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Hacked Data Broker Accounts Fueled Phony COVID Loans, Unemployment Claims

A group of thieves thought to be responsible for collecting millions in fraudulent small business loans and unemployment insurance benefits from COVID-19 economic relief efforts gathered personal data on people and businesses they were impersonating by leveraging several compromised accounts at a little-known U.S. consumer data broker, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

In June, KrebsOnSecurity was contacted by a cybersecurity researcher who discovered that a group of scammers was sharing highly detailed personal and financial records on Americans via a free web-based email service that allows anyone who knows an account’s username to view all email sent to that account — without the need of a password.

The source, who asked not to be identified in this story, said he’s been monitoring the group’s communications for several weeks and sharing the information with state and federal authorities in a bid to disrupt their fraudulent activity.

The source said the group appears to consist of several hundred individuals who collectively have stolen tens of millions of dollars from U.S. state and federal treasuries via phony loan applications with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and through fraudulent unemployment insurance claims made against several states.

KrebsOnSecurity reviewed dozens of emails the fraud group exchanged, and noticed that a great many consumer records they shared carried a notation indicating they were cut and pasted from the output of queries made at Interactive Data LLC, a Florida-based data analytics company.

Interactive Data, also known as IDIdata.com, markets access to a “massive data repository” on U.S. consumers to a range of clients, including law enforcement officials, debt recovery professionals, and anti-fraud and compliance personnel at a variety of organizations.

The consumer dossiers obtained from IDI and shared by the fraudsters include a staggering amount of sensitive data, including:

-full Social Security number and date of birth;
-current and all known previous physical addresses;
-all known current and past mobile and home phone numbers;
-the names of any relatives and known associates;
-all known associated email addresses
-IP addresses and dates tied to the consumer’s online activities;
-vehicle registration, and property ownership information
-available lines of credit and amounts, and dates they were opened
-bankruptcies, liens, judgments, foreclosures and business affiliations

Reached via phone, IDI Holdings CEO Derek Dubner acknowledged that a review of the consumer records sampled from the fraud group’s shared communications indicates “a handful” of authorized IDI customer accounts had been compromised.

“We identified a handful of legitimate businesses who are customers that may have experienced a breach,” Dubner said.

Dubner said all customers are required to use multi-factor authentication, and that everyone applying for access to its services undergoes a rigorous vetting process.

“We absolutely credential businesses and have several ways do that and exceed the gold standard, which is following some of the credit bureau guidelines,” he said. “We validate the identity of those applying [for access], check with the applicant’s state licensor and individual licenses.”

Citing an ongoing law enforcement investigation into the matter, Dubner declined to say if the company knew for how long the handful of customer accounts were compromised, or how many consumer records were looked up via those stolen accounts.

“We are communicating with law enforcement about it,” he said. “There isn’t much more I can share because we don’t want to impede the investigation.”

The source told KrebsOnSecurity he’s identified more than 2,000 people whose SSNs, DoBs and other data were used by the fraud gang to file for unemployment insurance benefits and SBA loans, and that a single payday can land the thieves $20,000 or more. In addition, he said, it seems clear that the fraudsters are recycling stolen identities to file phony unemployment insurance claims in multiple states.

ANALYSIS

Hacked or ill-gotten accounts at consumer data brokers have fueled ID theft and identity theft services of various sorts for years. In 2013, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that the U.S. Secret Service had arrested a 24-year-old man named Hieu Minh Ngo for running an identity theft service out of his home in Vietnam.

Ngo’s service, variously named superget[.]info and findget[.]me, gave customers access to personal and financial data on more than 200 million Americans. He gained that access by posing as a private investigator to a data broker subsidiary acquired by Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus in the United States.

Ngo’s ID theft service superget.info

Experian was hauled before Congress to account for the lapse, and assured lawmakers there was no evidence that consumers had been harmed by Ngo’s access. But as follow-up reporting showed, Ngo’s service was frequented by ID thieves who specialized in filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the Internal Revenue Service, and was relied upon heavily by an identity theft ring operating in the New York-New Jersey region.

Also in 2013, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that ssndob[.]ms, then a major identity theft service in the cybercrime underground, had infiltrated computers at some of America’s large consumer and business data aggregators, including LexisNexis Inc., Dun & Bradstreet, and Kroll Background America Inc.

The now defunct SSNDOB identity theft service.

In 2006, The Washington Post reported that a group of five men used stolen or illegally created accounts at LexisNexis subsidiaries to lookup SSNs and other personal information more than 310,000 individuals. And in 2004, it emerged that identity thieves masquerading as customers of data broker Choicepoint had stolen the personal and financial records of more than 145,000 Americans.

Those compromises were noteworthy because the consumer information warehoused by these data brokers can be used to find the answers to so-called knowledge-based authentication (KBA) questions used by companies seeking to validate the financial history of people applying for new lines of credit.

In that sense, thieves involved in ID theft may be better off targeting data brokers like IDI and their customers than the major credit bureaus, said Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and lecturer at UC Berkeley.

“This means you have access not only to the consumer’s SSN and other static information, but everything you need for knowledge-based authentication because these are the types of companies that are providing KBA data.”

The fraud group communications reviewed by this author suggest they are cashing out primarily through financial instruments like prepaid cards and a small number of online-only banks that allow consumers to establish accounts and move money just by providing a name and associated date of birth and SSN.

While most of these instruments place daily or monthly limits on the amount of money users can deposit into and withdraw from the accounts, some of the more popular instruments for ID thieves appear to be those that allow spending, sending or withdrawal of between $5,000 to $7,000 per transaction, with high limits on the overall number or dollar value of transactions allowed in a given time period.

KrebsOnSecurity is investigating the extent to which a small number of these financial instruments may be massively over-represented in the incidence of unemployment insurance benefit fraud at the state level, and in SBA loan fraud at the federal level. Anyone in the financial sector or state agencies with information about these apparent trends may confidentially contact this author at krebsonsecurity @ gmail dot com, or via the encrypted message service Wickr at “krebswickr“.

The looting of state unemployment insurance programs by identity thieves has been well documented of late, but far less public attention has centered on fraud targeting Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and advance grant programs run by the U.S. Small Business Administration in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Late last month, the SBA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a scathing report (PDF) saying it has been inundated with complaints from financial institutions reporting suspected fraudulent EIDL transactions, and that it has so far identified $250 million in loans given to “potentially ineligible recipients.” The OIG said many of the complaints were about credit inquiries for individuals who had never applied for an economic injury loan or grant.

The figures released by the SBA OIG suggest the financial impact of the fraud may be severely under-reported at the moment. For example, the OIG said nearly 3,800 of the 5,000 complaints it received came from just six financial institutions (out of several thousand across the United States). One credit union reportedly told the U.S. Justice Department that 59 out of 60 SBA deposits it received appeared to be fraudulent.

Porn Clip Disrupts Virtual Court Hearing for Alleged Twitter Hacker

Perhaps fittingly, a Web-streamed court hearing for the 17-year-old alleged mastermind of the July 15 mass hack against Twitter was cut short this morning after mischief makers injected a pornographic video clip into the proceeding.

17-year-old Graham Clark of Tampa, Fla. was among those charged in the July 15 Twitter hack. Image: Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

The incident occurred at a bond hearing held via the videoconferencing service Zoom by the Hillsborough County, Fla. criminal court in the case of Graham Clark. The 17-year-old from Tampa was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of social engineering his way into Twitter’s internal computer systems and tweeting out a bitcoin scam through the accounts of high-profile Twitter users.

Notice of the hearing was available via public records filed with the Florida state attorney’s office. The notice specified the Zoom meeting time and ID number, essentially allowing anyone to participate in the proceeding.

Even before the hearing officially began it was clear that the event would likely be “zoom bombed.” That’s because while participants were muted by default, they were free to unmute their microphones and transmit their own video streams to the channel.

Sure enough, less than a minute had passed before one attendee not party to the case interrupted a discussion between Clark’s attorney and the judge by streaming a live video of himself adjusting his face mask. Just a few minutes later, someone began interjecting loud music.

It became clear that presiding Judge Christopher C. Nash was personally in charge of administering the video hearing when, after roughly 15 seconds worth of random chatter interrupted the prosecution’s response, Nash told participants he was removing the troublemakers as quickly as he could.

Judge Nash, visibly annoyed immediately after one of the many disruptions to today’s hearing.

What transpired a minute later was almost inevitable given the permissive settings of this particular Zoom conference call: Someone streamed a graphic video clip from Pornhub for approximately 15 seconds before Judge Nash abruptly terminated the broadcast.

With the ongoing pestilence that is the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s state and federal courts have largely been forced to conduct proceedings remotely via videoconferencing services. While Zoom and others do offer settings that can prevent participants from injecting their own audio and video into the stream unless invited to do so, those settings evidently were not enabled in today’s meeting.

At issue before the court today was a defense motion to modify the amount of the defendant’s bond, which has been set at $750,000. The prosecution had argued that Clark should be required to show that any funds used toward securing that bond were gained lawfully, and were not merely the proceeds from his alleged participation in the Twitter bitcoin scam or some other form of cybercrime.

Florida State Attorney Andrew Warren’s reaction as a Pornhub clip began streaming to everyone in today’s Zoom proceeding.

Mr. Clark’s attorneys disagreed, and spent most of the uninterrupted time in today’s hearing explaining why their client could safely be released under a much smaller bond and close supervision restrictions.

On Sunday, The New York Times published an in-depth look into Clark’s wayward path from a small-time cheater and hustler in online games like Minecraft to big-boy schemes involving SIM swapping, a form of fraud that involves social engineering employees at mobile phone companies to gain control over a target’s phone number and any financial, email and social media accounts associated with that number.

According to The Times, Clark was suspected of being involved in a 2019 SIM swapping incident which led to the theft of 164 bitcoins from Gregg Bennett, a tech investor in the Seattle area. That theft would have been worth around $856,000 at the time; these days 164 bitcoins is worth approximately $1.8 million.

The Times said that soon after the theft, Bennett received an extortion note signed by Scrim, one of the hacker handles alleged to have been used by Clark. From that story:

“We just want the remainder of the funds in the Bittrex,” Scrim wrote, referring to the Bitcoin exchange from which the coins had been taken. “We are always one step ahead and this is your easiest option.”

In April, the Secret Service seized 100 Bitcoins from Mr. Clark, according to government forfeiture documents. A few weeks later, Mr. Bennett received a letter from the Secret Service saying they had recovered 100 of his Bitcoins, citing the same code that was assigned to the coins seized from Mr. Clark.

Florida prosecutor Darrell Dirks was in the middle of explaining to the judge that investigators are still in the process of discovering the extent of Clark’s alleged illegal hacking activities since the Secret Service returned the 100 bitcoin when the porn clip was injected into the Zoom conference.

Ultimately, Judge Nash decided to keep the bond amount as is, but to remove the condition that Clark prove the source of the funds.

Clark has been charged with 30 felony counts and is being tried as an adult. Federal prosecutors also have charged two other young men suspected of playing roles in the Twitter hack, including a 22-year-old from Orlando, Fla. and a 19-year-old from the United Kingdom.

Robocall Legal Advocate Leaks Customer Data

A California company that helps telemarketing firms avoid getting sued for violating a federal law that seeks to curb robocalls has leaked the phone numbers, email addresses and passwords of all its customers, as well as the mobile phone numbers and other data on people who have hired lawyers to go after telemarketers.

The Blacklist Alliance provides technologies and services to marketing firms concerned about lawsuits under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a 1991 law that restricts the making of telemarketing calls through the use of automatic telephone dialing systems and artificial or prerecorded voice messages. The TCPA prohibits contact with consumers — even via text messages — unless the company has “prior express consent” to contact the consumer.

With statutory damages of $500 to $1,500 per call, the TCPA has prompted a flood of lawsuits over the years. From the telemarketer’s perspective, the TCPA can present something of a legal minefield in certain situations, such as when a phone number belonging to someone who’d previously given consent gets reassigned to another subscriber.

Enter The Blacklist Alliance, which promises to help marketers avoid TCPA legal snares set by “professional plaintiffs and class action attorneys seeking to cash in on the TCPA.” According to the Blacklist, one of the “dirty tricks” used by TCPA “frequent filers” includes “phone flipping,” or registering multiple prepaid cell phone numbers to receive calls intended for the person to whom a number was previously registered.

Lawyers representing TCPA claimants typically redact their clients’ personal information from legal filings to protect them from retaliation and to keep their contact information private. The Blacklist Alliance researches TCPA cases to uncover the phone numbers of plaintiffs and sells this data in the form of list-scrubbing services to telemarketers.

“TCPA predators operate like malware,” The Blacklist explains on its website. “Our Litigation Firewall isolates the infection and protects you from harm. Scrub against active plaintiffs, pre litigation complainers, active attorneys, attorney associates, and more. Use our robust API to seamlessly scrub these high-risk numbers from your outbound campaigns and inbound calls, or adjust your suppression settings to fit your individual requirements and appetite for risk.”

Unfortunately for the Blacklist paying customers and for people represented by attorneys filing TCPA lawsuits, the Blacklist’s own Web site until late last week leaked reams of data to anyone with a Web browser. Thousands of documents, emails, spreadsheets, images and the names tied to countless mobile phone numbers all could be viewed or downloaded without authentication from the domain theblacklist.click.

The directory also included all 388 Blacklist customer API keys, as well as each customer’s phone number, employer, username and password (scrambled with the relatively weak MD5 password hashing algorithm).

The leaked Blacklist customer database points to various companies you might expect to see using automated calling systems to generate business, including real estate and life insurance providers, credit repair companies and a long list of online advertising firms and individual digital marketing specialists.

The very first account in the leaked Blacklist user database corresponds to its CEO Seth Heyman, an attorney in southern California. Mr. Heyman did not respond to multiple requests for comment, although The Blacklist stopped leaking its database not long after that contact request.

Two other accounts marked as administrators were among the third and sixth registered users in the database; those correspond to two individuals at Riip Digital, a California-based email marketing concern that serves a diverse range of clients in the lead generation business, from debt relief and timeshare companies, to real estate firms and CBD vendors.

Riip Digital did not respond to requests for comment. But According to Spamhaus, an anti-spam group relied upon by many Internet service providers (ISPs) to block unsolicited junk email, the company has a storied history of so-called “snowshoe spamming,” which involves junk email purveyors who try to avoid spam filters and blacklists by spreading their spam-sending systems across a broad swath of domains and Internet addresses.

The irony of this data leak is that marketers who constantly scrape the Web for consumer contact data may not realize the source of the information, and end up feeding it into automated systems that peddle dubious wares and services via automated phone calls and text messages. To the extent this data is used to generate sales leads that are then sold to others, such a leak could end up causing more legal problems for The Blacklist’s customers.

The Blacklist and their clients talk a lot about technologies that they say separate automated telephonic communications from dime-a-dozen robocalls, such as software that delivers recorded statements that are manually selected by a live agent. But for your average person, this is likely a distinction without a difference.

Robocalls are permitted for political candidates, but beyond that if the recording is a sales message and you haven’t given your written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), companies are using auto-dialers to send out thousands of phone calls every minute for an incredibly low cost.

In fiscal year 2019, the FTC received 3.78 million complaints about robocalls. Readers may be able to avoid some marketing calls by registering their mobile number with the Do Not Call registry, but the list appears to do little to deter all automated calls — particularly scam calls that spoof their real number. If and when you do receive robocalls, consider reporting them to the FTC.

Some wireless providers now offer additional services and features to help block automated calls. For example, AT&T offers wireless customers its free Call Protect app, which screens incoming calls and flags those that are likely spam calls. See the FCC’s robocall resource page for links to resources at your mobile provider. In addition, there are a number of third-party mobile apps designed to block spammy calls, such as Nomorobo and TrueCaller.

Obviously, not all telemarketing is spammy or scammy. I have friends and relatives who’ve worked at non-profits that rely a great deal on fundraising over the phone. Nevertheless, readers who are fed up with telemarketing calls may find some catharsis in the Jolly Roger Telephone Company, which offers subscribers a choice of automated bots that keep telemarketers engaged for several minutes. The service lets subscribers choose which callers should get the bot treatment, and then records the result.

For my part, the volume of automated calls hitting my mobile number got so bad that I recently enabled a setting on my smart phone to simply send to voicemail all calls from numbers that aren’t already in my contacts list. This may not be a solution for everyone, but since then I haven’t received a single spammy jingle.

Three Charged in July 15 Twitter Compromise

Three individuals have been charged for their alleged roles in the July 15 hack on Twitter, an incident that resulted in Twitter profiles for some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities, executives and public figures sending out tweets advertising a bitcoin scam.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Twitter account on the afternoon of July 15.

Nima “Rolex” Fazeli, a 22-year-old from Orlando, Fla., was charged in a criminal complaint in Northern California with aiding and abetting intentional access to a protected computer.

Mason “Chaewon” Sheppard, a 19-year-old from Bognor Regis, U.K., also was charged in California with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering and unauthorized access to a computer.

