A Little Sunshine


20
Apr 18

Is Facebook’s Anti-Abuse System Broken?

Facebook has built some of the most advanced algorithms for tracking users, but when it comes to acting on user abuse reports about Facebook groups and content that clearly violate the company’s “community standards,” the social media giant’s technology appears to be woefully inadequate.

Last week, Facebook deleted almost 120 groups totaling more than 300,000 members. The groups were mostly closed — requiring approval from group administrators before outsiders could view the day-to-day postings of group members.

However, the titles, images and postings available on each group’s front page left little doubt about their true purpose: Selling everything from stolen credit cards, identities and hacked accounts to services that help automate things like spamming, phishing and denial-of-service attacks for hire.

To its credit, Facebook deleted the groups within just a few hours of KrebsOnSecurity sharing via email a spreadsheet detailing each group, which concluded that the average length of time the groups had been active on Facebook was two years. But I suspect that the company took this extraordinary step mainly because I informed them that I intended to write about the proliferation of cybercrime-based groups on Facebook.

That story, Deleted Facebook Cybercrime Groups had 300,000 Members, ended with a statement from Facebook promising to crack down on such activity and instructing users on how to report groups that violate it its community standards.

In short order, some of the groups I reported that were removed re-established themselves within hours of Facebook’s action. I decided instead of contacting Facebook’s public relations arm directly that I would report those resurrected groups and others using Facebook’s stated process. Roughly two days later I received a series replies saying that Facebook had reviewed my reports but that none of the groups were found to have violated its standards. Here’s a snippet from those replies:

Perhaps I should give Facebook the benefit of the doubt: Maybe my multiple reports one after the other triggered some kind of anti-abuse feature that is designed to throttle those who would seek to abuse it to get otherwise legitimate groups taken offline — much in the way that pools of automated bot accounts have been known to abuse Twitter’s reporting system to successfully sideline accounts of specific targets.

Or it could be that I simply didn’t click the proper sequence of buttons when reporting these groups. The closest match I could find in Facebook’s abuse reporting system were, “Doesn’t belong on Facebook,” and “Purchase or sale of drugs, guns or regulated products.” There was/is no option for “selling hacked accounts, credit cards and identities,” or anything of that sort.

In any case, one thing seems clear: Naming and shaming these shady Facebook groups via Twitter seems to work better right now for getting them removed from Facebook than using Facebook’s own formal abuse reporting process. So that’s what I did on Thursday. Here’s an example: Continue reading →


18
Apr 18

A Sobering Look at Fake Online Reviews

In 2016, KrebsOnSecurity exposed a network of phony Web sites and fake online reviews that funneled those seeking help for drug and alcohol addiction toward rehab centers that were secretly affiliated with the Church of Scientology. Not long after the story ran, that network of bogus reviews disappeared from the Web. Over the past few months, however, the same prolific purveyor of these phantom sites and reviews appears to be back at it again, enlisting the help of Internet users and paying people $25-$35 for each fake listing.

Sometime in March 2018, ads began appearing on Craigslist promoting part-time “social media assistant” jobs, in which interested applicants are directed to sign up for positions at seorehabs[dot]com. This site promotes itself as “leaders in addiction recovery consulting,” explaining that assistants can earn a minimum of $25 just for creating individual Google for Business listings tied to a few dozen generic-sounding addiction recovery center names, such as “Integra Addiction Center,” and “First Exit Recovery.”

The listing on Craigslist.com advertising jobs for creating fake online businesses tied to addiction rehabilitation centers.

Applicants who sign up are given detailed instructions on how to step through Google’s anti-abuse process for creating listings, which include receiving a postcard via snail mail from Google that contains a PIN which needs to be entered at Google’s site before a listing can be created.

Assistants are cautioned not to create more than two listings per street address, but otherwise to use any U.S.-based street address and to leave blank the phone number and Web site for the new business listing.

A screen shot from Seorehabs’ instructions for those hired to create rehab center listings.

