SIM Swapping


12
Sep 18

U.S. Mobile Giants Want to be Your Online Identity

The four major U.S. wireless carriers today detailed a new initiative that may soon let Web sites eschew passwords and instead authenticate visitors by leveraging data elements unique to each customer’s phone and mobile subscriber account, such as location, customer reputation, and physical attributes of the device. Here’s a look at what’s coming, and the potential security and privacy trade-offs of trusting the carriers to handle online authentication on your behalf.

Tentatively dubbed “Project Verify” and still in the private beta testing phase, the new authentication initiative is being pitched as a way to give consumers both a more streamlined method of proving one’s identity when creating a new account at a given Web site, as well as replacing passwords and one-time codes for logging in to existing accounts at participating sites.

Here’s a promotional and explanatory video about Project Verify produced by the Mobile Authentication Task Force, whose members include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon:

The mobile companies say Project Verify can improve online authentication because they alone have access to several unique signals and capabilities that can be used to validate each customer and their mobile device(s). This includes knowing the approximate real-time location of the customer; how long they have been a customer and used the device in question; and information about components inside the customer’s phone that are only accessible to the carriers themselves, such as cryptographic signatures tied to the device’s SIM card.

The Task Force currently is working on building its Project Verify app into the software that gets pre-loaded onto mobile devices sold by the four major carriers. The basic idea is that third-party Web sites could let the app (and, by extension, the user’s mobile provider) handle the process of authenticating the user’s identity, at which point the app would interactively log the user in without the need of a username and password.

In another example, participating sites could use Project Verify to supplement or replace existing authentication processes, such as two-factor methods that currently rely on sending the user a one-time passcode via SMS/text messages, which can be intercepted by cybercrooks.

The carriers also are pitching their offering as a way for consumers to pre-populate data fields on a Web site — such as name, address, credit card number and other information typically entered when someone wants to sign up for a new user account at a Web site or make purchases online.

Johannes Jaskolski, general manager for Mobile Authentication Task Force and assistant vice president of identity security at AT&T, said the group is betting that Project Verify will be attractive to online retailers partly because it can help them capture more sign-ups and sales from users who might otherwise balk at having to manually provide lots of data via a mobile device.

“We can be a primary authenticator where, just by authenticating to our app, you can then use that service,” Jaskolski said. “That can be on your mobile, but it could also be on another device. With subscriber consent, we can populate that information and make it much more effortless to sign up for or sign into services online. In other markets, we have found this type of approach reduced [customer] fall-out rates, so it can make third-party businesses more successful in capturing that.”

Jaskolski said customers who take advantage of Project Verify will be able to choose what types of data get shared between their wireless provider and a Web site on a per-site basis, or opt to share certain data elements across the board with sites that leverage the app for authentication and e-commerce.

“Many companies already rely on the mobile device today in their customer authentication flows, but what we’re saying is there’s going to be a better way to do this in a method that is intended from the start to serve authentication use cases,” Jaskolski said. “This is what everyone has been seeking from us already in co-opting other mobile features that were simply never designed for authentication.” Continue reading →


29
Aug 18

Instagram’s New Security Tools are a Welcome Step, But Not Enough

Instagram users should soon have more secure options for protecting their accounts against Internet bad guys.  On Tuesday, the Facebook-owned social network said it is in the process of rolling out support for third-party authentication apps. Unfortunately, this welcome new security offering does nothing to block Instagram account takeovers when thieves manage to hijack a target’s mobile phone number — an increasingly common crime.

New two-factor authentication options Instagram says it is rolling out to users over the next few weeks.

For years, security experts have warned that hackers are exploiting weak authentication at Instagram to commandeer accounts. Instagram has long offered users a security option to have a one-time code sent via text message to a mobile device, but these codes can be intercepted via several methods (more on that in a bit).

The new authentication offering requires users to download a third-party app like Authy, Duo or Google Authenticator, which generates a one-time code that needs to be entered after the user supplies a password.

In a blog post Tuesday, Instagram said support for third-party authenticator apps “has begun to roll out and will be available to the global community in the coming weeks.

Instagram put me on a whitelist of accounts to get an early peek at the new security feature, so these options probably aren’t yet available to most users. But there’s a screenshot below that shows the multi-factor options available in the mobile app. When these options do become more widely available, Instagram says people can use a third-party app to receive a one-time code. To do this:

  1. Go to your Settings.
  2. Scroll down and tap Two-Factor Authentication.
  3. If you haven’t already turned two-factor authentication on, tap Get Started.
  4. Tap next to Authentication App, then follow the on-screen instructions.
  5. Enter the confirmation code from the third party authentication app to complete the process.

