There are 1,001 ways to swindle people online, but the hardest part for crooks is converting those ill-gotten gains into cash. A new service catering to purveyors of ransomware — malware that hijacks PCs until victims pay a ransom – levees a hefty fee for laundering funds from these scams, and it does so by abusing a legitimate Web site that allows betting on dog and horse races in the United States.
Ransomware is most often distributed via hacked or malicious sites that exploit browser vulnerabilities. Typically, these scams impersonate the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI (or the equivalent federal investigative authority in the victim’s country) and try to frighten people into paying fines to avoid prosecution for supposedly downloading child pornography and pirated content.
Ransomware locks the victim’s PC until he either pays the ransom or finds a way to remove the malware. Victims are instructed to pay the ransom by purchasing a prepaid MoneyPak card, sold at everything from Walgreens to Wal-Mart (some scams tell victims to pay using a PaySafe or Ukash card). Victims are then told to send the attackers a 14-digit voucher code that allows the bad guys to redeem those MoneyPak vouchers for cash.
Trouble is, taking funds off of a MoneyPak requires either spending it at stores that accept it, or hooking it up to a U.S. bank account, to PayPal, or to a prepaid Visa or Mastercard. What’s more, most miscreants who are even halfway competent at spreading ransomware can expect to collect dozens of MoneyPak codes per day, so cashing out via the above-mentioned methods simply does not scale well for successful bad guys (particularly those who live outside of the United States).
Last week, I stumbled on a ransomware cashout service hosted in Minsk, Belarus that helps simplify the process. It checks the balances of MoneyPak codes by abusing a feature built into betamerica.com, a legitimate and legal site where gamblers can go to bet on dog and horse races in the United States. Specifically, the ransomware cashout service queries a page at betamerica.com that lets customers fund their betting accounts using MoneyPak.
I reached out to Betamerica.com’s operations team and spoke with a woman who would only give her name as “Leslie.” Leslie said the company had already flagged the account that was being used to check the MoneyPak voucher codes.
“This account was already flagged as some type of bot or compromise, and was set to non-wagering,” she said, explaining that this status prevents customer accounts from placing bets on races. Leslie said Betamerica scrutinizes the Moneypak activity because fraudsters have tried to use the codes to launder money.
“We are pretty diligent, because in the past we have had [individuals who] will try to do a Moneypak deposit and then do a withdrawal, basically trying to launder it. Bottom line is that money has to be wagered. It’s not going to be returned to you in another form.”
When I first encountered this ransomware cashout service and discovered the connection to Betamerica, I was sure the miscreants were trying to launder money through the betting site. But after my conversation with Leslie, the true scope of this ransomware operation began to come into focus. It appears to involve the cooperation of several sets of actors: