Using Google Search to Find Software Can Be Risky

January 25, 2024

Google continues to struggle with cybercriminals running malicious ads on its search platform to trick people into downloading booby-trapped copies of popular free software applications. The malicious ads, which appear above organic search results and often precede links to legitimate sources of the same software, can make searching for software on Google a dicey affair.

Google says keeping users safe is a top priority, and that the company has a team of thousands working around the clock to create and enforce their abuse policies. And by most accounts, the threat from bad ads leading to backdoored software has subsided significantly compared to a year ago.

But cybercrooks are constantly figuring out ingenious ways to fly beneath Google’s anti-abuse radar, and new examples of bad ads leading to malware are still too common.

For example, a Google search earlier this week for the free graphic design program FreeCAD produced the following result, which shows that a “Sponsored” ad at the top of the search results is advertising the software available from freecad-us[.]org. Although this website claims to be the official FreeCAD website, that honor belongs to the result directly below — the legitimate

How do we know freecad-us[.]org is malicious? A review at show this domain is the newest (registered Jan. 19, 2024) of more than 200 domains at the Internet address 93.190.143[.]252 that are confusingly similar to popular software titles, including dashlane-project[.]com, filezillasoft[.]com, keepermanager[.]com, and libreofficeproject[.]com.

Some of the domains at this Netherlands host appear to be little more than software review websites that steal content from established information sources in the IT world, including Gartner, PCWorld, Slashdot and TechRadar.

Other domains at 93.190.143[.]252 do serve actual software downloads, but none of them are likely to be malicious if one visits the sites through direct navigation. If one visits openai-project[.]org and downloads a copy of the popular Windows desktop management application Rainmeter, for example, the file that is downloaded has the same exact file signature as the real Rainmeter installer available from

But this is only a ruse, says Tom Hegel, principal threat researcher at the security firm Sentinel One. Hegel has been tracking these malicious domains for more than a year, and he said the seemingly benign software download sites will periodically turn evil, swapping out legitimate copies of popular software titles with backdoored versions that will allow cybercriminals to remotely commander the systems.

“They’re using automation to pull in fake content, and they’re rotating in and out of hosting malware,” Hegel said, noting that the malicious downloads may only be offered to visitors who come from specific geographic locations, like the United States. “In the malicious ad campaigns we’ve seen tied to this group, they would wait until the domains gain legitimacy on the search engines, and then flip the page for a day or so and then flip back.”

In February 2023, Hegel co-authored a report on this same network, which Sentinel One has dubbed MalVirt (a play on “malvertising”). They concluded that the surge in malicious ads spoofing various software products was directly responsible for a surge in malware infections from infostealer trojans like IcedID, Redline Stealer, Formbook and AuroraStealer. Continue reading

Canadian Man Stuck in Triangle of E-Commerce Fraud

January 19, 2024

A Canadian man who says he’s been falsely charged with orchestrating a complex e-commerce scam is seeking to clear his name. His case appears to involve “triangulation fraud,” which occurs when a consumer purchases something online — from a seller on Amazon or eBay, for example — but the seller doesn’t actually own the item for sale. Instead, the seller purchases the item from an online retailer using stolen payment card data. In this scam, the unwitting buyer pays the scammer and receives what they ordered, and very often the only party left to dispute the transaction is the owner of the stolen payment card.

Triangulation fraud. Image: eBay Enterprise.

Timothy Barker, 56, was until recently a Band Manager at Duncan’s First Nation, a First Nation in northwestern Alberta, Canada. A Band Manager is responsible for overseeing the delivery of all Band programs, including community health services, education, housing, social assistance, and administration.

Barker told KrebsOnSecurity that during the week of March 31, 2023 he and the director of the Band’s daycare program discussed the need to purchase items for the community before the program’s budget expired for the year.

“There was a rush to purchase items on the Fiscal Year 2023 timeline as the year ended on March 31,” Barker recalled.

Barker said he bought seven “Step2 All Around Playtime Patio with Canopy” sets from a seller on, using his payment card on file to pay nearly $2,000 for the items.

On the morning of April 7, Barker’s Facebook account received several nasty messages from an Ontario woman he’d never met. She demanded to know why he’d hacked her Walmart account and used it to buy things that were being shipped to his residence. Barker shared a follow-up message from the woman, who later apologized for losing her temper.

One of several messages from the Ontario woman whose Walmart account was used to purchase the goods that Barker ordered from Amazon.

“If this is not the person who did this to me, I’m sorry, I’m pissed,” the lady from Ontario said. “This order is being delivered April 14th to the address above. If not you, then someone who has the same name. Now I feel foolish.”

On April 12, 2023, before the Amazon purchases had even arrived at his home, Barker received a call from an investigator with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who said Barker urgently needed to come down to the local RCMP office for an interview related to “an investigation.” Barker said the officer wouldn’t elaborate at the time on the nature of the investigation, and that he told the officer he was in Halifax for several days but could meet after his return home.

According to Barker, the investigator visited his home anyway the following day and began questioning his wife, asking about his whereabouts, his work, and when he might return home.

On April 14, six boxes arrived to partially fulfill his Amazon order; another box was delayed, and the seller he’d purchased from said the remaining box was expected to ship the following week. Barker said he was confused because all six boxes came from Walmart instead of Amazon, and the shipping labels had his name and address on them but carried a contact phone number in Mexico.

Three days later, the investigator called again, demanding he submit to an interview.

“He then asked where my wife was and what her name is,” Barker said. “He wanted to know her itinerary for the day. I am now alarmed and frightened — this doesn’t feel right.”

Barker said he inquired with a local attorney about a consultation, but that the RCMP investigator showed up at his house before he could speak to the lawyer. The investigator began taking pictures of the boxes from his Amazon order.

“The [investigator] derisively asked why would anyone order so many play sets?” Barker said. “I started to give the very logical answer that we are helping families improve their children’s home life and learning for toddlers when he cut me off and gave the little speech about giving a statement after my arrest. He finally told me that he believes that I used someone’s credit card in Ontario to purchase the Walmart products.”

Eager to clear his name, Barker said he shared with the police copies of his credit card bills and purchase history at Amazon. But on April 21, the investigator called again to say he was coming to arrest Barker for theft.

“He said that if I was home at five o’clock then he would serve the papers at the house and it would go easy and I wouldn’t have to go to the station,” Barker recalled. “If I wasn’t home, then he would send a search team to locate me and drag me to the station. He said he would kick the door down if I didn’t answer my phone. He said he had every right to break our door down.”

Barker said he briefly conferred with an attorney about how to handle the arrest. Later that evening, the RCMP arrived with five squad cars and six officers.

“I asked if handcuffs were necessary – there is no danger of violence,” Barker said. “I was going to cooperate. His response was to turn me around and cuff me. He walked me outside and stood me beside the car for a full 4 or 5 minutes in full view of all the neighbors.”

Barker believes he and the Ontario woman are both victims of triangulation fraud, and that someone likely hacked the Ontario woman’s Walmart account and added his name and address as a recipient.

But he says he has since lost his job as a result of the arrest, and now he can’t find new employment because he has a criminal record. Barker’s former employer — Duncan’s First Nation — did not respond to requests for comment.

“In Canada, a criminal record is not a record of conviction, it’s a record of charges and that’s why I can’t work now,” Barker said. “Potential employers never find out what the nature of it is, they just find out that I have a criminal arrest record.” Continue reading


E-Crime Rapper ‘Punchmade Dev’ Debuts Card Shop

January 17, 2024

The rapper and social media personality Punchmade Dev is perhaps best known for his flashy videos singing the praises of a cybercrime lifestyle. With memorable hits such as “Internet Swiping” and “Million Dollar Criminal” earning millions of views, Punchmade has leveraged his considerable following to peddle tutorials on how to commit financial crimes online. But until recently, there wasn’t much to support a conclusion that Punchmade was actually doing the cybercrime things he promotes in his songs.

Images from Punchmade Dev’s Twitter/X account show him displaying bags of cash and wearing a functional diamond-crusted payment card skimmer.

Punchmade Dev’s most controversial mix — a rap called “Wire Fraud Tutorial” — was taken down by Youtube last summer for violating the site’s rules. Punchmade shared on social media that the video’s removal was prompted by YouTube receiving a legal process request from law enforcement officials.

The 24-year-old rapper told reporters he wasn’t instructing people how to conduct wire fraud, but instead informing his fans on how to avoid being victims of wire fraud. However, this is difficult to discern from listening to the song, which sounds very much like a step-by-step tutorial on how to commit wire fraud.

“Listen up, I’m finna show y’all how to hit a bank,” Wire Fraud Tutorial begins. “Just pay attention, this is a quick way to jug in any state. First you wanna get a bank log from a trusted site. Do your research because the information must be right.”

And even though we’re talking about an individual who regularly appears in videos wearing a half-million dollars worth of custom jewelry draped around his arm and neck (including the functional diamond-encrusted payment card skimming device pictured above), there’s never been much evidence that Punchmade was actually involved in committing cybercrimes himself. Even his most vocal critics acknowledged that the whole persona could just be savvy marketing.

That changed recently when Punchmade’s various video and social media accounts began promoting a new web shop that is selling stolen payment cards and identity data, as well as hacked financial accounts and software for producing counterfeit checks.

Punchmade Dev's shop.

Punchmade Dev’s shop.

The official Punchmadedev account on Instagram links to many of the aforementioned rap videos and tutorials on cybercriming, as well as to Punchmadedev’s other profiles and websites. Among them is mainpage[.]me/punchmade, which includes the following information for “Punchmade Empire ®

-212,961 subscribers

#1 source on Telegram

Contact: @whopunchmade

24/7 shop: https://punchmade[.]atshop[.]io

Visiting that @whopunchmade Telegram channel shows this user is promoting punchmade[.]atshop[.]io, which is currently selling hacked bank accounts and payment cards with high balances.

Clicking “purchase” on the C@sh App offering, for example, shows that for $80 the buyer will receive logins to Cash App accounts with balances between $3,000 and $5,000. “If you buy this item you’ll get my full support on discord/telegram if there is a problem!,” the site promises. Purchases can be made in cryptocurrencies, and checking out prompts one to continue payment at

Another item for sale, “Fullz + Linkable CC,” promises “ID Front + Back, SSN with 700+ Credit Score, and Linkable CC” or credit card. That also can be had for $80 in crypto. Continue reading

Here’s Some Bitcoin: Oh, and You’ve Been Served!

January 10, 2024

A California man who lost $100,000 in a 2021 SIM-swapping attack is suing the unknown holder of a cryptocurrency wallet that harbors his stolen funds. The case is thought to be the first in which a federal court has recognized the use of information included in a bitcoin transaction — such as a link to a civil claim filed in federal court — as reasonably likely to provide notice of the lawsuit to the defendant. Experts say the development could make it easier for victims of crypto heists to recover stolen funds through the courts without having to wait years for law enforcement to take notice or help.

Ryan Dellone, a healthcare worker in Fresno, Calif., asserts that thieves stole his bitcoin on Dec. 14, 2021, by executing an unauthorized SIM-swap that involved an employee at his mobile phone provider who switched Dellone’s phone number over to a new device the attackers controlled.

Dellone says the crooks then used his phone number to break into his account at Coinbase and siphon roughly $100,000 worth of cryptocurrencies. Coinbase is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which alleges the company ignored multiple red flags, and that it should have detected and stopped the theft. Coinbase did not respond to requests for comment.

Working with experts who track the flow of funds stolen in cryptocurrency heists, Dellone’s lawyer Ethan Mora identified a bitcoin wallet that was the ultimate destination of his client’s stolen crypto. Mora says his client has since been made aware that the bitcoin address in question is embroiled in an ongoing federal investigation into a cryptocurrency theft ring.

Mora said it’s unclear if the bitcoin address that holds his client’s stolen money is being held by the government or by the anonymous hackers. Nevertheless, he is pursuing a novel legal strategy that allows his client to serve notice of the civil suit to that bitcoin address — and potentially win a default judgment to seize his client’s funds within — without knowing the identity of his attackers or anything about the account holder.

In a civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages, a default judgment is usually entered on behalf of the plaintiff if the defendant fails to respond to the complaint within a specified time. Assuming that the cybercriminals who stole the money don’t dispute Dellone’s claim, experts say the money could be seized by cryptocurrency exchanges if the thieves ever tried to move it or spend it.

The U.S. courts have generally held that if you’re going to sue someone, you have to provide some kind of meaningful and timely communication about that lawsuit to the defendant in a way that is reasonably likely to provide them notice.

Not so long ago, you had track down your defendant and hire someone to physically serve them with a copy of the court papers. But legal experts say the courts have evolved their thinking in recent years about what constitutes meaningful service, and now allow notification via email.

On Dec. 14, 2023, a federal judge in the Eastern District of California granted Dellone permission to serve notice of his lawsuit directly to the suspected hackers’ bitcoin address — using a short message that was attached to roughly $100 worth of bitcoin Mora sent to the address.

Bitcoin transactions are public record, and each transaction can be sent along with an optional short message. The message uses what’s known as an “OP RETURN,” or an instruction of the Bitcoin scripting language that allows users to attach metadata to a transaction — and thus save it on the blockchain.

In the $100 bitcoin transaction Mora sent to the disputed bitcoin address, the OP RETURN message read: “OSERVICE – SUMMONS, COMPLAINT U.S. Dist. E.D. Cal. LINK:,” which is a short link to a copy of the lawsuit hosted on Google Drive.

“The courts are adapting to the new style of service of process,” said Mark Rasch, a former federal prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice. “And that’s helpful and useful and necessary.” Continue reading

Meet Ika & Sal: The Bulletproof Hosting Duo from Hell

January 8, 2024

In 2020, the United States brought charges against four men accused of building a bulletproof hosting empire that once dominated the Russian cybercrime industry and supported multiple organized cybercrime groups. All four pleaded guilty to conspiracy and racketeering charges. But there is a fascinating and untold backstory behind the two Russian men involved, who co-ran the world’s top spam forum and worked closely with Russia’s most dangerous cybercriminals.

From January 2005 to April 2013, there were two primary administrators of the cybercrime forum Spamdot (a.k.a Spamit), an invite-only community for Russian-speaking people in the businesses of sending spam and building botnets of infected computers to relay said spam. The Spamdot admins went by the nicknames Icamis (a.k.a. Ika), and Salomon (a.k.a. Sal).

Spamdot forum administrator “Ika” a.k.a. “Icamis” responds to a message from “Tarelka,” the botmaster behind the Rustock botnet. Dmsell said: “I’m actually very glad that I switched to legal spam mailing,” prompting Tarelka and Ika to scoff.

As detailed in my 2014 book, Spam Nation, Spamdot was home to crooks controlling some of the world’s nastiest botnets, global malware contagions that went by exotic names like Rustock, Cutwail, Mega-D, Festi, Waledac, and Grum.

Icamis and Sal were in daily communications with these botmasters, via the Spamdot forum and private messages. Collectively in control over millions of spam-spewing zombies, those botmasters also continuously harvested passwords and other data from infected machines.

As we’ll see in a moment, Salomon is now behind bars, in part because he helped to rob dozens of small businesses in the United States using some of those same harvested passwords. He is currently housed in a federal prison in Michigan, serving the final stretch of a 60-month sentence.

But the identity and whereabouts of Icamis have remained a mystery to this author until recently. For years, security experts — and indeed, many top cybercriminals in the Spamit affiliate program — have expressed the belief that Sal and Icamis were likely the same person using two different identities. And there were many good reasons to support this conclusion.

For example, in 2010 Spamdot and its spam affiliate program Spamit were hacked, and its user database shows Sal and Icamis often accessed the forum from the same Internet address — usually from Cherepovets, an industrial town situated approximately 230 miles north of Moscow. Also, it was common for Icamis to reply when Spamdot members communicated a request or complaint to Sal, and vice versa.