A U.S. Justice Department statement on the matter does not name the third defendant charged in the case, saying juvenile proceedings in federal court are sealed to protect the identity of the youth. But an NBC News affiliate in Tampa reported today that authorities had arrested 17-year-old Graham Clark as the alleged mastermind of the hack.

17-year-old Graham Clark of Tampa, Fla. was among those charged in the July 15 Twitter hack. Image: Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

Wfla.com said Clark was hit with 30 felony charges, including organized fraud, communications fraud, one count of fraudulent use of personal information with over $100,000 or 30 or more victims, 10 counts of fraudulent use of personal information and one count of access to a computer or electronic device without authority. Clark’s arrest report is available here (PDF).

On Thursday, Twitter released more details about how the hack went down, saying the intruders “targeted a small number of employees through a phone spear phishing attack,” that “relies on a significant and concerted attempt to mislead certain employees and exploit human vulnerabilities to gain access to our internal systems.”

By targeting specific Twitter employees, the perpetrators were able to gain access to internal Twitter tools. From there, Twitter said, the attackers targeted 130 Twitter accounts, tweeting from 45 of them, accessing the direct messages of 36 accounts, and downloading the Twitter data of seven.

Among the accounts compromised were democratic presidential candidate Joe BidenAmazon CEO Jeff BezosPresident Barack ObamaTesla CEO Elon Musk, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and investment mogul Warren Buffett.

The hacked Twitter accounts were made to send tweets suggesting they were giving away bitcoin, and that anyone who sent bitcoin to a specified account would be sent back double the amount they gave. All told, the bitcoin accounts associated with the scam received more than 400 transfers totaling more than $100,000.

Sheppard’s alleged alias Chaewon was mentioned twice in stories here since the July 15 incident. On July 16, KrebsOnSecurity wrote that just before the Twitter hack took place, a member of the social media account hacking forum OGUsers advertised they could change email address tied to any Twitter account for $250, and provide direct access to accounts for between $2,000 and $3,000 apiece.

The OGUsers forum user “Chaewon” taking requests to modify the email address tied to any twitter account.

On July 17, The New York Times ran a story that featured interviews with several people involved in the attack, who told The Times they weren’t responsible for the Twitter bitcoin scam and had only purchased accounts from the Twitter hacker — who they referred to only as “Kirk.”

One of the people interviewed by The Times used the alias “Ever So Anxious,” and said he was a 19-year from the U.K. In my follow-up story on July 22, it emerged that Ever So Anxious was in fact Chaewon.

The person who shared that information was the principal subject of my July 16 post, which followed clues from tweets sent from one of the accounts claimed during the Twitter compromise back to a 21-year-old from the U.K. who uses the nickname PlugWalkJoe.

That individual shared a series of screenshots showing he had been in communications with Chaewon/Ever So Anxious just prior to the Twitter hack, and had asked him to secure several desirable Twitter usernames from the Twitter hacker. He added that Chaewon/Ever So Anxious also was known as “Mason.”

The negotiations over highly-prized Twitter usernames took place just prior to the hijacked celebrity accounts tweeting out bitcoin scams. PlugWalkJoe is pictured here chatting with Ever So Anxious/Chaewon/Mason using his Discord username “Beyond Insane.”

On July 22, KrebsOnSecurity interviewed Sheppard/Mason/Chaewon, who confirmed that PlugWalkJoe had indeed asked him to ask Kirk to change the profile picture and display name for a specific Twitter account on July 15. He acknowledged that while he did act as a “middleman” between Kirk and others seeking to claim desirable Twitter usernames, he had nothing to do with the hijacking of the VIP Twitter accounts for the bitcoin scam that same day.

“Encountering Kirk was the worst mistake I’ve ever made due to the fact it has put me in issues I had nothing to do with,” he said. “If I knew Kirk was going to do what he did, or if even from the start if I knew he was a hacker posing as a rep I would not have wanted to be a middleman.”

Is Your Chip Card Secure? Much Depends on Where You Bank

Chip-based credit and debit cards are designed to make it infeasible for skimming devices or malware to clone your card when you pay for something by dipping the chip instead of swiping the stripe. But a recent series of malware attacks on U.S.-based merchants suggest thieves are exploiting weaknesses in how certain financial institutions have implemented the technology to sidestep key chip card security features and effectively create usable, counterfeit cards.

A chip-based credit card. Image: Wikipedia.

Traditional payment cards encode cardholder account data in plain text on a magnetic stripe, which can be read and recorded by skimming devices or malicious software surreptitiously installed in payment terminals. That data can then be encoded onto anything else with a magnetic stripe and used to place fraudulent transactions.

Newer, chip-based cards employ a technology known as EMV that encrypts the account data stored in the chip. The technology causes a unique encryption key — referred to as a token or “cryptogram” — to be generated each time the chip card interacts with a chip-capable payment terminal.

Virtually all chip-based cards still have much of the same data that’s stored in the chip encoded on a magnetic stripe on the back of the card. This is largely for reasons of backward compatibility since many merchants — particularly those in the United States — still have not fully implemented chip card readers. This dual functionality also allows cardholders to swipe the stripe if for some reason the card’s chip or a merchant’s EMV-enabled terminal has malfunctioned.

But there are important differences between the cardholder data stored on EMV chips versus magnetic stripes. One of those is a component in the chip known as an integrated circuit card verification value or “iCVV” for short — also known as a “dynamic CVV.”

The iCVV differs from the card verification value (CVV) stored on the physical magnetic stripe, and protects against the copying of magnetic-stripe data from the chip and the use of that data to create counterfeit magnetic stripe cards. Both the iCVV and CVV values are unrelated to the three-digit security code that is visibly printed on the back of a card, which is used mainly for e-commerce transactions or for card verification over the phone.

The appeal of the EMV approach is that even if a skimmer or malware manages to intercept the transaction information when a chip card is dipped, the data is only valid for that one transaction and should not allow thieves to conduct fraudulent payments with it going forward.

However, for EMV’s security protections to work, the back-end systems deployed by card-issuing financial institutions are supposed to check that when a chip card is dipped into a chip reader, only the iCVV is presented; and conversely, that only the CVV is presented when the card is swiped. If somehow these do not align for a given transaction type, the financial institution is supposed to decline the transaction.

The trouble is that not all financial institutions have properly set up their systems this way. Unsurprisingly, thieves have known about this weakness for years. In 2017, I wrote about the increasing prevalence of “shimmers,” high-tech card skimming devices made to intercept data from chip card transactions.

A close-up of a shimmer found on a Canadian ATM. Source: RCMP.

More recently, researchers at Cyber R&D Labs published a paper detailing how they tested 11 chip card implementations from 10 different banks in Europe and the U.S. The researchers found they could harvest data from four of them and create cloned magnetic stripe cards that were successfully used to place transactions.

There are now strong indications the same method detailed by Cyber R&D Labs is being used by point-of-sale (POS) malware to capture EMV transaction data that can then be resold and used to fabricate magnetic stripe copies of chip-based cards.

Earlier this month, the world’s largest payment card network Visa released a security alert regarding a recent merchant compromise in which known POS malware families were apparently modified to target EMV chip-enabled POS terminals.

“The implementation of secure acceptance technology, such as EMV® Chip, significantly reduced the usability of the payment account data by threat actors as the available data only included personal account number (PAN), integrated circuit card verification value (iCVV) and expiration date,” Visa wrote. “Thus, provided iCVV is validated properly, the risk of counterfeit fraud was minimal. Additionally, many of the merchant locations employed point-to-point encryption (P2PE) which encrypted the PAN data and further reduced the risk to the payment accounts processed as EMV® Chip.”

Visa did not name the merchant in question, but something similar seems to have happened at Key Food Stores Co-Operative Inc., a supermarket chain in the northeastern United States. Key Food initially disclosed a card breach in March 2020, but two weeks ago updated its advisory to clarify that EMV transaction data also was intercepted.

“The POS devices at the store locations involved were EMV enabled,” Key Food explained. “For EMV transactions at these locations, we believe only the card number and expiration date would have been found by the malware (but not the cardholder name or internal verification code).”

While Key Food’s statement may be technically accurate, it glosses over the reality that the stolen EMV data could still be used by fraudsters to create magnetic stripe versions of EMV cards presented at the compromised store registers in cases where the card-issuing bank hadn’t implemented EMV correctly.

Earlier today, fraud intelligence firm Gemini Advisory released a blog post with more information on recent merchant compromises — including Key Food — in which EMV transaction data was stolen and ended up for sale in underground shops that cater to card thieves.

“The payment cards stolen during this breach were offered for sale in the dark web,” Gemini explained. “Shortly after discovering this breach, several financial institutions confirmed that the cards compromised in this breach were all processed as EMV and did not rely on the magstripe as a fallback.”