Note that if you have previously enabled SMS-based authentication, it is likely still enabled unless and until you disable it. The app also prompts users to save a series of recovery codes, which should be kept in a safe place in case one’s mobile device is ever lost.

WHAT IT DOESN’T FIX

Instagram has received quite a lot of bad press lately from publications reporting numerous people who had their accounts hijacked even though they had Instagram’s SMS authentication turned on. The thing is, many of those stories have been about people having their Instagram accounts hijacked because fraudsters were able to hijack their mobile phone number.

In these cases, the fraudsters were able to hijack the Instagram accounts because Instagram allows users to reset their account passwords with a single factor — using nothing more than a text message sent to a mobile number on fileAnd nothing in these new authentication offerings will change that for people who have shared their mobile number with Instagram.

Criminals can and do exploit SMS-based password reset requests to hijack Instagram accounts by executing unauthorized “SIM swaps,” i.e., tricking the target’s mobile provider into transferring the phone number to a device or account they control and intercepting the password reset link sent via SMS. Once they hijack the target’s mobile number, they can then reset the password for the associated Instagram account.

I asked Instagram if there was any way for people who have supplied the company with their phone number to turn off SMS-based password reset requests. I received this response from their PR folks:

“I can confirm that disabling SMS two factor will not disable the ability to reset a password via SMS,” a spokesperson said via email. “We recommend that the community use a third-party app for authentication, in place of SMS authentication. We’ll continue to iterate and improve on this product to keep people safe on our platform.” Continue reading →


22
Aug 18

Alleged SIM Swapper Arrested in California

Authorities in Santa Clara, Calif. have arrested and charged a 19-year-old area man on suspicion hijacking mobile phone numbers as part of a scheme to steal large sums of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The arrest is the third known law enforcement action this month targeting “SIM swappers,” individuals who specialize in stealing wireless phone numbers and hijacking online financial and social media accounts tied to those numbers.

Xzavyer Clemente Narvaez was arrested Aug. 17, 2018 by investigators working with Santa Clara County’s “REACT task force,” which says it’s targeting those involved in “the takeovers of cell phone, email and financial accounts resulting in the theft of cryptocurrency.”

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. Investigators said they interviewed several alleged victims of Narvaez, including one man who reported being robbed of $150,000 in virtual currencies after his phone number was hijacked.

A fraudulent SIM swap occurs when a victim’s cell phone service is redirected from a SIM card under the control of the victim to one under the control of the suspect, without the knowledge or authorization of the victim account holder.

When a victim experiences a fraudulent SIM swap, their phone suddenly has no service and all incoming calls and text messages are sent to the attacker’s device. This includes any one-time codes sent via text message or automated phone call that many companies use to supplement passwords for their online accounts.

Narvaez came to law enforcement’s attention following the arrest of Joel Ortiz, a gifted 20-year-old college student from Boston who was charged in July 2018 with using SIM swaps to steal more than $5 million in cryptocurrencies from 40 victims.

A redacted “statement of facts” in the case obtained by KrebsOnSecurity says records obtained from Google revealed that a cellular device used by Ortiz to commit SIM swaps had at one point been used to access the Google account identified as Xzavyer.Narvaez@gmail.com.

That statement refers frequently to the term IMEI; this is the International Mobile Equipment Identity number, which is a unique identification number or serial number that all mobile phones and smartphones have.

Prosecutors used data gathered from a large number of tech companies to put Narvaez’s phone in specific places near his home in Tracy, Calif. at the time his alleged victims reported having their phones hijacked. His alleged re-use of the same mobile device for multiple SIM hijacks ultimately gave him away:

“On 7/18/18, investigators received information from an AT&T investigator regarding unauthorized SIM swaps conducted through an AT&T authorized retailer. He reported that approximately 28 SIM swaps were conducted using the same employee ID number over an approximately two-week time period in November 2017. Records were obtained that included a list of IMEI numbers used to take over the victims’ cell phone numbers.”

“AT&T provided call detail records pertaining to the IMEI numbers listed to conduct the SIM swaps. One of those IMEI numbers, ending in 3218, was used to take over the cell phone of a resident of Illinois. I contacted the victim who verified that some of his accounts had been “hacked” in late 2017 but said he did not suffer any financial loss. Sgt. Tarazi analyzed the AT&T location data pertaining to that account takeover. That data indicated that on 7/27/17, when the victim from Illinois lost access to his accounts, the IMEI (ending in 3218) of the cell phone controlling the victim’s cell phone number was located in Tracy, California.”

