November, 2018


30
Nov 18

Marriott: Data on 500 Million Guests Stolen in 4-Year Breach

Hospitality giant Marriott today disclosed a massive data breach exposing the personal and financial information on as many as a half billion customers who made reservations at any of its Starwood properties over the past four years.

Marriott said the breach involved unauthorized access to a database containing guest information tied to reservations made at Starwood properties on or before Sept. 10, 2018, and that its ongoing investigation suggests the perpetrators had been inside the company’s networks since 2014.

Marriott said the intruders encrypted information from the hacked database (likely to avoid detection by any data-loss prevention tools when removing the stolen information from the company’s network), and that its efforts to decrypt that data set was not yet complete. But so far the hotel network believes that the encrypted data cache includes information on up to approximately 500 million guests who made a reservation at a Starwood property.

“For approximately 327 million of these guests, the information includes some combination of name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date and communication preferences,” Marriott said in a statement released early Friday morning.

Marriott added that customer payment card data was protected by encryption technology, but that the company couldn’t rule out the possibility the attackers had also made off with the encryption keys needed to decrypt the data.

The hotel chain did not say precisely when in 2014 the breach was thought to have begun, but it’s worth noting that Starwood disclosed its own breach involving more than 50 properties in November 2015, just days after being acquired by Marriott. According to Starwood’s disclosure at the time, that earlier breach stretched back at least one year — to November 2014. Continue reading →


26
Nov 18

Half of all Phishing Sites Now Have the Padlock

Maybe you were once advised to “look for the padlock” as a means of telling legitimate e-commerce sites from phishing or malware traps. Unfortunately, this has never been more useless advice. New research indicates that half of all phishing scams are now hosted on Web sites whose Internet address includes the padlock and begins with “https://”.

A live Paypal phishing site that uses https:// (has the green padlock).

Recent data from anti-phishing company PhishLabs shows that 49 percent of all phishing sites in the third quarter of 2018 bore the padlock security icon next to the phishing site domain name as displayed in a browser address bar. That’s up from 25 percent just one year ago, and from 35 percent in the second quarter of 2018.

This alarming shift is notable because a majority of Internet users have taken the age-old “look for the lock” advice to heart, and still associate the lock icon with legitimate sites. A PhishLabs survey conducted last year found more than 80% of respondents believed the green lock indicated a website was either legitimate and/or safe.

In reality, the https:// part of the address (also called “Secure Sockets Layer” or SSL) merely signifies the data being transmitted back and forth between your browser and the site is encrypted and can’t be read by third parties. The presence of the padlock does not mean the site is legitimate, nor is it any proof the site has been security-hardened against intrusion from hackers.

A live Facebook phish that uses SSL (has the green padlock).

Most of the battle to combat cybercrime involves defenders responding to offensive moves made by attackers. But the rapidly increasing adoption of SSL by phishers is a good example in which fraudsters are taking their cue from legitimate sites.

“PhishLabs believes that this can be attributed to both the continued use of SSL certificates by phishers who register their own domain names and create certificates for them, as well as a general increase in SSL due to the Google Chrome browser now displaying ‘Not secure’ for web sites that do not use SSL,” said John LaCour, chief technology officer for the company. “The bottom line is that the presence or lack of SSL doesn’t tell you anything about a site’s legitimacy.”

The major Web browser makers work with a number of security organizations to index and block new phishing sites, often serving bright red warning pages that flag the page of a phishing scam and seek to discourage people from visiting the sites. But not all phishing scams get flagged so quickly.

I spent a few minutes browsing phishtank.com for phishing sites that use SSL, and found this cleverly crafted page that attempts to phish credentials from users of Bibox, a cryptocurrency exchange. Click the image below and see if you can spot what’s going on with this Web address:

This live phish targets users of cryptocurrency exchange Bibox. Look carefully at the URL in the address bar, and you’ll notice a squiggly mark over the “i” in Bibox. This is an internationalized domain name, and the real address is https://www.xn--bbox-vw5a[.]com/login

Continue reading →


23
Nov 18

How to Shop Online Like a Security Pro

‘Tis the season when even those who know a thing or two about Internet scams tend to let down their guard in the face of an eye-popping discount or the stress of last-minute holiday shopping. So here’s a quick refresher course on how to make it through the next few weeks without getting snookered online.

