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Apple Addresses iPhone 11 Location Privacy Concern

Apple is rolling out a new update to its iOS operating system that addresses the location privacy issue on iPhone 11 devices that was first detailed here last month.

Beta versions of iOS 13.3.1 include a new setting that lets users disable the “Ultra Wideband” feature, a short-range technology that lets iPhone 11 users share files locally with other nearby phones that support this feature.

In December, KrebsOnSecurity pointed out the new iPhone 11 line queries the user’s location even when all applications and system services are individually set never to request this data.

Apple initially said the company did not see any privacy concerns and that the location tracking icon (a small, upward-facing arrow to the left of the battery icon) appears for system services that do not have a switch in the iPhone’s settings menu.

Apple later acknowledged the mysterious location requests were related to the inclusion of an Ultra Wideband chip in iPhone 11, Pro and Pro Max devices.

The company further explained that the location information indicator appears because the device periodically checks to see whether it is being used in a handful of countries for which Apple hasn’t yet received approval to deploy Ultra Wideband.

Apple also stressed it doesn’t use the UWB feature to collect user location data, and that this location checking resided “entirely on the device.” Still, it’s nice that iPhone 11 users will now have a setting to disable the feature if they want.

Spotted by journalist Brandon Butch and published on Twitter last week, the new toggle switch to turn off UWB now exists in the “Networking & Wireless” settings in beta versions of iOS 13.3.1, under Locations Services > System Services. Beta versions are released early to developers to help iron out kinks in the software, and it’s not clear yet when 13.3.1 will be released to the general public.

DDoS Mitigation Firm Founder Admits to DDoS

A Georgia man who co-founded a service designed to protect companies from crippling distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks has pleaded to paying a DDoS-for-hire service to launch attacks against others.

Tucker Preston, 22, of Macon, Ga., pleaded guilty last week in a New Jersey court to one count of damaging protected computers by transmission of a program, code or command. DDoS attacks involve flooding a target Web site with so much junk Internet traffic that it can no longer accommodate legitimate visitors.

Preston was featured in the 2016 KrebsOnSecurity story DDoS Mitigation Firm Has History of Hijacks, which detailed how the company he co-founded — BackConnect Security LLC — had developed the unusual habit of hijacking Internet address space it didn’t own in a bid to protect clients from attacks.

Preston’s guilty plea agreement (PDF) doesn’t specify who he admitted attacking, and refers to the target only as “Victim 1.” Preston declined to comment for this story.

But that 2016 story came on the heels of an exclusive about the hacking of vDOS — at the time the world’s most popular and powerful DDoS-for-hire service.

KrebsOnSecurity exposed the co-administrators of vDOS and obtained a copy of the entire vDOS database, including its registered users and a record of the attacks those users had paid vDOS to launch on their behalf.

Those records showed that several email addresses tied to a domain registered by then 19-year-old Preston had been used to create a vDOS account that was active in attacking a large number of targets, including multiple assaults on networks belonging to the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

The 2016 story on BackConnect featured an interview with a former system administrator at FSF who said the nonprofit briefly considered working with BackConnect, and that the attacks started almost immediately after FSF told the company’s owners they would need to look elsewhere for DDoS protection.

Perhaps having fun at the expense of the FSF was something of a meme that the accused and his associates seized upon, but it’s interesting to note that the name of the FSF’s founder — Richard Stallmanwas used as a nickname by the co-author of Mirai, a potent malware strain that was created for the purposes of enslaving Internet of Things (IoT) devices for large-scale DDoS attacks.

Ultimately, it was the Mirai co-author’s use of this nickname that contributed to him getting caught, arrested, and prosecuted for releasing Mirai and its source code (as well as for facilitating a record-setting DDoS against this Web site in 2016).

According to a statement from the U.S. Justice Department, the count to which he pleaded guilty is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. He is slated to be sentenced on May 7.

Patch Tuesday, January 2020 Edition

Microsoft today released updates to plug 50 security holes in various flavors of Windows and related software. The patch batch includes a fix for a flaw in Windows 10 and server equivalents of this operating system that prompted an unprecedented public warning from the U.S. National Security Agency. This month also marks the end of mainstream support for Windows 7, a still broadly-used operating system that will no longer be supplied with security updates.

As first reported Monday by KrebsOnSecurity, Microsoft addressed a severe bug (CVE-2020-0601) in Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016/19 reported by the NSA that allows an attacker to spoof the digital signature tied to a specific piece of software. Such a weakness could be abused by attackers to make malware appear to be a benign program that was produced and signed by a legitimate software company.

An advisory (PDF) released today by the NSA says the flaw may have far more wide-ranging security implications, noting that the “exploitation of the vulnerability allows attackers to defeat trusted network connections and deliver executable code while appearing as legitimately trusted entities.”

“NSA assesses the vulnerability to be severe and that sophisticated cyber actors will understand the underlying flaw very quickly and, if exploited, would render the previously mentioned platforms as fundamentally vulnerable,” the advisory continues. “The consequences of not patching the vulnerability are severe and widespread.”

Matthew Green, an associate professor in the computer science department at Johns Hopkins University, said the flaw involves an apparent implementation weakness in a component of recent Windows versions responsible for validating the legitimacy of authentication requests for a panoply of security functions in the operating system.

Green said attackers can use this weakness to impersonate everything from trusted Web sites to the source of software updates for Windows and other programs.

“Imagine if I wanted to pick the lock in your front door,” Green analogized. “It might be hard for me to come up with a key that will open your door, but what if I could tamper with or present both the key and the lock at the same time?”

Kenneth White, security principal at the software company MongoDB, equated the vulnerability to a phone call that gets routed to a party you didn’t intend to reach.

“You pick up the phone, dial a number and assume you’re talking to your bank or Microsoft or whomever, but the part of the software that confirms who you’re talking to is flawed,” White said. “That’s pretty bad, especially when your system is saying download this piece of software or patch automatically and it’s being done in the background.”

Both Green and White said it likely will be a matter of hours or days before security researchers and/or bad guys work out ways to exploit this bug, given the stakes involved. Indeed, already this evening KrebsOnSecurity has seen indications that people are teasing out such methods, which will likely be posted publicly online soon.

According to security vendor Qualys, only eight of the 50 flaws fixed in today’s patch roundup from Microsoft earned the company’s most dire “critical” rating, a designation reserved for bugs that can be exploited remotely by malware or miscreants to seize complete control over the target computer without any help from users.

Once again, some of those critical flaws include security weaknesses in the way Windows implements Remote Desktop connections, a feature that allows systems to be accessed, viewed and controlled as if the user was seated directly in front of the remote computer. Other critical patches include updates for the Web browsers and Web scripting engines built into Windows, as well as fixes for ASP.NET and the .NET Framework.

The security fix for the CVE-2020-0601 bug and others detailed in this post will be offered to Windows users as part of a bundle of patches released today by Microsoft. To see whether any updates are available for your Windows computer, go to the Start menu and type “Windows Update,” then let the system scan for any available patches.

Keep in mind that while staying up-to-date on Windows patches is a must, it’s important to make sure you’re updating only after you’ve backed up your important data and files. A reliable backup means you’re not losing your mind when the odd buggy patch causes problems booting the system. So do yourself a favor and backup your files before installing any patches. Windows 10 even has some built-in tools to help you do that, either on a per-file/folder basis or by making a complete and bootable copy of your hard drive all at once.

Today also marks the last month in which Microsoft will ship security updates for Windows 7 home/personal users. I count myself among some 30 percent of Windows users who still like and (ab)use this operating system in one form or another, and am sad that this day has come to pass. But if you rely on this OS for day-to-day use, it’s probably time to think about upgrading to something newer.

That might be a computer with Windows 10. Or maybe you have always wanted that shiny MacOS computer. If cost is a primary motivator and the user you have in mind doesn’t do much with the system other than browsing the Web, perhaps a Chromebook or an older machine with a recent version of Linux is the answer. Whichever system you choose, it’s important to pick one that fits the owner’s needs and provides security updates on an ongoing basis.

As always, if you experience glitches or problems installing any of these patches this month, please consider leaving a comment about it below; there’s a better-than-even chance other readers have experienced the same and may chime in here with some helpful tips.

Phishing for Apples, Bobbing for Links

Anyone searching for a primer on how to spot clever phishing links need look no further than those targeting customers of Apple, whose brand by many measures remains among the most-targeted. Past stories here have examined how scammers working with organized gangs try to phish iCloud credentials from Apple customers who have a mobile device that is lost or stolen. Today’s piece looks at the well-crafted links used in some of these lures.

KrebsOnSecurity heard from a reader in South Africa who recently received a text message stating his lost iPhone X had been found. The message addressed him by name and said he could view the location of his wayward device by visiting the link https://maps-icloud[.]com — which is most definitely not a legitimate Apple or iCloud link and is one of countless spoofing Apple’s “Find My” service for locating lost Apple devices.

While maps-icloud[.]com is not a particularly convincing phishing domain, a review of the Russian server where that domain is hosted reveals a slew of far more persuasive links spoofing Apple’s brand. Almost all of these include encryption certificates (start with “https://) and begin with the subdomains “apple.” or “icloud.” followed by a domain name starting with “com-“.

Here are just a few examples (the phishing links in this post have been hobbled with brackets to keep them from being clickable):

apple.com-support[.]id
apple.com-findlocation[.]id
apple.com-sign[.]in
apple.com-isupport[.]in
icloud.com-site-log[.]in

Savvy readers here no doubt already know this, but to find the true domain referenced in a link, look to the right of “http(s)://” until you encounter the first forward slash (/). The domain directly to the left of that first slash is the true destination; anything that precedes the second dot to the left of that first slash is a subdomain and should be ignored for the purposes of determining the true domain name.

