14
Feb 19

Bomb Threat Hoaxer Exposed by Hacked Gaming Site

Federal authorities this week arrested a North Carolina man who allegedly ran with a group of online hooligans that attacked Web sites (including this one), took requests on Twitter to call in bomb threats to thousands of schools, and tried to frame various online gaming sites as the culprits. In an ironic twist, the accused — who had fairly well separated his real life identity from his online personas — appears to have been caught after a gaming Web site he frequented got hacked.

On Feb. 12, the U.S. Justice Department announced the arrest of Timothy Dalton Vaughn, a 20-year-old from Winston-Salem, N.C. Vaughn is alleged to have been a key member of the Apophis Squad, a gang of ne’er-do-wells who made bomb threats against thousands of schools and launched distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Web sites — including KrebsOnSecurity on multiple occasions.

The feds say Vaughn used multiple aliases on Twitter and elsewhere to crow about his attacks, including “HDGZero,” “WantedByFeds,” and “Xavier Farbel.” Among the Apophis Squad’s targets was encrypted mail service Protonmail, which reached out to this author last year for clues about the identities of the Apophis Squad members after noticing we were both being targeted by them and receiving demands for money in exchange for calling off the attacks.

Protonmail later publicly thanked KrebsOnSecurity for helping to bring about the arrest of Apophis Squad leader George Duke-Cohan — a.k.a. “opt1cz,” “7R1D3n7,” and “Pl3xl3t,” — a 19-year-old from the United Kingdom who was convicted in December 2018 and sentenced to three years in prison. But the real-life identity of HDGZero remained a mystery to both of us, as there was little publicly available information at the time connecting that moniker to anyone.

The DDoS-for-hire service run by Apophis Squad listed their members.

That is, until early January 2019, when news broke that hackers had broken into the servers of computer game maker BlankMediaGames and made off with account details of some 7.6 million people who had signed up to play “Town of Salem,” the company’s browser-based role playing game. That stolen information has since been posted and resold in underground forums.

A review of the leaked BlankMediaGames user database shows that in late 2018, someone who selected the username “hdgzero” signed up to play Town of Salem, registering with the email address xavierfarbel@gmail.com. The data also shows this person registered at the site using a Sprint mobile device with an Internet address that traced back to the Carolinas. Continue reading →


12
Feb 19

Patch Tuesday, February 2019 Edition

Microsoft on Tuesday issued a bevy of patches to correct at least 70 distinct security vulnerabilities in Windows and software designed to interact with various flavors of the operating system. This month’s patch batch tackles some notable threats to enterprises — including multiple flaws that were publicly disclosed prior to Patch Tuesday. It also bundles fixes to quash threats relevant to end users, including critical updates for Adobe Flash Player and Microsoft Office, as well as a zero-day bug in Internet Explorer.

Some 20 of the flaws addressed in February’s update bundle are weaknesses labeled “critical,” meaning Microsoft believes that attackers or malware could exploit them to fully compromise systems through little or no help from users — save from convincing a user to visit a malicious or hacked Web site.

Microsoft patched a bug in Internet Exploder Explorer (CVE-2019-0676) discovered by Google that attackers already are using to target vulnerable systems. This flaw could allow malware or miscreants to check for the presence of specific files on the target’s hard drive.

Another critical vulnerability that impacts both end users and enterprises is a weakness in the Windows component responsible for assigning Internet addresses to host computers (a.k.a. “Windows DHCP client”). That flaw, CVE-2019-0626, could let an attacker execute malcode of his choice just by sending the target a specially crafted DHCP request.

At the top of the list of patch concerns mainly for companies is a publicly disclosed issue with Microsoft Exchange services (CVE-2019-0686) that could allow an attacker on the same network as the target to access the inbox of other users. Microsoft said it has not seen active exploitation of this bug yet, but considers it likely to be exploited soon. Continue reading →


12
Feb 19

Email Provider VFEmail Suffers ‘Catastrophic’ Hack

Email provider VFEmail has suffered what the company is calling “catastrophic destruction” at the hands of an as-yet unknown intruder who trashed all of the company’s primary and backup data in the United States. The firm’s founder says he now fears some 18 years’ worth of customer email may be gone forever.