In my story Scientology Seeks Captive Converts Via Google Maps, Drug Rehab Centers, I showed how a labyrinthine network of fake online reviews that steered Internet searches toward rehab centers funded by Scientology adherents was set up by TopSeek Inc., which bills itself as a collection of “local marketing experts.” According to LinkedIn, TopSeek is owned by John Harvey, an individual (or alias) who lists his address variously as Sacramento, Calif. and Hawaii.

Although the current Web site registration records from registrar giant Godaddy obscure the information for the current owner of seorehabs[dot]com, a historic WHOIS search via DomainTools shows the site was also registered by John Harvey and TopSeek in 2015. Mr. Harvey did not respond to requests for comment. [Full disclosure: DomainTools previously was an advertiser on KrebsOnSecurity].

TopSeek’s Web site says it works with several clients, but most especially Narconon International — an organization that promotes the rather unorthodox theories of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard regarding substance abuse treatment and addiction.

As described in Narconon’s Wikipedia entry, Narconon facilities are known not only for attempting to win over new converts to Scientology, but also for treating all substance abuse addictions with a rather bizarre cocktail consisting mainly of vitamins and long hours in extremely hot saunas. Their Wiki entry documents multiple cases of accidental deaths at Narconon facilities, where some addicts reportedly died from overdoses of vitamins or neglect. Continue reading →


16
Apr 18

Deleted Facebook Cybercrime Groups Had 300,000 Members

Hours after being alerted by KrebsOnSecurity, Facebook last week deleted almost 120 private discussion groups totaling more than 300,000 members who flagrantly promoted a host of illicit activities on the social media network’s platform. The scam groups facilitated a broad spectrum of shady activities, including spamming, wire fraud, account takeovers, phony tax refunds, 419 scams, denial-of-service attack-for-hire services and botnet creation tools. The average age of these groups on Facebook’s platform was two years.

On Thursday, April 12, KrebsOnSecurity spent roughly two hours combing Facebook for groups whose sole purpose appeared to be flouting the company’s terms of service agreement about what types of content it will or will not tolerate on its platform.

One of nearly 120 different closed cybercrime groups operating on Facebook that were deleted late last week. In total, there were more than 300,000 members of these groups. The average age of these groups was two years, but some had existed for up to nine years on Facebook

My research centered on groups whose singular focus was promoting all manner of cyber fraud, but most especially those engaged in identity theft, spamming, account takeovers and credit card fraud. Virtually all of these groups advertised their intent by stating well-known terms of fraud in their group names, such as “botnet helpdesk,” “spamming,” “carding” (referring to credit card fraud), “DDoS” (distributed denial-of-service attacks), “tax refund fraud,” and account takeovers.

Each of these closed groups solicited new members to engage in a variety of shady activities. Some had existed on Facebook for up to nine years; approximately ten percent of them had plied their trade on the social network for more than four years.

Here is a spreadsheet (PDF) listing all of the offending groups reported, including: Their stated group names; the length of time they were present on Facebook; the number of members; whether the group was promoting a third-party site on the dark or clear Web; and a link to the offending group. A copy of the same spreadsheet in .csv format is available here.

The biggest collection of groups banned last week were those promoting the sale and use of stolen credit and debit card accounts. The next largest collection of groups included those facilitating account takeovers — methods for mass-hacking emails and passwords for countless online accounts such Amazon, Google, Netflix, PayPal, as well as a host of online banking services.

This rather active Facebook group, which specialized in identity theft and selling stolen bank account logins, was active for roughly three years and had approximately 2,500 members.

In a statement to KrebsOnSecurity, Facebook pledged to be more proactive about policing its network for these types of groups.

