Posts Tagged: gary warner

Sep 14

Who’s Behind the Bogus $49.95 Charges?

Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear from a reader wondering about the origins of a bogus credit card charge for $49.95 or some similar amount for a product they never ordered. As this post will explain, such charges appear to be the result of crooks trying to game various online affiliate programs by using stolen credit cards.

Bogus $49.95 charges for herbal weight loss products like these are showing up on countless consumer credit statements.

Bogus $49.95 charges for herbal weight loss products like these are showing up on countless consumer credit statements.

Most of these charges are associated with companies marketing products of dubious value and quality, typically by knitting a complex web of front companies, customer support centers and card processing networks. Whether we’re talking about a $49.95 payment for a bottle of overpriced vitamins, $12.96 for some no-name software title, or $9.84 for a dodgy Internet marketing program, the unauthorized charge usually is for a good or service that is intended to be marketed by an online affiliate program.

Affiliate programs are marketing machines built to sell a huge variety of products or services that are often of questionable quality and unknown provenance. Very often, affiliate programs are promoted using spam, and the stuff pimped by them includes generic prescription drugs, vitamins and “nutriceuticals,” and knockoff designer purses, watches, handbags, shoes and sports jerseys.

At the core of the affiliate program is a partnership of convenience: The affiliate managers handle the boring backoffice stuff, including the customer service, product procurement (suppliers) and order fulfillment (shipping). The sole job of the “affiliates” — the commission-based freelance marketers who sign up to promote whatever is being sold by the affiliate program — is to drive traffic and sales to the program.


It is no surprise, then, that online affiliate programs like these often are overrun with scammers, spammers and others easily snagged by the lure of get-rich-quick schemes. In June, I began hearing from dozens of readers about unauthorized charges on their credit card statements for $49.95. The charges all showed up alongside various toll-free 888- numbers or names of customer support Web sites, such as supportacr[dot]com and acrsupport[dot]com. Readers who called these numbers or took advantage of the chat interfaces at these support sites were all told they’d ordered some kind of fat-burning pill or vitamin from some random site, such as greenteahealthdiet[dot]com or naturalfatburngarcinia[dot]com.

Those sites were among tens of thousands that are being promoted via spam, according to Gary Warner, chief technologist at Malcovery, an email security firm. The Web site names themselves are not included in the spam; rather, the spammers include a clickable URL for a hacked Web site that, when visited, redirects the user to the pill shop’s page. This redirection is done to avoid having the pill shop pages indexed by anti-spam filters and other types of blacklists used by security firms, Warner said. Continue reading →

Jan 14

New Clues in the Target Breach

An examination of the malware used in the Target breach suggests that the attackers may have had help from a poorly secured feature built into a widely-used IT management software product that was running on the retailer’s internal network.

As I noted in  Jan. 15’s story — A First Look at the Target Intrusion, Malware — the attackers were able to infect Target’s point-of-sale registers with a malware strain that stole credit and debit card data. The intruders also set up a control server within Target’s internal network that served as a central repository for data hoovered up from all of the infected registers.

According to sources, "ttcopscli3acs" is the name of the Windows share point used by the POS malware planted at Target stores; the username that the thieves used to log in remotely and download stolen card data was "Best1_user"; the password was "BackupU$r"

“ttcopscli3acs” is the name of the Windows share used by the POS malware planted at Target stores; the username that malware used to upload stolen card data was “Best1_user”; the password was “BackupU$r”

That analysis looked at a malware component used in Target breach that was uploaded to Symantec’s ThreatExpert scanning service on Dec. 18 but which was later deleted (a local PDF copy of it is here). The ThreatExpert writeup suggests that the malware was responsible for moving stolen data from the compromised cash registers to that shared central repository, which had the internal address of The “ttcopscli3acs” bit is the Windows domain name used on Target’s network. The user account “Best1_user” and password “BackupU$r” were used to log in to the shared drive (indicated by the “S:” under the “Resource Type” heading in the image above.

That “Best1_user” account name seems an odd one for the attackers to have picked at random, but there is a better explanation: That username is the same one that gets installed with an IT management software suite called Performance Assurance for Microsoft Servers. This product, according to its maker — Houston, Texas base BMC Software — includes administrator-level user account called “Best1_user.”

This knowledge base article (PDF) published by BMC explains the Best1_user account is installed by the software to do routine tasks. That article states that while the Best1_user account is essentially a “system” or “administrator” level account on the host machine, customers shouldn’t concern themselves with this account because “it is not a member of any group (not even the ‘users’ group) and therefore can’t be used to login to the system.”

