Over the past few weeks, three of the longest running and most venerated Russian-language online forums serving thousands of experienced cybercriminals have been hacked. In two of the intrusions, the attackers made off with the forums’ user databases, including email and Internet addresses and hashed passwords. Members of all three forums are worried the incidents could serve as a virtual Rosetta Stone for connecting the real-life identities of the same users across multiple crime forums.
On Tuesday, someone dumped thousands of usernames, email addresses and obfuscated passwords on the dark web apparently pilfered from Mazafaka (a.k.a. “Maza,” “MFclub“), an exclusive crime forum that has for more than a decade played host to some of the most experienced and infamous Russian cyberthieves.
At the top of a 35-page PDF leaked online is a private encryption key allegedly used by Maza administrators. The database also includes ICQ numbers for many users. ICQ, also known as “I seek you,” was an instant message platform trusted by countless early denizens of these older crime forums before its use fell out of fashion in favor of more private networks, such as Jabber and Telegram.
This is notable because ICQ numbers tied to specific accounts often are a reliable data point that security researchers can use to connect multiple accounts to the same user across many forums and different nicknames over time.
Cyber intelligence firm Intel 471 assesses that the leaked Maza database is legitimate, and that the file includes more than 3,000 rows containing usernames, partially obfuscated password hashes, email addresses and other contact details.
“The file comprised more than 3,000 rows, containing usernames, partially obfuscated password hashes, email addresses and other contact details,” Intel 471 found, noting that Maza forum visitors are now redirected to a breach announcement page. “Initial analysis of the leaked data pointed to its probable authenticity, as at least a portion of the leaked user records correlated with our own data holdings.”
The attack on Maza comes just weeks after another major Russian crime forum got plundered. On Jan. 20, a longtime administrator of the Russian language forum Verified disclosed that the community’s domain registrar had been hacked, and that the site’s domain was redirected to an Internet server the attackers controlled.
“Our [bitcoin] wallet has been cracked. Luckily, we did not keep large amounts in it, but this is an unpleasant incident anyway. Once the circumstances became clear, the admin assumed that THEORETICALLY, all the forum’s accounts could have been compromised (the probability is low, but it is there). In our business, it’s better to play safe. So, we’ve decided to reset everyone’s codes. This is not a big deal. Simply write them down and use them from now on.”
A short time later, the administrator updated his post, saying:
“We are getting messages that the forum’s databases were filched after all when the forum was hacked. Everyone’s account passwords were forcibly reset. Pass this information to people you know. The forum was hacked through the domain registrar. The registrar was hacked first, then domain name servers were changed, and traffic was sniffed.”
On Feb. 15, the administrator posted a message purportedly sent on behalf of the intruders, who claimed they hacked Verified’s domain registrar between Jan. 16 and 20.
“It should be clear by now that the forum administration did not do an acceptable job with the security of this whole thing,” the attacker explained. “Most likely just out of laziness or incompetence, they gave up the whole thing. But the main surprise for us was that they saved all the user data, including cookies, referrers, ip addresses of the first registrations, login analytics, and everything else.”
The compromise of Maza and Verified — and possibly a third major forum — has many community members concerned that their real-life identities could be exposed. Exploit — perhaps the next-largest and most popular Russian forum after Verified, also experienced an apparent compromise this week.
According to Intel 471, on March 1, 2021, the administrator of the Exploit cybercrime forum claimed that a proxy server the forum used for protection from distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks might have been compromised by an unknown party. The administrator stated that on Feb. 27, 2021, a monitoring system detected unauthorized secure shell access to the server and an attempt to dump network traffic.
Some forum lurkers have speculated that these recent compromises feel like the work of some government spy agency.
“Only intelligence services or people who know where the servers are located can pull off things like that,” mused one mainstay of Exploit. “Three forums in one month is just weird. I don’t think those were regular hackers. Someone is purposefully ruining forums.”