“We thank Mr. Krebs for bringing these groups to our attention, we removed them as soon as we investigated,” said Pete Voss, Facebook’s communications director. “We investigated these groups as soon as we were aware of the report, and once we confirmed that they violated our Community Standards, we disabled them and removed the group admins. We encourage our community to report anything they see that they don’t think should be in Facebook, so we can take swift action.” Continue reading →


11
Apr 18

When Identity Thieves Hack Your Accountant

The Internal Revenue Service has been urging tax preparation firms to step up their cybersecurity efforts this year, warning that identity thieves and hackers increasingly are targeting certified public accountants (CPAs) in a bid to siphon oodles of sensitive personal and financial data on taxpayers. This is the story of a CPA in New Jersey whose compromise by malware led to identity theft and phony tax refund requests filed on behalf of his clients.

Last month, KrebsOnSecurity was alerted by security expert Alex Holden of Hold Security about a malware gang that appears to have focused on CPAs. The crooks in this case were using a Web-based keylogger that recorded every keystroke typed on the target’s machine, and periodically uploaded screenshots of whatever was being displayed on the victim’s computer screen at the time.

If you’ve never seen one of these keyloggers in action, viewing their output can be a bit unnerving. This particular malware is not terribly sophisticated, but nevertheless is quite effective. It not only grabs any data the victim submits into Web-based forms, but also captures any typing — including backspaces and typos as we can see in the screenshot below.

The malware records everything its victims type (including backspaces and typos), and frequently takes snapshots of the victim’s computer screen.

Whoever was running this scheme had all victim information uploaded to a site that was protected from data scraping by search engines, but the site itself did not require any form of authentication to view data harvested from victim PCs. Rather, the stolen information was indexed by victim and ordered by day, meaning anyone who knew the right URL could view each day’s keylogging record as one long image file.

Those records suggest that this particular CPA — “John,” a New Jersey professional whose real name will be left out of this story — likely had his computer compromised sometime in mid-March 2018 (at least, this is as far back as the keylogging records go for John).

It’s also not clear exactly which method the thieves used to get malware on John’s machine. Screenshots for John’s account suggest he routinely ignored messages from Microsoft and other third party Windows programs about the need to apply critical security updates.

Messages like this one — about critical security updates available for QuickBooks — went largely ignored, according to multiple screenshots from John’s computer.

More likely, however, John’s computer was compromised by someone who sent him a booby-trapped email attachment or link. When one considers just how frequently CPAs must need to open Microsoft Office and other files submitted by clients and potential clients via email, it’s not hard to imagine how simple it might be for hackers to target and successfully compromise your average CPA.

The keylogging malware itself appears to have been sold (or perhaps directly deployed) by a cybercriminal who uses the nickname ja_far. This individual markets a $50 keylogger product alongside a malware “crypting” service that guarantees his malware will be undetected by most antivirus products for a given number of days after it is used against a victim.

Ja_far’s sales threads for the keylogger used to steal tax and financial data from hundreds of John’s clients.

It seems likely that ja_far’s keylogger was the source of this data because at one point — early in the morning John’s time — the attacker appears to have accidentally pasted ja_far’s jabber instant messenger address into the victim’s screen instead of his own. In all likelihood, John’s assailant was seeking additional crypting services to ensure the keylogger remained undetected on John’s PC. A couple of minutes later, the intruder downloaded a file to John’s PC from file-sharing site sendspace.com.

The attacker apparently messing around on John’s computer while John was not sitting in front of the keyboard.

What I found remarkable about John’s situation was despite receiving notice after notice that the IRS had rejected many of his clients’ tax returns because those returns had already been filed by fraudsters, for at least two weeks John does not appear to have suspected that his compromised computer was likely the source of said fraud inflicted on his clients (or if he did, he didn’t share this notion with any of his friends or family via email).

Instead, John composed and distributed to his clients a form letter about their rejected returns, and another letter that clients could use to alert the IRS and New Jersey tax authorities of suspected identity fraud. Continue reading →


9
Apr 18

Don’t Give Away Historic Details About Yourself

Social media sites are littered with seemingly innocuous little quizzes, games and surveys urging people to reminisce about specific topics, such as “What was your first job,” or “What was your first car?” The problem with participating in these informal surveys is that in doing so you may be inadvertently giving away the answers to “secret questions” that can be used to unlock access to a host of your online identities and accounts.