“The specific tower is located approximately 0.6 miles away from the address 360 Yosemite Drive in Tracy. Several “NELOS” records (GPS coordinates logged by AT&T to estimate the location of devices on their network) indicate the phone was within 1000 meters of 360 Yosemite Drive in Tracy. AT&T also provided call detail records pertaining to Narvaez’ cell phone account, which was linked to him through financial services account records. Sgt. Tarazi examined those records and determined that Narvaez’ own cell phone was connected to the same tower and sector during approximately the same time frame that the suspect device (ending in 3218) was connected to the victim’s account.”

Apple responded to requests with records pertaining to customer accounts linked to that same suspect IMEI number. Those records identified three California residents whose Apple accounts were linked to that same IMEI number. Continue reading →


16
Aug 18

Hanging Up on Mobile in the Name of Security

An entrepreneur and virtual currency investor is suing AT&T for $224 million, claiming the wireless provider was negligent when it failed to prevent thieves from hijacking his mobile account and stealing millions of dollars in cryptocurrencies. Increasingly frequent, high-profile attacks like these are prompting some experts to say the surest way to safeguard one’s online accounts may be to disconnect them from the mobile providers entirely.

The claims come in a lawsuit filed this week in Los Angeles on behalf of Michael Terpin, who co-founded the first angel investor group for bitcoin enthusiasts in 2013. Terpin alleges that crooks stole almost $24 million worth of cryptocurrency after fraudulently executing a “SIM swap” on his mobile phone account at AT&T in early 2018.

A SIM card is the tiny, removable chip in a mobile device that allows it to connect to the provider’s network. Customers can legitimately request a SIM swap when their existing SIM card has been damaged, or when they are switching to a different phone that requires a SIM card of another size.

But SIM swaps are frequently abused by scam artists who trick mobile providers into tying a target’s service to a new SIM card and mobile phone that the attackers control. Unauthorized SIM swaps often are perpetrated by fraudsters who have already stolen or phished a target’s password, as many banks and online services rely on text messages to send users a one-time code that needs to be entered in addition to a password for online authentication.

Terpin alleges that on January 7, 2018, someone requested an unauthorized SIM swap on his AT&T account, causing his phone to go dead and sending all incoming texts and phone calls to a device the attackers controlled. Armed with that access, the intruders were able to reset credentials tied to his cryptocurrency accounts and siphon nearly $24 million worth of digital currencies.

According to Terpin, this was the second time in six months someone had hacked his AT&T number. On June 11, 2017, Terpin’s phone went dead. He soon learned his AT&T password had been changed remotely after 11 attempts in AT&T stores had failed. At the time, AT&T suggested Terpin take advantage of the company’s “extra security” feature — a customer-specified six-digit PIN which is required before any account changes can be made.

Terpin claims an investigation by AT&T into the 2018 breach found that an employee at an AT&T store in Norwich, Conn. somehow executed the SIM swap on his account without having to enter his “extra security” PIN, and that AT&T knew or should have known that employees could bypass its customer security measures.

Terpin is suing AT&T for his $24 million worth of cryptocurrencies, plus $200 million in punitive damages. A copy of his complaint is here (PDF).

AT&T declined to comment on specific claims in the lawsuit, saying only in a statement that, “We dispute these allegations and look forward to presenting our case in court.”

AN ‘IDENTITY CRISIS’?

Mobile phone companies are a major weak point in authentication because so many companies have now built their entire procedure for authenticating customers on a process that involves sending a one-time code to the customer via SMS or automated phone call.

In some cases, thieves executing SIM swaps have already phished or otherwise stolen a target’s bank or email password. But many major social media platforms — such as Instagramallow users to reset their passwords using nothing more than text-based (SMS) authentication, meaning thieves can hijack those accounts just by having control over the target’s mobile phone number.

Allison Nixon is director of security research at Flashpoint, a security company in New York City that has been closely tracking the murky underworld of communities that teach people how to hijack phone numbers assigned to customer accounts at all of the major mobile providers.

Nixon calls the current SIM-jacking craze “a major identity crisis” for cybersecurity on multiple levels.

“Phone numbers were never originally intended as an identity document, they were designed as a way to contact people,” Nixon said. “But because of all these other companies are building in security measures, a phone number has become an identity document.”