Others are wondering aloud which forum will fall next, and bemoaning the loss of trust among users that could be bad for business.
“Perhaps they work according to the following logic,” wrote one Exploit user. “There will be no forums, there will be no trust between everyone, less cooperation, more difficult to find partners – fewer attacks.”
Microsoft Corp. today released software updates to plug four security holes that attackers have been using to plunder email communications at companies that use its Exchange Server products. The company says all four flaws are being actively exploited as part of a complex attack chain deployed by a previously unidentified Chinese cyber espionage group.
The software giant typically releases security updates on the second Tuesday of each month, but it occasionally deviates from that schedule when addressing active attacks that target newly identified and serious vulnerabilities in its products.
The patches released today fix security problems in Microsoft Exchange Server 2013, 2016 and 2019. Microsoft said its Exchange Online service — basically hosted email for businesses — is not impacted by these flaws.
Microsoft credited researchers at Reston, Va. based Volexity for reporting the attacks. Volexity President Steven Adair told KrebsOnSecurity it first spotted the attacks on Jan. 6, 2021.
Adair said while the exploits used by the group may have taken great skills to develop, they require little technical know-how to use and can give an attacker easy access to all of an organization’s email if their vulnerable Exchange Servers are directly exposed to the Internet.
“These flaws are very easy to exploit,” Adair said. “You don’t need any special knowledge with these exploits. You just show up and say ‘I would like to break in and read all their email.’ That’s all there is to it.”
Microsoft says the flaws are being used by a previously unknown Chinese espionage group that’s been dubbed “Hafnium,” which is known to launch its attacks using hosting companies based in the United States.
“Hafnium primarily targets entities in the United States across a number of industry sectors, including infectious disease researchers, law firms, higher education institutions, defense contractors, policy think tanks, and NGOs,” Microsoft said. “HAFNIUM has previously compromised victims by exploiting vulnerabilities in internet-facing servers. Once they’ve gained access to a victim network, HAFNIUM typically exfiltrates data to file sharing sites like MEGA.”
According to Microsoft, Hafnium attackers have been observed combining all four zero-day flaws to target organizations running vulnerable Exchange Server products.
CVE-2021-26855 is a “server-side request forgery” (SSRF) flaw, in which a server (in this case, an on-premises Exchange Server) can be tricked into running commands that it should never have been permitted to run, such as authenticating as the Exchange server itself.
The attackers used CVE-2021-26857 to run code of their choice under the “system” account on a targeted Exchange server. The other two zero-day flaws — CVE-2021-26858 and CVE-2021-27065 — could allow an attacker to write a file to any part of the server.
After exploiting these vulnerabilities to gain initial access, Hafnium operators deployed web shells on the compromised server, Microsoft said. Web shells are essentially software backdoors that allow attackers to steal data and perform additional malicious actions that lead to further compromise.
Neither Microsoft nor Volexity is aware of publicly available code that would allow other cybercriminals to exploit these Exchange vulnerabilities. But given that these attacks are in the wild now, it may only be a matter of days before exploit code is publicly available online.
Microsoft stressed that the exploits detailed today were in no way connected to the separate SolarWinds-related attacks. “We continue to see no evidence that the actor behind SolarWinds discovered or exploited any vulnerability in Microsoft products and services,” the company said.
PrismHR, a company that sells technology used by other firms to help more than 80,000 small businesses manage payroll, benefits, and human resources, has suffered what appears to be an ongoing ransomware attack that is disrupting many of its services.
Hopkinton, Mass.-based PrismHR handles everything from payroll processing and human resources to health insurance and tax forms for hundreds of “professional employer organizations” (PEOs) that serve more than two million employees. The company processes more than $80 billion payroll payments annually on behalf of PEOs and their clients.
Countless small businesses turn to PEOs in part because they simplify compliance with various state payroll taxes, and because PEOs are the easiest way for small businesses to pool their resources and obtain more favorable health insurance rates for their employees.
