Posts Tagged: Spam Nation


3
Jan 17

The Download on the DNC Hack

Over the past few days, several longtime readers have asked why I haven’t written about two stories that have consumed the news media of late: The alleged Russian hacking attacks against the U.S. Democratic National Committee (DNC) and, more recently, the discovery of malware on a laptop at a Vermont power utility that has been attributed to Russian hacker groups.

I’ve avoided covering these stories mainly because I don’t have any original reporting to add to them, and because I generally avoid chasing the story of the day — preferring instead to focus on producing original journalism on cybercrime and computer security.

dncBut there is another reason for my reticence: Both of these stories are so politically fraught that to write about them means signing up for gobs of vitriolic hate mail from readers who assume I have some political axe to grind no matter what I publish on the matter.

An article in Rolling Stone over the weekend aptly captures my unease with reporting on both of these stories in the absence of new, useful information (the following quote refers specifically to the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia related to the DNC incident).

“The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect,” Rolling Stone political reporter Matt Taibbi wrote. “Absent independent verification, reporters will have to rely upon the secret assessments of intelligence agencies to cover the story at all. Many reporters I know are quietly freaking out about having to go through that again.”

Alas, one can only nurse a New Year’s holiday vacation for so long. Here are some of the things I’ve been ruminating about over the past few days regarding each of these topics. Please be kind.

Gaining sufficient public support for a conclusion that other countries are responsible for hacking important U.S. assets can be difficult – even when the alleged aggressor is already despised and denounced by the entire civilized world.

The remarkable hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment in late 2014 and the Obama administration’s quick fingering of hackers in North Korea as the culprits is a prime example: When the Obama administration released its findings that North Korean hackers were responsible for breaking into SPE, few security experts I spoke to about the incident were convinced by the intelligence data coming from the White House.

That seemed to change somewhat following the leak of a National Security Agency document which suggested the United States had planted malware capable of tracking the inner workings of the computers and networks used by the North’s hackers. Nevertheless, I’d wager that if we took a scientific poll among computer security experts today, a fair percentage of them probably still strongly doubt the administration’s conclusions.

If you were to ask those doubting experts to explain why they persist in their unbelief, my guess is you would find these folks break down largely into two camps: Those who believe the administration will never release any really detailed (and likely classified) information needed to draw a more definitive conclusion, and those who because of their political leanings tend to disbelieve virtually everything that comes out of the current administration.

Now, the American public is being asked to accept the White House’s technical assessment of another international hacking incident, only this time the apparent intention of said hacking is nothing less than to influence the outcome of a historically divisive presidential election in which the sitting party lost.

It probably doesn’t matter how many indicators of compromise and digital fingerprints the Obama administration releases on this incident: Chances are decent that if you asked a panel of security experts a year from now whether the march of time and additional data points released or leaked in the interim have influenced their opinion, you’ll find them just as evenly divided as they are today.

The mixed messages coming from the camp of President-elect Trump haven’t added any clarity to the matter, either. Trump has publicly mocked American intelligence assessments that Russia meddled with the U.S. election on his behalf, and said recently that he doubts the U.S. government can be certain it was hackers backed by the Russian government who hacked and leaked emails from the DNC.

However, one of Trump’s top advisers — former CIA Director James Woolseynow says he believes the Russians (and possibly others) were in fact involved in the DNC hack.

It’s worth noting that the U.S. government has offered some additional perspective on why it is so confident in its conclusion that Russian military intelligence services were involved in the DNC hack. A White House fact sheet published alongside the FBI/DHS Joint Analysis Report (PDF) says the report “includes information on computers around the world that Russian intelligence services have co-opted without the knowledge of their owners in order conduct their malicious activity in a way that makes it difficult to trace back to Russia. In some cases, the cybersecurity community was aware of this infrastructure, in other cases, this information is newly declassified by the U.S. government.” Continue reading →


16
Jun 16

FBI Raids Spammer Outed by KrebsOnSecurity

Michael A. Persaud, a California man profiled in a Nov. 2014 KrebsOnSecurity story about a junk email artist currently flagged by anti-spam activists as one of the world’s Top 10 Worst Spammers, was reportedly raided by the FBI in connection with a federal spam investigation.

atballAccording to a June 9 story at ABC News, on April 27, 2016 the FBI raided the San Diego home of Persaud, who reportedly has been under federal investigation since at least 2013. The story noted that on June 6, 2016, the FBI asked for and was granted a warrant to search Persaud’s iCloud account, which investigators believe contained “evidence of illegal spamming’ and wire fraud to further [Persaud’s] spamming activities.”

Persaud doesn’t appear to have been charged with a crime in connection with this investigation. He maintains his email marketing business is legitimate and complies with the CAN-SPAM Act, the main anti-spam law in the United States which prohibits the sending of spam that spoofs that sender’s address or does not give recipients an easy way to opt out of receiving future such emails from that sender.

The affidavit that investigators with the FBI used to get a warrant for Persaud’s iCloud account is sealed, but a copy of it was obtained by KrebsOnSecurity. It shows that during the April 2016 FBI search of his home, Persaud told agents that he currently conducts internet marketing from his residence by sending a million emails in under 15 minutes from various domains and Internet addresses.

The affidavit indicates the FBI was very interested in the email address michaelp77x@gmail.com. In my 2014 piece Still Spamming After All These Years, I called attention to this address as the one tied to Persaud’s Facebook account — and to 5,000 or so domains he was advertising in spam. The story was about how the junk email Persaud acknowledged sending was being relayed through broad swaths of Internet address space that had been hijacked from hosting firms and other companies.

persaud-fbFBI Special Agent Timothy J. Wilkins wrote that investigators also subpoenaed and got access to that michaelp77x@gmail.com account, and found emails between Persaud and at least four affiliate programs that hire spammers to send junk email campaigns.

A spam affiliate program is a type of business or online retailer — such as an Internet pharmacy — that pays a third party (known as affiliates or spammers) a percentage of any sales that they generate for the program (for a much deeper dive on how affiliate programs work, check out Spam Nation). Continue reading →


31
May 16

Got $90,000? A Windows 0-Day Could Be Yours

How much would a cybercriminal, nation state or organized crime group pay for blueprints on how to exploit a serious, currently undocumented, unpatched vulnerability in all versions of Microsoft Windows? That price probably depends on the power of the exploit and what the market will bear at the time, but here’s a look at one convincing recent exploit sales thread from the cybercrime underworld where the current asking price for a Windows-wide bug that allegedly defeats all of Microsoft’s current security defenses is USD $90,000.

So-called “zero-day” vulnerabilities are flaws in software and hardware that even the makers of the product in question do not know about. Zero-days can be used by attackers to remotely and completely compromise a target — such as with a zero-day vulnerability in a browser plugin component like Adobe Flash or Oracle’s Java. These flaws are coveted, prized, and in some cases stockpiled by cybercriminals and nation states alike because they enable very stealthy and targeted attacks.

The $90,000 Windows bug that went on sale at the semi-exclusive Russian language cybercrime forum exploit[dot]in earlier this month is in a slightly less serious class of software vulnerability called a “local privilege escalation” (LPE) bug. This type of flaw is always going to be used in tandem with another vulnerability to successfully deliver and run the attacker’s malicious code.

LPE bugs can help amplify the impact of other exploits. One core tenet of security is limiting the rights or privileges of certain programs so that they run with the rights of a normal user — and not under the all-powerful administrator or “system” user accounts that can delete, modify or read any file on the computer. That way, if a security hole is found in one of these programs, that hole can’t be exploited to worm into files and folders that belong only to the administrator of the system.

This is where a privilege escalation bug can come in handy. An attacker may already have a reliable exploit that works remotely — but the trouble is his exploit only succeeds if the current user is running Windows as an administrator. No problem: Chain that remote exploit with a local privilege escalation bug that can bump up the target’s account privileges to that of an admin, and your remote exploit can work its magic without hindrance.

The seller of this supposed zero-day — someone using the nickname “BuggiCorp” — claims his exploit works on every version of Windows from Windows 2000 on up to Microsoft’s flagship Windows 10 operating system. To support his claims, the seller includes two videos of the exploit in action on what appears to be a system that was patched all the way up through this month’s (May 2016) batch of patches from Microsoft (it’s probably no accident that the video was created on May 10, the same day as Patch Tuesday this month).

A second video (above) appears to show the exploit working even though the test machine in the video is running Microsoft’s Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET), a free software framework designed to help block or blunt exploits against known and unknown Windows vulnerabilities and flaws in third-party applications that run on top of Windows.

The sales thread on exploit[dot]in.

The sales thread on exploit[dot]in.

Jeff Jones, a cybersecurity strategist with Microsoft, said the company was aware of the exploit sales thread, but stressed that the claims were still unverified. Asked whether Microsoft would ever consider paying for information about the zero-day vulnerability, Jones pointed to the company’s bug bounty program that rewards security researchers for reporting vulnerabilities. According to Microsoft, the program to date has paid out more than $500,000 in bounties.

