be a day to remember,” reads a rambling, profane manifesto posted Apr. 21 to Pastebin by a group calling itself N4M3LE55 CR3W.

“On that day anonymous will start phase one of operation USA. America you have committed multiple war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and recently you have committed war crimes in your own country,” the hackers wrote. “We will now wipe you off the cyber map. Do not take this as a warning. You can not stop the internet hate machine from doxes, DNS attacks, defaces, redirects, ddos attacks, database leaks, and admin take overs.”

Ronen Kenig, director of security solutions at Tel Aviv-based network security firm Radware, said the impact of the attack campaign will be entirely dependent on which hacking groups join the fray. He noted that a recent campaign called “OpIsrael” that similarly promised to wipe Israel off the cyber map fizzled spectacularly.

“There were some Web site defacements, but OpIsrael was not successful from the attackers point-of-view,” Kenig said. “The main reason was the fact that the groups that initiated the attack were not able to recruit a massive botnet. Lacking that, they depended on human supporters, and those attacks from individuals were not very massive.”

opusaBut Rodney Joffe, senior vice president at Sterling, Va. based security and intelligence firm Neustar, said all bets are off if the campaign is joined by the likes of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters, a hacker group that has been disrupting consumer-facing Web sites for U.S. financial institutions since last fall. The hacker group has said its attacks will continue until copies of the controversial film Innocence of Muslims movie are removed from Youtube.

Joffe said it’s easy to dismiss a hacker manifesto full of swear words and leetspeak as the ramblings of script kiddies and impressionable, wannabe hackers who are just begging for attention. But when that talk is backed by real firepower, the attacks tend to speak for themselves.

“I think we learned our lesson with the al-Qassam Cyber Fighters,” Joffe said. “The damage they’re capable of doing may be out of proportion with their skills, but that’s been going on for seven months and it’s been brutally damaging.”

According to the DHS alert, 46 U.S. financial institutions have been targeted with DDoS attacks since September 2012 — with various degrees of  impact — in over 200 separate DDoS attacks.

“These attacks have utilized high bandwidth webservers with vulnerable content management systems,” the agency alert states. ”Typically a customer account is compromised and attack scripts are  then uploaded to a hidden directory on the customer website. To date the botnets have been identified as  ’Brobot’ and ‘Kamikaze/Toxin.’”

In an interview with Softpedia, representatives of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam said they do indeed plan to lend their firepower to the OpUSA attack campaign.

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17
Apr 13

SWATting Incidents Tied to ID Theft Sites?

Many readers have been asking for an update on the “SWATting” incident at my home last month, in which someone claiming to be me fraudulently reported a home invasion in progress at my address, prompting a heavily armed police response. There are two incremental developments on this story. The first is I’ve learned more about how the hoax was perpetrated. The second is that new clues suggest that the same individual(s) responsible also have been SWATting Hollywood celebrities and posting their personal information on site called exposed.re.

The day before my SWATting, I wrote a story about a site called exposed.su, which was posting the Social Security numbers, previous addresses, phone numbers and other sensitive information on a slew of high-profile individuals, from the director of the FBI to Kim Kardashian, Bill Gates and First Lady Michelle Obama. I wrote about the site by way of explaining that — as painful as it may be to admit – this information should no longer be considered private, because it is available quite cheaply via a number of shady services advertised in underground cybercrime forums.

After migrating the data from Exposed.su to Exposed.re, the curator added [Swatted] notations.


[Swatted] notations were added to celebrity names after Exposed.su became Exposed.re

To illustrate this reality, I pointed to one underground site in particular — the now-defunct ssndob.ru (it is now at another domain) — that could be used to pull all of this information on just about anyone, including all of those whose information was listed at the time on exposed.su. In a follow-up investigation I posted on Mar. 18, 2013, I cited sources who claimed that the DDoS against my site and the simultaneous SWATting attack on my home was in retaliation for my writing about ssndob.ru, which allegedly some of those involved in the attacks prized and did not wish to see shuttered.

Specifically, two different sources placed blame for the attacks on a young hacker named “Phobia,” who they said was part of a group of Xbox gaming enthusiasts who used ssndob.ru to look up Social Security numbers belonging to high-value Xbox account holders — particularly those belonging to Microsoft Xbox Live employees. Armed with that information, and some social engineering skills, the hackers could apparently trick Microsoft’s tech support folks into transferring control over the accounts to the hackers. “I heard he got pissed that you released the site he uses,” one of the sources told me, explaining why he thought Phobia was involved.

Incidentally, two days after my story ran, several news outlets reported that Microsoft had confirmed it is investigating the hacking of Xbox Live accounts belonging to some “high-profile” Microsoft employees, and that it is actively working with law enforcement on the matter.