PrismHR has not yet responded to requests for comment. But in a notice sent to its PEO partners, PrismHR said it detected suspicious activity within its networks on Feb. 28, and that it disabled access to its platform for all users in an effort to contain the security incident.
The company said the disruption has affected 200 PEO clients across the country, and that the most immediate concern is helping PEOs ensure their customers can process payrolls this week.
“The outage may extend throughout today and possibly later, with potential impact on payroll processing,” Prism explained in a template email it suggested PEO partners share with their customers. “We are committed to ensuring everyone receives their pay as timely and as accurately as possible. For this payroll period, we will use estimates from the last available payroll period. Once the software platform is back online, we will perform a reconciliation and correct any discrepancies as soon as possible.”
Jacob Cloran is co-founder of Decimal, a company that does accounting for small businesses, many of whom rely on PEOs affected by the PrismHR outage. Decimal itself uses a PEO that relies on PrismHR.
“We don’t have a good option to run our payroll this week, and the message we’ve received from our PEO doesn’t give me a lot of confidence we’ll be able to do that,” Cloran said.
Cloran said while there are other cloud-based companies that work with multiple PEOs, PrismHR is by far the largest.
“Prism is the only real option on the PEO software market,” he said. “Everyone I know who has tried any of the others ends up back at Prism. It’s the best of all bad available options.”
PrismHR did not specify what was responsible for the suspicious network activity, but their actions so far are straight out of the textbook recommendations for responding to a ransomware outbreak. A notice from the PEO working with some of Cloran’s clients stated that PrismHR was in the process of rebuilding its entire system from data backups in a new environment.
Also, the crooks behind ransomware attacks typically wait until the weekend to unleash their malware within victim organizations, knowing that most targets will be short-staffed or out of the office at this time. PrismHR said it detected the activity on Sunday.
Ransomware victims perhaps in the toughest spot include those providing cloud data hosting and software-as-service offerings, as these businesses are often unable to serve their customers while a ransomware infestation is active.
Ransomware renders any files it touches unreadable unless and until a victim pays for a digital key needed to unlock the encryption on them. Worse, it has become almost a best practice among ransomware criminal groups to steal as much data as possible from the victim organization prior to unleashing the ransom malware within a target environment.
Some of that data is often then published on dark web victim shaming sites in a bid to force the victim company into paying up. Some companies victimized by ransomware even face dual ransom demands: One for a digital key needed to unlock access to files, and a second payment in exchange for a promise not to publish all of the stolen data. Those that refuse to be extorted are told to expect that huge amounts of sensitive company data will be published online or sold on the dark web (or both).
PrismHR said in a statement to its PEO customers that while its investigation and response to the incident is ongoing, the company “is not aware of any sensitive data being breached or compromised.”
Given the volume and sensitive nature of the data PrismHR managed on behalf of PEO clients, it’s no doubt those clients and their customers are hoping that statement is accurate as well.
A company that rents out access to more than 10 million Web browsers so that clients can hide their true Internet addresses has built its network by paying browser extension makers to quietly include its code in their creations. This story examines the lopsided economics of extension development, and why installing an extension can be such a risky proposition.
Singapore-based Infatica[.]io is part of a growing industry of shadowy firms trying to woo developers who maintain popular browser extensions — desktop and mobile device software add-ons available for download from Apple, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla designed to add functionality or customization to one’s browsing experience.
Some of these extensions have garnered hundreds of thousands or even millions of users. But here’s the rub: As an extension’s user base grows, maintaining them with software updates and responding to user support requests tends to take up an inordinate amount of the author’s time. Yet extension authors have few options for earning financial compensation for their work.
So when a company comes along and offers to buy the extension — or pay the author to silently include some extra code — that proposal is frequently too good to pass up.