Adopting a shopping strategy of simply buying from the online merchant with the lowest advertised prices can be a bit like playing Russian Roulette with your wallet, for the simple reason that there are tons of completely fake e-commerce sites out there looking to separate the unwary from their credit card details.

Even people who shop mainly at big-name online stores can get scammed if they’re not wary of too-good-to-be-true offers. For example, KrebsOnSecurity got taken for hundreds of dollars just last year after trying to buy a pricey Sonos speaker from an established Amazon merchant who was selling it new and unboxed at huge discount.

I later received an email from the seller, who said his Amazon account had been hacked and abused by scammers to create fake sales. Amazon ultimately refunded the money, but if this happens to you around the holidays it could derail plans to get all your shopping done before the expected gift-giving day arrives.

Here are some other safety and security tips to keep in mind when shopping online:

-WHEN IN DOUBT, CHECK ‘EM OUT: If you don’t know much about the online merchant that has the item you wish to buy, take a few minutes to investigate its reputation. After all, it’s not uncommon for bargain basement phantom Web sites to materialize during the holiday season, and then vanish forever not long afterward.

If you’re buying from an online store that is brand new, the risk that you will get scammed increases significantly.  How do you know the lifespan of a site selling that must-have gadget at the lowest price? One easy way to get a quick idea is to run a basic WHOIS search on the site’s domain name. The more recent the site’s “created” date, the more likely it is a phantom store.

-USE A CREDIT CARD: It’s nearly impossible for consumers to tell how secure a main street or online merchant is, and safety seals or attestations that something is “hacker safe” are a guarantee of nothing. In my experience, such sites are just as likely to be compromised as e-commerce sites without these dubious security seals.

No, it’s best just to shop as if they’re all compromised. With that in mind, if you have the choice between using a credit or debit card, shop with your credit card.

Sure, the card associations and your bank are quick to point out that you’re not liable for fraudulent charges that you report in a timely manner, whether it’s debit or a credit card. But this assurance may ring hollow if you wake up one morning to find your checking accounts emptied by card thieves after shopping at a breached merchant with a debit card.

Who pays for the fees levied against you by different merchants when your checks bounce? You do. Does the bank reimburse you when your credit score takes a ding because your mortgage or car payment was late? Don’t hold your breath.

-PADLOCK, SCHMADLOCK: For years, consumers have been told to look for the padlock when shopping online. Maybe this was once sound advice. But to my mind, the “look for the lock” mantra has created a false sense of security for many Internet users, and has contributed to a dangerous and widespread misunderstanding about what the lock icon is really meant to convey.

To be clear, you absolutely should run away from any e-commerce site that does not include the padlock (i.e., its Web address does not begin with “https://”).  But the presence of a padlock icon next to the Web site name in your browser’s address bar does not mean the site is legitimate. Nor is it any sort of testimonial that the site has been security-hardened against intrusion from hackers.

The https:// part of the address merely signifies that the data being transmitted back and forth between your browser and the site is encrypted and can’t be read by third parties. Even so, anti-phishing company PhishLabs found in a survey last year that more than 80% of respondents believed the green lock indicated that a website was either legitimate and/or safe.

Now that anyone can get SSL certificates for free, phishers and other scammers that ply their trade via fake Web sites are starting to up their game. In December 2017, PhishLabs estimated that a quarter of all phishing Web sites were outfitting their scam pages with SSL certificates to make them appear more trustworthy. According to PhishLabs, roughly half of all phishing sites now feature the padlock.  Continue reading →


21
Nov 18

USPS Site Exposed Data on 60 Million Users

U.S. Postal Service just fixed a security weakness that allowed anyone who has an account at usps.com to view account details for some 60 million other users, and in some cases to modify account details on their behalf.