For instance, in the case of the imaginary link below, example.com is the true destination, not apple.com:

https://www.apple.com.example.com/findmyphone/

Of course, any domain can be used as a redirect to any other domain. Case in point: Targets of the phishing domains above who are undecided on whether the link refers to a legitimate Apple site might seek to load the base domain into a Web browser (minus the customization in the remainder of the link after the first forward slash). To assuage such concerns, the phishers in this case will forward anyone visiting those base domains to Apple’s legitimate iCloud login page (icloud.com).

The best advice to sidestep phishing scams is to avoid clicking on links that arrive unbidden in emails, text messages and other mediums. Most phishing scams invoke a temporal element that warns of dire consequences should you fail to respond or act quickly. If you’re unsure whether the message is legitimate, take a deep breath and visit the site or service in question manually — ideally, using a browser bookmark so as to avoid potential typosquatting sites.

Cryptic Rumblings Ahead of First 2020 Patch Tuesday

Sources tell KrebsOnSecurity that Microsoft Corp. is slated to release a software update on Tuesday to fix an extraordinarily serious security vulnerability in a core cryptographic component present in all versions of Windows. Those sources say Microsoft has quietly shipped a patch for the bug to branches of the U.S. military and to other high-value customers/targets that manage key Internet infrastructure, and that those organizations have been asked to sign agreements preventing them from disclosing details of the flaw prior to Jan. 14, the first Patch Tuesday of 2020.

According to sources, the vulnerability in question resides in a Windows component known as crypt32.dll, a Windows module that Microsoft says handles “certificate and cryptographic messaging functions in the CryptoAPI.” The Microsoft CryptoAPI provides services that enable developers to secure Windows-based applications using cryptography, and includes functionality for encrypting and decrypting data using digital certificates.

A critical vulnerability in this Windows component could have wide-ranging security implications for a number of important Windows functions, including authentication on Windows desktops and servers, the protection of sensitive data handled by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer/Edge browsers, as well as a number of third-party applications and tools.

Equally concerning, a flaw in crypt32.dll might also be abused to spoof the digital signature tied to a specific piece of software. Such a weakness could be exploited by attackers to make malware appear to be a benign program that was produced and signed by a legitimate software company.

This component was introduced into Windows more than 20 years ago — back in Windows NT 4.0. Consequently, all versions of Windows are likely affected (including Windows XP, which is no longer being supported with patches from Microsoft).

Microsoft has not yet responded to requests for comment. However, KrebsOnSecurity has heard rumblings from several sources over the past 48 hours that this Patch Tuesday (tomorrow) will include a doozy of an update that will need to be addressed immediately by all organizations running Windows.

Update 7:49 p.m. ET: Microsoft responded, saying that it does not discuss the details of reported vulnerabilities before an update is available. The company also said it does “not release production-ready updates ahead of regular Update Tuesday schedule. “Through our Security Update Validation Program (SUVP), we release advance versions of our updates for the purpose of validation and interoperability testing in lab environments,” Microsoft said in a written statement. “Participants in this program are contractually disallowed from applying the fix to any system outside of this purpose and may not apply it to production infrastructure.”

Original story:

Will Dormann, a security researcher who authors many of the vulnerability reports for the CERT Coordination Center (CERT-CC), tweeted today that “people should perhaps pay very close attention to installing tomorrow’s Microsoft Patch Tuesday updates in a timely manner. Even more so than others. I don’t know…just call it a hunch?” Dormann declined to elaborate on that teaser.

It could be that the timing and topic here (cryptography) is nothing more than a coincidence, but KrebsOnSecurity today received a heads up from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) stating that NSA’s Director of Cybersecurity Anne Neuberger is slated to host a call on Jan. 14 with the news media that “will provide advanced notification of a current NSA cybersecurity issue.”

The NSA’s public affairs folks did not respond to requests for more information on the nature or purpose of the discussion. The invitation from the agency said only that the call “reflects NSA’s efforts to enhance dialogue with industry partners regarding its work in the cybersecurity domain.”

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s coverage of Patch Tuesday and possibly more information on this particular vulnerability.

Update, Jan. 14, 9:20 a.m. ET: The NSA’s Neuberger said in a media call this morning that the agency did indeed report this vulnerability to Microsoft, and that this was the first time Microsoft will have credited NSA for reporting a security flaw. Neuberger said NSA researchers discovered the bug in their own research, and that Microsoft’s advisory later today will state that Microsoft has seen no active exploitation of it yet.

According to the NSA, the problem exists in Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016. Asked why the NSA was focusing on this particular vulnerability, Neuberger said the concern was that it “makes trust vulnerable.” The agency declined to say when it discovered the flaw, and that it would wait until Microsoft releases a patch for it later today before discussing further details of the vulnerability.

Alleged Member of Neo-Nazi Swatting Group Charged

Federal investigators on Friday arrested a Virginia man accused of being part of a neo-Nazi group that targeted hundreds of people in “swatting” attacks, wherein fake bomb threats, hostage situations and other violent scenarios were phoned in to police as part of a scheme to trick them into visiting potentially deadly force on a target’s address.