Still, other clues suggested Icamis and Sal were two separate individuals. For starters, they frequently changed the status on their instant messenger clients at different times. Also, they each privately discussed with others having attended different universities.

KrebsOnSecurity began researching Icamis’s real-life identity in 2012, but failed to revisit any of that research until recently. In December 2023, KrebsOnSecurity published new details about the identity of “Rescator,” a Russian cybercriminal who is thought to be closely connected to the 2013 data breach at Target.

That story mentioned Rescator’s real-life identity was exposed by Icamis in April 2013, as part of a lengthy farewell letter Ika wrote to Spamdot members wherein Ika said he was closing the forum and quitting the cybercrime business entirely.

To no one’s shock, Icamis didn’t quit the business: He simply became more quiet and circumspect about his work, which increasingly was focused on helping crime groups siphon funds from U.S. bank accounts. But the Rescator story was a reminder that 10 years worth of research on who Ika/Icamis is in real life had been completely set aside. This post is an attempt to remedy that omission.

The farewell post from Ika (aka Icamis), the administrator of both the BlackSEO forum and Pustota, the successor forum to Spamit/Spamdot.


Icamis and Sal offered a comprehensive package of goods and services that any aspiring or accomplished spammer would need on a day-to-day basis: Virtually unlimited bulletproof domain registration and hosting services, as well as services that helped botmasters evade spam block lists generated by anti-spam groups like Here’s snippet of Icamis’s ad on Spamdot from Aug. 2008, wherein he addresses forum members with the salutation, “Hello Gentlemen Scammers.”

We are glad to present you our services!
Many are already aware (and are our clients), but publicity is never superfluous. 🙂

– all major gtlds (com, net, org, info, biz)
– many interesting and uninteresting cctlds
– options for any topic
– processing of any quantities
– guarantees
– exceptionally low prices for domains for white and gray schemes (including any SEO and affiliate spam )
– control panel with balances and auto-registration
– all services under the Ikamis brand, proven over the years;)

– long-term partnerships with several [data centers] in several parts of the world for any topic
– your own data center (no longer in Russia ;)) for gray and white topics
– any configuration and any hardware
– your own IP networks (PI, not PA) and full legal support
– realtime backups to neutral sites
– guarantees and full responsibility for the services provided
– non-standard equipment on request
– our own admins to resolve any technical issues (services are free for clients)
– hosting (shared and vps) is also possible

Non-standard and related services.
– ssl certificates signed by geotrust and thawte
– old domains (any year, any quantity)
– beautiful domains (keyword, short, etc.)
– domains with indicators (any, for SEO, etc.)
– making unstable gtld domains stable
– interception and hijacking of custom domains (expensive)
– full domain posting via with restoration of native content (preliminary applications)
– any updates to our panels to suit your needs upon request (our own coders)

All orders for the “Domains” sections and “Servers” are carried out during the day (depending on our workload).
For non-standard and related services, a preliminary application is required 30 days in advance (except for ssl certificates – within 24 hours).

Icamis and Sal frequently claimed that their service kept Spamhaus and other anti-spam groups several steps behind their operations. But it’s clear that those anti-spam operations had a real and painful impact on spam revenues, and Salomon was obsessed with striking back at anti-spam groups, particularly Spamhaus.

In 2007, Salomon collected more than $3,000 from botmasters affiliated with competing spam affiliate programs that wanted to see Spamhaus suffer, and the money was used to fund a week-long distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against Spamhaus and its online infrastructure. But rather than divert their spam botnets from their normal activity and thereby decrease sales, the botmasters voted to create a new DDoS botnet by purchasing installations of DDoS malware on thousands of already-hacked PCs (at a rate of $25 per 1,000 installs).

Continue reading

Happy 14th Birthday, KrebsOnSecurity!

December 29, 2023

KrebsOnSecurity celebrates its 14th year of existence today! I promised myself this post wouldn’t devolve into yet another Cybersecurity Year in Review. Nor do I wish to hold forth about whatever cyber horrors may await us in 2024. But I do want to thank you all for your continued readership, encouragement and support, without which I could not do what I do.