A little digging suggested that Phobia was a 20-year-old Ryan Stevenson from in Milford, Ct. In that Mar. 18 story, I interviewed Phobia, who confessed to being the hacker who broke into and deleted the Apple iCloud account of wired.com reporter Mat Honan. In subsequent postings on Twitter, Honan expressed surprise that no one else had drawn the connections between Phobia and Stevenson earlier, based on the amount of open source information linking the two identities. In his own reporting on the attack that wiped his iCloud data, Honan had agreed not to name Phobia in return for an explanation of how the hack was carried out.

Geographic distribution of servers observed in Mar. 14, 2013 attack on KrebsOnSecurity. Source: Prolexic

Geographic distribution of servers observed in Mar. 14, 2013 attack on KrebsOnSecurity. Source: Prolexic

The week after my story ran, I heard from someone who lives in Stevenson’s neighborhood and who watched federal agents and police descend on Stevenson’s home on Mar. 20. I was later able to corroborate that information with a police officer in Connecticut, who confirmed that authorities had seized several boxes of items from the Stevenson residence that day.

If Stevenson was as involved as his erstwhile gaming buddies claim, I can’t say that I’m sad to learn that he got his own police raid. However, I do not believe he was the one responsible for sending the emergency response team to my home. I believe that the person or persons responsible is/are still at large, and that Stevenson was merely thrown under the bus as a convenient diversion. But more on that at another time.

At the end of March, exposed.su was shut down, and the content there was migrated over to a new domain — exposed.re. The curator(s) of this site has been adding more celebrities and public figures, but there is another, far more curious, notation on some of the listings at the new version of the site: Several of those named have the designation [Swatted] next to them, including P. Diddy, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Seacrest (see the collage above). It’s worth noting that not all of those listed on exposed.re who were SWATted recently are designated as such on the site.

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1
Apr 13

DHS Warns of ‘TDos’ Extortion Attacks on Public Emergency Networks

As if emergency responders weren’t already overloaded: Increasingly, extortionists are launching debilitating attacks designed to overwhelm the telephone networks of emergency communications centers and personnel, according to a confidential alert jointly issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

"TDos" warning

“TDos” warning

The alert, a copy of which was obtained by KrebsOnSecurity, warns public safety answering points (PSAPs) and emergency communications centers and personnel about a recent spike in so-called “telephony denial-of-service” (TDoS) attacks:

“Information received from multiple jurisdictions indicates the possibility of attacks targeting the telephone systems of public sector entities. Dozens of such attacks have targeted the administrative PSAP lines (not the 911 emergency line). The perpetrators of the attack have launched high volume of calls against the target network, tying up the system from receiving legitimate calls. This type of attack is referred to as a TDoS or Telephony Denial of Service attack. These attacks are ongoing. Many similar attacks have occurred targeting various businesses and public entities, including the financial sector and other public emergency operations interests, including air ambulance, ambulance and hospital communications.”

According to the alert, these recent TDoS attacks are part of a bizarre extortion scheme that apparently starts with a phone call to an organization from an individual claiming to represent a collections company for payday loans. The caller usually has a strong accent of some sort and asks to speak with a current or former employee concerning an outstanding debt. Failing to get payment from an individual or organization, the perpetrator launches a TDoS attack. The organization will be inundated with a continuous stream of calls for an unspecified, but lengthy period of time.

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19
Feb 13

DDoS Attack on Bank Hid $900,000 Cyberheist

A Christmas Eve cyberattack against the Web site of a regional California financial institution helped to distract bank officials from an online account takeover against one of its clients, netting thieves more than $900,000.

Ascent1At approximately midday on December 24, 2012, organized cyber crooks began moving money out of corporate accounts belonging to Ascent Builders, a construction firm based in Sacramento, Calif. In short order, the company’s financial institution – San Francisco-based Bank of the West — came under a large distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, a digital assault which disables a targeted site using a flood of junk traffic from compromised PCs.

KrebsOnSecurity contacted Ascent Builders on the morning of Dec. 26 to inform them of the theft, after interviewing one of the money mules used in the scam. Money mules are individuals who are willingly or unwittingly recruited to help the fraudsters launder stolen money and transfer the funds abroad. The mule in this case had been hired through a work-at-home job offer after posting her resume to a job search site, and said she suspected that she’d been conned into helping fraudsters.

Ascent was unaware of the robbery at the time, but its bank would soon verify that a series of unauthorized transactions had been initiated on the 24th and then again on the 26th. The money mule I spoke with was just one of 62 such individuals in the United States recruited to haul the loot stolen from Ascent. Most of the mules in this case were sent transfers of between $4,000 and $9,000, but several of them had bank accounts tied to businesses, to which the crooks wired huge transfers from Ascent’s account; five of the fraudulent transfers were for amounts ranging from $80,000 to $100,000.