Image: USPS.com

KrebsOnSecurity was contacted last week by a researcher who discovered the problem, but who asked to remain anonymous. The researcher said he informed the USPS about his finding more than a year ago yet never received a response. After confirming his findings, this author contacted the USPS, which promptly addressed the issue.

The problem stemmed from an authentication weakness in a USPS Web component known as an “application program interface,” or API — basically, a set of tools defining how various parts of an online application such as databases and Web pages should interact with one another.

The API in question was tied to a Postal Service initiative called “Informed Visibility,” which according to the USPS is designed to let businesses, advertisers and other bulk mail senders “make better business decisions by providing them with access to near real-time tracking data” about mail campaigns and packages.

In addition to exposing near real-time data about packages and mail being sent by USPS commercial customers, the flaw let any logged-in usps.com user query the system for account details belonging to any other users, such as email address, username, user ID, account number, street address, phone number, authorized users, mailing campaign data and other information.

Many of the API’s features accepted “wildcard” search parameters, meaning they could be made to return all records for a given data set without the need to search for specific terms. No special hacking tools were needed to pull this data, other than knowledge of how to view and modify data elements processed by a regular Web browser like Chrome or Firefox.

A USPS brochure advertising the features and benefits of Informed Visibility.

In cases where multiple accounts shared a common data element — such as a street address — using the API to search for one specific data element often brought up multiple records. For example, a search on the email addresses for readers who volunteered to help with this research turned up multiple accounts when those users had more than one user signed up at the same physical address.

“This is not good,” said one anonymous reader who volunteered to help with this research, after viewing a cut-and-paste of his USPS account details looked up via his email address. “Especially since we moved due to being threatened by a neighbor.”

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and lecturer at UC Berkeley, said the API should have validated that the account making the request had permission to read the data requested.

“This is not even Information Security 101, this is Information Security 1, which is to implement access control,” Weaver said. “It seems like the only access control they had in place was that you were logged in at all. And if you can access other peoples’ data because they aren’t enforcing access controls on reading that data, it’s catastrophically bad and I’m willing to bet they’re not enforcing controls on writing to that data as well.”

A cursory review by KrebsOnSecurity indicates the promiscuous API let any user request account changes for any other user, such as email address, phone number or other key details.

Fortunately, the USPS appears to have included a validation step to prevent unauthorized changes — at least with some data fields. Attempts to modify the email address associated with my USPS account via the API prompted a confirmation message sent to the email address tied to that account (which required clicking a link in the email to complete the change).

It does not appear USPS account passwords were exposed via this API, although KrebsOnSecurity conducted only a very brief and limited review of the API’s rather broad functionality before reporting the issue to the USPS. The API at issue resides here; a copy of the API prior to its modification on Nov. 20 by the USPS is available here as a text file. Continue reading →


14
Nov 18

Calif. Man Pleads Guilty in Fatal Swatting Case, Faces 20+ Years in Prison

A California man who pleaded guilty Tuesday to causing dozens of swatting attacks — including a deadly incident in Kansas last year — now faces 20 or more years in prison.

Tyler Raj Barriss, in an undated selfie.

Tyler Barriss, 25, went by the nickname SWAuTistic on Twitter, and reveled in perpetrating “swatting” attacks. These dangerous hoaxes involve making false claims to emergency responders about phony hostage situations or bomb threats, with the intention of prompting a heavily-armed police response to the location of the claimed incident.

On Dec. 28, 2017, Barriss placed a call from California to police in Wichita, Kansas, claiming that he was a local resident who’d just shot his father and was holding other family members hostage.

When Wichita officers responded to the address given by the caller — 1033 W. McCormick — they shot and killed 28-year-old Andrew Finch, a father of two who had done nothing wrong.