For its part, Infatica seeks out authors with extensions that have at least 50,000 users. An extension maker who agrees to incorporate Infatica’s computer code can earn anywhere from $15 to $45 each month for every 1,000 active users.
Infatica’s code then uses the browser of anyone who has that extension installed to route Web traffic for the company’s customers, including marketers or anyone able to afford its hefty monthly subscription charges.
The end result is when Infatica customers browse to a web site, that site thinks the traffic is coming from the Internet address tied to the extension user, not the customer’s.
Infatica prices its service based on the volume of web traffic a customer is seeking to anonymize, from $360 a month for 40 gigabytes all the way to $20,000 a month for 10,000 gigabytes of data traffic pushed through millions of residential computers.THE ECONOMICS OF EXTENSIONS
Hao Nguyen is the developer behind ModHeader, an extension used by more than 400,000 people to test the functionality of websites by making it easier for users to modify the data shared with those sites. When Nguyen found himself spending increasing amounts of his time and money supporting the extension, he tried including ads in the program to help offset costs.
ModHeader users protested loudly against the change, and Nguyen removed the ads — which he said weren’t making him much money anyway.
“I had spent at least 10 years building this thing and had no luck monetizing it,” he told KrebsOnSecurity.
Nguyen said he ignored multiple requests from different companies offering to pay him to insert their code, mainly because the code gave those firms the ability to inject whatever they wanted into his program (and onto his users’ devices) at any time.
Then came Infatica, whose code was fairly straightforward by comparison, he said. It restricted the company to routing web requests through his users’ browsers, and did not try to access more sensitive components of the user’s browser experience, such as stored passwords and cookies, or viewing the user’s screen.
More importantly, the deal would net him at least $1,500 a month, and possibly quite a bit more.
“I gave Infatica a try but within a few days I got a lot of negative user reviews,” he said. “They didn’t like that the extension might be using their browser as a proxy for going to not so good places like porn sites.”
Again he relented, and removed the Infatica code.A TARGET-RICH ENVIRONMENT
These days, Nguyen is focusing more of his time on chrome-stats.com, which provides detailed information on more than 150,000 extensions. The service is free for limited use, but subscribers who pay a monthly fee can get access to more resources, such as older extension versions and details about their code components.
According to chrome-stats.com, the majority of extensions — more than 100,000 of them — are effectively abandoned by their authors, or haven’t been updated in more than two years. In other words, there a great many developers who are likely to be open to someone else buying up their creation and their user base.
The vast majority of extensions are free, although a handful that have attracted a large and loyal enough following have been able to charge for their creations or for subscription services tied to the extension. But last year, Google announced it was shutting down paid Chrome extensions offered on its Chrome Web Store.
Nguyen said this will only exacerbate the problem of frustrated developers turning to offers from dodgy marketing firms.
“It’s a really tough marketplace for extension developers to be able to monetize and get reward for maintaining their extensions,” he said. “There are tons of small developers who haven’t been able to do anything with their extensions. That’s why some of them will go into shady integration or sell the extension for some money and just be done with it.”WHO IS INFATICA?
It is unclear how many extensions currently incorporate Infatica’s code. KrebsOnSecurity searched for extensions that invoke several domains tied to Infatica’s Web proxy service (e.g., extendbalanc[.]org, ipv4v6[.]info). This research was conducted using Nguyen’s site and crxcavator.io, a similar extension research site owned by networking giant Cisco Systems.
Those searches revealed that Infatica’s code has been associated with at least three dozen extensions over the past few years, including several that had more than 100,000 users. One of those is Video Downloader Plus, which at one point claimed nearly 1.4 million active users.
The founder and director of Infatica — a resident of Biysk, Russia named Vladimir Fomenko — did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Fomenko is the sole director of the iNinja VPN, another service that obfuscates the true Internet address of its more than 400,000 users. It stands to reason that iNinja VPN also is not only offering its customers a way to obfuscate their Internet address, but is actively using those same systems to route traffic for other customers: A Chrome browser plugin and ad blocker by the same name whose code includes Infatica’s “extenbalanc” domain has 400,000 users.