Founded in 2001 and based in Milwaukee, Wisc., VFEmail provides email service to businesses and end users. The first signs of the attack came on the morning of Feb. 11, when the company’s Twitter account started fielding reports from users who said they were no longer receiving messages. VFEmail’s Twitter account responded that “external facing systems, of differing OS’s and remote authentication, in multiple data centers are down.”

Two hours later, VFEmail tweeted that it had caught a hacker in the act of formatting one of the company’s mail servers in The Netherlands.

“nl101 is up, but no incoming email,” read a tweet shortly thereafter. “I fear all US based data my be lost.”

“At this time, the attacker has formatted all the disks on every server,” wrote VFEmail. “Every VM [virtual machine] is lost. Every file server is lost, every backup server is lost. Strangely, not all VMs shared the same authentication, but all were destroyed. This was more than a multi-password via ssh exploit, and there was no ransom. Just attack and destroy.”

In an update posted to the company’s Web site, VFEmail owner Rick Romero wrote that new email was being delivered and that efforts were being made to recover what user data could be salvaged.

“At this time I am unsure of the status of existing mail for US users,” Romero wrote. “If you have your own email client, DO NOT TRY TO MAKE IT WORK. If you reconnect your client to your new mailbox, all your local mail will be lost.”

Reached by KrebsOnSecurity on Tuesday morning, Romero said he was able to recover a backup drive hosted in The Netherlands, but that he fears all of the mail for U.S. users may be irreparably lost.

“I don’t have very high expectations of getting any U.S. data back,” Romero said in an online chat. Continue reading →


08
Feb 19

Phishers Target Anti-Money Laundering Officers at U.S. Credit Unions

A highly targeted, malware-laced phishing campaign landed in the inboxes of multiple credit unions last week. The missives are raising eyebrows because they were sent only to specific anti-money laundering contacts at credit unions, and many credit union sources say they suspect the non-public data may have been somehow obtained from the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), an independent federal agency that insures deposits at federally insured credit unions.

The USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the terror attacks of Sept 11, 2001, requires all financial institutions to appoint at least two Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) contacts responsible for reporting suspicious financial transactions that may be associated with money laundering. U.S. credit unions are required to register these BSA officers with the NCUA.

On the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 30, BSA officers at credit unions across the nation began receiving emails spoofed to make it look like they were sent by BSA officers at other credit unions.

The missives addressed each contact by name, claimed that a suspicious transfer from one of the recipient credit union’s customers was put on hold for suspected money laundering, and encouraged recipients to open an attached PDF to review the suspect transaction. The PDF itself comes back clean via a scan at Virustotal.com, but the body of the PDF includes a link to a malicious site.

One of the many variations on the malware-laced targeted phishing email sent to dozens of credit unions across the nation last week.

The phishing emails contained grammatical errors and were sent from email addresses not tied to the purported sending credit union. It is not clear if any of the BSA officers who received the messages actually clicked on the attachment, although one credit union source reported speaking with a colleague who feared a BSA contact at their institution may have fallen for the ruse.

One source at an association that works with multiple credit unions who spoke with KrebsOnSecurity on condition of anonymity said many credit unions are having trouble imagining another source for the recipient list other than the NCUA.

“I tried to think of any public ways that the scammers might have received a list of BSA officers, but sites like LinkedIn require contact through the site itself,” the source said. “CUNA [the Credit Union National Association] has BSA certification schools, but they certify state examiners and trade association staff (like me), so non-credit union employees that utilize the school should have received these emails if the list came from them. As far as we know, only credit union BSA officers have received the emails. I haven’t seen anyone who received the email say they were not a BSA officer yet.”