In essence, mobile phone companies have become “critical infrastructure” for security precisely because so much is riding on who controls a given mobile number. At the same time, so little is needed to undo weak security controls put in place to prevent abuse.

“The infrastructure wasn’t designed to withstand the kind of attacks happening now,” Nixon said. “The protocols need to be changed, and there are probably laws affecting the telecom companies that need to be reviewed in light of how these companies have evolved.”

Unfortunately, with the major mobile providers so closely tied to your security, there is no way you can remove the most vulnerable chunks of this infrastructure — the mobile store employees who can be paid or otherwise bamboozled into helping these attacks succeed.

No way, that is, unless you completely disconnect your mobile phone number from any sort of SMS-based authentication you currently use, and replace it with Internet-based telephone services that do not offer “helpful” customer support — such as Google Voice.

Google Voice lets users choose a phone number that gets tied to their Google account, and any calls or messages to that number will be forwarded to your mobile number. But unlike phone numbers issued by the major mobile providers, Google Voice numbers can’t be stolen unless someone also hacks your Google password — in which case you likely have much bigger problems.

With Google Voice, there is no customer service person who can be conned over the phone into helping out. There is no retail-store employee who will sell access to your SIM information for a paltry $80 payday. In this view of security, customer service becomes a customer disservice.

Mind you, this isn’t my advice. The above statement summarizes the arguments allegedly made by one of the most accomplished SIM swap thieves in the game today. On July 12, 2018, police in California arrested Joel Ortiz, a 20-year-old college student from Boston who’s accused of using SIM swaps to steal more than $5 million in cryptocurrencies from 40 victims.

Ortiz allegedly had help from a number of unnamed accomplices who collectively targeted high-profile and wealthy people in the cryptocurrency space. In one of three brazen attacks at a bitcoin conference this year, Ortiz allegedly used his SIM swapping skills to steal more than $1.5 million from a cryptocurrency entrepreneur, including nearly $1 million the victim had crowdfunded.

A July 2018 posting from the “OG” Instagram account “0”, allegedly an account hijacked by Joel Ortiz (pictured holding an armload of Dom Perignon champagne).

Ortiz reportedly was a core member of OGUsers[dot]com, a forum that’s grown wildly popular among criminals engaging in SIM swaps to steal cryptocurrency and hijack high-value social media accounts. OG is short for “original gangster,” and it refers to a type of “street cred” for possession of social media account names that are relatively short (between one and six characters). On ogusers[dot]com, Ortiz allegedly picked the username “j”. Short usernames are considered more valuable because they confer on the account holder the appearance of an early adopter on most social networks.

Discussions on the Ogusers forum indicate Ortiz allegedly is the current occupant of perhaps the most OG username on Twitter — an account represented by the number zero “0”. The alias displayed on that twitter profile is “j0”. He also apparently controls the Instagram account by the same number, as well as the Instagram account “t”, which lists its alias as “Joel.”

Shown below is a cached snippet from an Ogusers forum posting by “j” (allegedly Ortiz), advising people to remove their mobile phone number from all important multi-factor authentication options, and to replace it with something like Google Voice.

Ogusers SIM swapper “j” advises forum members on how not to become victims of SIM swapping. Click to enlarge.

Continue reading →


7
Aug 18

Florida Man Arrested in SIM Swap Conspiracy

Police in Florida have arrested a 25-year-old man accused of being part of a multi-state cyber fraud ring that hijacked mobile phone numbers in online attacks that siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from victims.

On July 18, 2018, Pasco County authorities arrested Ricky Joseph Handschumacher, an employee of the city of Port Richey, Fla, charging him with grand theft and money laundering. Investigators allege Handschumacher was part of a group of at least nine individuals scattered across multiple states who for the past two years have drained bank accounts via an increasingly common scheme involving mobile phone “SIM swaps.”

A SIM card is the tiny, removable chip in a mobile device that allows it to connect to the provider’s network. Customers can legitimately request a SIM swap when their existing SIM card has been damaged, or when they are switching to a different phone that requires a SIM card of another size.

But SIM swaps are frequently abused by scam artists who trick mobile providers into tying a target’s service to a new SIM card and mobile phone that the attackers control. Unauthorized SIM swaps often are perpetrated by fraudsters who have already stolen or phished a target’s password, as many banks and online services rely on text messages to send users a one-time code that needs to be entered in addition to a password for online authentication.

