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Fulton County, Security Experts Call LockBit’s Bluff

The ransomware group LockBit told officials with Fulton County, Ga. they could expect to see their internal documents published online this morning unless the county paid a ransom demand. LockBit removed Fulton County’s listing from its victim shaming website this morning, claiming the county had paid. But county officials said they did not pay, nor did anyone make payment on their behalf. Security experts say LockBit was likely bluffing and probably lost most of the data when the gang’s servers were seized this month by U.S. and U.K. law enforcement.

The LockBit website included a countdown timer until the promised release of data stolen from Fulton County, Ga. LockBit would later move this deadline up to Feb. 29, 2024.

LockBit listed Fulton County as a victim on Feb. 13, saying that unless it was paid a ransom the group would publish files stolen in a breach at the county last month. That attack disrupted county phones, Internet access and even their court system. LockBit leaked a small number of the county’s files as a teaser, which appeared to include sensitive and sealed court records in current and past criminal trials.

On Feb. 16, Fulton County’s entry — along with a countdown timer until the data would be published — was removed from the LockBit website without explanation. The leader of LockBit told KrebsOnSecurity this was because Fulton County officials had engaged in last-minute negotiations with the group.

But on Feb. 19, investigators with the FBI and the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) took over LockBit’s online infrastructure, replacing the group’s homepage with a seizure notice and links to LockBit ransomware decryption tools.

In a press briefing on Feb. 20, Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts told reporters the county did not pay a ransom demand, noting that the board “could not in good conscience use Fulton County taxpayer funds to make a payment.”

Three days later, LockBit reemerged with new domains on the dark web, and with Fulton County listed among a half-dozen other victims whose data was about to be leaked if they refused to pay. As it does with all victims, LockBit assigned Fulton County a countdown timer, saying officials had until late in the evening on March 1 until their data was published.

LockBit revised its deadline for Fulton County to Feb. 29.

LockBit soon moved up the deadline to the morning of Feb. 29. As Fulton County’s LockBit timer was counting down to zero this morning, its listing disappeared from LockBit’s site. LockBit’s leader and spokesperson, who goes by the handle “LockBitSupp,” told KrebsOnSecurity today that Fulton County’s data disappeared from their site because county officials paid a ransom.

“Fulton paid,” LockBitSupp said. When asked for evidence of payment, LockBitSupp claimed. “The proof is that we deleted their data and did not publish it.”

But at a press conference today, Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts said the county does not know why its data was removed from LockBit’s site.

“As I stand here at 4:08 p.m., we are not aware of any data being released today so far,” Pitts said. “That does not mean the threat is over. They could release whatever data they have at any time. We have no control over that. We have not paid any ransom. Nor has any ransom been paid on our behalf.”

Brett Callow, a threat analyst with the security firm Emsisoft, said LockBit likely lost all of the victim data it stole before the FBI/NCA seizure, and that it has been trying madly since then to save face within the cybercrime community.

“I think it was a case of them trying to convince their affiliates that they were still in good shape,” Callow said of LockBit’s recent activities. “I strongly suspect this will be the end of the LockBit brand.”

Others have come to a similar conclusion. The security firm RedSense posted an analysis to Twitter/X that after the takedown, LockBit published several “new” victim profiles for companies that it had listed weeks earlier on its victim shaming site. Those victim firms — a healthcare provider and major securities lending platform — also were unceremoniously removed from LockBit’s new shaming website, despite LockBit claiming their data would be leaked.

“We are 99% sure the rest of their ‘new victims’ are also fake claims (old data for new breaches),” RedSense posted. “So the best thing for them to do would be to delete all other entries from their blog and stop defrauding honest people.”

Callow said there certainly have been plenty of cases in the past where ransomware gangs exaggerated their plunder from a victim organization. But this time feels different, he said.

“It is a bit unusual,” Callow said. “This is about trying to still affiliates’ nerves, and saying, ‘All is well, we weren’t as badly compromised as law enforcement suggested.’ But I think you’d have to be a fool to work with an organization that has been so thoroughly hacked as LockBit has.”

Calendar Meeting Links Used to Spread Mac Malware

Malicious hackers are targeting people in the cryptocurrency space in attacks that start with a link added to the target’s calendar at Calendly, a popular application for scheduling appointments and meetings. The attackers impersonate established cryptocurrency investors and ask to schedule a video conference call. But clicking the meeting link provided by the scammers prompts the user to run a script that quietly installs malware on macOS systems.

KrebsOnSecurity recently heard from a reader who works at a startup that is seeking investment for building a new blockchain platform for the Web. The reader spoke on condition that their name not be used in this story, so for the sake of simplicity we’ll call him Doug.

Being in the cryptocurrency scene, Doug is also active on the instant messenger platform Telegram. Earlier this month, Doug was approached by someone on Telegram whose profile name, image and description said they were Ian Lee, from Signum Capital, a well-established investment firm based in Singapore. The profile also linked to Mr. Lee’s Twitter/X account, which features the same profile image.

The investor expressed interest in financially supporting Doug’s startup, and asked if Doug could find time for a video call to discuss investment prospects. Sure, Doug said, here’s my Calendly profile, book a time and we’ll do it then.

When the day and time of the scheduled meeting with Mr. Lee arrived, Doug clicked the meeting link in his calendar but nothing happened. Doug then messaged the Mr. Lee account on Telegram, who said there was some kind of technology issue with the video platform, and that their IT people suggested using a different meeting link.

Doug clicked the new link, but instead of opening up a videoconference app, a message appeared on his Mac saying the video service was experiencing technical difficulties.

“Some of our users are facing issues with our service,” the message read. “We are actively working on fixing these problems. Please refer to this script as a temporary solution.”

Doug said he ran the script, but nothing appeared to happen after that, and the videoconference application still wouldn’t start. Mr. Lee apologized for the inconvenience and said they would have to reschedule their meeting, but he never responded to any of Doug’s follow-up messages.

It didn’t dawn on Doug until days later that the missed meeting with Mr. Lee might have been a malware attack. Going back to his Telegram client to revisit the conversation, Doug discovered his potential investor had deleted the meeting link and other bits of conversation from their shared chat history.

In a post to its Twitter/X account last month, Signum Capital warned that a fake profile pretending to be their employee Mr. Lee was trying to scam people on Telegram.

The file that Doug ran is a simple Apple Script (file extension “.scpt”) that downloads and executes a malicious trojan made to run on macOS systems. Unfortunately for us, Doug freaked out after deciding he’d been tricked — backing up his important documents, changing his passwords, and then reinstalling macOS on his computer. While this a perfectly sane response, it means we don’t have the actual malware that was pushed to his Mac by the script.

But Doug does still have a copy of the malicious script that was downloaded from clicking the meeting link (the online host serving that link is now offline). A search in Google for a string of text from that script turns up a December 2023 blog post from cryptocurrency security firm SlowMist about phishing attacks on Telegram from North Korean state-sponsored hackers.

“When the project team clicks the link, they encounter a region access restriction,” SlowMist wrote. “At this point, the North Korean hackers coax the team into downloading and running a ‘location-modifying’ malicious script. Once the project team complies, their computer comes under the control of the hackers, leading to the theft of funds.”

Image: SlowMist.

SlowMist says the North Korean phishing scams used the “Add Custom Link” feature of the Calendly meeting scheduling system on event pages to insert malicious links and initiate phishing attacks.

“Since Calendly integrates well with the daily work routines of most project teams, these malicious links do not easily raise suspicion,” the blog post explains. “Consequently, the project teams may inadvertently click on these malicious links, download, and execute malicious code.”

SlowMist said the malware downloaded by the malicious link in their case comes from a North Korean hacking group dubbed “BlueNoroff, which Kaspersky Labs says is a subgroup of the Lazarus hacking group.

“A financially motivated threat actor closely connected with Lazarus that targets banks, casinos, fin-tech companies, POST software and cryptocurrency businesses, and ATMs,” Kaspersky wrote of BlueNoroff in Dec. 2023.

The North Korean regime is known to use stolen cryptocurrencies to fund its military and other state projects. A recent report from Recorded Future finds the Lazarus Group has stolen approximately $3 billion in cryptocurrency over the past six years.

While there is still far more malware out there today targeting Microsoft Windows PCs, the prevalence of information-stealing trojans aimed at macOS users is growing at a steady clip. MacOS computers include X-Protect, Apple’s built-in antivirus technology. But experts say attackers are constantly changing the appearance and behavior of their malware to evade X-Protect.

“Recent updates to macOS’s XProtect signature database indicate that Apple are aware of the problem, but early 2024 has already seen a number of stealer families evade known signatures,” security firm SentinelOne wrote in January.

According to Chris Ueland from the threat hunting platform Hunt.io, the Internet address of the fake meeting website Doug was tricked into visiting (104.168.163,149) hosts or very recently hosted about 75 different domain names, many of which invoke words associated with videoconferencing or cryptocurrency. Those domains indicate this North Korean hacking group is hiding behind a number of phony crypto firms, like the six-month-old website for Cryptowave Capital (cryptowave[.]capital).

The increasing frequency of new Mac malware is a good reminder that Mac users should not depend on security software and tools to flag malicious files, which are frequently bundled with or disguised as legitimate software.

As KrebsOnSecurity has advised Windows users for years, a good rule of safety to live by is this: If you didn’t go looking for it, don’t install it. Following this mantra heads off a great deal of malware attacks, regardless of the platform used. When you do decide to install a piece of software, make sure you are downloading it from the original source, and then keep it updated with any new security fixes.

On that last front, I’ve found it’s a good idea not to wait until the last minute to configure my system before joining a scheduled videoconference call. Even if the call uses software that is already on my computer, it is often the case that software updates are required before the program can be used, and I’m one of those weird people who likes to review any changes to the software maker’s privacy policies or user agreements before choosing to install updates.

Most of all, verify new contacts from strangers before accepting anything from them. In this case, had Doug simply messaged Mr. Lee’s real account on Twitter/X or contacted Signum Capital directly, he would discovered that the real Mr. Lee never asked for a meeting.

If you’re approached in a similar scheme, the response from the would-be victim documented in the SlowMist blog post is probably the best.

Image: SlowMist.

FBI’s LockBit Takedown Postponed a Ticking Time Bomb in Fulton County, Ga.

The FBI’s takedown of the LockBit ransomware group last week came as LockBit was preparing to release sensitive data stolen from government computer systems in Fulton County, Ga. But LockBit is now regrouping, and the gang says it will publish the stolen Fulton County data on March 2 unless paid a ransom. LockBit claims the cache includes documents tied to the county’s ongoing criminal prosecution of former President Trump, but court watchers say teaser documents published by the crime gang suggest a total leak of the Fulton County data could put lives at risk and jeopardize a number of other criminal trials.

A new LockBit website listing a countdown timer until the promised release of data stolen from Fulton County, Ga.

In early February, Fulton County leaders acknowledged they were responding to an intrusion that caused disruptions for its phone, email and billing systems, as well as a range of county services, including court systems.

On Feb. 13, the LockBit ransomware group posted on its victim shaming blog a new entry for Fulton County, featuring a countdown timer saying the group would publish the data on Feb. 16 unless county leaders agreed to negotiate a ransom.

“We will demonstrate how local structures negligently handled information protection,” LockBit warned. “We will reveal lists of individuals responsible for confidentiality. Documents marked as confidential will be made publicly available. We will show documents related to access to the state citizens’ personal data. We aim to give maximum publicity to this situation; the documents will be of interest to many. Conscientious residents will bring order.”

Yet on Feb. 16, the entry for Fulton County was removed from LockBit’s site without explanation. This usually only happens after the victim in question agrees to pay a ransom demand and/or enters into negotiations with their extortionists.

However, Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said the board decided it “could not in good conscience use Fulton County taxpayer funds to make a payment.”

“We did not pay nor did anyone pay on our behalf,” Pitts said at an incident briefing on Feb. 20.

Just hours before that press conference, LockBit’s various websites were seized by the FBI and the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA), which replaced the ransomware group’s homepage with a seizure notice and used the existing design of LockBit’s victim shaming blog to publish press releases about the law enforcement action.

The feds used the existing design on LockBit’s victim shaming website to feature press releases and free decryption tools.

Dubbed “Operation Cronos,” the effort involved the seizure of nearly three-dozen servers; the arrest of two alleged LockBit members; the release of a free LockBit decryption tool; and the freezing of more than 200 cryptocurrency accounts thought to be tied to the gang’s activities. The government says LockBit has claimed more than 2,000 victims worldwide and extorted over $120 million in payments.

UNFOLDING DISASTER

In a lengthy, rambling letter published on Feb. 24 and addressed to the FBI, the ransomware group’s leader LockBitSupp announced that their victim shaming websites were once again operational on the dark web, with fresh countdown timers for Fulton County and a half-dozen other recent victims.

“The FBI decided to hack now for one reason only, because they didn’t want to leak information fultoncountyga.gov,” LockBitSupp wrote. “The stolen documents contain a lot of interesting things and Donald Trump’s court cases that could affect the upcoming US election.”

A screen shot released by LockBit showing various Fulton County file shares that were exposed.

LockBit has already released roughly two dozen files allegedly stolen from Fulton County government systems, although none of them involve Mr. Trump’s criminal trial. But the documents do appear to include court records that are sealed and shielded from public viewing.

George Chidi writes The Atlanta Objective, a Substack publication on crime in Georgia’s capital city. Chidi says the leaked data so far includes a sealed record related to a child abuse case, and a sealed motion in the murder trial of Juwuan Gaston demanding the state turn over confidential informant identities.

Chidi cites reports from a Fulton County employee who said the confidential material includes the identities of jurors serving on the trial of the rapper Jeffery “Young Thug” Williams, who is charged along with five other defendants in a racketeering and gang conspiracy.

“The screenshots suggest that hackers will be able to give any attorney defending a criminal case in the county a starting place to argue that evidence has been tainted or witnesses intimidated, and that the release of confidential information has compromised cases,” Chidi wrote. “Judge Ural Glanville has, I am told by staff, been working feverishly behind the scenes over the last two weeks to manage the unfolding disaster.”

LockBitSupp also denied assertions made by the U.K.’s NCA that LockBit did not delete stolen data as promised when victims agreed to pay a ransom. The accusation is an explosive one because nobody will pay a ransom if they don’t believe the ransomware group will hold up its end of the bargain.

The ransomware group leader also confirmed information first reported here last week, that federal investigators managed to hack LockBit by exploiting a known vulnerability in PHP, a scripting language that is widely used in Web development.

“Due to my personal negligence and irresponsibility I relaxed and did not update PHP in time,” LockBitSupp wrote. “As a result of which access was gained to the two main servers where this version of PHP was installed.”

LockBitSupp’s FBI letter said the group kept copies of its stolen victim data on servers that did not use PHP, and that consequently it was able to retain copies of files stolen from victims. The letter also listed links to multiple new instances of LockBit dark net websites, including the leak page listing Fulton County’s new countdown timer.

LockBit’s new data leak site promises to release stolen Fulton County data on March 2, 2024, unless paid a ransom demand.

“Even after the FBI hack, the stolen data will be published on the blog, there is no chance of destroying the stolen data without payment,” LockBitSupp wrote. “All FBI actions are aimed at destroying the reputation of my affiliate program, my demoralization, they want me to leave and quit my job, they want to scare me because they can not find and eliminate me, I can not be stopped, you can not even hope, as long as I am alive I will continue to do pentest with postpaid.”

DOX DODGING

In January 2024, LockBitSupp told XSS forum members he was disappointed the FBI hadn’t offered a reward for his doxing and/or arrest, and that in response he was placing a bounty on his own head — offering $10 million to anyone who could discover his real name.

After the NCA and FBI seized LockBit’s site, the group’s homepage was retrofitted with a blog entry titled, “Who is LockBitSupp? The $10M question.” The teaser made use of LockBit’s own countdown timer, and suggested the real identity of LockBitSupp would soon be revealed.

However, after the countdown timer expired the page was replaced with a taunting message from the feds, but it included no new information about LockBitSupp’s identity.

On Feb. 21, the U.S. Department of State announced rewards totaling up to $15 million for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of anyone participating in LockBit ransomware attacks. The State Department said $10 million of that is for information on LockBit’s leaders, and up to $5 million is offered for information on affiliates.

In an interview with the malware-focused Twitter/X account Vx-Underground, LockBit staff asserted that authorities had arrested a couple of small-time players in their operation, and that investigators still do not know the real-life identities of the core LockBit members, or that of their leader.

“They assert the FBI / NCA UK / EUROPOL do not know their information,” Vx-Underground wrote. “They state they are willing to double the bounty of $10,000,000. They state they will place a $20,000,000 bounty of their own head if anyone can dox them.”

TROUBLE ON THE HOMEFRONT?

In the weeks leading up to the FBI/NCA takedown, LockBitSupp became embroiled in a number of high-profile personal and business disputes on the Russian cybercrime forums.

Earlier this year, someone used LockBit ransomware to infect the networks of AN-Security, a venerated 30-year-old security and technology company based in St. Petersburg, Russia. This violated the golden rule for cybercriminals based in Russia and former soviet nations that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States, which is that attacking your own citizens in those countries is the surest way to get arrested and prosecuted by local authorities.

LockBitSupp later claimed the attacker had used a publicly leaked, older version of LockBit to compromise systems at AN-Security, and said the attack was an attempt to smear their reputation by a rival ransomware group known as “Clop.” But the incident no doubt prompted closer inspection of LockBitSupp’s activities by Russian authorities.

Then in early February, the administrator of the Russian-language cybercrime forum XSS said LockBitSupp had threatened to have him killed after the ransomware group leader was banned by the community. LockBitSupp was excommunicated from XSS after he refused to pay an arbitration amount ordered by the forum administrator. That dispute related to a complaint from another forum member who said LockBitSupp recently stiffed him on his promised share of an unusually large ransomware payout.

A posted by the XSS administrator saying LockBitSupp wanted him dead.

INTERVIEW WITH LOCKBITSUPP

KrebsOnSecurity sought comment from LockBitSupp at the ToX instant messenger ID listed in his letter to the FBI. LockBitSupp declined to elaborate on the unreleased documents from Fulton County, saying the files will be available for everyone to see in a few days.

LockBitSupp said his team was still negotiating with Fulton County when the FBI seized their servers, which is why the county has been granted a time extension. He also denied threatening to kill the XSS administrator.

“I have not threatened to kill the XSS administrator, he is blatantly lying, this is to cause self-pity and damage my reputation,” LockBitSupp told KrebsOnSecurity. “It is not necessary to kill him to punish him, there are more humane methods and he knows what they are.”

Asked why he was so certain the FBI doesn’t know his real-life identity, LockBitSupp was more precise.

“I’m not sure the FBI doesn’t know who I am,” he said. “I just believe they will never find me.”

It seems unlikely that the FBI’s seizure of LockBit’s infrastructure was somehow an effort to stave off the disclosure of Fulton County’s data, as LockBitSupp maintains. For one thing, Europol said the takedown was the result of a months-long infiltration of the ransomware group.

Also, in reporting on the attack’s disruption to the office of Fulton County District Attorney Fanny Willis on Feb. 14, CNN reported that by then the intrusion by LockBit had persisted for nearly two and a half weeks.

Finally, if the NCA and FBI really believed that LockBit never deleted victim data, they had to assume LockBit would still have at least one copy of all their stolen data hidden somewhere safe.

Fulton County is still trying to recover systems and restore services affected by the ransomware attack. “Fulton County continues to make substantial progress in restoring its systems following the recent ransomware incident resulting in service outages,” reads the latest statement from the county on Feb. 22. “Since the start of this incident, our team has been working tirelessly to bring services back up.”

New Leak Shows Business Side of China’s APT Menace

A new data leak that appears to have come from one of China’s top private cybersecurity firms provides a rare glimpse into the commercial side of China’s many state-sponsored hacking groups. Experts say the leak illustrates how Chinese government agencies increasingly are contracting out foreign espionage campaigns to the nation’s burgeoning and highly competitive cybersecurity industry.

A marketing slide deck promoting i-SOON’s Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) capabilities.

A large cache of more than 500 documents published to GitHub last week indicate the records come from i-SOON, a technology company headquartered in Shanghai that is perhaps best known for providing cybersecurity training courses throughout China. But the leaked documents, which include candid employee chat conversations and images, show a less public side of i-SOON, one that frequently initiates and sustains cyberespionage campaigns commissioned by various Chinese government agencies.

The leaked documents suggest i-SOON employees were responsible for a raft of cyber intrusions over many years, infiltrating government systems in the United Kingdom and countries throughout Asia. Although the cache does not include raw data stolen from cyber espionage targets, it features numerous documents listing the level of access gained and the types of data exposed in each intrusion.

Security experts who reviewed the leaked data say they believe the information is legitimate, and that i-SOON works closely with China’s Ministry of Public Security and the military. In 2021, the Sichuan provincial government named i-SOON as one of “the top 30 information security companies.”

“The leak provides some of the most concrete details seen publicly to date, revealing the maturing nature of China’s cyber espionage ecosystem,” said Dakota Cary, a China-focused consultant at the security firm SentinelOne. “It shows explicitly how government targeting requirements drive a competitive marketplace of independent contractor hackers-for-hire.”

Mei Danowski is a former intelligence analyst and China expert who now writes about her research in a Substack publication called Natto Thoughts. Danowski said i-SOON has achieved the highest secrecy classification that a non-state-owned company can receive, which qualifies the company to conduct classified research and development related to state security.

i-SOON’s “business services” webpage states that the company’s offerings include public security, anti-fraud, blockchain forensics, enterprise security solutions, and training. Danowski said that in 2013, i-SOON established a department for research on developing new APT network penetration methods.

APT stands for Advanced Persistent Threat, a term that generally refers to state-sponsored hacking groups. Indeed, among the documents apparently leaked from i-SOON is a sales pitch slide boldly highlighting the hacking prowess of the company’s “APT research team” (see screenshot above).

i-SOON CEO Wu Haibo, in 2011. Image: nattothoughts.substack.com.

The leaked documents included a lengthy chat conversation between the company’s founders, who repeatedly discuss flagging sales and the need to secure more employees and government contracts. Danowski said the CEO of i-SOON, Wu Haibo (“Shutdown” in the leaked chats) is a well-known first-generation red hacker or “Honker,” and an early member of Green Army — the very first Chinese hacktivist group founded in 1997. Mr. Haibo has not yet responded to a request for comment.

In October 2023, Danowski detailed how i-SOON became embroiled in a software development contract dispute when it was sued by a competing Chinese cybersecurity company called Chengdu 404. In September 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed indictments against multiple Chengdu 404 employees, charging that the company was a facade that hid more than a decade’s worth of cyber intrusions attributed to a threat actor group known as “APT 41.”

Danowski said the existence of this legal dispute suggests that Chengdu 404 and i-SOON have or at one time had a business relationship, and that one company likely served as a subcontractor to the other.

“From what they chat about we can see this is a very competitive industry, where companies in this space are constantly poaching each others’ employees and tools,” Danowski said. “The infosec industry is always trying to distinguish [the work] of one APT group from another. But that’s getting harder to do.”

It remains unclear if i-SOON’s work has earned it a unique APT designation. But Will Thomas, a cyber threat intelligence researcher at Equinix, found an Internet address in the leaked data that corresponds to a domain flagged in a 2019 Citizen Lab report about one-click mobile phone exploits that were being used to target groups in Tibet. The 2019 report referred to the threat actor behind those attacks as an APT group called Poison Carp.

Several images and chat records in the data leak suggest i-SOON’s clients periodically gave the company a list of targets they wanted to infiltrate, but sometimes employees confused the instructions. One screenshot shows a conversation in which an employee tells his boss they’ve just hacked one of the universities on their latest list, only to be told that the victim in question was not actually listed as a desired target.

The leaked chats show i-SOON continuously tried to recruit new talent by hosting a series of hacking competitions across China. It also performed charity work, and sought to engage employees and sustain morale with various team-building events.

However, the chats include multiple conversations between employees commiserating over long hours and low pay. The overall tone of the discussions indicates employee morale was quite low and that the workplace environment was fairly toxic. In several of the conversations, i-SOON employees openly discuss with their bosses how much money they just lost gambling online with their mobile phones while at work.

Danowski believes the i-SOON data was probably leaked by one of those disgruntled employees.

“This was released the first working day after the Chinese New Year,” Danowski said. “Definitely whoever did this planned it, because you can’t get all this information all at once.”

SentinelOne’s Cary said he came to the same conclusion, noting that the Protonmail account tied to the GitHub profile that published the records was registered a month before the leak, on January 15, 2024.

China’s much vaunted Great Firewall not only lets the government control and limit what citizens can access online, but this distributed spying apparatus allows authorities to block data on Chinese citizens and companies from ever leaving the country.

As a result, China enjoys a remarkable information asymmetry vis-a-vis virtually all other industrialized nations. Which is why this apparent data leak from i-SOON is such a rare find for Western security researchers.

“I was so excited to see this,” Cary said. “Every day I hope for data leaks coming out of China.”

That information asymmetry is at the heart of the Chinese government’s cyberwarfare goals, according to a 2023 analysis by Margin Research performed on behalf of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“In the area of cyberwarfare, the western governments see cyberspace as a ‘fifth domain’ of warfare,” the Margin study observed. “The Chinese, however, look at cyberspace in the broader context of information space. The ultimate objective is, not ‘control’ of cyberspace, but control of information, a vision that dominates China’s cyber operations.”

The National Cybersecurity Strategy issued by the White House last year singles out China as the biggest cyber threat to U.S. interests. While the United States government does contract certain aspects of its cyber operations to companies in the private sector, it does not follow China’s example in promoting the wholesale theft of state and corporate secrets for the commercial benefit of its own private industries.

Dave Aitel, a co-author of the Margin Research report and former computer scientist at the U.S. National Security Agency, said it’s nice to see that Chinese cybersecurity firms have to deal with all of the same contracting headaches facing U.S. companies seeking work with the federal government.

“This leak just shows there’s layers of contractors all the way down,” Aitel said. “It’s pretty fun to see the Chinese version of it.”

Feds Seize LockBit Ransomware Websites, Offer Decryption Tools, Troll Affiliates

U.S. and U.K. authorities have seized the darknet websites run by LockBit, a prolific and destructive ransomware group that has claimed more than 2,000 victims worldwide and extorted over $120 million in payments. Instead of listing data stolen from ransomware victims who didn’t pay, LockBit’s victim shaming website now offers free recovery tools, as well as news about arrests and criminal charges involving LockBit affiliates.

Investigators used the existing design on LockBit’s victim shaming website to feature press releases and free decryption tools.

Dubbed “Operation Cronos,” the law enforcement action involved the seizure of nearly three-dozen servers; the arrest of two alleged LockBit members; the unsealing of two indictments; the release of a free LockBit decryption tool; and the freezing of more than 200 cryptocurrency accounts thought to be tied to the gang’s activities.

LockBit members have executed attacks against thousands of victims in the United States and around the world, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). First surfacing in September 2019, the gang is estimated to have made hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in ransom demands, and extorted over $120 million in ransom payments.

LockBit operated as a ransomware-as-a-service group, wherein the ransomware gang takes care of everything from the bulletproof hosting and domains to the development and maintenance of the malware. Meanwhile, affiliates are solely responsible for finding new victims, and can reap 60 to 80 percent of any ransom amount ultimately paid to the group.

A statement on Operation Cronos from the European police agency Europol said the months-long infiltration resulted in the compromise of LockBit’s primary platform and other critical infrastructure, including the takedown of 34 servers in the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, France, Switzerland, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Europol said two suspected LockBit actors were arrested in Poland and Ukraine, but no further information has been released about those detained.

The DOJ today unsealed indictments against two Russian men alleged to be active members of LockBit. The government says Russian national Artur Sungatov used LockBit ransomware against victims in manufacturing, logistics, insurance and other companies throughout the United States.

Ivan Gennadievich Kondratyev, a.k.a. “Bassterlord,” allegedly deployed LockBit against targets in the United States, Singapore, Taiwan, and Lebanon. Kondratyev is also charged (PDF) with three criminal counts arising from his alleged use of the Sodinokibi (aka “REvil“) ransomware variant to encrypt data, exfiltrate victim information, and extort a ransom payment from a corporate victim based in Alameda County, California.

With the indictments of Sungatov and Kondratyev, a total of five LockBit affiliates now have been officially charged. In May 2023, U.S. authorities unsealed indictments against two alleged LockBit affiliates, Mikhail “Wazawaka” Matveev and Mikhail Vasiliev.

Vasiliev, 35, of Bradford, Ontario, Canada, is in custody in Canada awaiting extradition to the United States (the complaint against Vasiliev is at this PDF). Matveev remains at large, presumably still in Russia. In January 2022, KrebsOnSecurity published Who is the Network Access Broker ‘Wazawaka,’ which followed clues from Wazawaka’s many pseudonyms and contact details on the Russian-language cybercrime forums back to a 31-year-old Mikhail Matveev from Abaza, RU.

An FBI wanted poster for Matveev.

In June 2023, Russian national Ruslan Magomedovich Astamirov was charged in New Jersey for his participation in the LockBit conspiracy, including the deployment of LockBit against victims in Florida, Japan, France, and Kenya. Astamirov is currently in custody in the United States awaiting trial.

LockBit was known to have recruited affiliates that worked with multiple ransomware groups simultaneously, and it’s unclear what impact this takedown may have on competing ransomware affiliate operations. The security firm ProDaft said on Twitter/X that the infiltration of LockBit by investigators provided “in-depth visibility into each affiliate’s structures, including ties with other notorious groups such as FIN7, Wizard Spider, and EvilCorp.”

In a lengthy thread about the LockBit takedown on the Russian-language cybercrime forum XSS, one of the gang’s leaders said the FBI and the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) had infiltrated its servers using a known vulnerability in PHP, a scripting language that is widely used in Web development.

Several denizens of XSS wondered aloud why the PHP flaw was not flagged by LockBit’s vaunted “Bug Bounty” program, which promised a financial reward to affiliates who could find and quietly report any security vulnerabilities threatening to undermine LockBit’s online infrastructure.

This prompted several XSS members to start posting memes taunting the group about the security failure.

“Does it mean that the FBI provided a pentesting service to the affiliate program?,” one denizen quipped. “Or did they decide to take part in the bug bounty program? :):)”

Federal investigators also appear to be trolling LockBit members with their seizure notices. LockBit’s data leak site previously featured a countdown timer for each victim organization listed, indicating the time remaining for the victim to pay a ransom demand before their stolen files would be published online. Now, the top entry on the shaming site is a countdown timer until the public doxing of “LockBitSupp,” the unofficial spokesperson or figurehead for the LockBit gang.

“Who is LockbitSupp?” the teaser reads. “The $10m question.”

In January 2024, LockBitSupp told XSS forum members he was disappointed the FBI hadn’t offered a reward for his doxing and/or arrest, and that in response he was placing a bounty on his own head — offering $10 million to anyone who could discover his real name.

“My god, who needs me?,” LockBitSupp wrote on Jan. 22, 2024. “There is not even a reward out for me on the FBI website. By the way, I want to use this chance to increase the reward amount for a person who can tell me my full name from USD 1 million to USD 10 million. The person who will find out my name, tell it to me and explain how they were able to find it out will get USD 10 million. Please take note that when looking for criminals, the FBI uses unclear wording offering a reward of UP TO USD 10 million; this means that the FBI can pay you USD 100, because technically, it’s an amount UP TO 10 million. On the other hand, I am willing to pay USD 10 million, no more and no less.”

Mark Stockley, cybersecurity evangelist at the security firm Malwarebytes, said the NCA is obviously trolling the LockBit group and LockBitSupp.

“I don’t think this is an accident—this is how ransomware groups talk to each other,” Stockley said. “This is law enforcement taking the time to enjoy its moment, and humiliate LockBit in its own vernacular, presumably so it loses face.”

In a press conference today, the FBI said Operation Cronos included investigative assistance from the Gendarmerie-C3N in France; the State Criminal Police Office L-K-A and Federal Criminal Police Office in Germany; Fedpol and Zurich Cantonal Police in Switzerland; the National Police Agency in Japan; the Australian Federal Police; the Swedish Police Authority; the National Bureau of Investigation in Finland; the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; and the National Police in the Netherlands.

The Justice Department said victims targeted by LockBit should contact the FBI at https://lockbitvictims.ic3.gov/ to determine whether affected systems can be successfully decrypted. In addition, the Japanese Police, supported by Europol, have released a recovery tool designed to recover files encrypted by the LockBit 3.0 Black Ransomware.

U.S. Internet Leaked Years of Internal, Customer Emails

The Minnesota-based Internet provider U.S. Internet Corp. has a business unit called Securence, which specializes in providing filtered, secure email services to businesses, educational institutions and government agencies worldwide. But until it was notified last week, U.S. Internet was publishing more than a decade’s worth of its internal email — and that of thousands of Securence clients — in plain text out on the Internet and just a click away for anyone with a Web browser.

Headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn., U.S. Internet is a regional ISP that provides fiber and wireless Internet service. The ISP’s Securence division bills itself “a leading provider of email filtering and management software that includes email protection and security services for small business, enterprise, educational and government institutions worldwide.”

U.S. Internet/Securence says your email is secure. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Roughly a week ago, KrebsOnSecurity was contacted by Hold Security, a Milwaukee-based cybersecurity firm. Hold Security founder Alex Holden said his researchers had unearthed a public link to a U.S. Internet email server listing more than 6,500 domain names, each with its own clickable link.

A tiny portion of the more than 6,500 customers who trusted U.S. Internet with their email.

Drilling down into those individual domain links revealed inboxes for each employee or user of these exposed host names. Some of the emails dated back to 2008; others were as recent as the present day.

Securence counts among its customers dozens of state and local governments, including: nc.gov — the official website of North Carolina; stillwatermn.gov, the website for the city of Stillwater, Minn.; and cityoffrederickmd.gov, the website for the government of Frederick, Md.

Incredibly, included in this giant index of U.S. Internet customer emails were the internal messages for every current and former employee of U.S. Internet and its subsidiary USI Wireless. Since that index also included the messages of U.S. Internet’s CEO Travis Carter, KrebsOnSecurity forwarded one of Mr. Carter’s own recent emails to him, along with a request to understand how exactly the company managed to screw things up so spectacularly.

Individual inboxes of U.S. Wireless employees were published in clear text on the Internet.

Within minutes of that notification, U.S. Internet pulled all of the published inboxes offline. Mr. Carter responded and said his team was investigating how it happened. In the same breath, the CEO asked if KrebsOnSecurity does security consulting for hire (I do not).

[Author’s note: Perhaps Mr. Carter was frantically casting about for any expertise he could find in a tough moment. But I found the request personally offensive, because I couldn’t shake the notion that maybe the company was hoping it could buy my silence.]

Earlier this week, Mr. Carter replied with a highly technical explanation that ultimately did little to explain why or how so many internal and customer inboxes were published in plain text on the Internet.

“The feedback from my team was a issue with the Ansible playbook that controls the Nginx configuration for our IMAP servers,” Carter said, noting that this incorrect configuration was put in place by a former employee and never caught. U.S. Internet has not shared how long these messages were exposed.

“The rest of the platform and other backend services are being audited to verify the Ansible playbooks are correct,” Carter said.

Holden said he also discovered that hackers have been abusing a Securence link scrubbing and anti-spam service called Url-Shield to create links that look benign but instead redirect visitors to hacked and malicious websites.

“The bad guys modify the malicious link reporting into redirects to their own malicious sites,” Holden said. “That’s how the bad guys drive traffic to their sites and increase search engine rankings.”

For example, clicking the Securence link shown in the screenshot directly above leads one to a website that tries to trick visitors into allowing site notifications by couching the request as a CAPTCHA request designed to separate humans from bots. After approving the deceptive CAPTCHA/notification request, the link forwards the visitor to a Russian internationalized domain name (рпроаг[.]рф).

The link to this malicious and deceptive website was created using Securence’s link-scrubbing service. Notification pop-ups were blocked when this site tried to disguise a prompt for accepting notifications as a form of CAPTCHA.

U.S. Internet has not responded to questions about how long it has been exposing all of its internal and customer emails, or when the errant configuration changes were made. The company also still has not disclosed the incident on its website. The last press release on the site dates back to March 2020.

KrebsOnSecurity has been writing about data breaches for nearly two decades, but this one easily takes the cake in terms of the level of incompetence needed to make such a huge mistake unnoticed. I’m not sure what the proper response from authorities or regulators should be to this incident, but it’s clear that U.S. Internet should not be allowed to manage anyone’s email unless and until it can demonstrate more transparency, and prove that it has radically revamped its security.

Fat Patch Tuesday, February 2024 Edition

Microsoft Corp. today pushed software updates to plug more than 70 security holes in its Windows operating systems and related products, including two zero-day vulnerabilities that are already being exploited in active attacks.

Top of the heap on this Fat Patch Tuesday is CVE-2024-21412, a “security feature bypass” in the way Windows handles Internet Shortcut Files that Microsoft says is being targeted in active exploits. Redmond’s advisory for this bug says an attacker would need to convince or trick a user into opening a malicious shortcut file.

Researchers at Trend Micro have tied the ongoing exploitation of CVE-2024-21412 to an advanced persistent threat group dubbed “Water Hydra,” which they say has being using the vulnerability to execute a malicious Microsoft Installer File (.msi) that in turn unloads a remote access trojan (RAT) onto infected Windows systems.

The other zero-day flaw is CVE-2024-21351, another security feature bypass — this one in the built-in Windows SmartScreen component that tries to screen out potentially malicious files downloaded from the Web. Kevin Breen at Immersive Labs says it’s important to note that this vulnerability alone is not enough for an attacker to compromise a user’s workstation, and instead would likely be used in conjunction with something like a spear phishing attack that delivers a malicious file.

Satnam Narang, senior staff research engineer at Tenable, said this is the fifth vulnerability in Windows SmartScreen patched since 2022 and all five have been exploited in the wild as zero-days. They include CVE-2022-44698 in December 2022, CVE-2023-24880 in March 2023, CVE-2023-32049 in July 2023 and CVE-2023-36025 in November 2023.

Narang called special attention to CVE-2024-21410, an “elevation of privilege” bug in Microsoft Exchange Server that Microsoft says is likely to be exploited by attackers. Attacks on this flaw would lead to the disclosure of NTLM hashes, which could be leveraged as part of an NTLM relay or “pass the hash” attack, which lets an attacker masquerade as a legitimate user without ever having to log in.

“We know that flaws that can disclose sensitive information like NTLM hashes are very valuable to attackers,” Narang said. “A Russian-based threat actor leveraged a similar vulnerability to carry out attacks – CVE-2023-23397 is an Elevation of Privilege vulnerability in Microsoft Outlook patched in March 2023.”

Microsoft notes that prior to its Exchange Server 2019 Cumulative Update 14 (CU14), a security feature called Extended Protection for Authentication (EPA), which provides NTLM credential relay protections, was not enabled by default.

“Going forward, CU14 enables this by default on Exchange servers, which is why it is important to upgrade,” Narang said.

Rapid7’s lead software engineer Adam Barnett highlighted CVE-2024-21413, a critical remote code execution bug in Microsoft Office that could be exploited just by viewing a specially-crafted message in the Outlook Preview pane.

“Microsoft Office typically shields users from a variety of attacks by opening files with Mark of the Web in Protected View, which means Office will render the document without fetching potentially malicious external resources,” Barnett said. “CVE-2024-21413 is a critical RCE vulnerability in Office which allows an attacker to cause a file to open in editing mode as though the user had agreed to trust the file.”

Barnett stressed that administrators responsible for Office 2016 installations who apply patches outside of Microsoft Update should note the advisory lists no fewer than five separate patches which must be installed to achieve remediation of CVE-2024-21413; individual update knowledge base (KB) articles further note that partially-patched Office installations will be blocked from starting until the correct combination of patches has been installed.

It’s a good idea for Windows end-users to stay current with security updates from Microsoft, which can quickly pile up otherwise. That doesn’t mean you have to install them on Patch Tuesday. Indeed, waiting a day or three before updating is a sane response, given that sometimes updates go awry and usually within a few days Microsoft has fixed any issues with its patches. It’s also smart to back up your data and/or image your Windows drive before applying new updates.

For a more detailed breakdown of the individual flaws addressed by Microsoft today, check out the SANS Internet Storm Center’s list. For those admins responsible for maintaining larger Windows environments, it often pays to keep an eye on Askwoody.com, which frequently points out when specific Microsoft updates are creating problems for a number of users.

Juniper Support Portal Exposed Customer Device Info

Until earlier this week, the support website for networking equipment vendor Juniper Networks was exposing potentially sensitive information tied to customer products, including which devices customers bought, as well as each product’s warranty status, service contracts and serial numbers. Juniper said it has since fixed the problem, and that the inadvertent data exposure stemmed from a recent upgrade to its support portal.

Sunnyvale, Calif. based Juniper Networks makes high-powered Internet routers and switches, and its products are used in some of the world’s largest organizations. Earlier this week KrebsOnSecurity heard from a reader responsible for managing several Juniper devices, who found he could use Juniper’s customer support portal to find device and support contract information for other Juniper customers.

Logan George is a 17-year-old intern working for an organization that uses Juniper products. George said he found the data exposure earlier this week by accident while searching for support information on a particular Juniper product.

George discovered that after logging in with a regular customer account, Juniper’s support website allowed him to list detailed information about virtually any Juniper device purchased by other customers. Searching on Amazon.com in the Juniper portal, for example, returned tens of thousands of records. Each record included the device’s model and serial number, the approximate location where it is installed, as well as the device’s status and associated support contract information.

Information exposed by the Juniper support portal. Columns not pictured include Serial Number, Software Support Reference number, Product, Warranty Expiration Date and Contract ID.

George said the exposed support contract information is potentially sensitive because it shows which Juniper products are most likely to be lacking critical security updates.

“If you don’t have a support contract you don’t get updates, it’s as simple as that,” George said. “Using serial numbers, I could see which products aren’t under support contracts. And then I could narrow down where each device was sent through their serial number tracking system, and potentially see all of what was sent to the same location. A lot of companies don’t update their switches very often, and knowing what they use allows someone to know what attack vectors are possible.”

In a written statement, Juniper said the data exposure was the result of a recent upgrade to its support portal.

“We were made aware of an inadvertent issue that allowed registered users to our system to access serial numbers that were not associated with their account,” the statement reads. “We acted promptly to resolve this issue and have no reason to believe at this time that any identifiable or personal customer data was exposed in any way. We take these matters seriously and always use these experiences to prevent further similar incidents. We are actively working to determine the root cause of this defect and thank the researcher for bringing this to our attention.”

The company has not yet responded to requests for information about exactly when those overly permissive user rights were introduced. However, the changes may date back to September 2023, when Juniper announced it had rebuilt its customer support portal.

George told KrebsOnSecurity the back-end for Juniper’s support website appears to be supported by Salesforce, and that Juniper likely did not have the proper user permissions established on its Salesforce assets. In April 2023, KrebsOnSecurity published research showing that a shocking number of organizations — including banks, healthcare providers and state and local governments — were leaking private and sensitive data thanks to misconfigured Salesforce installations.

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) and lecturer at UC Davis, said the complexity layered into modern tech support portals leaves much room for error.

“This is a reminder of how hard it is to build these large systems like support portals, where you need to be able to manage gazillions of users with distinct access roles,” Weaver said. “One minor screw up there can produce hilarious results.”

Last month, computer maker Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced it would buy Juniper Networks for $14 billion, reportedly to help beef up the 100-year-old technology company’s artificial intelligence offerings.

Update, 11:01 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story quoted George as saying he was able to see support information for the U.S. Department of Defense. George has since clarified that while one block of device records he found was labeled “Department of Defense,” that record appears to belong to a different country.

From Cybercrime Saul Goodman to the Russian GRU

In 2021, the exclusive Russian cybercrime forum Mazafaka was hacked. The leaked user database shows one of the forum’s founders was an attorney who advised Russia’s top hackers on the legal risks of their work, and what to do if they got caught. A review of this user’s hacker identities shows that during his time on the forums he served as an officer in the special forces of the GRU, the foreign military intelligence agency of the Russian Federation.

Launched in 2001 under the tagline “Network terrorism,” Mazafaka would evolve into one of the most guarded Russian-language cybercrime communities. The forum’s member roster includes a Who’s Who of top Russian cybercriminals, and it featured sub-forums for a wide range of cybercrime specialities, including malware, spam, coding and identity theft.

One representation of the leaked Mazafaka database.

In almost any database leak, the first accounts listed are usually the administrators and early core members. But the Mazafaka user information posted online was not a database file per se, and it was clearly edited, redacted and restructured by whoever released it. As a result, it can be difficult to tell which members are the earliest users.

The original Mazafaka is known to have been launched by a hacker using the nickname “Stalker.” However, the lowest numbered (non-admin) user ID in the Mazafaka database belongs to another individual who used the handle “Djamix,” and the email address djamix@mazafaka[.]ru.

From the forum’s inception until around 2008, Djamix was one of its most active and eloquent contributors. Djamix told forum members he was a lawyer, and nearly all of his posts included legal analyses of various public cases involving hackers arrested and charged with cybercrimes in Russia and abroad.

“Hiding with purely technical parameters will not help in a serious matter,” Djamix advised Maza members in September 2007. “In order to ESCAPE the law, you need to KNOW the law. This is the most important thing. Technical capabilities cannot overcome intelligence and cunning.”

Stalker himself credited Djamix with keeping Mazafaka online for so many years. In a retrospective post published to Livejournal in 2014 titled, “Mazafaka, from conception to the present day,” Stalker said Djamix had become a core member of the community.

“This guy is everywhere,” Stalker said of Djamix. “There’s not a thing on [Mazafaka] that he doesn’t take part in. For me, he is a stimulus-irritant and thanks to him, Maza is still alive. Our rallying force!”

Djamix told other forum denizens he was a licensed attorney who could be hired for remote or in-person consultations, and his posts on Mazafaka and other Russian boards show several hackers facing legal jeopardy likely took him up on this offer.

“I have the right to represent your interests in court,” Djamix said on the Russian-language cybercrime forum Verified in Jan. 2011. “Remotely (in the form of constant support and consultations), or in person – this is discussed separately. As well as the cost of my services.”

WHO IS DJAMIX?

A search on djamix@mazafaka[.]ru at DomainTools.com reveals this address has been used to register at least 10 domain names since 2008. Those include several websites about life in and around Sochi, Russia, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, as well as a nearby coastal town called Adler. All of those sites say they were registered to an Aleksei Safronov from Sochi who also lists Adler as a hometown.

The breach tracking service Constella Intelligence finds that the phone number associated with those domains — +7.9676442212 — is tied to a Facebook account for an Aleksei Valerievich Safronov from Sochi. Mr. Safronov’s Facebook profile, which was last updated in October 2022, says his ICQ instant messenger number is 53765. This is the same ICQ number assigned to Djamix in the Mazafaka user database.

The Facebook account for Aleksey Safronov.

A “Djamix” account on the forum privetsochi[.]ru (“Hello Sochi”) says this user was born Oct. 2, 1970, and that his website is uposter[.]ru. This Russian language news site’s tagline is, “We Create Communication,” and it focuses heavily on news about Sochi, Adler, Russia and the war in Ukraine, with a strong pro-Kremlin bent.

Safronov’s Facebook profile also gives his Skype username as “Djamixadler,” and it includes dozens of photos of him dressed in military fatigues along with a regiment of soldiers deploying in fairly remote areas of Russia. Some of those photos date back to 2008.

In several of the images, we can see a patch on the arm of Safronov’s jacket that bears the logo of the Spetsnaz GRU, a special forces unit of the Russian military. According to a 2020 report from the Congressional Research Service, the GRU operates both as an intelligence agency — collecting human, cyber, and signals intelligence — and as a military organization responsible for battlefield reconnaissance and the operation of Russia’s Spetsnaz military commando units.

Mr. Safronov posted this image of himself on Facebook in 2016. The insignia of the GRU can be seen on his sleeve.

“In recent years, reports have linked the GRU to some of Russia’s most aggressive and public intelligence operations,” the CRS report explains. “Reportedly, the GRU played a key role in Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and invasion of eastern Ukraine, the attempted assassination of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, disinformation and propaganda operations, and some of the world’s most damaging cyberattacks.”

According to the Russia-focused investigative news outlet Meduza, in 2014 the Russian Defense Ministry created its “information-operation troops” for action in “cyber-confrontations with potential adversaries.”

“Later, sources in the Defense Ministry explained that these new troops were meant to ‘disrupt the potential adversary’s information networks,’” Meduza reported in 2018. “Recruiters reportedly went looking for ‘hackers who have had problems with the law.’”

Mr. Safronov did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A 2018 treatise written by Aleksei Valerievich Safronov titled “One Hundred Years of GRU Military Intelligence” explains the significance of the bat in the seal of the GRU.

“One way or another, the bat is an emblem that unites all active and retired intelligence officers; it is a symbol of unity and exclusivity,” Safronov wrote. “And, in general, it doesn’t matter who we’re talking about – a secret GRU agent somewhere in the army or a sniper in any of the special forces brigades. They all did and are doing one very important and responsible thing.”

It’s unclear what role Mr. Safronov plays or played in the GRU, but it seems likely the military intelligence agency would have exploited his considerable technical skills, knowledge and connections on the Russian cybercrime forums.

Searching on Safronov’s domain uposter[.]ru in Constella Intelligence reveals that this domain was used in 2022 to register an account at a popular Spanish-language discussion forum dedicated to helping applicants prepare for a career in the Guardia Civil, one of Spain’s two national police forces. Pivoting on that Russian IP in Constella shows three other accounts were created at the same Spanish user forum around the same date.

Mark Rasch, a former cybercrime prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, said there has always been a close relationship between the GRU and the Russian hacker community. Rasch noted that in the early 2000s, the GRU was soliciting hackers with the skills necessary to hack US banks in order to procure funds to help finance Russia’s war in Chechnya.

“The guy is heavily hooked into the Russian cyber community, and that’s useful for intelligence services,” Rasch said. “He could have been infiltrating the community to monitor it for the GRU. Or he could just be a guy wearing a military uniform.”

Arrests in $400M SIM-Swap Tied to Heist at FTX?

Three Americans were charged this week with stealing more than $400 million in a November 2022 SIM-swapping attack. The U.S. government did not name the victim organization, but there is every indication that the money was stolen from the now-defunct cryptocurrency exchange FTX, which had just filed for bankruptcy on that same day.

A graphic illustrating the flow of more than $400 million in cryptocurrencies stolen from FTX on Nov. 11-12, 2022. Image: Elliptic.co.

An indictment unsealed this week and first reported on by Ars Technica alleges that Chicago man Robert Powell, a.k.a. “R,” “R$” and “ElSwapo1,” was the ringleader of a SIM-swapping group called the “Powell SIM Swapping Crew.” Colorado resident Emily “Em” Hernandez allegedly helped the group gain access to victim devices in service of SIM-swapping attacks between March 2021 and April 2023. Indiana resident Carter Rohn, a.k.a. “Carti,” and “Punslayer,” allegedly assisted in compromising devices.

In a SIM-swapping attack, the crooks transfer the target’s phone number to a device they control, allowing them to intercept any text messages or phone calls sent to the victim, including one-time passcodes for authentication or password reset links sent via SMS.

The indictment states that the perpetrators in this heist stole the $400 million in cryptocurrencies on Nov. 11, 2022 after they SIM-swapped an AT&T customer by impersonating them at a retail store using a fake ID. However, the document refers to the victim in this case only by the name “Victim 1.”

Wired’s Andy Greenberg recently wrote about FTX’s all-night race to stop a $1 billion crypto heist that occurred on the evening of November 11:

“FTX’s staff had already endured one of the worst days in the company’s short life. What had recently been one of the world’s top cryptocurrency exchanges, valued at $32 billion only 10 months earlier, had just declared bankruptcy. Executives had, after an extended struggle, persuaded the company’s CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried, to hand over the reins to John Ray III, a new chief executive now tasked with shepherding the company through a nightmarish thicket of debts, many of which it seemed to have no means to pay.”

“FTX had, it seemed, hit rock bottom. Until someone—a thief or thieves who have yet to be identified—chose that particular moment to make things far worse. That Friday evening, exhausted FTX staffers began to see mysterious outflows of the company’s cryptocurrency, publicly captured on the Etherscan website that tracks the Ethereum blockchain, representing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crypto being stolen in real time.”

The indictment says the $400 million was stolen over several hours between November 11 and 12, 2022. Tom Robinson, co-founder of the blockchain intelligence firm Elliptic, said the attackers in the FTX heist began to drain FTX wallets on the evening of Nov. 11, 2022 local time, and continuing until the 12th of November.

Robinson said Elliptic is not aware of any other crypto heists of that magnitude occurring on that date.

“We put the value of the cryptoassets stolen at $477 million,” Robinson said. “The FTX administrators have reported overall losses due to “unauthorized third-party transfers” of $413 million – the discrepancy is likely due to subsequent seizure and return of some of the stolen assets. Either way, it’s certainly over $400 million, and we are not aware of any other thefts from crypto exchanges on this scale, on this date.”

The SIM-swappers allegedly responsible for the $400 million crypto theft are all U.S. residents. But there are some indications they had help from organized cybercriminals based in Russia. In October 2023, Elliptic released a report that found the money stolen from FTX had been laundered through exchanges with ties to criminal groups based in Russia.

“A Russia-linked actor seems a stronger possibility,” Elliptic wrote. “Of the stolen assets that can be traced through ChipMixer, significant amounts are combined with funds from Russia-linked criminal groups, including ransomware gangs and darknet markets, before being sent to exchanges. This points to the involvement of a broker or other intermediary with a nexus in Russia.”

Nick Bax, director of analytics at the cryptocurrency wallet recovery firm Unciphered, said the flow of stolen FTX funds looks more like what his team has seen from groups based in Eastern Europe and Russian than anything they’ve witnessed from US-based SIM-swappers.

“I was a bit surprised by this development but it seems to be consistent with reports from CISA [the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] and others that “Scattered Spider” has worked with [ransomware] groups like ALPHV/BlackCat,” Bax said.

CISA’s alert on Scattered Spider says they are a cybercriminal group that targets large companies and their contracted information technology (IT) help desks.

“Scattered Spider threat actors, per trusted third parties, have typically engaged in data theft for extortion and have also been known to utilize BlackCat/ALPHV ransomware alongside their usual TTPs,” CISA said, referring to the group’s signature “Tactics, Techniques an Procedures.”

Nick Bax, posting on Twitter/X in Nov 2022 about his research on the $400 million FTX heist.

Earlier this week, KrebsOnSecurity published a story noting that a Florida man recently charged with being part of a SIM-swapping conspiracy is thought to be a key member of Scattered Spider, a hacking group also known as 0ktapus. That group has been blamed for a string of cyber intrusions at major U.S. technology companies during the summer of 2022.

Financial claims involving FTX’s bankruptcy proceedings are being handled by the financial and risk consulting giant Kroll. In August 2023, Kroll suffered its own breach after a Kroll employee was SIM-swapped. According to Kroll, the thieves stole user information for multiple cryptocurrency platforms that rely on Kroll services to handle bankruptcy proceedings.

KrebsOnSecurity sought comment for this story from Kroll, the FBI, the prosecuting attorneys, and Sullivan & Cromwell, the law firm handling the FTX bankruptcy. This story will be updated in the event any of them respond.

Attorneys for Mr. Powell said they do not know who Victim 1 is in the indictment, as the government hasn’t shared that information yet. Powell’s next court date is a detention hearing on Feb. 2, 2024.