I’m willing to bet that a good percentage of regular readers here would never respond — honestly or otherwise — to such questionnaires (except perhaps to chide others for responding). But I thought it was worth mentioning because certain social networks — particularly Facebook — seem positively overrun with these data-harvesting schemes. What’s more, I’m constantly asking friends and family members to stop participating in these quizzes and to stop urging their contacts to do the same.

On the surface, these simple questions may be little more than an attempt at online engagement by otherwise well-meaning companies and individuals. Nevertheless, your answers to these questions may live in perpetuity online, giving identity thieves and scammers ample ammunition to start gaining backdoor access to your various online accounts.

Consider, for example, the following quiz posted to Facebook by San Benito Tire Pros, a tire and auto repair shop in California. It asks Facebook users, “What car did you learn to drive stick shift on?”

I hope this is painfully obvious, but for many people the answer will be the same as to the question, “What was the make and model of your first car?”, which is one of several “secret questions” most commonly used by banks and other companies to let customers reset their passwords or gain access to the account without knowing the password.

This simple one-question quiz has been shared more than 250 times on Facebook since it was posted a week ago. Thousands of Facebook users responded in earnest, and in so doing linked their profile to the answer.

Probably the most well-known and common secret question, “what was the name of your first pet,” comes up in a number of Facebook quizzes that, incredibly, thousands of people answer willingly and (apparently) truthfully. When I saw this one I was reminded of this hilarious 2007 Daily Show interview wherein Jon Stewart has Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on and tries to slyly ask him the name of his first pet.

Almost 5,000 Facebook users answered this common password reset secret question.

Continue reading →


5
Apr 18

Secret Service Warns of Chip Card Scheme

The U.S. Secret Service is warning financial institutions about a new scam involving the temporary theft of chip-based debit cards issued to large corporations. In this scheme, the fraudsters intercept new debit cards in the mail and replace the chips on the cards with chips from old cards. When the unsuspecting business receives and activates the modified card, thieves can start draining funds from the account.

Signs of a card with an old or invalid chip include heat damage around the chip or on the card, or a small hole in the plastic used to pry the chip off the card. Image: U.S. Secret Service.

According to an alert sent to banks late last month, the entire scheme goes as follows:

1. Criminals intercept mail sent from a financial institution to large corporations that contain payment cards, targeting debit payment cards with access to large amount of funds.

2. The crooks remove the chip from the debit payment card using a heat source that warms the glue.

3. Criminals replace the chip with an old or invalid chip and repackage the payment card for delivery.

4. Criminals place the stolen chip into an old payment card.

5. The corporation receives the debit payment card without realizing the chip has been replaced.

6. The corporate office activates the debit payment card; however, their payment card is inoperable thanks to the old chip.

7. Criminals use the payment card with the stolen chip for their personal gain once the corporate office activates the card. Continue reading →


4
Apr 18

Dot-cm Typosquatting Sites Visited 12M Times So Far in 2018

A story published here last week warned readers about a vast network of potentially malicious Web sites ending in “.cm” that mimic some of the world’s most popular Internet destinations (e.g. espn[dot]cm, aol[dot]cm and itunes[dot].cm) in a bid to bombard visitors with fake security alerts that can lock up one’s computer. If that piece lacked one key detail it was insight into just how many people were mistyping .com and ending up at one of these so-called “typosquatting” domains.

On March 30, an eagle-eyed reader noted that four years of access logs for the entire network of more than 1,000 dot-cm typosquatting domains were available for download directly from the typosquatting network’s own hosting provider. The logs — which include detailed records of how many people visited the sites over the past three years and from where — were deleted shortly after that comment was posted here, but not before KrebsOnSecurity managed to grab a copy of the entire archive for analysis.