“Wonder where they got the list of BSA contacts at all of our credit unions,” said another credit union source. “They sent it to our BSA officer, and [omitted] said they sent it to her BSA officers.” A BSA officer at a different credit union said their IT department had traced the source of the message they received back to Ukraine.

The NCUA has not responded to multiple requests for comment since Monday. The agency’s instructions for mandatory BSA reporting (PDF) state that the NCUA will not release BSA contact information to the public. Officials with CUNA also did not respond to requests for comment.

A notice posted by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) said the bureau was aware of the phishing campaign, and was urging financial institutions to disregard the missives.

Update, 11:13 a.m. ET: Multiple sources have now confirmed this spam campaign also was sent to BSA contacts at financial institutions other than credit unions, suggesting perhaps another, more inclusive, entity that deals with financial institutions may have leaked the BSA contact data.

Update, 5:26 p.m. ET: The NCUA responded and released the following statement:

Upon learning of the recent spear phishing campaign targeting Bank Secrecy Act officers at credit unions, the NCUA conducted a comprehensive review of its security logs and alerts. This review is completed, and it did not find any indication that information was compromised.

The most recent information available indicates the campaign extends beyond credit unions to other parts of the financial sector.

The NCUA encourages all credit union staff to be wary of suspicious emails, and credit unions may report suspicious activity to the agency. Additional information about phishing and other information security concerns is available on the agency’s Cybersecurity Resources webpage.

Also, the Treasury Department responded to requests for information about this event, stating:

FinCEN is aware of the phishing attempts and we’re examining the circumstances. There is no indication that any FinCEN systems were compromised.

Here is some information on 314(b) from our website

Note that the 314(b) system is designed so that individual compliance officers (registered with FinCEN) can find and directly contact each other. It provides no access to any type of broad financial database.

Continue reading →


06
Feb 19

More Alleged SIM Swappers Face Justice

Prosecutors in Northern California have charged two men with using unauthorized SIM swaps to steal and extort money from victims. One of the individuals charged allegedly used a hacker nickname belonging to a key figure in the underground who’s built a solid reputation hijacking mobile phone numbers for profit.

According to indictments unsealed this week, Tucson, Ariz. resident Ahmad Wagaafe Hared and Matthew Gene Ditman of Las Vegas were part of a group that specialized in tricking or bribing representatives at the major wireless providers into giving them control over phone numbers belonging to people they later targeted for extortion and theft.

Investigators allege that between October 2016 and May 2018, Hared and Ditman grew proficient at SIM swapping, a complex form of mobile phone fraud that is often used to steal large amounts of cryptocurrencies and other items of value from victims.

The Justice Department says Hared was better known to his co-conspirators as “winblo.” That nickname corresponds to an extremely active and at one time revered member of the forum ogusers[.]com, a marketplace for people who wish to sell highly prized social media account names — including short usernames at Twitter, Instagram and other sites that can fetch thousands of dollars apiece.

Winblo’s account on ogusers[.]com

Winblo was an associate and business partner of another top Oguser member, a serial SIM swapper known to Oguser members as “Xzavyer.” In August 2018, authorities in California arrested a hacker by the same name — whose real name is Xzavyer Clemente Narvaez — charging him with identity theft, grand theft, and computer intrusion.

Prosecutors allege Narvaez used the proceeds of his crimes (estimated at > $1 million in virtual currencies) to purchase luxury items, including a McLaren — a $200,000 high-performance sports car.

According to the indictments against Hared and Ditman, one of the men (the indictment doesn’t specify which) allegedly used his ill-gotten gains to purchase a BMW i8, an automobile that sells for about $150,000.

Investigators also say the two men stole approximately 40 bitcoins from their SIM swapping victims. That’s roughly $136,000 in today’s conversion, but it would have been substantially more in 2017 when the price of a single bitcoin reached nearly $20,000.