In some cases, fraudulent SIM swaps succeed thanks to lax authentication procedures at mobile phone stores. In other instances, mobile store employees work directly with cyber criminals to help conduct unauthorized SIM swaps, as appears to be the case with the crime gang that allegedly included Handschumacher.

A WORRIED MOM

According to court documents, investigators first learned of the group’s activities in February 2018, when a Michigan woman called police after she overheard her son talking on the phone and pretending to be an AT&T employee. Officers responding to the report searched the residence and found multiple cell phones and SIM cards, as well as files on the kid’s computer that included “an extensive list of names and phone numbers of people from around the world.”

The following month, Michigan authorities found the same individual accessing personal consumer data via public Wi-Fi at a local library, and seized 45 SIM cards, a laptop and a Trezor wallet — a hardware device designed to store crytpocurrency account data. In April 2018, the mom again called the cops on her son — identified only as confidential source #1 (“CS1”) in the criminal complaint — saying he’d obtained yet another mobile phone.

Once again, law enforcement officers were invited to search the kid’s residence, and this time found two bags of SIM cards and numerous driver’s licenses and passports. Investigators said they used those phony documents to locate and contact several victims; two of the victims each reported losing approximately $150,000 in cryptocurrencies after their phones were cloned; the third told investigators her account was drained of $50,000.

CS1 later told investigators he routinely conducted the phone cloning and cashouts in conjunction with eight other individuals, including Handschumacher, who allegedly used the handle “coinmission” in the group’s daily chats via Discord and Telegram. Search warrants revealed that in mid-May 2018 the group worked in tandem to steal 57 bitcoins from one victim — then valued at almost $470,000 — and agreed to divide the spoils among members.

GRAND PLANS

Investigators soon obtained search warrants to monitor the group’s Discord server chat conversations, and observed Handschumacher allegedly bragging in these chats about using the proceeds of his alleged crimes to purchase land, a house, a vehicle and a “quad vehicle.” Interestingly, Handschumacher’s public Facebook page remains public, and is replete with pictures that he posted of recent new vehicle aquisitions, including a pickup truck and multiple all-terrain vehicles and jet skis.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s office says their surveillance of the Discord server revealed that the group routinely paid employees at cellular phone companies to assist in their attacks, and that they even discussed a plan to hack accounts belonging to the CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Gemini Trust Company. The complaint doesn’t mention the CEO by name, but the current CEO is bitcoin billionaire Tyler Winklevoss, who co-founded the exchange along with his twin brother Cameron.

“Handschumacher and another co-conspirator talk about compromising the CEO of Gemini and posted his name, date of birth, Skype username and email address into the conversation,” the complaint reads. “Handschumacher and the co-conspirators discuss compromising the CEO’s Skype account and T-Mobile account. The co-conspirator states he will call his ‘guy’ at T-Mobile to ask about the CEO’s account.” Continue reading →


1
Aug 18

Reddit Breach Highlights Limits of SMS-Based Authentication

Reddit.com today disclosed that a data breach exposed some internal data, as well as email addresses and passwords for some Reddit users. As Web site breaches go, this one doesn’t seem too severe. What’s interesting about the incident is that it showcases once again why relying on mobile text messages (SMS) for two-factor authentication (2FA) can lull companies and end users into a false sense of security.

In a post to Reddit, the social news aggregation platform said it learned on June 19 that between June 14 and 18 an attacker compromised a several employee accounts at its cloud and source code hosting providers.

Reddit said the exposed data included internal source code as well as email addresses and obfuscated passwords for all Reddit users who registered accounts on the site prior to May 2007. The incident also exposed the email addresses of some users who had signed up to receive daily email digests of specific discussion threads.

Of particular note is that although the Reddit employee accounts tied to the breach were protected by SMS-based two-factor authentication, the intruder(s) managed to intercept that second factor.

“Already having our primary access points for code and infrastructure behind strong authentication requiring two factor authentication (2FA), we learned that SMS-based authentication is not nearly as secure as we would hope, and the main attack was via SMS intercept,” Reddit disclosed. “We point this out to encourage everyone here to move to token-based 2FA.”

Reddit didn’t specify how the SMS code was stolen, although it did say the intruders did not hack Reddit employees’ phones directly. Nevertheless, there are a variety of well established ways that attackers can intercept one-time codes sent via text message.

In one common scenario, known as a SIM-swap, the attacker masquerading as the target tricks the target’s mobile provider into tying the customer’s service to a new SIM card that the bad guys control. A SIM card is the tiny, removable chip in a mobile device that allows it to connect to the provider’s network. Customers can request a SIM swap when their existing SIM card has been damaged, or when they are switching to a different phone that requires a SIM card of another size.