Microsoft heavily restricts the types of vulnerabilities that qualify for bounty rewards, but a bug like the one on sale for $90,000 would in fact qualify for a substantial bounty reward. Last summer, Microsoft raised its reward for information about a vulnerability that can fully bypass EMET from $50,000 to $100,000. Incidentally, Microsoft said any researcher with a vulnerability or who has questions can reach out to the Microsoft Security Response Center to learn more about the program and process.

ANALYSIS

It’s interesting that this exploit’s seller could potentially make more money by peddling his find to Microsoft than to the cybercriminal community. Of course, the videos and the whole thing could be a sham, but that’s probably unlikely in this case. For one thing, a scammer seeking to scam other thieves would not insist on using the cybercrime forum’s escrow service to consummate the transaction, as this vendor has. Continue reading →


21
Oct 15

IBM Runs World’s Worst Spam-Hosting ISP?

This author has long sought to shame Web hosting and Internet service providers who fail to take the necessary steps to keep spammers, scammers and other online ne’er-do-wells off their networks. Typically, the companies on the receiving end of this criticism are little-known Internet firms. But according to anti-spam activists, the title of the Internet’s most spam-friendly provider recently has passed to networks managed by IBM — one of the more recognizable and trusted names in technology and security.

In March 2010, not long after I began working on my new book Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime, From Global Epidemic to Your Front DoorI ran a piece titled Naming and Shaming Bad ISPs. That story drew on data from 10 different groups that track spam and malware activity by ISP. At the time, a cloud computing firm called Softlayer was listed prominently in six out of 10 of those rankings.

In June 2013, Softlayer was acquired by IBM. (Update: Oct. 31, 11:43 p.m. ET: As reader Alex and others have pointed out, another ISP listed prominently in this chart below — ThePlanet — is now also part of IBM/Softlayer).

The top spam-friendly ISPs and hosting providers in early 2010.

The top spam-friendly ISPs and hosting providers in early 2010. Softlayer and ThePlanet both listed prominently in the top 10, and both are now owned by IBM/Softlayer.

Original story:

Softlayer gradually cleaned up its act, and began responding more quickly to abuse reports filed by anti-spammers and security researchers. In July 2013, the company was acquired by IBM. More recently, however, the trouble at networks managed by Softlayer has returned. Last month, anti-spam group Spamhaus.org listed Softlayer as the “#1 spam hosting ISP,” putting Softlayer at the very top of its World’s Worst Spam Support ISPs index. Spamhaus said the number of abuse issues at the ISP has “rapidly reached rarely previously seen numbers.”

Contacted by KrebsOnSecurity, Softlayer for several weeks did not respond to requests for comment. After reaching out to IBM earlier this week, I received the following statement from Softlayer Communications Director Andre Fuochi:

“With the growth of Softlayer’s global footprint, as expected with any fast growing service, spammers have targeted our platform. We are aggressively working with authorities, groups like The Spamhaus Project, and IBM Security analysts to shut down this recent, isolated spike. Just in the past month we’ve shut down 95 percent of the spam accounts identified by Spamhaus, and continue to actively eliminate this activity.” Continue reading →


23
Sep 15

Bidding for Breaches, Redefining Targeted Attacks

A growing community of private and highly-vetted cybercrime forums is redefining the very meaning of “targeted attacks.” These bid-and-ask forums match crooks who are looking for access to specific data, resources or systems within major corporations with hired muscle who are up to the task or who already have access to those resources.

A good example of this until recently could be found at a secretive online forum called “Enigma,” a now-defunct community that was built as kind of eBay for data breach targets. Vetted users on Enigma were either bidders or buyers — posting requests for data from or access to specific corporate targets, or answering such requests with a bid to provide the requested data. The forum, operating on the open Web for months until recently, was apparently scuttled when the forum administrators (rightly) feared that the community had been infiltrated by spies.

The screen shot below shows several bids on Enigma from March through June 2015, requesting data and services related to HSBC UK, Citibank, Air Berlin and Bank of America:

Enigma, an exclusive forum for cyber thieves to buy and sell access to or data stolen from companies.

Enigma, an exclusive forum for cyber thieves to buy and sell access to or data stolen from companies.

One particularly active member, shown in the screen shot above and the one below using the nickname “Demander,” posts on Jan. 10, 2015 that he is looking for credentials from Cisco and that the request is urgent (it’s unclear from the posting whether he’s looking for access to Cisco Corp. or simply to a specific Cisco router). Demander also was searching for services related to Bank of America ATMs and unspecified data or services from Wells Fargo.

More bids on Enigma forum for services.

More bids on Enigma forum for services, data, and access to major corporations.

Much of the information about Enigma comes from Noam Jolles, a senior intelligence expert at Diskin Advanced Technologies. The employees at Jolles’ firm are all former members of Shin Bet, a.k.a. the Israel Security Agency/General Security Service — Israel’s counterespionage and counterterrorism agency, and similar to the British MI5 or the American FBI. The firm’s namesake comes from its founder, Yuval Diskin, who headed Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011.

“On Enigma, members post a bid and call on people to attack certain targets or that they are looking for certain databases for which they are willing to pay,” Jolles said. “And people are answering it and offering their merchandise.”

Those bids can take many forms, Jolles said, from requests to commit a specific cyberattack to bids for access to certain Web servers or internal corporate networks.

“I even saw bids regarding names of people who could serve as insiders,” she said. “Lists of people who might be susceptible to being recruited or extorted.”

Many experts believe the breach that exposed tens of millions user accounts at AshleyMadison.com — an infidelity site that promises to hook up cheating spouses — originated from or was at least assisted by an insider at the company. Interestingly, on June 25, 2015 — three weeks before news of the breach broke — a member on a related secret data-trading forum called the “Gentlemen’s Club” solicits “data and service” related to AshleyMadison, saying “Don’t waste time if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Big job opportunity.”

On June 26, 2015, a forum member named "Diablo" requests data and services related to AshleyMadison.com.

On June 26, 2015, a “Gentlemen’s Club” forum member named “Diablo” requests data and services related to AshleyMadison.com.

Cybercrime forums like Enigma vet new users and require non-refundable deposits of virtual currency (such as Bitcoin). More importantly, they have strict rules: If the forum administrators notice you’re not trading with others on the forum, you’ll soon be expelled from the community. This policy means that users who are not actively involved in illicit activities — such as buying or selling access to hacked resources — aren’t allowed to remain on the board for long. Continue reading →


17
Feb 15

‘Spam Nation’ Wins PROSE Award

I am pleased to announce that my new book, Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime, from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door, has been honored with a 2015 PROSE Award in the Media & Cultural Studies category.

proseawardsThe PROSE Awards are given by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers.

From the AAP’s site: “The awards annually recognize the very best in professional and scholarly publishing by bringing attention to distinguished books, journals, and electronic content in over 40 categories. Judged by peer publishers, librarians, and medical professionals since 1976, the PROSE Awards are extraordinary for their breadth and depth.”

I am grateful to the AAP for this honor. According to the AAP, the 2015 PROSE Awards received a record-breaking 540 entries this year – more than ever before in their 39-year history – from more than 70 publishers around the world. ” Other 2015 PROSE Awards winners are listed at this page.


15
Dec 14

In Damage Control, Sony Targets Reporters

Over the weekend I received a nice holiday letter from lawyers representing Sony Pictures Entertainment, demanding that I cease publishing detailed stories about the company’s recent hacking and delete any company data collected in the process of reporting on the breach. While I have not been the most prolific writer about this incident to date, rest assured such threats will not deter this reporter from covering important news and facts related to the breach.

A letter from Sony's lawyers.

A letter from Sony’s lawyers.

“SPE does not consent to your possession, review, copying, dissemination, publication, uploading, downloading, or making any use of the Stolen information, and to request your cooperation in destroying the Stolen Information,” wrote SPE’s lawyers, who hail from the law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

This letter reminds me of one that I received several years back from the lawyers of Igor Gusev, one of the main characters in my book, Spam Nation. Mr. Gusev’s attorneys insisted that I was publishing stolen information — pictures of him, financial records from his spam empire “SpamIt” — and that I remove all offending items and publish an apology. My lawyer in that instance called Gusev’s threat a “blivit,” a term coined by the late, great author Kurt Vonnegut, who defined it as “two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag.”

For a more nuanced and scholarly look at whether reporters and bloggers who write about Sony’s hacking should be concerned after receiving this letter, I turn to an analysis by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who posits that Sony “probably” does not have a legal leg to stand on here in demanding that reporters refrain from writing about the extent of SPE’s hacking in great detail. But Volokh includes some useful caveats to this conclusion (and exceptions to those exceptions), notably:

“Some particular publications of specific information in the Sony material might lead to a successful lawsuit,” Volokh writes. “First, disclosure of facts about particular people that are seen as highly private (e.g., medical or sexual information) and not newsworthy might be actionable under the ‘disclosure of private facts’ tort.” Continue reading →


17
Nov 14

Amazon: Spam Nation one of “Best of Month”

A quick update on my new book, Spam Nation, The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime — From Global Epidemic to Your Front Door debuting on bookstore shelves  Tuesday, Nov. 18: Amazon has selected Spam Nation as one of their “Best Books of the Month” picks for November, listed alongside such notable authors as Stephen King and Nora Roberts.

abbotm-cIn addition, my publisher has graciously extended the freeZeusGard offer until Nov. 25 for the next 500 people who order more than one copy of the book.

In early October we launched a promotion in which the first 1,000 readers to preorder more than one copy of the book, audio recording and/or e-book version of Spam Nation would receive a free, KrebsOnSecurity-branded ZeusGard, a USB-based technology that’s designed to streamline the process of adopting the Live CD approach for online banking.

Approximately 500 readers took us up on this offer, but that means we still have about 500 left! Thankfully, my publisher (Sourcebooks) has agreed to extend this offer by one week (until Nov. 25, 2014).

Finally, if you live in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle or Austin and would like a personalized copy of Spam Nation, please consider joining me this week as I drop by a local bookstore near you! See the tour schedule for dates, times and locations.


23
Oct 14

‘Spam Nation’ Publisher Discloses Card Breach

In the interests of full disclosure: Sourcebooks — the company that on Nov. 18 is publishing my upcoming book about organized cybercrime — disclosed last week that a breach of its Web site shopping cart software may have exposed customer credit card and personal information.

Fortunately, this breach does not affect readers who have pre-ordered Spam Nation through the retailers I’ve been recommending — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Politics & Prose.  I mention this breach mainly to get out in front of it, and because of the irony and timing of this unfortunate incident.

From Sourcebooks’ disclosure (PDF) with the California Attorney General’s office:

“Sourcebooks recently learned that there was a breach of the shopping cart software that supports several of our websites on April 16, 2014 – June 19, 2014 and unauthorized parties were able to gain access to customer credit card information. The credit card information included card number, expiration date, cardholder name and card verification value (CVV2). The billing account information included first name, last name, email address, phone number, and address. In some cases, shipping information was included as first name, last name, phone number, and address. In some cases, account password was obtained too. To our knowledge, the data accessed did not include any Track Data, PIN Number, Printed Card Verification Data (CVD). We are currently in the process of having a third-party forensic audit done to determine the extent of this breach.”

So again, if you have pre-ordered the book from somewhere other than Sourcebook’s site (and that is probably 99.9999 percent of you who have already pre-ordered), you are unaffected.

I think there are some hard but important lessons here about the wisdom of smaller online merchants handling credit card transactions. According to Sourcebooks founder Dominique Raccah, the breach affected approximately 5,100 people who ordered from the company’s Web site between mid-April and mid-June of this year. Raccah said the breach occurred after hackers found a security vulnerability in the site’s shopping cart software.

Shopping-Cart-iconExperts say tens of thousands of businesses that rely on shopping cart software are a major target for malicious hackers, mainly because shopping cart software is generally hard to do well.

“Shopping cart software is extremely complicated and tricky to get right from a security perspective,” said Jeremiah Grossman, founder and chief technology officer for WhiteHat Security, a company that gets paid to test the security of Web sites.  “In fact, no one in my experience gets it right their first time out. That software must undergo serious battlefield testing.”

Grossman suggests that smaller merchants consider outsourcing the handling of credit cards to a solid and reputable third-party. Sourcebooks’ Raccah said the company is in the process of doing just that. Continue reading →


8
Oct 14

Spam Nation Book Offer + Tour Details

As many of you know, my first book — Spam Nation — hits bookstore shelves on Nov. 18. I want to thank those of you who have already pre-ordered the book, and offer a small enticement for those who have yet to secure a copy.

Pre-order two or more copies of Spam Nation and get this "Krebs Edition" branded ZeusGard.

Pre-order two or more copies of Spam Nation and get this “Krebs Edition” branded ZeusGard.

Spam Nation is a true story about organized cybercriminals, some of whom are actively involved in using malware-laced spam to empty bank accounts belonging to small- and medium-sized businesses in the United States and Europe. I’ve written extensively about organizations that have lost tens of millions of dollars from these cyberheists. I’ve also encouraged online banking customers to take advantage of various “Live CD” technologies that allow users to sidestep the very malware that powers these cyberheists.

In July, I wrote about ZeusGard, one such technology that’s designed to streamline the process of adopting the Live CD approach for online banking. The makers of ZeusGard got such a positive response from that story that they offered to partner with Yours Truly in promoting Spam Nation!

I’m pleased to report that the first 1,000 customers to purchase two or more copies of Spam Nation — including any combination of digital, physical and/or audio versions of the book — before the official book launch on Nov. 18 will receive a complimentary KrebsOnSecurity-branded version of ZeusGard (pictured above)! Continue reading →