Barriss admitted setting that fatal swatting attack in motion after getting in the middle of a dispute between two Call of Duty gamers, 18-year-old Casey Viner from Ohio and Shane Gaskill, 20, from Wichita.

Viner allegedly asked Barriss to swat Gaskill. But when Gaskill noticed Barriss’ Twitter account (@swattingaccount) suddenly following him online, he tried to deflect the attack. Barriss says Gaskill allegedly dared him to go ahead with the swat, but then gave Barriss an old home address — 1033 W. McCormick — which was then being occupied by Finch’s family.

Viner and Gaskill are awaiting trial. A more detailed account of their alleged dispute is told here.

According to the Justice Department, Barriss pleaded guilty to making hoax bomb threats in phone calls to the headquarters of the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C. He also made bomb threat and swatting calls from Los Angeles to emergency numbers in Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Massachusetts, Illinois, Utah, Virginia, Texas, Arizona, Missouri, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, New York, Michigan, Florida and Canada.

U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said Barriss faces 20 years or more in prison. Barriss is due to be sentenced Jan. 30, 2019.

Many readers following this story over the past year have commented here that the officer who fired the shot which killed Andrew Finch should also face prosecution. However, the district attorney for the county that encompasses Wichita decided in April that the officer will not face charges, and will not be named because he isn’t being charged with a crime. Continue reading →


14
Nov 18

Patch Tuesday, November 2018 Edition

Microsoft on Tuesday released 16 software updates to fix more than 60 security holes in various flavors of Windows and other Microsoft products. Adobe also has security patches available for Flash Player, Acrobat and Reader users.

As per usual, most of the critical flaws — those that can be exploited by malware or miscreants without any help from users — reside in Microsoft’s Web browsers Edge and Internet Explorer.

This week’s patch batch addresses two flaws of particular urgency: One is a zero-day vulnerability (CVE-2018-8589) that is already being exploited to compromise Windows 7 and Server 2008 systems.

The other is a publicly disclosed bug in Microsoft’s Bitlocker encryption technology (CVE-2018-8566) that could allow an attacker to get access to encrypted data. One mitigating factor with both security holes is that the attacker would need to be already logged in to the targeted system to exploit them.

Of course, if the target has Adobe Reader or Acrobat installed, it might be easier for attackers to achieve that log in. According to analysis from security vendor Qualys, there is now code publicly available that could force these two products to leak a hash of the user’s Windows password (which could then be cracked with open-source tools). A new update for Acrobat/Reader fixes this bug, and Adobe has published some mitigation suggestions as well. Continue reading →


13
Nov 18

That Domain You Forgot to Renew? Yeah, it’s Now Stealing Credit Cards

If you own a domain name that gets decent traffic and you fail to pay its annual renewal fee, chances are this mistake will be costly for you and for others. Lately, neglected domains have been getting scooped up by crooks who use them to set up fake e-commerce sites that steal credit card details from unwary shoppers.

For nearly 10 years, Portland, Ore. resident Julie Randall posted pictures for her photography business at julierandallphoto-dot-com, and used an email address at that domain to communicate with clients. The domain was on auto-renew for most of that time, but a change in her credit card details required her to update her records at the domain registrar — a task Randall says she now regrets putting off.

Julierandallphoto-dot-com is now one of hundreds of fake ecommerce sites set up to steal credit card details.

That’s because in June of this year the domain expired, and control over her site went to someone who purchased it soon after. Randall said she didn’t notice at the time because she was in the middle of switching careers, didn’t have any active photography clients, and had gotten out of the habit of checking that email account.

Randall said she only realized she’d lost her domain after failing repeatedly to log in to her Instagram account, which was registered to an email address at julierandallphoto-dot-com.

“When I tried to reset the account password through Instagram’s procedure, I could see that the email address on the account had been changed to a .ru email,” Randall told KrebsOnSecurity. “I still don’t have access to it because I don’t have access to the email account tied to my old domain. It feels a little bit like the last ten years of my life have kind of been taken away.”