As of this birthday, I’ve officially been an independent investigative journalist for longer than I was a reporter for The Washington Post (1995-2009). Of course, not if you count the many years I worked as a paperboy schlepping The Washington Post to dozens of homes in Springfield, Va. (as a young teen, I inherited a largish paper route handed down from my elder siblings).

True story: At the time I was hired as a lowly copy aide by The Washington Post, all new hires — everyone from the mailroom and janitors on up to the executives — were invited to a formal dinner in the Executive Suite with the publisher Don Graham. On the evening of my new hires dinner, I was feeling underdressed, undershowered and out of place. After wolfing down some food, I tried to slink away to the elevator with another copy aide, but was pulled aside by the guy who hired me. “Hey Brian, not so fast! Come over and meet Don!”

I was 23 years old, and I had no clue what to say except to tell him that paper route story, and that I’d already been working for him for half my life. Mr. Graham laughed and told me that was the best thing he’d heard all day. Which of course made my week, and made me feel more at ease among the suits. Continue reading

BlackCat Ransomware Raises Ante After FBI Disruption

December 19, 2023

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) disclosed today that it infiltrated the world’s second most prolific ransomware gang, a Russia-based criminal group known as ALPHV and BlackCat. The FBI said it seized the gang’s darknet website, and released a decryption tool that hundreds of victim companies can use to recover systems. Meanwhile, BlackCat responded by briefly “unseizing” its darknet site with a message promising 90 percent commissions for affiliates who continue to work with the crime group, and open season on everything from hospitals to nuclear power plants.

A slightly modified version of the FBI seizure notice on the BlackCat darknet site (Santa caps added).

Whispers of a possible law enforcement action against BlackCat came in the first week of December, after the ransomware group’s darknet site went offline and remained unavailable for roughly five days. BlackCat eventually managed to bring its site back online, blaming the outage on equipment malfunctions.

But earlier today, the BlackCat website was replaced with an FBI seizure notice, while federal prosecutors in Florida released a search warrant explaining how FBI agents were able to gain access to and disrupt the group’s operations.

A statement on the operation from the U.S. Department of Justice says the FBI developed a decryption tool that allowed agency field offices and partners globally to offer more than 500 affected victims the ability to restore their systems.

“With a decryption tool provided by the FBI to hundreds of ransomware victims worldwide, businesses and schools were able to reopen, and health care and emergency services were able to come back online,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said. “We will continue to prioritize disruptions and place victims at the center of our strategy to dismantle the ecosystem fueling cybercrime.”

The DOJ reports that since BlackCat’s formation roughly 18 months ago, the crime group has targeted the computer networks of more than 1,000 victim organizations. BlackCat attacks usually involve encryption and theft of data; if victims refuse to pay a ransom, the attackers typically publish the stolen data on a BlackCat-linked darknet site.

BlackCat formed by recruiting operators from several competing or disbanded ransomware organizations — including REvilBlackMatter and DarkSide. The latter group was responsible for the Colonial Pipeline attack in May 2021 that caused nationwide fuel shortages and price spikes.

Like many other ransomware operations, BlackCat operates under the “ransomware-as-a-service” model, where teams of developers maintain and update the ransomware code, as well as all of its supporting infrastructure. Affiliates are incentivized to attack high-value targets because they generally reap 60-80 percent of any payouts, with the remainder going to the crooks running the ransomware operation.

BlackCat was able to briefly regain control over their darknet server today. Not long after the FBI’s seizure notice went live the homepage was “unseized” and retrofitted with a statement about the incident from the ransomware group’s perspective. Continue reading

Ten Years Later, New Clues in the Target Breach

December 14, 2023

On Dec. 18, 2013, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that U.S. retail giant Target was battling a wide-ranging computer intrusion that compromised more than 40 million customer payment cards over the previous month. The malware used in the Target breach included the text string “Rescator,” which also was the handle chosen by the cybercriminal who was selling all of the cards stolen from Target customers. Ten years later, KrebsOnSecurity has uncovered new clues about the real-life identity of Rescator.

Rescator, advertising a new batch of cards stolen in a 2014 breach at P.F. Chang’s.