In July 2018, KrebsOnSecurity published the story Neo-Nazi Swatters Target Dozens of Journalists, which detailed the activities of a loose-knit group of individuals who had targeted hundreds of individuals for swatting attacks, including federal judges, corporate executives and almost three-dozen journalists (myself included).

A portion of the Doxbin, as it existed in late 2019.

An FBI affidavit unsealed this week identifies one member of the group as John William Kirby Kelley. According to the affidavit, Kelley was instrumental in setting up and maintaining the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel called “Deadnet” that was used by he and other co-conspirators to plan, carry out and document their swatting attacks.

Prior to his recent expulsion on drug charges, Kelley was a student studying cybersecurity at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. Interestingly, investigators allege it was Kelley’s decision to swat his own school in late November 2018 that got him caught. Using the handle “Carl,” Kelley allegedly explained to fellow Deadnet members he hoped the swatting would get him out of having to go to class.

The FBI says Kelley used virtual private networking (VPN) services to hide his true Internet location and various voice-over-IP (VoIP) services to conduct the swatting calls. In the ODU incident, investigators say Kelley told ODU police that someone was armed with an AR-15 rifle and had placed multiple pipe bombs within the campus buildings.

Later that day, Kelley allegedly called ODU police again but forgot to obscure his real phone number on campus, and quickly apologized for making an accidental phone call. When authorities determined that the voice on the second call matched that from the bomb threat earlier in the day, they visited and interviewed the young man.

Investigators say Kelley admitted to participating in swatting calls previously, and consented to a search of his dorm room, wherein they found two phones, a laptop and various electronic storage devices.

The affidavit says one of the thumbs drive included multiple documents that logged statements made on the Deadnet IRC channel, which chronicled “countless examples of swatting activity over an extended period of time.” Those included videos Kelley allegedly recorded of his computer screen which showed live news footage of police responding to swatting attacks while he and other Deadnet members discussed the incidents in real-time on their IRC forum.

The FBI believes Kelley also was linked to a bomb threat incident in November 2018 at the predominantly African American Alfred Baptist Church in Old Town Alexandria, an incident that led to the church being evacuated during evening worship services while authorities swept the building for explosives.

The FBI affidavit was based in part on interviews with an unnamed co-conspirator, who told investigators that he and the others on Deadnet IRC are white supremacists and sympathetic to the neo-Nazi movement.

“The group’s neo-Nazi ideology is apparent in the racial tones throughout the conversation logs,” the affidavit reads. “Kelley and other co-conspirators are affiliated with or have expressed sympathy for Atomwafen Division,” an extremist group whose members are suspected of having committed multiple murders in the U.S. since 2017.

Investigators say on one of Kelley’s phones they found a photo of he and others in tactical gear holding automatic weapons next to pictures of Atomwaffen recruitment material and the neo-Nazi publication Siege.

As I reported last summer, several Deadnet members maintained a site on the Dark Web called the “Doxbin,” which listed the names, addresses, phone number and often known IP addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other sensitive information on hundreds of people — and in some cases the personal information of the target’s friends and family. After those indexed on the Doxbin were successfully swatted, a blue gun icon would be added next to the person’s name.

One of the core members of the group on Deadnet — an individual who used the nickname “Chanz,” among others — stated that he was responsible for maintaining SiegeCulture, a white supremacist Web site that glorifies the writings of neo-Nazi James Mason (whose various books call on followers to start a violent race war in the United States).

Deadnet chat logs obtained by KrebsOnSecurity show that another key swatting suspect on Deadnet who used the handle “Zheme” told other IRC members in March 2019 that one of his friends had recently been raided by federal investigators for allegedly having connections to the person responsible for the mass shooting in October 2018 at the Tree of Life Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh.

At one point last year, Zheme also reminded denizens of Deadnet about a court hearing in the murder trial of Sam Woodward, an alleged Atomwaffen member who’s been charged with killing a 19-year-old gay Jewish college student.

As reported by this author last year, Deadnet members targeted dozens of journalists whose writings they considered threatening to their worldviews. Indeed, one of the targets successfully swatted by Deadnet members was Pulitzer prize winning columnist Leonard G. Pitts Jr., whose personal information as listed on the Doxbin was annotated with a blue gun icon and the label “anti-white race/politics writer.”

In another Deadnet chat log seen by this author, Chanz admits to calling in a bomb threat at the UCLA campus following a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos. Chanz bragged that he did it to frame feminists at the school for acts of terrorism.

On a personal note, I sincerely hope this arrest is just the first of many to come for those involved in swatting attacks related to Deadnet and the Doxbin. KrebsOnSecurity has obtained information indicating that several members of my family also have been targeted for harassment and swatting by this group.

Finally, it’s important to note that while many people may assume that murders and mass shootings targeting people because of their race, gender, sexual preference or religion are carried out by so-called “lone wolf” assailants, the swatting videos created and shared by Deadnet members are essentially propaganda that hate groups can use to recruit new members to their cause.

The Washington Post reports that Kelley had his first appearance in federal court in Alexandria, Va. on Friday.

“His public defender did not comment on the allegations but said his client has ‘very limited funds,’” The Post’s courts reporter Rachel Weiner wrote.

The charge against Kelley of conspiracy to make threats carries up to five years in prison. The affidavit in Kelley’s arrest is available here (PDF).

Lawmakers Prod FCC to Act on SIM Swapping

Crooks have stolen tens of millions of dollars and other valuable commodities from thousands of consumers via “SIM swapping,” a particularly invasive form of fraud that involves tricking a target’s mobile carrier into transferring someone’s wireless service to a device they control. But the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the entity responsible for overseeing wireless industry practices, has so far remained largely silent on the matter. Now, a cadre of lawmakers is demanding to know what, if anything, the agency might be doing to track and combat SIM swapping.

On Thursday, a half-dozen Democrats in the House and Senate sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, asking the agency to require the carriers to offer more protections for consumers against unauthorized SIM swaps.

“Consumers have no choice but to rely on phone companies to protect them against SIM swaps — and they need to be able to count on the FCC to hold mobile carriers accountable when they fail to secure their systems and thus harm consumers,” reads the letter, signed by Sens. Ron Wyden (OR), Sherrod Brown (OH) and Edward Markey (MA), and Reps. Ted Lieu (CA), Anna Eshoo (CA) and Yvette Clarke (NY).

SIM swapping is an insidious form of mobile phone fraud that is often used to steal large amounts of cryptocurrencies and other items of value from victims. All too frequently, the scam involves bribing or tricking employees at mobile phone stores into seizing control of the target’s phone number and diverting all texts and phone calls to the attacker’s mobile device.

Once in control of the stolen phone number, the attacker can then reset the password for any online account that allows password resets and/or two-factor verification requests via text messages or automated phone calls (i.e. most online services, including many of the mobile carrier Web sites).

From there, the scammers can pivot in a variety of directions, including: Plundering the victim’s financial accounts; hacking their identities on social media platforms;  viewing the victim’s email and call history; and abusing that access to harass and scam their friends and family.

The lawmakers asked the FCC to divulge whether it tracks consumer complaints about fraudulent SIM swapping and number “port-outs,” which involve moving the victim’s phone number to another carrier. The legislators demanded to know whether the commission offers any guidance for consumers or carriers on this important issue, and if the FCC has initiated any investigations or taken enforcement actions against carriers that failed to secure customer accounts.

The letter also requires the FCC to respond as to whether there is anything in federal regulations that prevents mobile carriers from sharing with banks information about the most recent SIM swap date of a customer as a way to flag potentially suspicious login attempts — a method already used by financial institutions in other countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom and several nations in Africa.

“Some carriers, both in the U.S. and abroad, have adopted policies that better protect consumers from SIM swaps, such as allowing customers to add optional security protections to their account that prevent SIM swaps unless the customer visits a store and shows ID,” the letter continues. “Unfortunately, implementation of these additional security measures by wireless carriers in the U.S. is still spotty and consumers are not likely to find out about the availability of these obscure, optional security features until it is too late.”

The FCC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

SIM SWAP (CRIM)INNOVATIONS

Legitimate SIM swaps are a common request for all carriers, and they usually happen when a customer has lost their mobile phone or when they need to upgrade to a newer model that requires a different-sized SIM card (the small, removable smart chip that ties the customer’s device to their phone number).

But unauthorized SIM swaps enable even low-skilled thieves to quickly turn a victim’s life upside down and wrest control over a great deal of their online identities and finances. What’s more, the security options available to wireless customers concerned about SIM swapping — such as personal identification number (PIN) codes — are largely ineffective against crooked or clueless mobile phone store employees.

A successful SIM swap may allow tormentors to access a victim’s email inbox even after the target has changed his or her password. For example, some email services allow customers to reset their passwords just by providing a piece of information that would likely only be known to the legitimate account holder, such as the month and year the account was created, or the name of a custom folder or label in the account previously created by the user.

One technique used by SIM swappers to regain access to hacked inboxes is to jot down this information once a SIM swap affords them the ability to reset the account’s password. Alternatively, SIM swappers have been known to create their own folders or labels in the hacked account to facilitate backdoor access later on.

A number of young men have recently been criminally charged with using SIM swapping to steal accounts and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin from victims. This week, a court in New York unsealed a grand jury indictment against 22-year-old alleged serial SIM swapper Nicholas Truglia, who stands accused of using the technique to siphon $24 million worth of cryptocurrencies from blockchain investor Michael Terpin.

But experts say the few arrests that have been made in conjunction with SIM swapping attacks have pushed many involved in this crime to enlist help from co-conspirators who are minors and thus largely outside the reach of federal prosecutors.

For his part, Terpin sent an open letter to FCC commissioners in October 2019, urging them to mandate that wireless carriers provide a way for customers to truly lock down their accounts against SIM swapping, even if that means requiring an in-person visit to a store or conversation with the carrier’s fraud department.

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Terpin said the FCC has so far abdicated its responsibility over the carriers on this matter.