Another typical scheme involves mobile number port-out scams, wherein the attacker impersonates a customer and requests that the customer’s mobile number be transferred to another mobile network provider. In both port-out and SIM swap schemes, the victim’s phone service gets shut off and any one-time codes delivered by SMS (or automated phone call) get sent to a device that the attackers control. Continue reading →


18
May 18

T-Mobile Employee Made Unauthorized ‘SIM Swap’ to Steal Instagram Account

T-Mobile is investigating a retail store employee who allegedly made unauthorized changes to a subscriber’s account in an elaborate scheme to steal the customer’s three-letter Instagram username. The modifications, which could have let the rogue employee empty bank accounts associated with the targeted T-Mobile subscriber, were made even though the victim customer already had taken steps recommended by the mobile carrier to help minimize the risks of account takeover. Here’s what happened, and some tips on how you can protect yourself from a similar fate.

Earlier this month, KrebsOnSecurity heard from Paul Rosenzweig, a 27-year-old T-Mobile customer from Boston who had his wireless account briefly hijacked. Rosenzweig had previously adopted T-Mobile’s advice to customers about blocking mobile number port-out scams, an increasingly common scheme in which identity thieves armed with a fake ID in the name of a targeted customer show up at a retail store run by a different wireless provider and ask that the number to be transferred to the competing mobile company’s network.

So-called “port out” scams allow crooks to intercept your calls and messages while your phone goes dark. Porting a number to a new provider shuts off the phone of the original user, and forwards all calls to the new device. Once in control of the mobile number, thieves who have already stolen a target’s password(s) can request any second factor that is sent to the newly activated device, such as a one-time code sent via text message or or an automated call that reads the one-time code aloud.

In this case, however, the perpetrator didn’t try to port Rosenzweig’s phone number: Instead, the attacker called multiple T-Mobile retail stores within an hour’s drive of Rosenzweig’s home address until he succeeded in convincing a store employee to conduct what’s known as a “SIM swap.”

A SIM swap is a legitimate process by which a customer can request that a new SIM card (the tiny, removable chip in a mobile device that allows it to connect to the provider’s network) be added to the account. Customers can request a SIM swap when their existing SIM card has been damaged, or when they are switching to a different phone that requires a SIM card of another size.

However, thieves and other ne’er-do-wells can abuse this process by posing as a targeted mobile customer or technician and tricking employees at the mobile provider into swapping in a new SIM card for that customer on a device that they control. If successful, the SIM swap accomplishes more or less the same result as a number port out (at least in the short term) — effectively giving the attackers access to any text messages or phone calls that are sent to the target’s mobile account.

Rosenzweig said the first inkling he had that something wasn’t right with his phone was on the evening of May 2, 2018, when he spotted an automated email from Instagram. The message said the email address tied to the three-letter account he’d had on the social media platform for seven years — instagram.com/par — had been changed. He quickly logged in to his Instagram account, changed his password and then reverted the email on the account back to his original address.

By this time, the SIM swap conducted by the attacker had already been carried out, although Rosenzweig said he didn’t notice his phone displaying zero bars and no connection to T-Mobile at the time because he was at home and happily surfing the Web on his device using his own wireless network.

The following morning, Rosenzweig received another notice — this one from Snapchat — stating that the password for his account there (“p9r”) had been changed. He subsequently reset the Instagram password and then enabled two factor authentication on his Snapchat account.

“That was when I realized my phone had no bars,” he recalled. “My phone was dead. I couldn’t even call 611,” [the mobile short number that all major wireless providers make available to reach their customer service departments].”

It appears that the perpetrator of the SIM swap abused not only internal knowledge of T-Mobile’s systems, but also a lax password reset process at Instagram. The social network allows users to enable notifications on their mobile phone when password resets or other changes are requested on the account.

But this isn’t exactly two-factor authentication because it also lets users reset their passwords via their mobile account by requesting a password reset link to be sent to their mobile device. Thus, if someone is in control of your mobile phone account, they can reset your Instagram password (and probably a bunch of other types of accounts).

Rosenzweig said even though he was able to reset his Instagram password and restore his old email address tied to the account, the damage was already done: All of his images and other content he’d shared on Instagram over the years was still tied to his account, but the attacker had succeeded in stealing his “par” username, leaving him with a slightly less sexy “par54384321,” (apparently chosen for him at random by either Instagram or the attacker). Continue reading →