Shortly after breaking the Target story, KrebsOnSecurity reported that Rescator appeared to be a hacker from Ukraine. Efforts to confirm my reporting with that individual ended when they declined to answer questions, and after I declined to accept a bribe of $10,000 not to run my story.

That reporting was based on clues from an early Russian cybercrime forum in which a hacker named Rescator — using the same profile image that Rescator was known to use on other forums — claimed to have originally been known as “Helkern,” the nickname chosen by the administrator of a cybercrime forum called Darklife.

KrebsOnSecurity began revisiting the research into Rescator’s real-life identity in 2018, after the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed an indictment that named a different Ukrainian man as Helkern.

It may be helpful to first recap why Rescator is thought to be so closely tied to the Target breach. For starters, the text string “Rescator” was found in some of the malware used in the Target breach. Investigators would later determine that a variant of the malware used in the Target breach was used in 2014 to steal 56 million payment cards from Home Depot customers. And once again, cards stolen in the Home Depot breach were sold exclusively at Rescator’s shops.

On Nov. 25, 2013, two days before Target said the breach officially began, Rescator could be seen in instant messages hiring another forum member to verify 400,000 payment cards that Rescator claimed were freshly stolen.

By the first week of December 2013, Rescator’s online store — rescator[.]la — was selling more than six million payment card records stolen from Target customers. Prior to the Target breach, Rescator had mostly sold much smaller batches of stolen card and identity data, and the website allowed cybercriminals to automate the sending of fraudulent wire transfers to money mules based in Lviv, Ukraine.

Finally, there is some honor among thieves, and in the marketplace for stolen payment card data it is considered poor form to advertise a batch of cards as “yours” if you are merely reselling cards sold to you by a third-party card vendor or thief. When serious stolen payment card shop vendors wish to communicate that a batch of cards is uniquely their handiwork or that of their immediate crew, they refer to it as “our base.” And Rescator was quite clear in his advertisements that these millions of cards were obtained firsthand.


The new clues about Rescator’s identity came into focus when I revisited the reporting around an April 2013 story here that identified the author of the OSX Flashback Trojan, an early Mac malware strain that quickly spread to more than 650,000 Mac computers worldwide in 2012.

That story about the Flashback author was possible because a source had obtained a Web browser authentication cookie for a founding member of a Russian cybercrime forum called BlackSEO. Anyone in possession of that cookie could then browse the invite-only BlackSEO forum and read the user’s private messages without having to log in. VIP member “Mavook” tells forum admin Ika in a private message that he is the Flashback author.

The legitimate owner of that BlackSEO user cookie went by the nickname Ika, and Ika’s private messages on the forum showed he was close friends with the Flashback author. At the time, Ika also was the administrator of Pustota[.]pw — a closely-guarded Russian forum that counted among its members some of the world’s most successful and established spammers and malware writers.

For many years, Ika held a key position at one of Russia’s largest Internet service providers, and his (mostly glowing) reputation as a reliable provider of web hosting to the Russian cybercrime community gave him an encyclopedic knowledge about nearly every major player in that scene at the time.

The story on the Flashback author featured redacted screenshots that were taken from Ika’s BlackSEO account (see image above). The day after that story ran, Ika posted a farewell address to his mates, expressing shock and bewilderment over the apparent compromise of his BlackSEO account.

In a lengthy post on April 4, 2013 titled “I DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING,” Ika told Pustota forum members he was so spooked by recent events that he was closing the forum and quitting the cybercrime business entirely. Ika recounted how the Flashback story had come the same week that rival cybercriminals tried to “dox” him (their dox named the wrong individual, but included some of Ika’s more guarded identities).

“It’s no secret that karma farted in my direction,” Ika said at the beginning of his post. Unbeknownst to Ika at the time, his Pustota forum also had been completely hacked that week, and a copy of its database shared with this author.

A Google translated version of the farewell post from Ika, the administrator of Pustota, a Russian language cybercrime forum focused on botnets and spam. Click to enlarge.

