By now, many of you loyal KrebsOnSecurity readers have seen stories in the mainstream press about the coordinated global law enforcement takedown of Darkode[dot]me, an English-language cybercrime forum that served as a breeding ground for botnets, malware and just about every other form of virtual badness. This post is an attempt to distill several years’ worth of lurking on this forum into a narrative that hopefully sheds light on the individuals apprehended in this sting and the cybercrime forum scene in general.
To tell this tale completely would take a book the size of The Bible, but it’s useful to note that the history of Darkode — formerly darkode[dot]com — traces several distinct epochs that somewhat neatly track the rise and fall of the forum’s various leaders. What follows is a brief series of dossiers on those leaders, as well as a look at who these people are in real life.
Darkode began almost eight years ago as a pet project of Matjaz Skorjanc, a now-36-year-old Slovenian hacker best known under the hacker alisas “Iserdo.” Skorjanc was one of several individuals named in the complaints published today by the U.S. Justice Department.
Iserdo was best known as the author of the ButterFly Bot, a plug-and-play malware strain that allowed even the most novice of would-be cybercriminals to set up a global cybercrime operation capable of harvesting data from thousands of infected PCs, and using the enslaved systems for crippling attacks on Web sites. Iserdo was arrested by Slovenian authorities in 2010. According to investigators, his ButterFly Bot kit sold for prices ranging from $500 to $2,000.
In May 2010, I wrote a story titled Accused Mariposa Botnet Operators Sought Jobs at Spanish Security Firm, which detailed how several of Skorjanc’s alleged associates actually applied for jobs at Panda Security, an antivirus and security firm based in Spain. At the time, Skorjanc and his buddies were already under the watchful eye of the Spanish police.
Following Iserdo’s arrest, control of the forum fell to a hacker known variously as “Mafi,” “Crim” and “Synthet!c,” who according to the U.S. Justice Department is a 27-year-old Swedish man named Johan Anders Gudmunds. Mafi is accused of serving as the administrator of Darkode, and creating and selling malware that allowed hackers to build botnets. The Justice Department also alleges that Gudmunds operated his own botnet, “which at times consisted of more than 50,000 computers, and used his botnet to steal data from the users of those computers on approximately 200,000,000 occasions.”
Mafi was best known for creating the Crimepack exploit kit, a prepackaged bundle of commercial crimeware that attackers can use to booby-trap hacked Web sites with malicious software. Mafi’s stewardship over the forum coincided with the admittance of several high-profile Russian cybercriminals, including “Paunch,” an individual arrested in Russia in 2013 for selling a competing and far more popular exploit kit called Blackhole.
Paunch worked with another Darkode member named “J.P. Morgan,” who at one point maintained an $800,000 budget for buying so-called “zero-day vulnerabilities,” critical flaws in widely-used commercial software like Flash and Java that could be used to deploy malicious software.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mafi’s reign as administrator of Darkode coincided with the massive infiltration of the forum by a number of undercover law enforcement investigators, as well as several freelance security researchers (including this author).
As a result, Mafi spent much of his time devising new ways to discover which user accounts on Darkode were those used by informants, feds and researchers, and which were “legitimate” cybercriminals looking to ply their wares.
For example, in mid-2013 Mafi and his associates cooked up a scheme to create a fake sales thread for a zero-day vulnerability — all in a bid to uncover which forum participants were researchers or feds who might be lurking on the forum.
That plan, which relied on a clever watermarking scheme designed to “out” any forum members who posted screen shots of the forum online, worked well but also gave investigators key clues about the forum’s hierarchy and reporting structure.
Mafi worked closely with another prominent Darkode member nicknamed “Fubar,” and together the two of them advertised sales of a botnet crimeware package called Ngrbot (according to Mafi’s private messages on the forum, this was short for “Niggerbot.” The password databases from several of Mafi’s accounts on hacked cybercrime forums included variations on the word “nigger” in some form). Mafi also advertised the sale of botnets based on “Grum” a spam botnet whose source code was leaked in 2013.
Conspicuously absent from the Justice Department’s press release on this takedown is any mention of Darkode’s most recent administrator — a hacker who goes by the handle “Sp3cial1st.”
Better known to Darkode members at “Sp3c,” this individual’s principal contribution to the forum seems to have revolved around a desire to massively expand the membership of the form, as well as an obsession with purging the community of anyone who even remotely might emit a whiff of being a fed or researcher.
Sp3c is a well-known core member of the Lizard Squad, a group of mostly low-skilled miscreants who specialize in launching distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS) aimed at knocking Web sites offline.
In late 2014, the Lizard Squad took responsibility for launching a series of high-profile DDoS attacks that knocked offline the online gaming networks of Sony and Microsoft for the majority of Christmas Day.
In the first few days of 2015, KrebsOnSecurity was taken offline by a series of large and sustained denial-of-service attacks apparently orchestrated by the Lizard Squad. As I noted in a previous story, the booter service — lizardstresser[dot]su — was hosted at an Internet provider in Bosnia that is home to a large number of malicious and hostile sites. As detailed in this story, the same botnet that took Sony and Microsoft offline was built using a global network of hacked wireless routers.
That provider happens to be on the same “bulletproof” hosting network advertised by sp3cial1st. At the time, Darkode and LizardStresser shared the same Internet address.
Another key individual named in the Justice Department’s complaint against Darkode is a hacker known in the underground as “KMS.” The government says KMS is a 28-year-old from Opelousas, Louisiana named Rory Stephen Guidry, who used the Jabber instant message address “email@example.com.” Having interacted with this individual on numerous occasions, I’d be remiss if I didn’t explain why this person is perhaps the least culpable and yet most interesting of the group named in the law enforcement purge.
For the past 12 months, KMS has been involved in an effort to expose the Lizard Squad members, to varying degrees of success. There are few individuals I would consider more skilled in tricking people into divulging information that is not in their best interests than this guy.
Near as I can tell, KMS has worked assiduously to expose the people behind the Lizard Squad and, by extension, the core members of Darkode. Unfortunately for KMS, his activities also appear to have ensnared him in this investigation.
To be clear, nobody is saying KMS is a saint. KMS’s best friend, a hacker from Kentucky named Ryan King (a.k.a. “Starfall” and a semi-frequent commenter on this blog), says KMS routinely had trouble seeing the lines between exposing others and involving himself in their activities. Here’s one recording of him making a fake emergency call to the FBI, disguising his voice as that of President Obama.
KMS is rumored to have played a part in exposing the Lizard Squad’s February 2015 hijack of Google.com’s domain in Vietnam. The message left behind in that crime suggested this author was somehow responsible, along with Sp3c and a Rory Andrew Godfrey, the only name that KMS was known under publicly until this week’s law enforcement action.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one who knew his real name,” King said. “The only botnets that he operated were those that he social engineered out of [less skilled hackers], but even those he was trying get shut down. All I know is that he and I were trying to get [root] access to Darkode and destroy it, and the feds beat us to it by about a week.”
The U.S. government sees things otherwise. Included in a heavily-redacted affidavit (PDF) related to Guidry’s case are details of a pricing structure that investigators say KMS used to sell access to hacked machines (see screenshot below)
Many other individuals operating under a number of hacker names were called out in the Justice Department press release about this action. Perhaps some of them are mentioned in this subset of my personal archive of screen shots from Darkode, hosted here. Happy hunting.
One final note: As happens with many of these takedowns, the bad guys don’t just go away: They go someplace else. In this case, that someplace else is most likely to be a Deep Web or Dark Web forum accessible only via Tor: According to chats observed from Sp3c’s public and private online accounts, the forum is getting ready to move much further underground.
The Justice Department press release on this action is here, which includes links to charging documents on most of the defendants.
Update, 8:55 p.m. ET: Removed a sentence fragment that confused Iserdo with other individuals connected to his indictment.