Visit julierandallphoto.com today and you’ll see a Spanish language site selling Reebok shoes (screenshot above). The site certainly looks like a real e-commerce shop; it has plenty of product pages and images, and of course a shopping cart. But the site is noticeably devoid of any SSL certificate (the entire site is http://, not https://), and the products for sale are all advertised for roughly half their normal cost.

A review of the neighboring domains that reside at Internet addresses adjacent to julierandallphoto-dot-com (196.196.152/153.x, etc.) shows hundreds of other domains that were apparently registered upon expiration over the past few months and which now feature similar http-only online shops in various languages pimping low-priced, name brand shoes and other clothing.

Until earlier this year, wildcatgroomers-dot-com belonged to a company in Wisconsin that sold equipment for grooming snowmobile trails. It’s now advertising running shoes. Likewise, kavanaghsirishpub-dot-com corresponded to a pub and restaurant in Tennessee until mid-2018; now it’s pretending to sell cheap Nike shoes.

So what’s going here?

According to an in-depth report jointly released today by security firms Flashpoint and RiskIQ, the sites are almost certainly set up simply to siphon payment card data from unwary shoppers looking for specific designer footwear and other clothing at bargain basement prices.

“We have observed more than 800 sites hosting these brand impersonation/skimming stores since June 2018,” the report notes.

Continue reading →


9
Nov 18

Bug Bounty Hunter Ran ISP Doxing Service

A Connecticut man who’s earned bug bounty rewards and public recognition from top telecom companies for finding and reporting security holes in their Web sites secretly operated a service that leveraged these same flaws to sell their customers’ personal data, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

In May 2018, ZDNet ran a story about the discovery of a glaring vulnerability in the Web site for wireless provider T-Mobile that let anyone look up customer home addresses and account PINs. The story noted that T-Mobile disabled the feature in early April after being alerted by a 22-year-old “security researcher” named Ryan Stevenson, and that the mobile giant had awarded Stevenson $1,000 for reporting the discovery under its bug bounty program.

The Twitter account @phobia, a.k.a. Ryan Stevenson. The term “plug” referenced next to his Twitch profile name is hacker slang for employees at mobile phone stores who can be tricked or bribed into helping with SIM swap attacks.

Likewise, AT&T has recognized Stevenson for reporting security holes in its services. AT&T’s bug bounty site lets contributors share a social media account or Web address where they can be contacted, and in Stevenson’s case he gave the now-defunct Twitter handle “@Phoobia.”

Stevenson’s Linkedin profile — named “Phobias” — says he specializes in finding exploits in numerous Web sites, including hotmail.com, yahoo.com, aol.com, paypal.com and ebay.com. Under the “contact info” tab of Stevenson’s profile it lists the youtube.com account of “Ryan” and the Facebook account “Phobia” (also now deleted).

Coincidentally, I came across multiple variations on this Phobia nickname as I was researching a story published this week on the epidemic of fraudulent SIM swaps, a complex form of mobile phone fraud that is being used to steal millions of dollars in cryptocurrencies.

Unauthorized SIM swaps also are often used to hijack so-called “OG” user accounts — usually short usernames on top social network and gaming Web sites that are highly prized by many hackers because they can make the account holder appear to have been a savvy, early adopter of the service before it became popular and before all of the short usernames were taken. Some OG usernames can be sold for thousands of dollars in underground markets.

This week’s SIM swapping story quoted one recent victim who lost $100,000 after his mobile phone number was briefly stolen in a fraudulent SIM swap. The victim said he was told by investigators in Santa Clara, Calif. that the perpetrators of his attack were able to access his T-Mobile account information using a specialized piece of software that gave them backdoor access to T-Mobile’s customer database.