That would put Infatica in line with the activities of another major controversial VPN/proxy provider: Illuminati, a.k.a. “HolaVPN.” In 2015, security researchers discovered that users of the HolaVPN browser extension were being used to funnel Web traffic for other people. Indeed, in the screenshot above, Infatica’s marketing team can be seen comparing its business model to that of HolaVPN.
Fomenko has appeared in two previous KrebsOnSecurity stories; both concerned King Servers (a.k.a. “Hosting Solution Ltd.“), a hosting company he has operated for years which caters mostly to adult websites.
In 2016, hackers suspected of working for Russian state security services compromised databases for election systems in Arizona and Illinois. Six of the eight Internet addresses identified by the FBI as sources of the attack traced back to King Servers. In an interview with The New York Times several months later, Fomenko flatly denied having any ties to the hacking.
According to the Russian daily Novaya Gazeta, revelations about the 2016 hacking incident’s ties to King Servers led to treason charges against Sergey Mikhaylov, the former deputy chief of Russia’s top anti-cybercrime unit.
Russian authorities charged that Mikhaylov had tipped off the FBI to information about Fomenko and King Servers. In 2019, Mikhaylov was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in a penal colony.BE SPARING IN TRUSTING EXTENSIONS
Browser extensions — however useful or fun they may seem when you install them — typically have a great deal of power and can effectively read and/or write all data in your browsing sessions. The powers granted to each extension are roughly spelled out in its “manifest,” basically a description of what it will be able to access once you incorporate it into your browser.
According to Nguyen’s chrome-stats.com, about a third of all extensions for Chrome — by far the most widely-used Web browser — require no special permissions. But the remainder require the user to place a good deal of trust in the extension’s author. For example, approximately 30 percent can view all of your data on all or specific websites, or index your open tabs and browsing activity.
More than 68,000 Chrome extensions allow the execution of arbitrary code in the context of webpages, effectively allowing the extension to alter the appearance and functionality of specific sites.
I hope it’s obvious by this point, but readers should be extremely cautious about installing extensions — sticking mainly to those that are actively supported and respond to user concerns.
Personally, I do not make much use of browser extensions. In almost every case I’ve considered installing one I’ve been sufficiently spooked by the permissions requested that I ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the risk, given that any extension can go rogue at the whims of its author.
If you’re the type of person who uses multiple extensions, it may be wise to adopt a risk-based approach going forward. Given the high stakes that typically come with installing an extension, consider carefully whether having the extension is truly worth it. This applies equally to plug-ins designed for Web site content management systems like WordPress and Joomla.
Do not agree to update an extension if it suddenly requests more permissions than a previous version. This should be a giant red flag that something is not right. If this happens with an extension you trust, you’d be well advised to remove it entirely.
Also, never download and install an extension just because some Web site says you need it to view some type of content. Doing so is almost always a high-risk proposition. Here, Rule #1 from KrebsOnSecurity’s Three Rules of Online Safety comes into play: “If you didn’t go looking for it, don’t install it.” Finally, in the event you do wish to install something, make sure you’re getting it directly from the entity that produced the software.
Google Chrome users can see any extensions they have installed by clicking the three dots to the right of the address bar, selecting “More tools” in the resulting drop-down menu, then “Extensions.” In Firefox, click the three horizontal bars next to the address bar and select “Add-ons,” then click the “Extensions” link on the resulting page to view any installed extensions.
The U.S. Labor Department’s inspector general said this week that roughly $100 million in fraudulent unemployment insurance claims were paid in 2020 to criminals who are already in jail. That’s a tiny share of the estimated tens of billions of dollars in jobless benefits states have given to identity thieves in the past year. To help reverse that trend, many states are now turning to a little-known private company called ID.me. This post examines some of what that company is seeing in its efforts to stymie unemployment fraud.
A new report (PDF) from the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that from March through October of 2020, some $3.5 billion in fraudulent jobless benefits — nearly two-thirds of the phony claims it reviewed — was paid out to individuals with Social Security numbers filed in multiple states. Almost $100 million went to more than 13,000 ineligible people who are currently in prison.
The OIG acknowledges that the total losses from all states is likely to be tens of billions of dollars. Indeed, just one state — California — disclosed last month that hackers, identity thieves and overseas criminal rings stole more than $11 billion in jobless benefits from the state last year. That’s roughly 10 percent of all claims.
Bloomberg Law reports that in response to a flood of jobless claims that exploit the lack of information sharing among states, the Labor Dept. urged the states to use a federally funded hub designed to share applicant data and detect fraudulent claims filed in more than one state. But as the OIG report notes, participation in the hub is voluntary, and so far only 32 of 54 state or territory workforce agencies in the U.S. are using it.
Much of this fraud exploits weak authentication methods used by states that have long sought to verify applicants using static, widely available information such as Social Security numbers and birthdays. Many states also lacked the ability to tell when multiple payments were going to the same bank accounts.
To make matters worse, as the Coronavirus pandemic took hold a number of states dramatically pared back the amount of information required to successfully request a jobless benefits claim.77,000 NEW (AB)USERS EACH DAY
In response, 15 states have now allied with McLean, Va.-based ID.me to shore up their authentication efforts, with six more states under contract to use the service in the coming months. That’s a minor coup for a company launched in 2010 with the goal of helping e-commerce sites validate the identities of customers for the purposes of granting discounts for veterans, teachers, students, nurses and first responders.
ID.me says it now has more than 36 million people signed up for accounts, with roughly 77,000 new users signing up each day. Naturally, a big part of that growth has come from unemployed people seeking jobless benefits.
To screen out fraudsters, ID.me requires applicants to supply a great deal more information than previously requested by the states, such as images of their driver’s license or other government-issued ID, copies of utility or insurance bills, and details about their mobile phone service.
When an applicant doesn’t have one or more of the above — or if something about their application triggers potential fraud flags — ID.me may require a recorded, live video chat with the person applying for benefits.
This has led to some fairly amusing attempts to circumvent their verification processes, said ID.me founder and CEO Blake Hall. For example, it’s not uncommon for applicants appearing in the company’s video chat to don disguises. The Halloween mask worn by the applicant pictured below is just one example.
Hall said the company’s service is blocking a significant amount of “first party” fraud — someone using their own identity to file in multiple states where they aren’t eligible — as well as “third-party” fraud, where people are tricked into giving away identity data that thieves then use to apply for benefits.
“There’s literally every form of attack, from nation states and organized crime to prisoners,” Hall said. “It’s like the D-Day of fraud, this is Omaha Beach we’re on right now. The amount of fraud we are fighting is truly staggering.”
According to ID.me, a major driver of phony jobless claims comes from social engineering, where people have given away personal data in response to romance or sweepstakes scams, or after applying for what they thought was a legitimate work-from-home job.
“A lot of this is targeting the elderly,” Hall said. “We’ve seen [videos] of people in nursing homes, where folks off camera are speaking for them and holding up documents.”
“We had one video where the person applying said, ‘I’m here for the prize money,'” Hall continued. “Another elderly victim started weeping when they realized they weren’t getting a job and were the victim of a job scam. In general though, the job scam stuff hits younger people harder and the romance and prize money stuff hits elderly people harder.”
Many other phony claims are filed by people who’ve been approached by fraudsters promising them a cut of any unemployment claims granted in their names.
“That person is told to just claim that they had their identity stolen when and if law enforcement ever shows up,” Hall said.
Fraudsters involved in filing jobless benefit claims have definitely taken notice of ID.me’s efforts. Shortly after the company began working with California in December 2020, ID.me came under a series of denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks aimed at knocking the service offline.