Interestingly, KrebsOnSecurity was contacted in 2018 by a California man who said he was SIM swapped by Winblo and several associates. That victim, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said his Verizon mobile number was SIM hijacked by Winblo and others who used that access to take over his Twitter and PayPal accounts and then demand payment for the return of the accounts.

A computer specialist by trade, the victim said he was targeted because he’d invested in a cryptocurrency startup, and that the hackers found his contact information from a list of investors they’d somehow obtained. As luck would have it, he didn’t have much of value to steal in his accounts.

The victim said he learned more about his tormentors and exactly how they’d taken over his mobile number after they invited him to an online chat to negotiate a price for the return of his accounts.

“They told me they had called a Verizon employee line [posing as a Verizon employee] and managed to get my Verizon account ID number,” said my victim source. “Once they had that, they called Verizon customer service and had them reset the password. They literally just called and pretended to be me, and were able to get my account tied to another SIM card.”

The victim said his attackers even called his mom because the mobile account was in her name. Soon after that, his phone went dead.

“The funny thing was, after I got my account back the next day, there was a voicemail from a Verizon customer service agent who said something like, ‘Hey [omitted], heard you were having trouble with your line, hope the new SIM card is working okay, give us a call if not, have a nice day.'” Continue reading →


04
Feb 19

Crooks Continue to Exploit GoDaddy Hole

Godaddy.com, the world’s largest domain name registrar, recently addressed an authentication weakness that cybercriminals were using to blast out spam through legitimate, dormant domains. But several more recent malware spam campaigns suggest GoDaddy’s fix hasn’t gone far enough, and that scammers likely still have a sizable arsenal of hijacked GoDaddy domains at their disposal.

On January 22, KrebsOnSecurity published research showing that crooks behind a series of massive sextortion and bomb threat spam campaigns throughout 2018 — an adversary that’s been dubbed “Spammy Bear” —  achieved an unusual amount of inbox delivery by exploiting a weakness at GoDaddy which allowed anyone to add a domain to their GoDaddy account without validating that they actually owned the domain.

Spammy Bear targeted dormant but otherwise legitimate domains that had one thing in common: They all at one time used GoDaddy’s hosted Domain Name System (DNS) service. Researcher Ron Guilmette discovered that Spammy Bear was able to hijack thousands of these dormant domains for spam simply by registering free accounts at GoDaddy and telling the company’s automated DNS service to allow the sending of email with those domains from an Internet address controlled by the spammers.

Very soon after that story ran, GoDaddy said it had put in place a fix for the problem, and had scrubbed more than 4,000 domain names used in the spam campaigns that were identified in my Jan. 22 story. But on or around February 1, a new spam campaign that leveraged similarly hijacked domains at GoDaddy began distributing Gand Crab, a potent strain of ransomware.

As noted in a post last week at the blog MyOnlineSecurity, the Gand Crab campaign used a variety of lures, including fake DHL shipping notices and phony AT&T e-fax alerts. The domains documented by MyOnlineSecurity all had their DNS records altered between Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 to allow the sending of email from Internet addresses tied to two ISPs identified in my original Jan. 22 report on the GoDaddy weakness.

“What makes these malware laden emails much more likely to be delivered is the fact that the sending domains all have a good reputation,” MyOnlineSecurity observed. “There are dozens, if not hundreds of domains involved in this particular campaign. Almost all the domains have been registered for many years, some for more than 10 years.”

A “passive DNS” lookup shows the DNS changes made by the spammers on Jan. 31 for one of the domains used in the Gand Crab spam campaign documented by MyOnlineSecurity. Image: Farsight Security.

In a statement provided to KrebsOnSecurity, GoDaddy said the company was confident the steps it took to address the problem were working as intended, and that GoDaddy had simply overlooked the domains abused in the recent GandCrab spam campaign.

“The domains used in the Gand Crab campaign were modified before then, but we missed them in our initial sweep,” GoDaddy spokesperson Dan Race said. “While we are otherwise confident of the mitigation steps we took to prevent the dangling DNS issue, we are working to identify any other domains that need to be fixed.”

“We do not believe it is possible for a person to hijack the DNS of one or more domains using the same tactics as used in the Spammy Bear and Gand Crab campaigns,” Race continued. “However, we are assessing if there are other methods that may be used to achieve the same results, and we continue our normal monitoring for account takeover. We have also set up a reporting alias at dns-spam-concerns@godaddy.com to make it easier to report any suspicious activity or any details that might help our efforts to stop this kind of abuse.”

That email address is likely to receive quite a few tips in the short run. Virus Bulletin editor Martijn Grooten this week published his analysis on a January 29 malware email campaign that came disguised as a shipping notice from UPS. Grooten said the spam intercepted from that campaign included links to an Internet address that was previously used to distribute GandCrab, and that virtually all of the domains seen sending the fake UPS notices used one of two pairs of DNS servers managed by GoDaddy.

“The majority of domains, which we think had probably had their DNS compromised, still point to the same IP address though,” Grooten wrote. That IP address is currently home to a Web site that sells stolen credit card data.

The fake UPS message used in a Jan. 29 Gand Crab malware spam campaign. Source: Virus Bulletin.

Grooten told KrebsOnSecurity he suspects criminals may have succeeded at actually compromising several of GoDaddy’s hosted DNS servers. For one thing, he said, the same pair (sometimes two pairs) of name servers keep appearing in the same campaign.

“In quite a few campaigns we saw domains used that were alphabetically close, [and] there are other domains used that had moved away from GoDaddy before these campaigns, yet were still used,” Grooten said. “It’s also interesting to note that hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of domains had their DNS changed within a short period of time. Such a thing is hard to do if you have to log into individual accounts.”

GoDaddy said there has been no such breach.

“Our DNS servers have not been compromised,” Race said. “The examples provided were dangled domains that had zone files created by the threat actor prior to when we implemented our mitigation on January 23. These domain names were parked until the threat actors activated them. They had the ability to do that because they owned the zone files already. We’re continuing to review customer accounts for other potential zone entries.”
Continue reading →


01
Feb 19

250 Webstresser Users to Face Legal Action

More than 250 customers of a popular and powerful online attack-for-hire service that was dismantled by authorities in 2018 are expected to face legal action for the damage they caused, according to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency.

In April 2018, investigators in the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands took down attack-for-hire service WebStresser[.]org and arrested its alleged administrators. Prior to the takedown, the service had more than 151,000 registered users and was responsible for launching some four million attacks over three years. Now, those same authorities are targeting people who paid the service to conduct attacks.

Webstresser.org (formerly Webstresser.co), as it appeared in 2017.

In the United Kingdom, police have seized more than 60 personal electronic devices from a number of Webstresser users, and some 250 customers of the service will soon face legal action, Europol said in a statement released this week.

“Size does not matter – all levels of users are under the radar of law enforcement, be it a gamer booting out the competition out of a game, or a high-level hacker carrying out DDoS attacks against commercial targets for financial gain,” Europol officials warned.

The focus on Webstresser’s customers is the latest phase of “Operation Power Off,” which targeted one of the most active services for launching point-and-click distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. WebStresser was one of many so-called “booter” or “stresser” services — virtual hired muscle that even completely unskilled users can rent to knock nearly any website or Internet user offline.

Operation Power Off is part of a broader law enforcement effort to disrupt the burgeoning booter service industry and to weaken demand for such services. In December, authorities in the United States filed criminal charges against three men accused of running booter services, and orchestrated a coordinated takedown of 15 different booter sites.

This seizure notice appeared on the homepage of more than a dozen popular “booter” or “stresser” DDoS-for-hire Web sites in December 2018.