“The only privilege that the account is granted is the ability to run as a batch job,” the document states, indicating that it could be used to run programs if invoked from a command prompt. Here’s my favorite part:

Perform Technical Support does not have the password to this account and this password has not be released by Perform Development. Knowing the password to the account should not be important as you cannot log into the machine using this account. The password is known internally and used internally by the Perform agent to assume the identity of the “Best1_user” account.”

I pinged BMC to find out if perhaps the password supplied in the Target malware (BackupU$r) is in fact the secret password for the Best1_user account. The company has so far remained silent on this question.

This was the hunch put forward by the Counter Threat Unit (CTU) of Dell SecureWorks in an analysis that was privately released to some of the company’s clients this week.

Relationships between compromised and attacker-controlled assets. Source: Dell Secureworks.

Relationships between compromised and attacker-controlled assets. Source: Dell Secureworks.

“Attackers exfiltrate data by creating a mount point for a remote file share and copying the data stored by the memory-scraping component to that share,” the SecureWorks paper notes. “In the previous listing showing the data’s move to an internal server, is the intermediate server selected by attackers, and CTU researchers believe the “ttcopscli3acs” string is the Windows domain name used on Target’s network. The Best1_user account appears to be associated with the Performance Assurance component of BMC Software’s Patrol product. According to BMC’s documentation, this account is normally restricted, but the attackers may have usurped control to facilitate lateral movement within the network.

According to SecureWorks, one component of the malware installed itself as a service called “BladeLogic,” a service name no doubt designed to mimic another BMC product called BMC BladeLogic Automation Suite. BMC spokeswoman Ann Duhon said that the attackers were simply invoking BMC’s trademark to make the malicious program appear legitimate to the casual observer, but it seems likely that at least some BMC software was running inside of Target’s network, and that the attackers were well aware of it.

Update Jan. 30, 5:48 p.m.: BMC just issued the following statement:

There have been several articles in the press speculating about the Target breach.  BMC Software has received no information from Target or the investigators regarding the breach. In some of those articles, BMC products were mentioned in two different ways.

The first was a mention of a “bladelogic.exe” reference in the attack.   The executable name “bladelogic.exe” does not exist in any piece of legitimate BMC software.  McAfee has issued a security advisory stating that: “The reference to “bladelogic” is a method of obfuscation.  The malware does not compromise, or integrate with, any BMC products in any way.

The second reference was to a password that was possibly utilized as part of the attack, with the implication that it was a BMC password.  BMC has confirmed that the password mentioned in the press is not a BMC-generated password.

At this point, there is nothing to suggest that BMC BladeLogic or BMC Performance Assurance has a security flaw or was compromised as part of this attack.

Malware is a problem for all IT environments. BMC asks all of our customers to be diligent in ensuring that their environments are secure and protected.

I parse their statement to mean that the “BackupU$r” password referenced in the Target malware is not their software’s secret password. But nothing in the statement seems to rule out the possibility that the attackers leveraged a domain user account installed by BMC software to help exfiltrate card data from Target’s network.

Original story:

According to a trusted source who uses mostly open-source data to keep tabs on the software and hardware used in various retail environments, BMC’s software is in use at many major retail and grocery chains across the country, including Kroger, Safeway, Home Depot, Sam’s Club and The Vons Companies, among many others.

A copy of the SecureWorks report is here (PDF). It contains some fairly detailed analysis of this and other portions of the malware used in the Target intrusion. What it states up front that it does not have — and what we still have not heard from Target — is how the attackers broke in to begin with….

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Jan 14

Firm Bankrupted by Cyberheist Sues Bank

A California escrow firm that was forced out of business last year after a $1.5 million cyberheist is now suing its former bank to recoup the lost funds.

casholeA state-appointed receiver for the now defunct Huntington Beach, Calif. based Efficient Services Escrow has filed suit against First Foundation Bank, alleging that the bank’s security procedures were not up to snuff, and that it failed to act in good faith when it processed three fraudulent international wire transfers totaling $1,558,439 between December 2012 and February 2013.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court  for Orange County, is the latest in a series of legal battles over whether banks can and should be held more accountable for losses stemming from account takeovers. In the United States, consumers have little to no liability if a computer infection from a banking Trojan leads to the emptying of their bank accounts — provided that victims alert their bank in a timely manner. Businesses of all sizes, however, enjoy no such protection, with many small business owners shockingly unaware of the risks of banking online.

As I wrote in an August 2013 story, the heist began in December 2012 with a $432,215 fraudulent wire sent from the accounts of Huntington Beach, Calif. based Efficient Services Escrow Group to a bank in Moscow. In January, the attackers struck again, sending two more fraudulent wires totaling $1.1 million to accounts in the Heilongjiang Province of China, a northern region in China on the border with Russia.