Both the Santa Clara investigators and T-Mobile declined to confirm or deny the existence of this software. But their non-denials prompted me to start looking for it on my own. So naturally I began searching at ogusers-dot-com, a forum dedicated to the hacking, trading and sale of OG accounts. Unsurprisingly, ogusers-dot-com also has traditionally been the main stomping grounds for many individuals involved in SIM swapping attacks.

It didn’t take long to discover an account on ogusers named “Ryan,” who for much of 2018 has advertised a number of different “doxing” services — specifically those aimed at finding the personal information of customers at major broadband and telecom companies. Continue reading →


8
Nov 18

U.S. Secret Service Warns ID Thieves are Abusing USPS’s Mail Scanning Service

A year ago, KrebsOnSecurity warned that “Informed Delivery,” a new offering from the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) that lets residents view scanned images of all incoming mail, was likely to be abused by identity thieves and other fraudsters unless the USPS beefed up security around the program and made it easier for people to opt out. This week, the U.S. Secret Service issued an internal alert warning that many of its field offices have reported crooks are indeed using Informed Delivery to commit various identity theft and credit card fraud schemes.

Image: USPS

The internal alert — sent by the Secret Service on Nov. 6 to its law enforcement partners nationwide — references a recent case in Michigan in which seven people were arrested for allegedly stealing credit cards from resident mailboxes after signing up as those victims at the USPS’s Web site.

According to the Secret Service alert, the accused used the Informed Delivery feature “to identify and intercept mail, and to further their identity theft fraud schemes.”

“Fraudsters were also observed on criminal forums discussing using the Informed Delivery service to surveil potential identity theft victims,” the Secret Service memo reads.

The USPS did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the past six days.

The Michigan incident in the Secret Service alert refers to the September 2018 arrest of seven people accused of running up nearly $400,000 in unauthorized charges on credit cards they ordered in the names of residents. According to a copy of the complaint in that case (PDF), the defendants allegedly stole the new cards out of resident mailboxes, and then used them to fraudulently purchase gift cards and merchandise from department stores.

KrebsOnSecurity took the USPS to task last year in part for not using its own unique communications method — the U.S. Mail — to validate and notify residents when someone at their address signs up for Informed Delivery. The USPS addressed that shortcoming earlier this year, announcing it had started alerting all households by mail whenever anyone signs up to receive scanned notifications of mail delivered to their address.

However, it appears that ID thieves have figured out ways to hijack identities and order new credit cards in victims’ names before the USPS can send their notification — possibly by waiting until the cards are already approved and ordered before signing up for Informed Delivery in the victim’s name.

Last month, WKMG’s Clickorlando.com wrote that a number of Belle Isle, Fla. residents reported receiving hefty bills for credit cards they never knew they had. One resident was quoted as saying she received a bill for $2,000 in charges on a card she’d never seen before, and only after that did she get a notice from the USPS saying someone at her address had signed up for Informed Delivery. The only problem was she’d never signed up for the USPS program.

“According to a police report, someone opened fraudulent credit card accounts and charged more than $14,000 and signed her neighbors up for Informed Delivery, too,” Clickorlando’s Louis Bolden explained. “Photos of what would be in their mail were going to someone else.”

Residents in Texas have reported similar experiences. Dave Lieber, author of The Watchdog column for The Dallas Morning News, said he heard from victim Chris Torraca, 58, a retired federal bank regulator from Grapevine, a town between Dallas and Ft. Worth.

“Chris discovered it after someone created an account in his name at usps.com,” Lieber wrote in a post published Nov. 2. “The thief began receiving photos of Chris’ mail and also opened a bank credit card in Chris’ wife’s name. Postal officials promote the program as a great way to prevent ID theft, but for Chris, that’s what led to it.” Continue reading →


7
Nov 18

Busting SIM Swappers and SIM Swap Myths

KrebsOnSecurity recently had a chance to interview members of the REACT Task Force, a team of law enforcement officers and prosecutors based in Santa Clara, Calif. that has been tracking down individuals engaged in unauthorized “SIM swaps” — a complex form of mobile phone fraud that is often used to steal large amounts of cryptocurrencies and other items of value from victims. Snippets from that fascinating conversation are recounted below, and punctuated by accounts from a recent victim who lost more than $100,000 after his mobile phone number was hijacked.