Continue reading →


25
Jan 19

Three Charged for Working With Serial Swatter

The U.S. Justice Department has filed criminal charges against three U.S. men accused of swatting, or making hoax reports of bomb threats or murders in a bid to trigger a heavily armed police response to a target’s address. Investigators say the men, aged 19 to 23, all carried out the attacks with the help of Tyler Barriss, a convicted serial swatter whose last stunt in late 2018 cost a Kansas man his life.

Image: FBI.gov

FBI agents on Wednesday arrested Neal Patel, 23, of Des Plaines, Ill. and Tyler Stewart, 19 of Gulf Breeze, Fla. The third defendant, Logan Patten, 19, of Greenwood, Mo., agreed to turn himself in. The men are charged in three separate indictments with conspiracy and conveying false information about the use of explosive devices.

Investigators say Patten, who used the Twitter handle “@spared,” hired Barriss in December 2017 to swat individuals and a high school in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Around the same time, Stewart, a.k.a. “@tragic” on Twitter, allegedly worked with Barriss to make two phony bomb threats to evacuate a high school in Gurnee, Ill. In that incident, Barriss admitted telling police in Gurnee he had left explosives in a classroom and was high on methamphetamine and was thinking about shooting teachers and students.

Also in December 2017, Patel allegedly worked with Barriss to plan a bomb threat targeting a video game convention in Dallas, Texas. Patel is also accused of using stolen credit cards to buy items of clothing for Barriss.

The Justice Department’s media release on the indictments doesn’t specify which convention Barriss and Patel allegedly swatted, but a Wired story from last year tied Barriss to a similarly timed bomb threat that caused the evacuation of a major Call of Duty tournament at the Dallas Convention Center.

“When the social media star SoaR Ashtronova tweeted about the confusion she felt as she fled the event beneath the whir of police helicopters, Barriss taunted her from one of his Twitter accounts: ‘It got ran, baby girl. Thats what happens,” Wired reported.

Interestingly, it was a dispute over a $1.50 grudge match in a Call of Duty game that would ultimately lead to Barriss’s final — and fatal — swatting. On Dec. 28, 2017, Barriss phoned police in Wichita, Kan. from his location in California, telling them he was a local man who’d just shot his father and was holding other family members hostage. Continue reading →


23
Jan 19

How the U.S. Govt. Shutdown Harms Security

The ongoing partial U.S. federal government shutdown is having a tangible, negative impact on cybercrime investigations, according to interviews with federal law enforcement investigators and a report issued this week by a group representing the interests of FBI agents. Even if lawmakers move forward on new proposals to reopen the government, sources say the standoff is likely to have serious repercussions for federal law enforcement agencies for years to come.

One federal agent with more than 20 years on the job told KrebsOnSecurity the shutdown “is crushing our ability to take the fight to cyber criminals.”

“The talent drain after this is finally resolved will cost us five years,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “Literally everyone I know who is able to retire or can find work in the private sector is actively looking, and the smart private companies are aware and actively recruiting. As a nation, we are much less safe from a cyber security posture than we were a month ago.”

The source said his agency can’t even get agents and analysts the higher clearances needed for sensitive cases because everyone who does the clearance processing is furloughed.

“Investigators who are eligible to retire or who simply wish to walk away from their job aren’t retiring or quitting now because they can’t even be processed out due to furlough of the organization’s human resources people,” the source said. “These are criminal investigations involving national security. It’s also a giant distraction and people aren’t as focused.”

The source’s comments echoed some of the points made in a 72-page report (PDF) released this week by the FBI Agents Association, a group that advocates on behalf of active and retired FBI special agents.

“Today we have no funds for making Confidential Human Source payments,” reads a quote from the FBIAA report, attributed to an agent in the FBI’s northeast region. “In my situation, I have two sources that support our national security cyber mission that no longer have funding. They are critical sources providing tripwires and intelligence that protect the United States against our foreign adversaries. The loss in productivity and pertinent intelligence is immeasurable.”

My federal law enforcement source mentioned his agency also was unable to pay confidential informants for their help with ongoing investigations.

“We are having the same problems like not being able to pay informants, no travel, critical case coordination meetings postponed, and no procurements to further the mission,” the source said.

The extended shutdown directly affects more than 800,000 workers, many of them furloughed or required to work without pay. Some federal employees, now missing at least two back-to-back paychecks, are having trouble keeping food on the table. CNN reports that FBI field offices across the country are opening food banks to help support special agents and staff struggling without pay.

An extended lack of pay is forcing many agents to seek side hustles and jobs, despite rules that seek to restrict such activity, according to media reports. Missing multiple paychecks also can force investigators to take on additional debt. This is potentially troublesome because excess debt down the road can lead to problems keeping one’s security clearances.

Excessive debt is a threat to clearances because it can make people more susceptible to being drawn into illegal activities or taking bribes for money, which in turn may leave them vulnerable to extortion. Indeed, this story from Clearancejobs.com observes that the shutdown may be inadvertently creating new recruiting opportunities for foreign intelligence operatives.

“If you are a hostile intelligence service human intelligence (HUMINT) targeting officer you are hoping this situation lasts a long time and has a multitude of unintended consequences affecting the cleared government employee population,” writes Christopher Burgess. Continue reading →


22
Jan 19

Bomb Threat, Sextortion Spammers Abused Weakness at GoDaddy.com

Two of the most disruptive and widely-received spam email campaigns over the past few months — including an ongoing sextortion email scam and a bomb threat hoax that shut down dozens of schools, businesses and government buildings late last year — were made possible thanks to an authentication weakness at GoDaddy.com, the world’s largest domain name registrar, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

Perhaps more worryingly, experts warn this same weakness that let spammers hijack domains tied to GoDaddy also affects a great many other major Internet service providers, and is actively being abused to launch phishing and malware attacks which leverage dormant Web site names currently owned and controlled by some of the world’s most trusted corporate names and brands.

In July 2018, email users around the world began complaining of receiving spam which began with a password the recipient used at some point in the past and threatened to release embarrassing videos of the recipient unless a bitcoin ransom was paid. On December 13, 2018, a similarly large spam campaign was blasted out, threatening that someone had planted bombs within the recipient’s building that would be detonated unless a hefty bitcoin ransom was paid by the end of the business day.

Experts at Cisco Talos and other security firms quickly drew parallels between the two mass spam campaigns, pointing to a significant overlap in Russia-based Internet addresses used to send the junk emails. Yet one aspect of these seemingly related campaigns that has been largely overlooked is the degree to which each achieved an unusually high rate of delivery to recipients.

Large-scale spam campaigns often are conducted using newly-registered or hacked email addresses, and/or throwaway domains. The trouble is, spam sent from these assets is trivial to block because anti-spam and security systems tend to discard or mark as spam any messages that appear to come from addresses which have no known history or reputation attached to them.

However, in both the sextortion and bomb threat spam campaigns, the vast majority of the email was being sent through Web site names that had already existed for some time, and indeed even had a trusted reputation. Not only that, new research shows many of these domains were registered long ago and are still owned by dozens of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies. 

That’s according to Ron Guilmette, a dogged anti-spam researcher. Researching the history and reputation of thousands of Web site names used in each of the extortionist spam campaigns, Guilmette made a startling discovery: Virtually all of them had at one time received service from GoDaddy.com, a Scottsdale, Ariz. based domain name registrar and hosting provider.

Guilmette told KrebsOnSecurity he initially considered the possibility that GoDaddy had been hacked, or that thousands of the registrar’s customers perhaps had their GoDaddy usernames and passwords stolen.

But as he began digging deeper, Guilmette came to the conclusion that the spammers were exploiting an obscure — albeit widespread — weakness among hosting companies, cloud providers and domain registrars that was first publicly detailed in 2016.