“We have blocked at least five sustained, large-scale DDoS attacks originating from Nigeria trying to take our service down because we are blocking their fraud,” Hall said.
In May 2020, KrebsOnSecurity examined postings to several Telegram chat channels dedicated to selling services that help people fraudulently apply for jobless benefits. These days, some of the most frequent posts on those channels advertise the sale of various “methods” or tips about how to bypass ID.me protections.
Asked about the efficacy of those methods, Hall said while his service can’t stop all phony jobless claims, it can ensure that a single scammer can only file one fraudulent application.
“I’d say in this space it’s not about being perfect, but about being better,” he said.
That’s something of an understatement in an era when being able to limit each scammer to a single fraudulent claim can be considered progress. But Hall says one of the reasons we’re in this mess is that the states have for too long relied on data broker firms that sell authentication services based on static data that is far too easy for fraudsters to steal, buy or trick people into giving away.
“There’s been a real shift in the market from data-centric identity verification to verifying through something you have and something you are, like a phone or face or ID,” he said. “And those aren’t in the provenance of the incumbents, the data-centric brokers. When there have been so many data breaches that the toothpaste is basically out of the tube, you need a full orchestration platform.”A BETTER MOUSETRAP?
Collecting and storing so much personal data on tens of millions of Americans can make one an attractive target for hackers and ID thieves. Hall says ID.me is certified against the NIST 800-63-3 digital identity guidelines, employs multiple layers of security, and fully segregates static consumer data tied to a validated identity from a token used to represent that identity.
“We take a defense-in-depth approach, with partitioned networks, and use very sophisticated encryption scheme so that when and if there is a breach, this stuff is firewalled,” he said. “You’d have to compromise the tokens at scale and not just the database. We encrypt all that stuff down to the file level with keys that rotate and expire every 24 hours. And once we’ve verified you we don’t need that data about you on an ongoing basis.”
With such a high percentage of jobless claims now being filed by identity thieves, many states have instituted new fraud filters that ended up rejecting or delaying millions of legitimate claims.
Jim Patterson, a Republican assemblyman from California, held a news conference in December charging that ID.me’s system “continually glitches and rejects legitimate forms of identification, forcing applicants to go through the manual verification process which takes months.”
ID.me says roughly eight users will pass through its automated self-serve flow for every one user who needs to use the video chat method to verify their identity.
“The majority of legitimate claimants pass our automated, self-serve identity verification process in less than five minutes,” Hall said. “For individuals who fail this process, we are the only company in the United States that offers a secure, video chat based method of identity verification to ensure that all users are able to prove their identity online.”
Hall says his company also exceeds the industry standard in terms of validating the identities of people with little or no credit history.
“If you just rely on credit bureaus or data brokers for this, it means anyone who doesn’t have a credit history doesn’t get through,” he said. “And that tends to have a disproportionate affect on those more likely to be less affluent, such as minority communities.”
Easily the most sophisticated skimming devices made for hacking terminals at retail self-checkout lanes are a new breed of PIN pad overlay combined with a flexible, paper-thin device that fits inside the terminal’s chip reader slot. What enables these skimmers to be so slim? They draw their power from the low-voltage current that gets triggered when a chip-based card is inserted. As a result, they do not require external batteries, and can remain in operation indefinitely.
The overlay skimming device pictured above consists of two main components. The one on top is a regular PIN pad overlay designed to record keypresses when a customer enters their debit card PIN. The overlay includes a microcontroller and a small data storage unit (bottom left).
The second component, which is wired to the overlay skimmer, is a flexible card skimmer (often called a “shimmer”) that gets fed into the mouth of the chip card acceptance slot. You’ll notice neither device contains a battery, because there simply isn’t enough space to accommodate one.