The geographic distribution of 25,000 randomly selected Internet addresses (IP addresses) in the logs seen accessing the dot-cm typosquatting domains in February 2018. Batchgeo, the service used to produce this graphic, limits free lookups to 25,000, but the above image is likely still representative of the overall geographic distribution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest share of traffic is coming from the United States.

Matthew Chambers, a security expert with whom this author worked on the original dot-cm typosquatting story published last week, analyzed the access logs from just the past three months and found the sites were visited approximately 12 million times during the first quarter of 2018.

Chambers said he combed through the logs and weeded out hits from Internet addresses that appeared to be bots or search engine scrapers. Here’s Chambers’ analysis of the 2018 access log data:

January 2018; 3,732,488 visitors
February 2018: 3,799,109 visitors
Mar 2018: 4,275,998 visitors

Total Jan-Mar 2018 is 11.8 million

Those figures suggest that the total number of visits to these typosquatting sites in the first quarter of 2018 was approximately 12 million, or almost 50 million hits per year. Certainly, not everyone visiting these sites will have the experience that Chambers’ users reported (being bombarded with misleading malware alerts and redirected to scammy and spammy Web sites), but it seems clear this network could make its operators a pretty penny regardless of the content that ends up getting served through it. Continue reading →


30
Mar 18

Coinhive Exposé Prompts Cancer Research Fundraiser

A story published here this week revealed the real-life identity behind the original creator of Coinhive — a controversial cryptocurrency mining service that several security firms have recently labeled the most ubiquitous malware threat on the Internet today. In an unusual form of protest against that story, members of a popular German language image-posting board founded by the Coinhive creator have vented their dismay by donating tens hundreds of thousands of euros to local charities that support cancer research.

On Monday KrebsOnSecurity published Who and What is Coinhive, an in-depth story which proved that the founder of Coinhive was indeed the founder of the German image hosting and discussion forum pr0gramm[dot]com (not safe for work). I undertook the research because Coinhive’s code primarily is found on tens of thousands of hacked Web sites, and because the until-recently anonymous Coinhive operator(s) have been reluctant to take steps that might curb the widespread abuse of their platform.

One of countless pages of images posted about this author by pr0gramm users in response to the story about Coinhive.

In an early version of its Web site, Coinhive said its service was first tested on pr0gramm, and that the founder(s) of Coinhive considered pr0gramm “their platform” of 11 years (exactly the length of time pr0gramm has been online). Coinhive declined to say who was running their service, and tried to tell me their earlier statement about Coinhive’s longtime affiliation with pr0gramm was a convenient lie that was used to helped jump-start the service by enlisting the help of pr0gramm’s thousands of members.

Undeterred, I proceeded with my research based on the assumption that one or more of the founders of pr0gramm were involved in Coinhive. When I learned the real-life identities of the pr0gramm founders and approached them directly, each deflected questions about their apparent roles in founding and launching Coinhive.

However, shortly after the Coinhive story went live, the original founder of pr0gramm (Dominic Szablewski, a.k.a. “cha0s”) published a blog post acknowledging that he was in fact the creator of Coinhive. What’s more, Coinhive has since added legal contact information to its Web site, and has said it is now taking steps to ensure that it no longer profits from cryptocurrency mining activity after hacked Web sites owners report finding Coinhive’s code on their sites.

Normally, when KrebsOnSecurity publishes a piece that sheds light on a corner of the Internet that would rather remain in the shadows, the response is as predictable as it is swift: Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on this site combined with threats of physical violence and harm from anonymous users on Twitter and other social networks.

While this site did receive several small DDoS attacks this week — and more than a few anonymous threats of physical violence and even death related to the Coinhive story — the response from pr0gramm members has been remarkably positive overall.

The pr0gramm community quickly seized on the fact that my last name — Krebs — means “crab” and “cancer” in German. Apparently urged by one of the pr0gramm founders named in the story to express their anger in “objective and polite” ways, several pr0gramm members took to donating money to the Deutsche Krebshilfe (German Cancer Aid/DKMS) Web site as a way to display their unity and numbers.