This same province was the subject of a 2011 FBI alert on cyberheist activity. The FBI warned that cyber thieves had in the previous year alone stolen approximately $20 million from small to mid-sized businesses through fraudulent wire transfers sent to Chinese economic and trade companies.

Efficient Services and its bank were able to recover the wire to Russia, but the two wires to China totaling $1.1 million were long gone. Under California law, escrow and title companies are required to immediately report any lost funds. When Efficient reported the incident to state regulators, the California Department of Corporations gave the firm three days to come up with money to replace the stolen funds.

Three days later, with Efficient no closer to recovering the funds, the state stepped in and shut the company down. As a result, Efficient was forced to lay off its entire staff of nine employees.

On Dec. 6, the lawyer appointed to be Efficient’s receiver sued First Foundation in a bid to recover the outstanding $1.1 million on behalf of the firm’s former customers. The suit alleges that the bank’s security procedures were not “commercially reasonable,” and that the bank failed to act in “good faith” when it processed international wire transfers on behalf of the escrow firm.

Like most U.S. states, California has adopted the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which holds that a payment order received by the [bank] is “effective as the order of the customer, whether or not authorized, if the security procedure is a commercially reasonable method of providing security against unauthorized payment orders, and the bank proves that it accepted the payment order in good faith and in compliance with the security procedure and any written agreement or instruction of the customer restricting acceptance of payment orders issued in the name of the customer.”

As evidenced by the dozens of stories in my series, Target: Small Businesses, companies do not enjoy the same protections as consumers when banking online. If a banking Trojan infection results in cyber thieves emptying the bank accounts of a small business, that organization is essentially at the mercy of their financial institution, which very often in these situations disavows any responsibility for the breach, and may in fact stonewall the victim company as a result. That can leave victim organizations in a quandary: They can swallow their pride and chalk it up to a learning experience, or opt to sue the bank to recover their losses. Of course, suing your bank can be cost-prohibitive unless the loss is significantly larger than the amount the victim might expect to spend hiring lawyers to pursue the case on the often long road to settlement or trial.

The plaintiffs in this case allege that part of the reason the bank’s security procedures were not commercially reasonable was that one component of the bank’s core security protection — the requirement that customers enter a code generated by a customer-supplied security token that changes every 32 seconds — had failed in the days leading up to the fraudulent transfers. I would argue that security tokens are a mere security speed bump whose effectiveness is easily bypassed by today’s cyber thieves. But in any case, this lawsuit claims that rather than address that failure, the bank simply chose to disable this feature for Efficient Services.

First Foundation did not return calls seeking comment. But the bank did produce an incident report that is now public record, thanks to this lawsuit (see the “Exhibit J” section of this PDF case document). The document states that the company had previously performed international wire transfers, and so it saw nothing unusual about half-million-dollar transfers to China. According to the plaintiffs, however, Efficient escrow had merely inquired about the possibility of international wires, yet had not actually performed wire transfers outside of the United States previously.

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Apr 11

U.S. Government Takes Down Coreflood Botnet

The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI were granted unprecedented authority this week to seize control over a criminal botnet that enslaved millions of computers and to use that power to disable the malicious software on infected PCs.

Sample network diagram of Coreflood, Source:FBI

Sample network diagram of Coreflood, Source:FBI

The target of the takedown was “Coreflood,” an infamous botnet that emerged almost a decade ago as a high-powered virtual weapon designed to knock targeted Web sites offline. Over the years, the crooks running the botnet began to use it to defraud owners of the victim PCs by stealing bank account information and draining balances.

Coreflood has morphed into a menacing crime machine since its emergence in 2002. As I noted in a 2008 story for The Washington Post, this is the same botnet that was used to steal more than $90,000 from Joe Lopez in 2005, kicking off the first of many high profile lawsuits that would be brought against banks by victims of commercial account takeovers. According to the Justice Department, Coreflood also was implicated in the theft of $241,866 from a defense contractor in Tennessee; $115,771 from a real estate company in Michigan; and $151,201 from an investment firm in North Carolina.

By 2008, Coreflood had infected some 378,000 PCs, including computers at hospitals and government agencies. According to research done by Joe Stewart, senior malware researcher for Dell SecureWorks, the thieves in charge of Coreflood had stolen more than 500 gigabytes of banking credentials and other sensitive data, enough data to fill 500 pickup trucks if printed on paper.