Gemini says it has verified that another recent breach — at a liquor store in Georgia — also resulted in compromised EMV transaction data showing up for sale at dark web stores that sell stolen card data. As both Gemini and Visa have noted, in both cases proper iCVV verification from banks should render this intercepted EMV data useless to crooks.

Gemini determined that due to the sheer number of stores affected, it’s extremely unlikely the thieves involved in these breaches intercepted the EMV data using physically installed EMV card shimmers.

“Given the extreme impracticality of this tactic, they likely used a different technique to remotely breach POS systems to collect enough EMV data to perform EMV-Bypass Cloning,” the company wrote.

Stas Alforov, Gemini’s director of research and development, said financial institutions that aren’t performing these checks risk losing the ability to notice when those cards are used for fraud.

That’s because many banks that have issued chip-based cards may assume that as long as those cards are used for chip transactions, there is virtually no risk that the cards will be cloned and sold in the underground. Hence, when these institutions are looking for patterns in fraudulent transactions to determine which merchants might be compromised by POS malware, they may completely discount any chip-based payments and focus only on those merchants at which a customer has swiped their card.

“The card networks are catching on to the fact that there’s a lot more EMV-based breaches happening right now,” Alforov said. “The larger card issuers like Chase or Bank of America are indeed checking [for a mismatch between the iCVV and CVV], and will kick back transactions that don’t match. But that is clearly not the case with some smaller institutions.”

For better or worse, we don’t know which financial institutions have failed to properly implement the EMV standard. That’s why it always pays to keep a close eye on your monthly statements, and report any unauthorized transactions immediately. If your institution lets you receive transaction alerts via text message, this can be a near real-time way to keep an eye out for such activity.

Here’s Why Credit Card Fraud is Still a Thing

Most of the civilized world years ago shifted to requiring computer chips in payment cards that make it far more expensive and difficult for thieves to clone and use them for fraud. One notable exception is the United States, which is still lurching toward this goal. Here’s a look at the havoc that lag has wrought, as seen through the purchasing patterns at one of the underground’s biggest stolen card shops that was hacked last year.

In October 2019, someone hacked BriansClub, a popular stolen card bazaar that uses this author’s likeness and name in its marketing. Whoever compromised the shop siphoned data on millions of card accounts that were acquired over four years through various illicit means from legitimate, hacked businesses around the globe — but mostly from U.S. merchants. That database was leaked to KrebsOnSecurity, which in turn shared it with multiple sources that help fight payment card fraud.

An ad for BriansClub has been using my name and likeness for years to peddle millions of stolen credit cards.

Among the recipients was Damon McCoy, an associate professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering [full disclosure: NYU has been a longtime advertiser on this blog]. McCoy’s work in probing the credit card systems used by some of the world’s biggest purveyors of junk email greatly enriched the data that informed my 2014 book Spam Nation, and I wanted to make sure he and his colleagues had a crack at the BriansClub data as well.

McCoy and fellow NYU researchers found BriansClub earned close to $104 million in gross revenue from 2015 to early 2019, and listed over 19 million unique card numbers for sale. Around 97% of the inventory was stolen magnetic stripe data, commonly used to produce counterfeit cards for in-person payments.

“What surprised me most was there are still a lot of people swiping their cards for transactions here,” McCoy said.

In 2015, the major credit card associations instituted new rules that made it riskier and potentially more expensive for U.S. merchants to continue allowing customers to swipe the stripe instead of dip the chip. Complicating this transition was the fact that many card-issuing U.S. banks took years to replace their customer card stocks with chip-enabled cards, and countless retailers dragged their feet in updating their payment terminals to accept chip-based cards.

Indeed, three years later the U.S. Federal Reserve estimated (PDF) that 43.3 percent of in-person card payments were still being processed by reading the magnetic stripe instead of the chip. This might not have been such a big deal if payment terminals at many of those merchants weren’t also compromised with malicious software that copied the data when customers swiped their cards.

Following the 2015 liability shift, more than 84 percent of the non-chip cards advertised by BriansClub were sold, versus just 35 percent of chip-based cards during the same time period.

“All cards without a chip were in much higher demand,” McCoy said.

Perhaps surprisingly, McCoy and his fellow NYU researchers found BriansClub customers purchased only 40% of its overall inventory. But what they did buy supports the notion that crooks generally gravitate toward cards issued by financial institutions that are perceived as having fewer or more lax protections against fraud.

Source: NYU.

While the top 10 largest card issuers in the United States accounted for nearly half of the accounts put up for sale at BriansClub, only 32 percent of those accounts were sold — and at a roughly half the median price of those issued by small- and medium-sized institutions.

In contrast, more than half of the stolen cards issued by small and medium-sized institutions were purchased from the fraud shop. This was true even though by the end of 2018, 91 percent of cards for sale from medium-sized institutions were chip-based, and 89 percent from smaller banks and credit unions. Nearly all cards issued by the top ten largest U.S. card issuers (98 percent) were chip-enabled by that time.

REGION LOCK

The researchers found BriansClub customers strongly preferred cards issued by financial institutions in specific regions of the United States, specifically Colorado, Nevada, and South Carolina.

“For whatever reason, those regions were perceived as having lower anti-fraud systems or those that were not as effective,” McCoy said.

Cards compromised from merchants in South Carolina were in especially high demand, with fraudsters willing to spend twice as much on those cards per capita than any other state — roughly $1 per resident.

That sales trend also was reflected in the support tickets filed by BriansClub customers, who frequently were informed that cards tied to the southeastern United States were less likely to be restricted for use outside of the region.

Image: NYU.

McCoy said the lack of region locking also made stolen cards issued by banks in China something of a hot commodity, even though these cards demanded much higher prices (often more than $100 per account): The NYU researchers found virtually all available Chinese cards were sold soon after they were put up for sale. Ditto for the relatively few corporate and business cards for sale.

A lack of region locks may also have caused card thieves to gravitate toward buying up as many cards as they could from USAA, a savings bank that caters to active and former military service members and their immediate families. More than 83 percent of the available USAA cards were sold between 2015 and 2019, the researchers found.

Although Visa cards made up more than half of accounts put up for sale (12.1 million), just 36 percent were sold. MasterCards were the second most-plentiful (3.72 million), and yet more than 54 percent of them sold.

American Express and Discover, which unlike Visa and MasterCard are so-called “closed loop” networks that do not rely on third-party financial institutions to issue cards and manage fraud on them, saw 28.8 percent and 33 percent of their stolen cards purchased, respectively.

PREPAIDS

Some people concerned about the scourge of debit and credit card fraud opt to purchase prepaid cards, which generally enjoy the same cardholder protections against fraudulent transactions. But the NYU team found compromised prepaid accounts were purchased at a far higher rate than regular debit and credit cards.

Several factors may be at play here. For starters, relatively few prepaid cards for sale were chip-based. McCoy said there was some data to suggest many of these prepaids were issued to people collecting government benefits such as unemployment and food assistance. Specifically, the “service code” information associated with these prepaid cards indicated that many were restricted for use at places like liquor stores and casinos.

“This was a pretty sad finding, because if you don’t have a bank this is probably how you get your wages,” McCoy said. “These cards were disproportionately targeted. The unfortunate and striking thing was the sheer demand and lack of [chip] support for prepaid cards. Also, these cards were likely more attractive to fraudsters because [the issuer’s] anti-fraud countermeasures weren’t up to par, possibly because they know less about their customers and their typical purchase history.”

PROFITS

The NYU researchers estimate BriansClub pulled in approximately $24 million in profit over four years. They calculated this number by taking the more than $100 million in total sales and subtracting commissions paid to card thieves who supplied the shop with fresh goods, as well as the price of cards that were refunded to buyers. BriansClub, like many other stolen card shops, offers refunds on certain purchases if the buyer can demonstrate the cards were no longer active at the time of purchase.

On average, BriansClub paid suppliers commissions ranging from 50-60 percent of the total value of the cards sold. Card-not-present (CNP) accounts — or those stolen from online retailers and purchased by fraudsters principally for use in defrauding other online merchants — fetched a much steeper supplier commission of 80 percent, but mainly because these cards were in such high demand and low supply.

The NYU team found card-not-present sales accounted for just 7 percent of all revenue, even though card thieves clearly now have much higher incentives to target online merchants.

A story here last year observed that this exact supply and demand tug-of-war had helped to significantly increase prices for card-not-present accounts across multiple stolen credit card shops in the underground. Not long ago, the price of CNP accounts was less than half that of card-present accounts. These days, those prices are roughly equivalent.