Mark Shope, president of Ascent Builders, said that when the company’s controller originally went online on the morning of Dec. 24 to check the firm’s accounts, her browser wouldn’t let her access the bank’s page. She didn’t know it at the time, but her computer was being remotely controlled by the attackers’ malware, which blocked her from visiting the bank’s site.

“It said the bank was offline for 24 hours, and we couldn’t get in to the site,” Shope said. “We called the bank and they said everything was fine.”

But soon enough, everything would not be fine from Bank of the West’s end. Not long after putting through a batch of fraudulent automated clearing house (ACH) and wire transfers from Ascent’s accounts, the fraudsters initiated a DDoS attack against the bank’s Web site, effectively knocking it offline. It’s not clear what tactics or botnets may have been used in the DDoS attack, but the cyberheist+DDoS approach matches the profile of cybercrime gangs using the Gameover Trojan – a ZeuS Trojan variant that has been tied to numerous DDoS attacks initiated to distract attention from high-dollar cyberheists.

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13
Aug 12

Inside a ‘Reveton’ Ransomware Operation

The U.S Federal Bureau of Investigation is warning about an uptick in online extortion scams that impersonate the FBI and frighten people into paying fines to avoid prosecution for supposedly downloading child pornography and pirated content. This post offers an inside look at one malware gang responsible for orchestrating such scams.

Reveton ransomware scam impersonating FBI

Reveton ransomware scam page impersonating the FBI

In an alert published last week, the FBI said that The Internet Crime Complaint Center — a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center — was “getting inundated with complaints” from consumers targeted or victimized by the scam, which uses drive-by downloads to hijack host machines. The downloaded malware displays a threatening message (see image to the right) and blocks the user from doing anything else unless he pays the fine or finds a way to remove the program.

The FBI alert said the attacks have surged with the help of a “new drive-by virus” called Reveton; in fact, Reveton and its ilk are hardly new. These types of attacks have been around for years, but traditionally have targeted European users. The scam pages used in the attacks mimic official notices from various national police or investigatory agencies, corresponding to the country in which the victim resides. For a breakdown of these Reveton-related ransomware scam pages by country, see this comprehensive gallery set up at botnets.fr.

Reveton.A is blamed in these most recent attacks, and the FBI said it appears Reveton is being distributed in conjunction with Citadel, an offshoot of the ZeuS Trojan that I have written about on several occasions. It is certainly possible that crooks are using Citadel to deploy Reveton, but as I’ll illustrate below, it seems more likely that the attackers in these cases are using exploit kits like BlackHole to plant both threats on victim PCs.

INSIDE A REVETON MALWARE GANG

Operations of one Reveton crime group. Source: ‘Kafeine,’ from botnets.fr.

At least that’s the behavior that’s been observed by a ragtag group of researchers that has been tracking Reveton activity for many months. Some of the researchers are associated with botnets.fr, but they’ve asked to remain nameless because of the sensitivity of their work. One of them, who goes by the screen name “Kafeine,” said much of the Reveton activity traces back to a group that is controlling the operation using reverse proxies at dozens of servers scattered across data centers globally (see this PDF for a more detailed look at the image above).

Kafeine said the groups involved in spreading Reveton are constantly fine-tuning all aspects of their operations, from the scam pages to solidifying their back-end hosting infrastructure. The latest versions of Reveton, for example, serve the scam pages from an encrypted (https://) connection, and only cough up the pages when an infected machine visits and sends a special request. Continue reading →


11
May 12

FBI: Updates Over Public ‘Net Access = Bad Idea

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is advising travelers to avoid updating software while using hotel or other public Internet connections, warning that malicious actors are targeting travelers abroad through pop-up windows while they are establishing an Internet connection in their hotel rooms.

From the FBI’s advisory:

“Recently, there have been instances of travelers’ laptops being infected with malicious software while using hotel Internet connections. In these instances, the traveler was attempting to set up the hotel room Internet connection and was presented with a pop-up window notifying the user to update a widely used software product. If the user clicked to accept and install the update, malicious software was installed on the laptop. The pop-up window appeared to be offering a routine update to a legitimate software product for which updates are frequently available.”

The warning is a good opportunity to revisit some wireless safety tips I’ve doled out over the years. Avoid updating software while you’re using networks that are untrusted and public, whether they are wired or wireless. This generally means Wi-Fi networks like those available in hotels and coffee shops, and even wired connections at hotels. The only exception I make to this rule is when I have a device that is tethered to the 3G connection on a mobile phone. But even this can be dicey, because many laptops and mobile devices will switch over to available Wi-Fi networks in the event that the 3G signal dies.

There are a number of free attack tools that can be used to spoof software update prompts, and these are especially effective against users on small local networks. Bear in mind that false update prompts don’t have to involve pop-ups. I’ve written at least two blog posts about EvilGrade, a toolkit that makes it simple for attackers to install malicious software by exploiting weaknesses in the auto-update feature of many popular software titles. The deviousness of this tool is that it can be used to hijack the legitimate updaters built into software already installed on your computer.

If you must update while on the road, make sure that you initiate the update process. Avoid clicking pop-up prompts or anything that looks like it was launched from an auto-updater. When in doubt, always update from the vendor’s Web site. Most importantly — and Rule #1 of Krebs’s 3 Basic Rules for Online Safety covers this nicely — “if you didn’t go looking for it, don’t install it!” Also, using an update tracker, such as Secunia‘s Personal Software Inspector or File Hippo‘s Update Checker, can help you stay on top of the latest security patches for widely-used software, and make it easier for you to plan your software updates ahead of time.


9
Apr 12

FBI: Smart Meter Hacks Likely to Spread

A series of hacks perpetrated against so-called “smart meter” installations over the past several years may have cost a single U.S. electric utility hundreds of millions of dollars annually, the FBI said in a cyber intelligence bulletin obtained by KrebsOnSecurity. The law enforcement agency said this is the first known report of criminals compromising the hi-tech meters, and that it expects this type of fraud to spread across the country as more utilities deploy smart grid technology.

Part of an FBI alert about smart meter hacks.

Smart meters are intended to improve efficiency, reliability, and allow the electric utility to charge different rates for electricity at different times of day. Smart grid technology also holds the promise of improving a utility’s ability to remotely read meters to determine electric usage.

But it appears that some of these meters are smarter than others in their ability to deter hackers and block unauthorized modifications. The FBI warns that insiders and individuals with only a moderate level of computer knowledge are likely able to compromise meters with low-cost tools and software readily available on the Internet.

Sometime in 2009, an electric utility in Puerto Rico asked the FBI to help it investigate widespread incidents of power thefts that it believed was related to its smart meter deployment. In May 2010, the bureau distributed an intelligence alert about its findings to select industry personnel and law enforcement officials.

Citing confidential sources, the FBI said it believes former employees of the meter manufacturer and employees of the utility were altering the meters in exchange for cash and training others to do so. “These individuals are charging $300 to $1,000 to reprogram residential meters, and about $3,000 to reprogram commercial meters,” the alert states.

The FBI believes that miscreants hacked into the smart meters using an optical converter device — such as an infrared light — connected to a laptop that allows the smart meter to communicate with the computer. After making that connection, the thieves changed the settings for recording power consumption using software that can be downloaded from the Internet.

“The optical converter used in this scheme can be obtained on the Internet for about $400,” the alert reads. “The optical port on each meter is intended to allow technicians to diagnose problems in the field. This method does not require removal, alteration, or disassembly of the meter, and leaves the meter physically intact.”

The bureau also said another method of attacking the meters involves placing a strong magnet on the devices, which causes it to stop measuring usage, while still providing electricity to the customer.

“This method is being used by some customers to disable the meter at night when air-conditioning units are operational. The magnets are removed during working hours when the customer is not home, and the meter might be inspected by a technician from the power company.”

“Each method causes the smart meter to report less than the actual amount of electricity used.  The altered meter typically reduces a customer’s bill by 50 percent to 75 percent.  Because the meter continues to report electricity usage, it appears be operating normally.  Since the meter is read remotely, detection of the  fraud is very difficult.  A spot check of meters conducted by the utility found that approximately 10 percent of meters had been altered.”

“The FBI assesses with medium confidence that as Smart Grid use continues to spread throughout the country, this type of fraud will also spread because of the ease of intrusion and the economic benefit to both the hacker and the electric customer,” the agency said in its bulletin.

The feds estimate that the Puerto Rican utility’s losses from the smart meter fraud could reach $400 million annually. The FBI didn’t say which meter technology or utility was affected, but the only power company in Puerto Rico with anywhere near that volume of business is the publicly-owned Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The company did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

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6
Mar 12

Court: 4 More Months for DNSChanger-Infected PCs

Millions of PCs sickened by a global computer contagion known as DNSChanger were slated to have their life support yanked on March 8. But an order handed down Monday by a federal judge will delay that disconnection by 120 days to give companies, businesses and governments more time to respond to the epidemic.

The reprieve came late Monday, when the judge overseeing the U.S. government’s landmark case against an international cyber fraud network agreed that extending the deadline was necessary “to continue to provide remediation details to industry channels approved by the FBI.”

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