The protest (pr0test?) soon caught on in the Twitter hashtag “#KrebsIsCancer,” promoted and re-tweeted heavily by pr0gramm members as a means to “Fight Krebs” or fight cancer. According to a statement on DKMS’s Web site, the KrebsIsCancer campaign involved donations from more than 8,300 people totaling 207,500 euros (~USD $256,000).

Update, 2:46 p.m. ET: Updated donation figures per statement posted today on DKMS site.


29
Mar 18

Omitting the “o” in .com Could Be Costly

Take care when typing a domain name into a browser address bar, because it’s far too easy to fat-finger a key and wind up somewhere you don’t want to go. For example, if you try to visit some of the most popular destinations on the Web but omit the “o” in .com (and type .cm instead), there’s a good chance your browser will be bombarded with malware alerts and other misleading messages — potentially even causing your computer to lock up completely. As it happens, many of these domains appear tied to a marketing company whose CEO is a convicted felon and once self-proclaimed “Spam King.”

Matthew Chambers is a security professional and researcher in Atlanta. Earlier this month Chambers penned a post on his personal blog detailing what he found after several users he looks after accidentally mistyped different domains — such as espn[dot]cm.

Chambers said the user who visited that domain told him that after typing in espn.com he quickly had his computer screen filled with alerts about malware and countless other pop-ups. Security logs for that user’s system revealed the user had actually typed espn[dot]cm, but when Chambers reviewed the source code at that Web page he found an innocuous placeholder content page instead.

“One thing we notice is that any links generated off these domains tend to only work one time, if you try to revisit it’s a 404,” Chambers wrote, referring to the standard 404 message displayed in the browser when a Web page is not found. “The file is deleted to prevent researchers from trying to grab it, or automatic scanners from downloading it. Also, some of the exploit code on these sites will randomly vaporize, and they will have no code on them, but were just being weaponized in campaigns. It could be the user agent, or some other factor, but they definitely go dormant for periods of time.”

Espn[dot]cm is one of more than a thousand so-called “typosquatting” domains hosted on the same Internet address (85.25.199.30), including aetna[dot]cmaol[dot]cm, box[dot]cm, chase[dot]cm, citicards[dot]cmcostco[dot]cm, facebook[dot]cmgeico[dot]cm, hulu[dot]cmitunes[dot]cm, pnc[dot]cmslate[dot]cmsuntrust[dot]cm, turbotax[dot]cm, and walmart[dot]cm. I’ve compiled a partial list of the most popular typosquatting domains that are part of this network here (PDF).

KrebsOnSecurity sought to dig a bit deeper into Chambers’ findings, researching some of the domain registration records tied to the list of dot-cm typosquatting domains. Helpfully, all of the domains currently redirect visitors to just one of two landing pages — either antistrophebail[dot]com or chillcardiac[dot]com.

For the moment, if one visits either of these domains directly via a desktop Web browser (I’d advise against this) chances are the site will display a message saying, “Sorry, we currently have no promotions available right now.” Browsing some of them with a mobile device sometimes leads to a page urging the visitor to complete a “short survey” in exchange for “a chance to get an gift [sic] cards, coupons and other amazing deals!”

Those antistrophebail and chillcardiac domains — as well as 1,500+ others — were registered to the email address: ryanteraksxe1@yahoo.com. A Web search on that address doesn’t tell us much, but entering it at Yahoo‘s “forgot password” page lists a partially obfuscated address to which Yahoo can send an account key that may be used to reset the password for the account. That address is k*****ng@mediabreakaway[dot]com.

The full email address is kmanning@mediabreakaway[dot]com. According to the “leadership” page at mediabreakaway[dot]com, the email address ryanteraksxe1@yahoo.com almost certainly belongs to one Kacy Manning, who is listed as the “Manager of Special Projects” at Colorado based marketing firm Media Breakaway LLC.