One likely reason for that shift is the United States is the last of the G20 nations to fully transition to more secure chip-based payment cards. In every other country that long ago made the chip card transition, they saw the same dynamic: As they made it harder for thieves to counterfeit physical cards, the fraud didn’t go away but instead shifted to online merchants.

The same progression is happening now in the United States, only the demand for stolen CNP data still far outstrips supply. Which might explain why we’ve seen such a huge uptick over the past few years in e-commerce sites getting hacked.

“Everyone points to this displacement effect from card-present to card-not-present fraud,” McCoy said. “But if the supply isn’t there, there’s only so much room for that displacement to occur.”

No doubt the epidemic of card fraud has benefited mightily from hacked retail chains — particularly restaurants — that still allow customers to swipe chip-based cards. But as we’ll see in a post to be published tomorrow, new research suggests thieves are starting to deploy ingenious methods for converting card data from certain compromised chip-based transactions into physical counterfeit cards.

A copy of the NYU research paper is available here (PDF).

Business ID Theft Soars Amid COVID Closures

Identity thieves who specialize in running up unauthorized lines of credit in the names of small businesses are having a field day with all of the closures and economic uncertainty wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, KrebsOnSecurity has learned. This story is about the victims of a particularly aggressive business ID theft ring that’s spent years targeting small businesses across the country and is now pivoting toward using that access for pandemic assistance loans and unemployment benefits.

Most consumers are likely aware of the threat from identity theft, which occurs when crooks apply for new lines of credit in your name. But the same crime can be far more costly and damaging when thieves target small businesses. Unfortunately, far too many entrepreneurs are simply unaware of the threat or don’t know how to be watchful for it.

What’s more, with so many small enterprises going out of business or sitting dormant during the COVID-19 pandemic, organized fraud rings have an unusually rich pool of targets to choose from.

Short Hills, N.J.-based Dun & Bradstreet [NYSE:DNB] is a data analytics company that acts as a kind of de facto credit bureau for companies: When a business owner wants to open a new line of credit, creditors typically check with Dun & Bradstreet to gauge the business’s history and trustworthiness.

In 2019, Dun & Bradstreet saw more than a 100 percent increase in business identity theft. For 2020, the company estimates an overall 258 percent spike in the crime. Dun & Bradstreet said that so far this year it has received over 4,700 tips and leads where business identity theft or malfeasance are suspected.

“The ferocity of cyber criminals to take advantage of COVID-19 uncertainties by preying on small businesses is disturbing,” said Andrew LaMarca, who leads the global high-risk and fraud team at Dun & Bradstreet.

For the past several months, Milwaukee, Wisc. based cyber intelligence firm Hold Security has been monitoring the communications between and among a businesses ID theft gang apparently operating in Georgia and Florida but targeting businesses throughout the United States. That surveillance has helped to paint a detailed picture of how business ID thieves operate, as well as the tricks they use to gain credit in a company’s name.

Hold Security founder Alex Holden said the group appears to target both active and dormant or inactive small businesses. The gang typically will start by looking up the business ownership records at the Secretary of State website that corresponds to the company’s state of incorporation. From there, they identify the officers and owners of the company, acquire their Social Security and Tax ID numbers from the dark web and other sources online.

To prove ownership over the hijacked firms, they hire low-wage image editors online to help fabricate and/or modify a number of official documents tied to the business — including tax records and utility bills.

The scammers frequently then file phony documents with the Secretary of State’s office in the name(s) of the business owners, but include a mailing address that they control. They also create email addresses and domain names that mimic the names of the owners and the company to make future credit applications appear more legitimate, and submit the listings to business search websites, such as yellowpages.com.

For both dormant and existing businesses, the fraudsters attempt to create or modify the target company’s accounts at Dun & Bradstreet. In some cases, the scammers create dashboard accounts in the business’s names at Dun & Bradstreet’s credit builder portal; in others, the bad guys have actually hacked existing business accounts at DNB, requesting a new DUNS numbers for the business (a DUNS number is a unique, nine-digit identifier for businesses).

Finally, after the bogus profiles are approved by Dun & Bradstreet, the gang waits a few weeks or months and then starts applying for new lines of credit in the target business’s name at stores like Home Depot, Office Depot and Staples. Then they go on a buying spree with the cards issued by those stores.

Usually, the first indication a victim has that they’ve been targeted is when the debt collection companies start calling.

“They are using mostly small companies that are still active businesses but currently not operating because of COVID-19,” Holden said. “With this gang, we see four or five people working together. The team leader manages the work between people. One person seems to be in charge of getting stolen cards from the dark web to pay for the reactivation of businesses through the secretary of state sites. Another team member works on revising the business documents and registering them on various sites. The others are busy looking for specific businesses they want to revive.”

Holden said the gang appears to find success in getting new lines of credit with about 20 percent of the businesses they target.

“One’s personal credit is nothing compared to the ability of corporations to borrow money,” he said. “That’s bad because while the credit system may be flawed for individuals, it’s an even worse situation on average when we’re talking about businesses.”

Holden said over the past few months his firm has seen communications between the gang’s members indicating they have temporarily shifted more of their energy and resources to defrauding states and the federal government by filing unemployment insurance claims and apply for pandemic assistance loans with the Small Business Administration.

“It makes sense, because they’ve already got control over all these dormant businesses,” he said. “So they’re now busy trying to get unemployment payments and SBA loans in the names of these companies and their employees.”

PHANTOM OFFICES

Hold Security shared data intercepted from the gang that listed the personal and financial details of dozens of companies targeted for ID theft, including Dun & Bradstreet logins the crooks had created for the hijacked businesses. Dun & Bradstreet declined to comment on the matter, other than to say it was working with federal and state authorities to alert affected businesses and state regulators.

Among those targeted was Environmental Safety Consultants Inc. (ESC), a 37-year-old environmental engineering firm based in Bradenton, Fla. ESC owner Scott Russell estimates his company was initially targeted nearly two years ago, and that he first became aware something wasn’t right when he recently began getting calls from Home Depot’s corporate offices inquiring about the company’s delinquent account.

But Russell said he didn’t quite grasp the enormity of the situation until last year, when he was contacted by a the manager of a virtual office space across town who told him about a suspiciously large number of deliveries at an office space that was rented out in his name.

Russell had never rented that particular office. Rather, the thieves had done it for him, using his name and the name of his business. The office manager said the deliveries came virtually non-stop, even though there was apparently no business operating within the rented premises. And in each case, shortly after the shipments arrived someone would show up and cart them away.

“She said we don’t think it’s you,” he recalled. “Turns out, they had paid for a lease in my name with someone else’s credit card. She shared with me a copy of the lease, which included a fraudulent ID and even a vehicle insurance card for a Land Cruiser we got rid of like 15 years ago. The application listed our home address with me and some woman who was not my wife’s name.”

The crates and boxes being delivered to his erstwhile office space were mostly computers and other high-priced items ordered from 10 different Office Depot credit cards that also were not in his name.

“The total value of the electronic equipment that was bought and delivered there was something like $75,000,” Russell said, noting that it took countless hours and phone calls with Office Depot to make it clear they would no longer accept shipments addressed to him or his company. “It was quite spine-tingling to see someone penned a lease in the name of my business and personal identity.”

Even though the virtual office manager had the presence of mind to take photocopies of the driver’s licenses presented by the people arriving to pick up the fraudulent shipments, the local police seemed largely uninterested in pursuing the case, Russell said.

“I went to the local county sheriff’s office and showed them all the documentation I had and the guy just yawned and said he’d get right on it,” he recalled. “The place where the office space was rented was in another county, and the detective I spoke to there about it was interested, but he could never get anyone from my county to follow up.”

RECYCLING VICTIMS

Russell said he believes the fraudsters initially took out new lines of credit in his company’s name and then used those to defraud others in a similar way. One of those victims is another victim on the gang’s target list obtained by Hold Security — Mary McMahan, owner of Fan Experiences, an event management company in Winter Park, Fla.

McMahan also had stolen goods from Office Depot and other stores purchased in her company’s name and delivered to the same office space rented in Russell’s name. McMahan said she and her businesses have suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraud, and spent nearly as much in legal fees fending off collections firms and restoring her company’s credit.

McMahan said she first began noticing trouble almost four years ago, when someone started taking out new credit cards in her company’s name. At the same time, her business was used to open a new lease on a virtual office space in Florida that also began receiving packages tied to other companies victimized by business ID theft.

“About four years back, they hit my credit hard for a year, getting all these new lines of credit at Home Depot, Office Depot, Office Max, you name it,” she said. “Then they came back again two years ago and hit it hard for another year. They even went to the [Florida Department of Motor Vehicles] to get a driver’s license in my name.”

McMahan said the thieves somehow hacked her DNB account, and then began adding new officers and locations for her business listing.

“They changed the email and mailing address, and even went on Yelp and Google and did the same,” she said.

McMahan said she’s since locked down her personal and business credit to the point where even she would have a tough time getting a new line of credit or mortgage if she tried.

“There’s no way they can even utilize me anymore because there’s so many marks on my credit stating that it’s been stolen” she said. “These guys are relentless, and they recycle victims to defraud others until they figure out they can’t recycle them anymore.”

SAY…THAT’S A NICE CREDIT PROFILE YOU GOT THERE…

McMahan says she, too, has filed multiple reports about the crimes with local police, but has so far seen little evidence that anyone is interested in following up on the matter. For now, she is paying Dun and Bradstreet more than a $100 a month to monitor her business credit profile.

Dun & Bradstreet does offer a free version of credit monitoring called Credit Signal that lets business owners check their business credit scores and any inquiries made in the previous 14 days up to four times a year. However, those looking for more frequent checks or additional information about specific credit inquiries beyond 14 days are steered toward DNB’s subscription-based services.

Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a California-based nonprofit that assists ID theft victims, said she finds that troubling.

“When we look at these institutions that are necessary for us to operate and function in society and they start to charge us a fee for a service to fix a problem they helped create through their infrastructure, that’s just unconscionable,” Velasquez said. “We need to take a hard look at the infrastructures that businesses are beholden to and make sure the risk minimization protections they’re entitled to are not fee-based — particularly if it’s a problem created by the very infrastructure of the system.”

Velasquez said it’s unfortunate that small business owners don’t have the same protections afforded to consumers. For example, only recently did the three major consumer reporting bureaus allow all U.S. residents to place a freeze on their credit files for free.

“We’ve done a good job in educating the public that anyone can be victim of identity theft, and in compelling our infrastructure to provide robust consumer protection and risk minimization processes that are more uniform,” she said. “It’s still not good by any means, but it’s definitely better for consumers than it is for businesses. We currently put all the responsibility on the small business owner, and very little on the infrastructure and processes that should be designed to protect them but aren’t doing a great job, frankly.”

Rather, the onus continues to be on the business owner to periodically check with DNB and state agencies to monitor for any signs of unauthorized changes. Worse still, too many private and public organizations still don’t do a good enough job protecting employee identification and tax ID numbers that are so often abused in business identity theft, Velasquez said.

“You can put alerts and other protections in place but the problem is you have to go on a department by department and case by case basis,” she said. “The place to begin is your secretary of state’s office or wherever you file your documents to operate your business.

For its part, Dun & Bradstreet recently published a blog post outlining recommendations for businesses to ward off identity thieves. DNB says anyone who suspects fraudulent activity on their account should contact its support team.

Thinking of a Cybersecurity Career? Read This

Thousand of people graduate from colleges and universities each year with cybersecurity or computer science degrees only to find employers are less than thrilled about their hands-on, foundational skills. Here’s a look at a recent survey that identified some of the bigger skills gaps, and some thoughts about how those seeking a career in these fields can better stand out from the crowd.

Virtually every week KrebsOnSecurity receives at least one email from someone seeking advice on how to break into cybersecurity as a career. In most cases, the aspirants ask which certifications they should seek, or what specialization in computer security might hold the brightest future.

Rarely am I asked which practical skills they should seek to make themselves more appealing candidates for a future job. And while I always preface any response with the caveat that I don’t hold any computer-related certifications or degrees myself, I do speak with C-level executives in cybersecurity and recruiters on a regular basis and frequently ask them for their impressions of today’s cybersecurity job candidates.

A common theme in these C-level executive responses is that a great many candidates simply lack hands-on experience with the more practical concerns of operating, maintaining and defending the information systems which drive their businesses.

Granted, most people who have just graduated with a degree lack practical experience. But happily, a somewhat unique aspect of cybersecurity is that one can gain a fair degree of mastery of hands-on skills and foundational knowledge through self-directed study and old fashioned trial-and-error.

One key piece of advice I nearly always include in my response to readers involves learning the core components of how computers and other devices communicate with one another. I say this because a mastery of networking is a fundamental skill that so many other areas of learning build upon. Trying to get a job in security without a deep understanding of how data packets work is a bit like trying to become a chemical engineer without first mastering the periodic table of elements.

But please don’t take my word for it. The SANS Institute, a Bethesda, Md. based security research and training firm, recently conducted a survey of more than 500 cybersecurity practitioners at 284 different companies in an effort to suss out which skills they find most useful in job candidates, and which are most frequently lacking.

The survey asked respondents to rank various skills from “critical” to “not needed.” Fully 85 percent ranked networking as a critical or “very important” skill, followed by a mastery of the Linux operating system (77 percent), Windows (73 percent), common exploitation techniques (73 percent), computer architectures and virtualization (67 percent) and data and cryptography (58 percent). Perhaps surprisingly, only 39 percent ranked programming as a critical or very important skill (I’ll come back to this in a moment).

How did the cybersecurity practitioners surveyed grade their pool of potential job candidates on these critical and very important skills? The results may be eye-opening:

“Employers report that student cybersecurity preparation is largely inadequate and are frustrated that they have to spend months searching before they find qualified entry-level employees if any can be found,” said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute. “We hypothesized that the beginning of a pathway toward resolving those challenges and helping close the cybersecurity skills gap would be to isolate the capabilities that employers expected but did not find in cybersecurity graduates.”

The truth is, some of the smartest, most insightful and talented computer security professionals I know today don’t have any computer-related certifications under their belts. In fact, many of them never even went to college or completed a university-level degree program.

Rather, they got into security because they were passionately and intensely curious about the subject, and that curiosity led them to learn as much as they could — mainly by reading, doing, and making mistakes (lots of them).

I mention this not to dissuade readers from pursuing degrees or certifications in the field (which may be a basic requirement for many corporate HR departments) but to emphasize that these should not be viewed as some kind of golden ticket to a rewarding, stable and relatively high-paying career.

More to the point, without a mastery of one or more of the above-mentioned skills, you simply will not be a terribly appealing or outstanding job candidate when the time comes.

BUT..HOW?

So what should you focus on, and what’s the best way to get started? First, understand that while there are a near infinite number of ways to acquire knowledge and virtually no limit to the depths you can explore, getting your hands dirty is the fastest way to learning.

No, I’m not talking about breaking into someone’s network, or hacking some poor website. Please don’t do that without permission. If you must target third-party services and sites, stick to those that offer recognition and/or incentives for doing so through bug bounty programs, and then make sure you respect the boundaries of those programs.

Besides, almost anything you want to learn by doing can be replicated locally. Hoping to master common vulnerability and exploitation techniques? There are innumerable free resources available; purpose-built exploitation toolkits like Metasploit, WebGoat, and custom Linux distributions like Kali Linux that are well supported by tutorials and videos online. Then there are a number of free reconnaissance and vulnerability discovery tools like Nmap, Nessus, OpenVAS and Nikto. This is by no means a complete list.

Set up your own hacking labs. You can do this with a spare computer or server, or with older hardware that is plentiful and cheap on places like eBay or Craigslist. Free virtualization tools like VirtualBox can make it simple to get friendly with different operating systems without the need of additional hardware.

Or look into paying someone else to set up a virtual server that you can poke at. Amazon’s EC2 services are a good low-cost option here. If it’s web application testing you wish to learn, you can install any number of web services on computers within your own local network, such as older versions of WordPress, Joomla or shopping cart systems like Magento.

Want to learn networking? Start by getting a decent book on TCP/IP and really learning the network stack and how each layer interacts with the other.

And while you’re absorbing this information, learn to use some tools that can help put your newfound knowledge into practical application. For example, familiarize yourself with Wireshark and Tcpdump, handy tools relied upon by network administrators to troubleshoot network and security problems and to understand how network applications work (or don’t). Begin by inspecting your own network traffic, web browsing and everyday computer usage. Try to understand what applications on your computer are doing by looking at what data they are sending and receiving, how, and where.

ON PROGRAMMING

While being able to program in languages like Go, Java, Perl, Python, C or Ruby may or may not be at the top of the list of skills demanded by employers, having one or more languages in your skillset is not only going to make you a more attractive hire, it will also make it easier to grow your knowledge and venture into deeper levels of mastery.

It is also likely that depending on which specialization of security you end up pursuing, at some point you will find your ability to expand that knowledge is somewhat limited without understanding how to code.