“It took them a long time to get around to taking robocalls seriously, but those scams rarely cost people millions of dollars,” Terpin said. “Imagine going into a bank and you don’t remember your PIN and the teller says, ‘Oh, that’s okay I can look it up for you.’ The fact that a $9-an-hour mobile store employee can see your high security password or PIN is shocking.”

“The carriers should also have to inform every single current and future customer that there is this high security option available,” Terpin continued. “That would stop a lot of this fraud and would take away the ability of these ne’er-do-well 19-year-old store employees who get bribed into helping out with the scam.”

Want to read more about SIM swapping? Check out Busting SIM Swappers and SIM Swap Myths, or view the entire catalog of stories on the topic here.

Tricky Phish Angles for Persistence, Not Passwords

Late last year saw the re-emergence of a nasty phishing tactic that allows the attacker to gain full access to a user’s data stored in the cloud without actually stealing the account password. The phishing lure starts with a link that leads to the real login page for a cloud email and/or file storage service. Anyone who takes the bait will inadvertently forward a digital token to the attackers that gives them indefinite access to the victim’s email, files and contacts — even after the victim has changed their password.

Before delving into the details, it’s important to note two things. First, while the most recent versions of this stealthy phish targeted corporate users of Microsoft’s Office 365 service, the same approach could be leveraged to ensnare users of many other cloud providers. Second, this attack is not exactly new: In 2017, for instance, phishers used a similar technique to plunder accounts at Google’s Gmail service.

Still, this phishing tactic is worth highlighting because recent examples of it received relatively little press coverage. Also, the resulting compromise is quite persistent and sidesteps two-factor authentication, and it seems likely we will see this approach exploited more frequently in the future.

In early December, security experts at PhishLabs detailed a sophisticated phishing scheme targeting Office 365 users that used a malicious link which took people who clicked to an official Office 365 login page — login.microsoftonline.com. Anyone suspicious about the link would have seen nothing immediately amiss in their browser’s address bar, and could quite easily verify that the link indeed took them to Microsoft’s real login page:

This phishing link asks users to log in at Microsoft’s real Office 365 portal (login.microsoftonline.com).

Only by copying and pasting the link or by scrolling far to the right in the URL bar can we detect that something isn’t quite right:

Notice this section of the URL (obscured off-page and visible only by scrolling to the right quite a bit) attempts to grant a malicious app hosted at officesuited.com full access to read the victim’s email and files stored at Microsoft’s Office 365 service.

As we can see from the URL in the image directly above, the link tells Microsoft to forward the authorization token produced by a successful login to the domain officesuited[.]com. From there, the user will be presented with a prompt that says an app is requesting permissions to read your email, contacts, OneNote notebooks, access your files, read/write to your mailbox settings, sign you in, read your profile, and maintain access to that data.

Image: PhishLabs

According to PhishLabs, the app that generates this request was created using information apparently stolen from a legitimate organization. The domain hosting the malicious app pictured above — officemtr[.]com — is different from the one I saw in late December, but it was hosted at the same Internet address as officesuited[.]com and likely signed using the same legitimate company’s credentials.

PhishLabs says the attackers are exploiting a feature of Outlook known as “add-ins,” which are applications built by third-party developers that can be installed either from a file or URL from the Office store.

“By default, any user can apply add-ins to their outlook application,” wrote PhishLabs’ Michael Tyler. “Additionally, Microsoft allows Office 365 add-ins and apps to be installed via side loading without going through the Office Store, and thereby avoiding any review process.”

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Tyler said he views this attack method more like malware than traditional phishing, which tries to trick someone into giving their password to the scammers.

“The difference here is instead of handing off credentials to someone, they are allowing an outside application to start interacting with their Office 365 environment directly,” he said.

Many readers at this point may be thinking that they would hesitate before approving such powerful permissions as those requested by this malicious application. But Tyler said this assumes the user somehow understands that there is a malicious third-party involved in the transaction.

“We can look at the reason phishing is still around, and it’s because people are making decisions they shouldn’t be making or shouldn’t be able to make,” he said. “Even employees who are trained on security are trained to make sure it’s a legitimate site before entering their credentials. Well, in this attack the site is legitimate, and at that point their guard is down. I look at this and think, would I be more likely to type my password into a box or more likely to click a button that says ‘okay’?”

The scary part about this attack is that once a user grants the malicious app permissions to read their files and emails, the attackers can maintain access to the account even after the user changes his password. What’s more, Tyler said the malicious app they tested was not visible as an add-in at the individual user level; only system administrators responsible for managing user accounts could see that the app had been approved.

Furthermore, even if an organization requires multi-factor authentication at sign-in, recall that this phish’s login process takes place on Microsoft’s own Web site. That means having two-factor enabled for an account would do nothing to prevent a malicious app that has already been approved by the user from accessing their emails or files.

Once given permission to access the user’s email and files, the app will retain that access until one of two things happen: Microsoft discovers and disables the malicious app, or an administrator on the victim user’s domain removes the program from the user’s account.