In late September 2018, the REACT Task Force spearheaded an investigation that led to the arrest of two Missouri men — both in their early 20s — who are accused of conducting SIM swaps to steal $14 million from a cryptocurrency company based in San Jose, Calif. Two months earlier, the task force was instrumental in apprehending 20-year-old Joel Ortiz, a Boston man suspected of stealing millions of dollars in cryptocoins with the help of SIM swaps.

Samy Tarazi is a sergeant with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office and a REACT supervisor. The force was originally created to tackle a range of cybercrimes, but Tarazi says SIM swappers are a primary target now for two reasons. First, many of the individuals targeted by SIM swappers live in or run businesses based in northern California.

More importantly, he says, the frequency of SIM swapping attacks is…well, off the hook right now.

“It’s probably REACT’s highest priority at the moment, given that SIM swapping is actively happening to someone probably even as we speak right now,” Tarazi said. “It’s also because there are a lot of victims in our immediate jurisdiction.”

As common as SIM swapping has become, Tarazi said he and other members of REACT suspect that there are only a few dozen individuals responsible for perpetrating most of these heists.

“For the amounts being stolen and the number of people being successful at taking it, the numbers are probably historic,” Tarazi said. “We’re talking about kids aged mainly between 19 and 22 being able to steal millions of dollars in cryptocurrencies. I mean, if someone gets robbed of $100,000 that’s a huge case, but we’re now dealing with someone who buys a 99 cent SIM card off eBay, plugs it into a cheap burner phone, makes a call and steals millions of dollars. That’s pretty remarkable.

Indeed, the theft of $100,000 worth of cryptocurrency in July 2018 was the impetus for my interview with REACT. I reached out to the task force after hearing about their role in assisting SIM swapping victim Christian Ferri, who is president and CEO of San Francisco-based cryptocurrency firm BlockStar.

In early July 2018, Ferri was traveling in Europe when he discovered his T-Mobile phone no longer had service. He’d later learn that thieves had abused access to T-Mobile’s customer database to deactivate the SIM card in his phone and to activate a new one that they had in their own mobile device.

Soon after, the attackers were able to use their control over his mobile number to reset his Gmail account password. From there, the perpetrators accessed a Google Drive document that Ferri had used to record credentials to other sites, including a cryptocurrency exchange. Although that level of access could have let the crooks steal a great deal more from Ferri, they were simply after his cryptocoins, and in short order he was relieved of approximately $100,000 worth of coinage.

We’ll hear more about Ferri’s case in a moment. But first I should clarify that the REACT task force members did not discuss with me the details of Mr. Ferri’s case — even though according to Ferri a key member of the task force we’ll meet later has been actively investigating on his behalf. The remainder of this interview with REACT pivots off of Ferri’s incident mainly because the details surrounding his case help clarify some of the most confusing and murky aspects of how these crimes are perpetrated — and, more importantly, what we can do about them.

WHO’S THE TARGET?

SIM swapping attacks primarily target individuals who are visibly active in the cryptocurrency space. This includes people who run or work at cryptocurrency-focused companies; those who participate as speakers at public conferences centered around Blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies; and those who like to talk openly on social media about their crypto investments.

REACT Lieutenant John Rose said in addition to or in lieu of stealing cryptocurrency, some SIM swappers will relieve victims of highly prized social media account names (also known as “OG accounts“) — usually short usernames that can convey an aura of prestige or the illusion of an early adopter on a given social network. OG accounts typically can be resold for thousands of dollars.

Rose said even though a successful SIM swap often gives the perpetrator access to traditional bank accounts, the attackers seem to be mainly interested in stealing cryptocurrencies.