On April 11, 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut filed a civil complaint against 13 unknown (“John Doe”) defendants responsible for running Coreflood, and was granted authority to seize 29 domain names used to control the daily operations of the botnet. The government also was awarded a temporary restraining order (TRO) allowing it to send individual PCs infected with Coreflood a command telling the machines to stop the bot software from running.

The government was able to do this because it also won the right to have the Coreflood control servers redirected to networks run by the nonprofit Internet Systems Consortium (ISC). When bots reported to the control servers – as they were programmed to do periodically – the ISC servers would reply with commands telling the bot program to quit.

ISC President Barry Greene said the government was wary of removing the bot software from infected machines.

“They didn’t want to do the uninstall, just exit,” Greene said. “Baby steps. But this was significant for the DOJ to be able to do this. People have been saying we should be able to do this for a long time, and nobody has done what we’re doing until now.”

No U.S. law enforcement authority has ever sought to commandeer a botnet using such an approach. Last year, Dutch authorities took down the Bredolab botnet using a similar method that directed affected users to a Web page warning of the infection. Last month, Microsoft took down the Rustock spam botnet by convincing a court to grant it control over both the botnet’s control domains and the hard drives used by those control servers.

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Sep 10

Spam Affiliate Program to Close

Spamit, a closely guarded affiliate program that for years has paid some of the world’s top spammers to promote counterfeit pharmacy Web sites, now says that it will close up shop at the end of September.

Spamit administrators blamed the impending closure on increased public attention to its program, which interacted with affiliates via several sites bearing the spamit brand, including,, and

The program’s homepage was replaced with the following message (pictured above) a few days ago:

Because of the numerous negative events happened last year and the risen attention to our affiliate program we’ve decided to stop accepting the traffic from 1.10.2010 [Oct. 1, 2010]. We find the decision the most appropriate in this situation. It provides avoiding the sudden work stop which leads to the program collapse and not paying your profit.

In our case the whole profit will be paid normally. All possible frauds are excluded. Please transfer your traffic to other affiliate programs till 1.10.2010.

Thank you for your cooperation! We appreciate your trust very much!

Dmitry Samosseiko, senior manager of SophosLabs Canada, wrote last year in his excellent Partnerka paper (PDF) that Spamit affiliates are thought to responsible for managing some of the world’s most disruptive, infectious and sophisticated collections of hacked PCs or “botnets,” including Storm, Waledec and potentially Conficker.

A Canadian Pharmacy site advertised by Glavmed/Spamit

Spamit affiliates are best known for promoting the ubiquitous ‘Canadian Pharmacy’ Web sites, such as the one pictured to the left ( While at any given time there are thousands of these fly-by-night Canadian Pharmacy sites online selling prescription drugs without requiring a prescription, these pharmacies are about as Canadian as caviar: Experts say most of the drugs sent to buyers are made in and shipped from India and/or China.

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Jun 10

ZeuS Trojan Attack Spoofs IRS, Twitter, Youtube

Criminals have launched an major e-mail campaign to deploy the infamous ZeuS Trojan, blasting out spam messages variously disguised as fraud alerts from the Internal Revenue Service, Twitter account hijack warnings, and salacious videos.

According to Gary Warner, director of research in computer forensics at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, this latest attack appears to be an extension of a broad malware spam campaign that began at the end of May.

The fake IRS e-mails arrive with the tried-and-true subject line “Notice of Underreported Income,” and encourage the recipient to click a link to review their tax statement.

All of the latest e-mails use a variety of URL shortening services. For example, this shortened link (currently live and dangerous, and therefore neutered here)…

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Mar 10

Spam Site Registrations Flee China for Russia

A crackdown by the Chinese government on anonymous domain name registrations has chased spammers from Chinese registrars (.cn) to those that handle the registration of Russian (.ru) Web site names, new spam figures suggest. Yet, those spammy domains may soon migrate to yet another country, as Russia is set to enforce a policy similar to China’s beginning April 1.

In mid-December 2009, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) announced that it was instituting steps to make it much harder to register a Web site anonymously in China, by barring individuals from registering domains ending in .cn. Under the new policy, those who want to register a new .cn domain name need to hand in written application forms, complete with a business license and an identity card.

Chinese authorities called the move a crackdown on phishing and pornographic Web sites, but human rights and privacy groups marked it as yet another effort by Chinese leaders to maintain tight control over their corner of the Internet. Nevertheless, the policy clearly caught the attention of the world’s most profligate spammers, who spam experts say could always count on Chinese registrars as a cheap and reliable place to buy domains for Web sites that would later be advertised in junk e-mail.

According to data obtained from two anti-spam experts, new registrations for sites advertised in spam began migrating from .cn to .ru just a few weeks after the Chinese domain policy took effect.

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