Expecting swift action from Microsoft might not be ideal: From my testing, Microsoft appears to have disabled the malicious app being served from officesuited[.]com sometime around Dec. 19 — roughly one week after it went live.

In a statement provided to KrebsOnSecurity, Microsoft Senior Director Jeff Jones said the company continues to monitor for potential new variations of this malicious activity and will take action to disable applications as they are identified.

“The technique described relies on a sophisticated phishing campaign that invites users to permit a malicious Azure Active Directory Application,” Jones said. “We’ve notified impacted customers and worked with them to help remediate their environments.”

Microsoft’s instructions for detecting and removing illicit consent grants in Office 365 are here. Microsoft says administrators can enable a setting that blocks users from installing third-party apps into Office 365, but it calls this a “drastic step” that “isn’t strongly recommended as it severely impairs your users’ ability to be productive with third-party applications.”

PhishLabs’ Tyler said he disagrees with Microsoft here, and encourages Office 365 administrators to block users from installing apps altogether — or at the very least restrict them to apps from the official Microsoft store.

Apart from that, he said, it’s important for Office 365 administrators to periodically look for suspicious apps installed on their Office 365 environment.

“If an organization were to fall prey to this, your traditional methods of eradicating things involve activating two-factor authentication, clearing the user’s sessions, and so on, but that won’t do anything here,” he said. “It’s important that response teams know about this tactic so they can look for problems. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, at least make sure you have security logging turned on so it’s generating an alert when people are introducing new software into your infrastructure.”

The Hidden Cost of Ransomware: Wholesale Password Theft

Organizations in the throes of cleaning up after a ransomware outbreak typically will change passwords for all user accounts that have access to any email systems, servers and desktop workstations within their network. But all too often, ransomware victims fail to grasp that the crooks behind these attacks can and frequently do siphon every single password stored on each infected endpoint. The result of this oversight may offer attackers a way back into the affected organization, access to financial and healthcare accounts, or — worse yet — key tools for attacking the victim’s various business partners and clients.

In mid-November 2019, Wisconsin-based Virtual Care Provider Inc. (VCPI) was hit by the Ryuk ransomware strain. VCPI manages the IT systems for some 110 clients that serve approximately 2,400 nursing homes in 45 U.S. states. VCPI declined to pay the multi-million dollar ransom demanded by their extortionists, and the attack cut off many of those elder care facilities from their patient records, email and telephone service for days or weeks while VCPI rebuilt its network.

Just hours after that story was published, VCPI chief executive and owner Karen Christianson reached out to say she hoped I would write a follow-up piece about how they recovered from the incident. My reply was that I’d consider doing so if there was something in their experience that I thought others could learn from their handling of the incident.

I had no inkling at the time of how much I would learn in the days ahead.

EERIE EMAILS

On December 3, I contacted Christianson to schedule a follow-up interview for the next day. On the morning of Dec. 4 (less than two hours before my scheduled call with VCPI and more than two weeks after the start of their ransomware attack) I heard via email from someone claiming to be part of the criminal group that launched the Ryuk ransomware inside VCPI.

That email was unsettling because its timing suggested that whoever sent it somehow knew I was going to speak with VCPI later that day. This person said they wanted me to reiterate a message they’d just sent to the owner of VCPI stating that their offer of a greatly reduced price for a digital key needed to unlock servers and workstations seized by the malware would expire soon if the company continued to ignore them.

“Maybe you chat to them lets see if that works,” the email suggested.

The anonymous individual behind that communication declined to provide proof that they were part of the group that held VPCI’s network for ransom, and after an increasingly combative and personally threatening exchange of messages soon stopped responding to requests for more information.

“We were bitten with releasing evidence before hence we have stopped this even in our ransoms,” the anonymous person wrote. “If you want proof we have hacked T-Systems as well. You may confirm this with them. We havent [sic] seen any Media articles on this and as such you should be the first to report it, we are sure they are just keeping it under wraps.” Security news site Bleeping Computer reported on the T-Systems Ryuk ransomware attack on Dec. 3.

In our Dec. 4 interview, VCPI’s acting chief information security officer — Mark Schafer, CISO at Wisconsin-based SVA Consulting — confirmed that the company received a nearly identical message that same morning, and that the wording seemed “very similar” to the original extortion demand the company received.

However, Schafer assured me that VCPI had indeed rebuilt its email network following the intrusion and strictly used a third-party service to discuss remediation efforts and other sensitive topics.

‘LIKE A COMPANY BATTLING A COUNTRY’

Christianson said several factors stopped the painful Ryuk ransomware attack from morphing into a company-ending event. For starters, she said, an employee spotted suspicious activity on their network in the early morning hours of Saturday, Nov. 16. She said that employee then immediately alerted higher-ups within VCPI, who ordered a complete and immediate shutdown of the entire network.

“The bottom line is at 2 a.m. on a Saturday, it was still a human being who saw a bunch of lights and had enough presence of mind to say someone else might want to take a look at this,” she said. “The other guy he called said he didn’t like it either and called the [chief information officer] at 2:30 a.m., who picked up his cell phone and said shut it off from the Internet.”

Schafer said another mitigating factor was that VCPI had contracted with a third-party roughly six months prior to the attack to establish off-site data backups that were not directly connected to the company’s infrastructure.

“The authentication for that was entirely separate, so the lateral movement [of the intruders] didn’t allow them to touch that,” Schafer said.

Schafer said the move to third-party data backups coincided with a comprehensive internal review that identified multiple areas where VCPI could harden its security, but that the attack hit before the company could complete work on some of those action items.

“We did a risk assessment which was pretty much spot-on, we just needed more time to work on it before we got hit,” he said. “We were doing the right things, just not fast enough. If we’d had more time to prepare, it would have gone better. I feel like we were a company battling a country. It’s not a fair fight, and once you’re targeted it’s pretty tough to defend.”

WHOLESALE PASSWORD THEFT

Just after receiving a tip from a reader about the ongoing Ryuk infestation at VCPI, KrebsOnSecurity contacted Milwaukee-based Hold Security to see if its owner Alex Holden had any more information about the attack. Holden and his team had previously intercepted online traffic between and among multiple ransomware gangs and their victims, and I was curious to know if that held true in the VCPI attack as well.

Sure enough, Holden quickly sent over several logs of data suggesting the attackers had breached VCPI’s network on multiple occasions over the previous 14 months.

“While it is clear that the initial breach occurred 14 months ago, the escalation of the compromise didn’t start until around November 15th of this year,” Holden said at the time. “When we looked at this in retrospect, during these three days the cybercriminals slowly compromised the entire network, disabling antivirus, running customized scripts, and deploying ransomware. They didn’t even succeed at first, but they kept trying.”

Holden said it appears the intruders laid the groundwork for the VPCI using Emotet, a powerful malware tool typically disseminated via spam.

“Emotet continues to be among the most costly and destructive malware,” reads a July 2018 alert on the malware from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Its worm-like features result in rapidly spreading network-wide infection, which are difficult to combat.”

According to Holden, after using Emotet to prime VCPI’s servers and endpoints for the ransomware attack, the intruders deployed a module of Emotet called Trickbot, which is a banking trojan often used to download other malware and harvest passwords from infected systems.

Indeed, Holden shared records of communications from VCPI’s tormentors suggesting they’d unleashed Trickbot to steal passwords from infected VCPI endpoints that the company used to log in at more than 300 Web sites and services, including:

-Identity and password management platforms Auth0 and LastPass
-Multiple personal and business banking portals;
-Microsoft Office365 accounts
-Direct deposit and Medicaid billing portals
-Cloud-based health insurance management portals
-Numerous online payment processing services
-Cloud-based payroll management services
-Prescription management services
-Commercial phone, Internet and power services
-Medical supply services
-State and local government competitive bidding portals
-Online content distribution networks
-Shipping and postage accounts
-Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter accounts

Toward the end of my follow-up interview with Schafer and VCPI’s Christianson, I shared Holden’s list of sites for which the attackers had apparently stolen internal company credentials. At that point, Christianson abruptly ended the interview and got off the line, saying she had personal matters to attend to. Schafer thanked me for sharing the list, noting that it looked like VCPI probably now had a “few more notifications to do.”

Moral of the story: Companies that experience a ransomware attack — or for that matter any type of equally invasive malware infestation — should assume that all credentials stored anywhere on the local network (including those saved inside Web browsers and password managers) are compromised and need to be changed.

Out of an abundance of caution, this process should be done from a pristine (preferably non-Windows-based) system that does not reside within the network compromised by the attackers. In addition, full use should be made of the strongest method available for securing these passwords with multi-factor authentication.

Happy 10th Birthday, KrebsOnSecurity.com

Today marks the 10th anniversary of KrebsOnSecurity.com! Over the past decade, the site has featured more than 1,800 stories focusing mainly on cybercrime, computer security and user privacy concerns. And what a decade it has been.

Stories here have exposed countless scams, data breaches, cybercrooks and corporate stumbles. In the ten years since its inception, the site has attracted more than 37,000 newsletter subscribers, and nearly 100 million pageviews generated by roughly 40 million unique visitors.

Some of those 40 million visitors left more than 100,000 comments. The community that has sprung up around KrebsOnSecurity has been truly humbling and a joy to watch, and I’m eternally grateful for all your contributions.

One housekeeping note: A good chunk of the loyal readers here are understandably security- and privacy-conscious, and many block advertisements by default — including the ads displayed here.

Just a reminder that KrebsOnSecurity does not run third-party ads and has no plans to change that; all of the creatives you see on this site are hosted in-house, are purely image-based, and are vetted first by Yours Truly. Love them or hate ’em, these ads help keep the content at KrebsOnSecurity free to any and all readers. If you’re currently blocking ads here, please consider making an exception for this site.

Last but certainly not least, thank you for your readership. I couldn’t have done this without your encouragement, wisdom, tips and support. Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy and wealthy 2020, and for another decade of stories to come.