EARLY WARNING SIGNS

In August 2016, security researcher Matthew Bryant wrote about a weakness that could be used to hijack email service for 20,000 established domain names at a U.S. based hosting provider. A few months later, Bryant warned that the same technique could be leveraged to send spam from more than 120,000 trusted domains across multiple providers. And Guilmette says he now believes the attack method detailed by Bryant also explains what’s going on in the more recent sextortion and bomb threat spams.

Grasping the true breadth of Bryant’s prescient discovery requires a brief and simplified primer on how Web sites work. Your Web browser knows how to find a Web site name like example.com thanks to the global Domain Name System (DNS), which serves as a kind of phone book for the Internet by translating human-friendly Web site names (example.com) into numeric Internet address that are easier for computers to manage.

When someone wants to register a domain at a registrar like GoDaddy, the registrar will typically provide two sets of DNS records that the customer then needs to assign to his domain. Those records are crucial because they allow Web browsers to figure out the Internet address of the hosting provider that’s serving that Web site domain. Like many other registrars, GoDaddy lets new customers use their managed DNS services for free for a period of time (in GoDaddy’s case it’s 30 days), after which time customers must pay for the service.

The crux of Bryant’s discovery was that the spammers in those 2016 campaigns learned that countless hosting firms and registrars would allow anyone to add a domain to their account without ever validating that the person requesting the change actually owned the domain. Here’s what Bryant wrote about the threat back in 2016:

“In addition to the hijacked domains often having past history and a long age, they also have WHOIS information which points to real people unrelated to the person carrying out the attack. Now if an attacker launches a malware campaign using these domains, it will be harder to pinpoint who/what is carrying out the attack since the domains would all appear to be just regular domains with no observable pattern other than the fact that they all use cloud DNS. It’s an attacker’s dream, troublesome attribution and an endless number of names to use for malicious campaigns.”

SAY WHAT?

For a more concrete example of what’s going on here, we’ll look at just one of the 4,000+ domains that Guilmette found were used in the Dec. 13, 2018 bomb threat hoax. Virtualfirefox.com is a domain registered via GoDaddy in 2013 and currently owned by The Mozilla Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation — the makers of the popular Firefox Web browser.

The domain’s registration has been renewed each year since its inception, but the domain itself has sat dormant for some time. When it was initially set up, it took advantage of two managed DNS servers assigned to it by GoDaddy — ns17.domaincontrol.com, and ns18.domaincontrol.com.

GoDaddy is a massive hosting provider, and it has more than 100 such DNS servers to serve the needs of its clients. To hijack this domain, the attackers in the December 2018 spam campaign needed only to have created a free account at GoDaddy that was assigned the exact same DNS servers handed out to Virtualfirefox.com (ns17.domaincontrol.com and ns18.domaincontrol.com). After that, the attackers simply claim ownership over the domain, and tell GoDaddy to allow the sending of email with that domain from an Internet address they control.

Mozilla spokesperson Ellen Canale said Mozilla took ownership of virtualfirefox.com in September 2017 after a trademark dispute, but that the DNS nameserver for the record was not reset until January of 2019.

“This oversight created a state where the DNS pointed to a server controlled by a third party, leaving it vulnerable to misuse,” Canale said. “We’ve reviewed the configuration of both our registrar and nameservers and have found no indication of misuse. In addition to addressing the immediate problem, we have reviewed the entire catalog of properties we own to ensure they are properly configured.”

According to both Guilmette and Bryant, this type of hijack is possible because GoDaddy — like many other managed DNS providers — does little to check whether someone with an existing account (free or otherwise) who is claiming ownership over a given domain actually controls that domain name.

Contacted by KrebsOnSecurity, GoDaddy acknowledged the authentication weakness documented by Guilmette.

“After investigating the matter, our team confirmed that a threat actor(s) abused our DNS setup process,” the company said in an emailed statement.

“We’ve identified a fix and are taking corrective action immediately,” the statement continued. “While those responsible were able to create DNS entries on dormant domains, at no time did account ownership change nor was customer information exposed.” Continue reading →