For those intimidated by the idea of learning a programming language, start by getting familiar with basic command line tools on Linux. Just learning to write basic scripts that automate specific manual tasks can be a wonderful stepping stone. What’s more, a mastery of creating shell scripts will pay handsome dividends for the duration of your career in almost any technical role involving computers (regardless of whether you learn a specific coding language).

GET HELP

Make no mistake: Much like learning a musical instrument or a new language, gaining cybersecurity skills takes most people a good deal of time and effort. But don’t get discouraged if a given topic of study seems overwhelming at first; just take your time and keep going.

That’s why it helps to have support groups. Seriously. In the cybersecurity industry, the human side of networking takes the form of conferences and local meetups. I cannot stress enough how important it is for both your sanity and career to get involved with like-minded people on a semi-regular basis.

Many of these gatherings are free, including Security BSides eventsDEFCON groups, and OWASP chapters. And because the tech industry continues to be disproportionately populated by men, there are also a number cybersecurity meetups and membership groups geared toward women, such as the Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu and others listed here.

Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, chances are there’s a number of security conferences and security meetups in your general area. But even if you do reside in the boonies, the good news is many of these meetups are going virtual to avoid the ongoing pestilence that is the COVID-19 epidemic.

In summary, don’t count on a degree or certification to prepare you for the kinds of skills employers are going to understandably expect you to possess. That may not be fair or as it should be, but it’s likely on you to develop and nurture the skills that will serve your future employer(s) and employability in this field.

I’m certain that readers here have their own ideas about how newbies, students and those contemplating a career shift into cybersecurity can best focus their time and efforts. Please feel free to sound off in the comments. I may even update this post to include some of the better recommendations.

NY Charges First American Financial for Massive Data Leak

In May 2019, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that the website of mortgage title insurance giant First American Financial Corp. had exposed approximately 885 million records related to mortgage deals going back to 2003. On Wednesday, regulators in New York announced that First American was the target of their first ever cybersecurity enforcement action in connection with the incident, charges that could bring steep financial penalties.

First American Financial Corp.

Santa Ana, Calif.-based First American [NYSE:FAF] is a leading provider of title insurance and settlement services to the real estate and mortgage industries. It employs some 18,000 people and brought in $6.2 billion in 2019.

As first reported here last year, First American’s website exposed 16 years worth of digitized mortgage title insurance records — including bank account numbers and statements, mortgage and tax records, Social Security numbers, wire transaction receipts, and drivers license images.

The documents were available without authentication to anyone with a Web browser.

According to a filing (PDF) by the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS), the weakness that exposed the documents was first introduced during an application software update in May 2014 and went undetected for years.

Worse still, the DFS found, the vulnerability was discovered in a penetration test First American conducted on its own in December 2018.

“Remarkably, Respondent instead allowed unfettered access to the personal and financial data of millions of its customers for six more months until the breach and its serious ramifications were widely publicized by a nationally recognized cybersecurity industry journalist,” the DFS explained in a statement on the charges.

A redacted screenshot of one of many millions of sensitive records exposed by First American’s Web site.

Reuters reports that the penalties could be significant for First American: The DFS considers each instance of exposed personal information a separate violation, and the company faces penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.

In a written statement, First American said it strongly disagrees with the DFS’s findings, and that its own investigation determined only a “very limited number” of consumers — and none from New York — had personal data accessed without permission.

In August 2019, the company said a third-party investigation into the exposure identified just 32 consumers whose non-public personal information likely was accessed without authorization.

When KrebsOnSecurity asked last year how long it maintained access logs or how far back in time that review went, First American declined to be more specific, saying only that its logs covered a period that was typical for a company of its size and nature.

But in Wednesday’s filing, the DFS said First American was unable to determine whether records were accessed prior to Jun 2018.

“Respondent’s forensic investigation relied on a review of web logs retained from June 2018 onward,” the DFS found. “Respondent’s own analysis demonstrated that during this 11-month period, more than 350,000 documents were accessed without authorization by automated ‘bots’ or ‘scraper’ programs designed to collect information on the Internet.

The records exposed by First American would have been a virtual gold mine for phishers and scammers involved in so-called Business Email Compromise (BEC) scams, which often impersonate real estate agents, closing agencies, title and escrow firms in a bid to trick property buyers into wiring funds to fraudsters. According to the FBI, BEC scams are the most costly form of cybercrime today.

First American’s stock price fell more than 6 percent the day after news of their data leak was published here. In the days that followed, the DFS and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission each announced they were investigating the company.

First American released its first quarter 2020 earnings today. A hearing on the charges alleged by the DFS is slated for Oct. 26.

Twitter Hacking for Profit and the LoLs

The New York Times last week ran an interview with several young men who claimed to have had direct contact with those involved in last week’s epic hack against Twitter. These individuals said they were only customers of the person who had access to Twitter’s internal employee tools, and were not responsible for the actual intrusion or bitcoin scams that took place that day. But new information suggests that at least two of them operated a service that resold access to Twitter employees for the purposes of modifying or seizing control of prized Twitter profiles.

As first reported here on July 16, prior to bitcoin scam messages being blasted out from such high-profile Twitter accounts @barackobama, @joebiden, @elonmusk and @billgates, several highly desirable short-character Twitter account names changed hands, including @L, @6 and @W.

A screenshot of a Discord discussion between the key Twitter hacker “Kirk” and several people seeking to hijack high-value Twitter accounts.

Known as “original gangster” or “OG” accounts, short-character profile names confer a measure of status and wealth in certain online communities, and such accounts can often fetch thousands of dollars when resold in the underground.

The people involved in obtaining those OG accounts on July 15 said they got them from a person identified only as “Kirk,” who claimed to be a Twitter employee. According to The Times, Kirk first reached out to the group through a hacker who used the screen name “lol” on OGusers, a forum dedicated to helping users hijack and resell OG accounts from Twitter and other social media platforms. From The Times’s story:

“The hacker ‘lol’ and another one he worked with, who went by the screen name ‘ever so anxious,’ told The Times that they wanted to talk about their work with Kirk in order to prove that they had only facilitated the purchases and takeovers of lesser-known Twitter addresses early in the day. They said they had not continued to work with Kirk once he began more high-profile attacks around 3:30 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday.

‘lol’ did not confirm his real-world identity, but said he lived on the West Coast and was in his 20s. “ever so anxious” said he was 19 and lived in the south of England with his mother.

Kirk connected with “lol” late Tuesday and then “ever so anxious” on Discord early on Wednesday, and asked if they wanted to be his middlemen, selling Twitter accounts to the online underworld where they were known. They would take a cut from each transaction.”

Twice in the past year, the OGUsers forum was hacked, and both times its database of usernames, email addresses and private messages was leaked online. A review of the private messages for “lol” on OGUsers provides a glimpse into the vibrant market for the resale of prized OG accounts.

On OGUsers, lol was known to other members as someone who had a direct connection to one or more people working at Twitter who could be used to help fellow members gain access to Twitter profiles, including those that had been suspended for one reason or another. In fact, this was how lol introduced himself to the OGUsers community when he first joined.

“I have a twitter contact who I can get users from (to an extent) and I believe I can get verification from,” lol explained.

In a direct message exchange on OGUsers from November 2019, lol is asked for help from another OGUser member whose Twitter account had been suspended for abuse.

“hello saw u talking about a twitter rep could you please ask if she would be able to help unsus [unsuspend] my main and my friends business account will pay 800-1k for each,” the OGUusers profile inquires of lol.

Lol says he can’t promise anything but will look into it. “I sent her that, not sure if I will get a reply today bc its the weekend but ill let u know,” Lol says.

In another exchange, an OGUser denizen quizzes lol about his Twitter hookup.

“Does she charge for escalations? And how do you know her/what is her department/job. How do you connect with them if I may ask?”

“They are in the Client success team,” lol replies. “No they don’t charge, and I know them through a connection.”

As for how he got access to the Twitter employee, lol declines to elaborate, saying it’s a private method. “It’s a lil method, sorry I cant say.”

In another direct message, lol asks a fellow OGUser member to edit a comment in a forum discussion which included the Twitter account “@tankska,” saying it was his IRL (in real life) Twitter account and that he didn’t want to risk it getting found out or suspended (Twitter says this account doesn’t exist, but a simple text search on Twitter shows the profile was active until late 2019).

“can u edit that comment out, @tankska is a gaming twitter of mine and i dont want it to be on ogu :D’,” lol wrote. “just dont want my irl getting sus[pended].”

Still another OGUser member would post lol’s identifying information into a forum thread, calling lol by his first name — “Josh” — in a post asking lol what he might offer in an auction for a specific OG name.

“Put me down for 100, but don’t note my name in the thread please,” lol wrote.

WHO IS LOL?