Ika said the two individuals who tried to dox him did so on an even more guarded Russian language forum — DirectConnection[.]ws, perhaps the most exclusive Russian cybercrime community ever created. New applicants of this forum had to pay a non-refundable deposit, and receive vouches by three established cybercriminals already on the forum. Even if one managed to steal (or guess) a user’s DirectConnection password, the login page could not be reached unless the visitor also possessed a special browser certificate that the forum administrator gave only to approved members.

In no uncertain terms, Ika declared that Rescator went by the nickname MikeMike on DirectConnection:

“I did not want to bring any of this to real life. Especially since I knew the patron of the clowns – specifically Pavel Vrublevsky. Yes, I do state with confidence that the man with the nickname Rescator a.k.a. MikeMike with his partner Pipol have been Pavel Vrublevsky’s puppets for a long time.”

Pavel Vrublevsky is a convicted cybercriminal who became famous as the CEO of the Russian e-payments company ChronoPay, which specialized in facilitating online payments for a variety of “high-risk” businesses, including gambling, pirated Mp3 files, rogue antivirus software and “male enhancement” pills.

As detailed in my 2014 book Spam Nation, Vrublevsky not-so-secretly ran a pharmacy affiliate spam program called Rx-Promotion, which paid spammers and virus writers to blast out tens of billions of junk emails advertising generic Viagra and controlled pharmaceuticals like pain relief medications. Much of my reporting on Vrublevsky’s cybercrime empire came from several years worth of internal ChronoPay emails and documents that were leaked online in 2010 and 2011.

Pavel Vrublevsky’s former Facebook profile photo.

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Microsoft Patch Tuesday, December 2023 Edition

December 12, 2023

The final Patch Tuesday of 2023 is upon us, with Microsoft Corp. today releasing fixes for a relatively small number of security holes in its Windows operating systems and other software. Even more unusual, there are no known “zero-day” threats targeting any of the vulnerabilities in December’s patch batch. Still, four of the updates pushed out today address “critical” vulnerabilities that Microsoft says can be exploited by malware or malcontents to seize complete control over a vulnerable Windows device with little or no help from users.

Among the critical bugs quashed this month is CVE-2023-35628, a weakness present in Windows 10 and later versions, as well as Microsoft Server 2008 and later. Kevin Breen, senior director of threat research at Immersive Labs, said the flaw affects MSHTML, a core component of Windows that is used to render browser-based content. Breen notes that MSHTML also can be found in a number of Microsoft applications, including Office, Outlook, Skype and Teams.

“In the worst-case scenario, Microsoft suggests that simply receiving an email would be enough to trigger the vulnerability and give an attacker code execution on the target machine without any user interaction like opening or interacting with the contents,” Breen said. Continue reading

ICANN Launches Service to Help With WHOIS Lookups

December 6, 2023

More than five years after domain name registrars started redacting personal data from all public domain registration records, the non-profit organization overseeing the domain industry has introduced a centralized online service designed to make it easier for researchers, law enforcement and others to request the information directly from registrars.

In May 2018, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the nonprofit entity that manages the global domain name system — instructed all registrars to redact the customer’s name, address, phone number and email from WHOIS, the system for querying databases that store the registered users of domain names and blocks of Internet address ranges.

ICANN made the policy change in response to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a law enacted by the European Parliament that requires companies to gain affirmative consent for any personal information they collect on people within the European Union. In the meantime, registrars were to continue collecting the data but not publish it, and ICANN promised it would develop a system that facilitates access to this information.

At the end of November 2023, ICANN launched the Registration Data Request Service (RDRS), which is designed as a one-stop shop to submit registration data requests to participating registrars. This video from ICANN walks through how the system works.

Accredited registrars don’t have to participate, but ICANN is asking all registrars to join and says participants can opt out or stop using it at any time. ICANN contends that the use of a standardized request form makes it easier for the correct information and supporting documents to be provided to evaluate a request.

ICANN says the RDRS doesn’t guarantee access to requested registration data, and that all communication and data disclosure between the registrars and requestors takes place outside of the system. The service can’t be used to request WHOIS data tied to country-code top level domains (CCTLDs), such as those ending in .de (Germany) or .nz (New Zealand), for example. Continue reading