Media Breakaway is headed by Scott Richter, a convicted felon who’s been successfully sued for spamming by some of the biggest media companies over the years. Continue reading →


26
Mar 18

Who and What Is Coinhive?

Multiple security firms recently identified cryptocurrency mining service Coinhive as the top malicious threat to Web users, thanks to the tendency for Coinhive’s computer code to be used on hacked Web sites to steal the processing power of its visitors’ devices. This post looks at how Coinhive vaulted to the top of the threat list less than a year after its debut, and explores clues about the possible identities of the individuals behind the service.

Coinhive is a cryptocurrency mining service that relies on a small chunk of computer code designed to be installed on Web sites. The code uses some or all of the computing power of any browser that visits the site in question, enlisting the machine in a bid to mine bits of the Monero cryptocurrency.

Monero differs from Bitcoin in that its transactions are virtually untraceble, and there is no way for an outsider to track Monero transactions between two parties. Naturally, this quality makes Monero an especially appealing choice for cybercriminals.

Coinhive released its mining code last summer, pitching it as a way for Web site owners to earn an income without running intrusive or annoying advertisements. But since then, Coinhive’s code has emerged as the top malware threat tracked by multiple security firms. That’s because much of the time the code is installed on hacked Web sites — without the owner’s knowledge or permission.

Much like a malware infection by a malicious bot or Trojan, Coinhive’s code frequently locks up a user’s browser and drains the device’s battery as it continues to mine Monero for as long a visitor is browsing the site.

According to publicwww.com, a service that indexes the source code of Web sites, there are nearly 32,000 Web sites currently running Coinhive’s JavaScript miner code. It’s impossible to say how many of those sites have installed the code intentionally, but in recent months hackers have secretly stitched it into some extremely high-profile Web sites, including sites for such companies as The Los Angeles Times, mobile device maker Blackberry, Politifact, and Showtime.

And it’s turning up in some unexpected places: In December, Coinhive code was found embedded in all Web pages served by a WiFi hotspot at a Starbucks in Buenos Aires. For roughly a week in January, Coinhive was found hidden inside of YouTube advertisements (via Google’s DoubleClick platform) in select countries, including Japan, France, Taiwan, Italy and Spain. In February, Coinhive was found on “Browsealoud,” a service provided by Texthelp that reads web pages out loud for the visually impaired. The service is widely used on many UK government websites, in addition to a few US and Canadian government sites.

What does Coinhive get out of all this? Coinhive keeps 30 percent of whatever amount of Monero cryptocurrency that is mined using its code, whether or not a Web site has given consent to run it. The code is tied to a special cryptographic key that identifies which user account is to receive the other 70 percent.

Coinhive does accept abuse complaints, but it generally refuses to respond to any complaints that do not come from a hacked Web site’s owner (it mostly ignores abuse complaints lodged by third parties). What’s more, when Coinhive does respond to abuse complaints, it does so by invalidating the key tied to the abuse.

But according to Troy Mursch, a security expert who spends much of his time tracking Coinhive and other instances of “cryptojacking,” killing the key doesn’t do anything to stop Coinhive’s code from continuing to mine Monero on a hacked site. Once a key is invalidated, Mursch said, Coinhive keeps 100 percent of the cryptocurrency mined by sites tied to that account from then on.

Mursch said Coinhive appears to have zero incentive to police the widespread abuse that is leveraging its platform.

“When they ‘terminate’ a key, it just terminates the user on that platform, it doesn’t stop the malicious JavaScript from running, and it just means that particular Coinhive user doesn’t get paid anymore,” Mursch said. “The code keeps running, and Coinhive gets all of it. Maybe they can’t do anything about it, or maybe they don’t want to. But as long as the code is still on the hacked site, it’s still making them money.”

Reached for comment about this apparent conflict of interest, Coinhive replied with a highly technical response, claiming the organization is working on a fix to correct that conflict.