The information in lol’s OGUsers registration profile indicates he was probably being truthful with The Times about his location. The hacked forum database shows a user “tankska” registered on OGUsers back in July 2018, but only made one post asking about the price of an older Twitter account for sale.

The person who registered the tankska account on OGUsers did so with the email address jperry94526@gmail.com, and from an Internet address tied to the San Ramon Unified School District in Danville, Calif.

According to 4iq.com, a service that indexes account details like usernames and passwords exposed in Web site data breaches, the jperry94526 email address was used to register accounts at several other sites over the years, including one at the apparel store Stockx.com under the profile name Josh Perry.

Tankska was active only briefly on OGUsers, but the hacked OGUsers database shows that “lol” changed his username three times over the years. Initially, it was “freej0sh,” followed by just “j0sh.”

lol did not respond to requests for comment sent to email addresses tied to his various OGU profiles and Instagram accounts.

ALWAYS IN DISCORD

Last week’s story on the Twitter compromise noted that just before the bitcoin scam tweets went out, several OG usernames changed hands. The story traced screenshots of Twitter tools posted online back to a moniker that is well-known in the OGUsers circle: PlugWalkJoe, a 21-year-old from the United Kingdom.

Speaking with The Times, PlugWalkJoe — whose real name is Joseph O’Connor — said while he acquired a single OG Twitter account (@6) through one of the hackers in direct communication with Kirk, he was otherwise not involved in the conversation.

“I don’t care,” O’Connor told The Times. “They can come arrest me. I would laugh at them. I haven’t done anything.”

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, O’Connor likewise asserted his innocence, suggesting at least a half dozen other hacker handles that may have been Kirk or someone who worked with Kirk on July 15, including “Voku,” “Crim/Criminal,” “Promo,” and “Aqua.”

“That twit screenshot was the first time in a while I joke[d], and evidently I shouldn’t have,” he said. “Joking is what got me into this mess.”

O’Connor shared a number of screenshots from a Discord chat conversation on the day of the Twitter hack between Kirk and two others: “Alive,” which is another handle used by lol, and “Ever So Anxious.” Both were described by The Times as middlemen who sought to resell OG Twitter names obtained from Kirk. O’Connor is referenced in these screenshots as both “PWJ” and by his Discord handle, “Beyond Insane.”

The negotiations over highly-prized OG Twitter usernames took place just prior to the hijacked celebrity accounts tweeting out bitcoin scams.

Ever So Anxious told Kirk his OGU nickname was “Chaewon,” which corresponds to a user in the United Kingdom. Just prior to the Twitter compromise, Chaewon advertised a service on the forum that could change the email address tied to any Twitter account for around $250 worth of bitcoin. O’Connor said Chaewon also operates under the hacker alias “Mason.”

“Ever So Anxious” tells Kirk his OGUsers handle is “Chaewon,” and asks Kirk to modify the display names of different OG Twitter handles to read “lol” and “PWJ”.

At one point in the conversation, Kirk tells Alive and Ever So Anxious to send funds for any OG usernames they want to this bitcoin address. The payment history of that address shows that it indeed also received approximately $180,000 worth of bitcoin from the wallet address tied to the scam messages tweeted out on July 15 by the compromised celebrity accounts.

The Twitter hacker “Kirk” telling lol/Alive and Chaewon/Mason/Ever So Anxious where to send the funds for the OG Twitter accounts they wanted.

SWIMPING

My July 15 story observed there were strong indications that the people involved in the Twitter hack have connections to SIM swapping, an increasingly rampant form of crime that involves bribing, hacking or coercing employees at mobile phone and social media companies into providing access to a target’s account.

The account “@shinji,” a.k.a. “PlugWalkJoe,” tweeting a screenshot of Twitter’s internal tools interface.

SIM swapping was thought to be behind the hijacking of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey‘s Twitter account last year. As recounted by Wired.com, @jack was hijacked after the attackers conducted a SIM swap attack against AT&T, the mobile provider for the phone number tied to Dorsey’s Twitter account.

Immediately after Jack Dorsey’s Twitter handle was hijacked, the hackers tweeted out several shout-outs, including one to @PlugWalkJoe. O’Connor told KrebsOnSecurity he has never been involved in SIM swapping, although that statement was contradicted by two law enforcement sources who closely track such crimes.

However, Chaewon’s private messages on OGusers indicate that he very much was involved in SIM swapping. Use of the term “SIM swapping” was not allowed on OGusers, and the forum administrators created an automated script that would watch for anyone trying to post the term into a private message or discussion thread.

The script would replace the term with “I do not condone illegal activities.” Hence, a portmanteau was sometimes used: “Swimping.”

“Are you still swimping?” one OGUser member asks of Chaewon on Mar. 24, 2020. “If so and got targs lmk your discord.” Chaewon responds in the affirmative, and asks the other user to share his account name on Wickr, an encrypted online messaging app that automatically deletes messages after a few days.

Chaewon/Ever So Anxious/Mason did not respond to requests for comment.

O’Connor told KrebsOnSecurity that one of the individuals thought to be associated with the July 15 Twitter hack — a young man who goes by the nickname “Voku” — is still actively involved in SIM-swapping, particularly against customers of AT&T and Verizon.

Voku is one of several hacker handles used by a Canton, Mich. youth whose mom turned him in to the local police in February 2018 when she overheard him talking on the phone and pretending to be an AT&T employee. Officers responding to the report searched the residence and found multiple cell phones and SIM cards, as well as files on the kid’s computer that included “an extensive list of names and phone numbers of people from around the world.”

The following month, Michigan authorities found the same individual accessing personal consumer data via public Wi-Fi at a local library, and seized 45 SIM cards, a laptop and a Trezor wallet — a hardware device designed to store crytpocurrency account data. In April 2018, Voku’s mom again called the cops on her son — identified only as confidential source #1 (“CS1”) in the criminal complaint against him — saying he’d obtained yet another mobile phone.

Voku’s cooperation with authorities led them to bust up a conspiracy involving at least nine individuals who stole millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency and other items of value from their targets.

CONSPIRACY

Samy Tarazi, an investigator with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, has spent hundreds of hours tracking young hackers during his tenure with REACT, a task force set up to combat SIM swapping and bring SIM swappers to justice.

According to Tarazi, multiple actors in the cybercrime underground are constantly targeting people who work in key roles at major social media and online gaming platforms, from Twitter and Instagram to Sony, Playstation and Xbox.

Tarazi said some people engaged in this activity seek to woo their targets, sometimes offering them bribes in exchange for the occasional request to unban or change the ownership of specific accounts.

All too often, however, employees at these social media and gaming platforms find themselves the object of extremely hostile and persistent personal attacks that threaten them and their families unless and until they give in to demands.

“In some cases, they’re just hitting up employees saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a business opportunity for you, do you want to make some money?’” Tarazi explained. “In other cases, they’ve done everything from SIM swapping and swatting the victim many times to posting their personal details online or extorting the victims to give up access.”

Allison Nixon is chief research officer at Unit 221B, a cyber investigations company based in New York. Nixon says she doesn’t buy the idea that PlugWalkJoe, lol, and Ever So Anxious are somehow less culpable in the Twitter compromise, even if their claims of not being involved in the July 15 Twitter bitcoin scam are accurate.

“You have the hackers like Kirk who can get the goods, and the money people who can help them profit — the buyers and the resellers,” Nixon said. “Without the buyers and the resellers, there is no incentive to hack into all these social media and gaming companies.”

Mark Rasch, Unit 221B’s general counsel and a former U.S. federal prosecutor, said all of the players involved in the Twitter compromise of July 15 can be charged with conspiracy, a legal concept in the criminal statute which holds that any co-conspirators are liable for the acts of any other co-conspirator in furtherance of the crime, even if they don’t know who those other people are in real life or what else they may have been doing at the time.

“Conspiracy has been called the prosecutor’s friend because it makes the agreement the crime,” Rasch said. “It’s a separate crime in addition to the underlying crime, whether it be breaking in to a network, data theft or account takeover. The ‘I just bought some usernames and gave or sold them to someone else’ excuse is wrong because it’s a conspiracy and these people obviously don’t realize that.”

In a statement on its ongoing investigation into the July 15 incident, Twitter said it resulted from a small number of employees being manipulated through a social engineering scheme. Twitter said at least 130 accounts were targeted by the attackers, who succeeded in sending out unauthorized tweets from 45 of them and may have been able to view additional information about those accounts, such as direct messages.

On eight of the compromised accounts, Twitter said, the attackers managed to download the account history using the Your Twitter Data tool. Twitter added that it is working with law enforcement and is rolling out additional company-wide training to guard against social engineering tactics.