“Many SIM swap victims are understandably very scared at how much of their personal information has been exposed when these attacks occur,” Rose said. “But [the attackers] are predominantly interested in targeting cryptocurrencies for the ease with which these funds can be laundered through online exchanges, and because the transactions can’t be reversed.”

FAKE IDs AND PHONY NOTES

The “how” of these SIM swaps is often the most interesting because it’s the one aspect of this crime that’s probably the least well-understood. Ferri said when he initially contacted T-Mobile about his incident, the company told him that the perpetrator had entered a T-Mobile store and presented a fake ID in Ferri’s name.

But Ferri said once the REACT Task Force got involved in his case, it became clear that video surveillance footage from the date and time of his SIM swap showed no such evidence of anyone entering the store to present a fake ID. Rather, he said, this explanation of events was a misunderstanding at best, and more likely a cover-up at some level.

Caleb Tuttle, a detective with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office, said he has yet to encounter a single SIM swapping incident in which the perpetrator actually presented ID in person at a mobile phone store. That’s just too risky for the attackers, he said.

“I’ve talked to hundreds of victims, and I haven’t seen any cases where the suspect is going into a store to do this,” Tuttle said.

Tuttle said SIM swapping happens in one of three ways. The first is when the attacker bribes or blackmails a mobile store employee into assisting in the crime. The second involves current and/or former mobile store employees who knowingly abuse their access to customer data and the mobile company’s network. Finally, crooked store employees may trick unwitting associates at other stores into swapping a target’s existing SIM card with a new one.

“Most of these SIM swaps are being done over the phone, and the notes we’re seeing about the change in the [victim’s] account usually are left either by [a complicit] employee trying to cover their tracks, or because the employee who typed in that note actually believed what they were typing.” In the latter case, the employee who left a note in the customer’s account saying ID had been presented in-store was tricked by a complicit co-worker at another store who falsely claimed that a customer there had already presented ID.

DARK WEB SOFTWARE?

Ferri said the detectives investigating his SIM swap attack let on that the crooks responsible had at some point in the attack used “specialized software to get into T-Mobile’s customer database.”

“The investigator said there were employees of the company who had built a special software tool that they could use to connect to T-Mobile’s customer database, and that they could use this software from their home or couch to log in and see all the customer information there,” Ferri recalled. “The investigator didn’t explain exactly how it worked, but it was basically a backdoor entrance that they were reselling on the Dark Web, and it bypassed whatever security there was and let them go straight into the customer database.”

Asked directly about this mysterious product supposedly being offered on the Dark Web, the REACT task force members put our phone interview on hold for several minutes while they privately huddled to discuss the question. When they finally took me off mute, a member of the task force instead answered a different question that I’d asked much earlier in the interview.

When pressed about the software again, there was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then Detective Tuttle spoke up.

“We’re not going to talk about that,” he said curtly. “Deal with it.”

T-Mobile likewise declined to comment on the allegation that thieves had somehow built software which gave them direct access to T-Mobile customer data. However, in at least three separate instances over the past six months, T-Mobile has been forced to acknowledge incidents of unauthorized access to customer records.

In August 2018, T-Mobile published a notice saying its security team discovered and shut down unauthorized access to certain information, including customer name, billing zip code, phone number, email address, account number, account type (prepaid or postpaid) and/or date of birth. A T-Mobile spokesperson said at the time that this incident impacted roughly two percent of its subscriber base, or approximately 2.5 million customers.

In May 2018, T-Mobile fixed a bug in its Web site that let anyone view the personal account details of any customer. The bug could be exploited simply by adding the phone number of a target to the end of a Web address used by one of the company’s internal tools that was nevertheless accessible via the open Internet. The data provided by that tool reportedly also included references to account PINs used by customers as a security question when contacting T-Mobile customer support.

In April 2018, T-Mobile fixed a related bug in its public Web site that allowed anyone to pull data tied to customer accounts, including the user’s account number and the target phone’s IMSI — a unique number that ties subscribers to their specific mobile device. Continue reading →