“We have developed Coinhive under the assumption that site keys are immutable,” Coinhive wrote in an email to KrebsOnSecurity. “This is evident by the fact that a site key can not be deleted by a user. This assumption greatly simplified our initial development. We can cache site keys on our WebSocket servers instead of reloading them from the database for every new client. We’re working on a mechanism [to] propagate the invalidation of a key to our WebSocket servers.”

AUTHEDMINE

Coinhive has responded to such criticism by releasing a version of their code called “AuthedMine,” which is designed to seek a Web site visitor’s consent before running the Monero mining scripts. Coinhive maintains that approximately 35 percent of the Monero cryptocurrency mining activity that uses its platform comes from sites using AuthedMine.

But according to a report published in February by security firm Malwarebytes, the AuthedMine code is “barely used” compared to the use of Coinhive’s mining code that does not seek permission from Web site visitors. Malwarebytes’ telemetry data (drawn from antivirus alerts when users browse to a site running Coinhive’s code) determined that AuthedMine is used in a little more than one percent of all cases that involve Coinhive’s mining code.

Image: Malwarebytes. The statistic above refer to the number of times per day between Jan. 10 and Feb. 7 that Malwarebytes blocked connections to AuthedMine and Coinhive, respectively.

Asked to comment on the Malwarebytes findings, Coinhive replied that if relatively few people are using AuthedMine it might be because anti-malware companies like Malwarebytes have made it unprofitable for people to do so.

“They identify our opt-in version as a threat and block it,” Coinhive said. “Why would anyone use AuthedMine if it’s blocked just as our original implementation? We don’t think there’s any way that we could have launched Coinhive and not get it blacklisted by Antiviruses. If antiviruses say ‘mining is bad,’ then mining is bad.”

Similarly, data from the aforementioned source code tracking site publicwww.com shows that some 32,000 sites are running the original Coinhive mining script, while the site lists just under 1,200 sites running AuthedMine.

WHO IS COINHIVE?

[Author’s’ note: Ordinarily, I prefer to link to sources of information cited in stories, such as those on Coinhive’s own site and other entities mentioned throughout the rest of this piece. However, because many of these links either go to sites that actively mine with Coinhive or that include decidedly not-safe-for-work content, I have included screenshots instead of links in these cases. For these reasons, I would strongly advise against visiting pr0gramm’s Web site.]

According to a since-deleted statement on the original version of Coinhive’s Web site — coin-hive[dot]com — Coinhive was born out of an experiment on the German-language image hosting and discussion forum pr0gramm[dot]com.

A now-deleted “About us” statement on the original coin-hive[dot]com Web site. This snapshop was taken on Sept. 15, 2017. Image courtesy archive.org.

Indeed, multiple discussion threads on pr0gramm[dot]com show that Coinhive’s code first surfaced there in the third week of July 2017. At the time, the experiment was dubbed “pr0miner,” and those threads indicate that the core programmer responsible for pr0miner used the nickname “int13h” on pr0gramm. In a message to this author, Coinhive confirmed that “most of the work back then was done by int13h, who is still on our team.”

I asked Coinhive for clarity on the disappearance of the above statement from its site concerning its affiliation with pr0gramm. Coinhive replied that it had been a convenient fiction:

“The owners of pr0gramm are good friends and we’ve helped them with their infrastructure and various projects in the past. They let us use pr0gramm as a testbed for the miner and also allowed us to use their name to get some more credibility. Launching a new platform is difficult if you don’t have a track record. As we later gained some publicity, this statement was no longer needed.”

Asked for clarification about the “platform” referred to in its statement (“We are self-funded and have been running this platform for the past 11 years”) Coinhive replied, “Sorry for not making it clearer: ‘this platform’ is indeed pr0gramm.”

After receiving this response, it occurred to me that someone might be able to find out who’s running Coinhive by determining the identities of the pr0gramm forum administrators. I reasoned that if they were not one and the same, the pr0gramm admins almost certainly would know the identities of the folks behind Coinhive. Continue reading →