Virtually all payment card terminals at self-checkout lanes now accept (if not also require) cards with a chip to be inserted into the machine. When a chip card is inserted, the terminal reads the data stored on the smart card by sending an electric current through the chip.
Incredibly, this skimming apparatus is able to siphon a small amount of that power (a few milliamps) to record any data transmitted by the payment terminal transaction and PIN pad presses. When the terminal is no longer in use, the skimming device remains dormant.
The skimmer pictured above does not stick out of the payment terminal at all when it’s been seated properly inside the machine. Here’s what the fake PIN pad overlay and card skimmer looks like when fully inserted into the card acceptance slot and viewed head-on:
Would you detect an overlay skimmer like this? Here’s what it looks like when attached to a customer-facing payment terminal:REALLY SMART CARDS
The fraud investigators I spoke with about this device (who did so on condition of anonymity) said initially they couldn’t figure out how the thieves who plant these devices go about retrieving the stolen data from the skimmer. Normally, overlay skimmers relay this data wirelessly using a built-in Bluetooth circuit board. But that also requires the device to have a substantial internal power supply, such as a somewhat bulky cell phone battery.
The investigators surmised that the crooks would retrieve the stolen data by periodically revisiting the compromised terminals with a specialized smart card that — when inserted — instructs the skimmer to dump all of the saved information onto the card. And indeed, this is exactly what investigators ultimately found was the case.
“Originally it was just speculation,” the source told KrebsOnSecurity. “But a [compromised] merchant found a couple of ‘white’ smartcards with no markings on them [that] were left at one of their stores. They informed us that they had a lab validate that this is how it worked.”
Some readers might reasonably be asking why it would be the case that the card acceptance slot on any chip-based payment terminal would be tall enough to accommodate both a chip card and a flexible skimming device such as this.
The answer, as with many aspects of security systems that decrease in effectiveness over time, has to do with allowances made for purposes of backward compatibility. Most modern chip-based cards are significantly thinner than the average payment card was just a few years ago, but the design specifications for these terminals state that they must be able to allow the use of older, taller cards — such as those that still include embossing (raised numbers and letters). Embossing is a practically stone-age throwback to the way credit cards were originally read, through the use of manual “knuckle-buster” card imprint machines and carbon-copy paper.
“The bad guys are taking advantage of that, because most smart cards are way thinner than the specs for these machines require,” the source explained. “In fact, these slots are so tall that you could fit two cards in there.”IT’S ALL BACKWARDS
Backward compatibility is a major theme in enabling many types of card skimming, including devices made to compromise automated teller machines (ATMs). Virtually all chip-based cards (at least those issued in the United States) 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 dual functionality also allows cardholders to swipe the stripe if for some reason the card’s chip or a merchant’s smartcard-enabled terminal has malfunctioned.
Many people believe that skimmers are mainly a problem in the United States, where some ATMs still do not require more secure chip-based cards that are far more expensive and difficult for thieves to clone. However, it’s precisely because some U.S. ATMs lack this security requirement that skimming remains so prevalent in other parts of the world.
Mainly for reasons of backward compatibility to accommodate American tourists, a great number of ATMs outside the U.S. allow non-chip-based cards to be inserted into the cash machine. What’s more, many chip-based cards issued by American and European banks alike still have cardholder data encoded on a magnetic stripe in addition to the chip.
When thieves skim non-U.S. ATMs, they generally sell the stolen card and PIN data to fraudsters in Asia and North America. Those fraudsters in turn will encode the card data onto counterfeit cards and withdraw cash at older ATMs here in the United States and elsewhere.
Interestingly, even after most U.S. banks put in place fully chip-capable ATMs, the magnetic stripe will still be needed because it’s an integral part of the way ATMs work: Most ATMs in use today require a magnetic stripe for the card to be accepted into the machine. The main reason for this is to ensure that customers are putting the card into the slot correctly, as embossed letters and numbers running across odd spots in the card reader can take their toll on the machines over time.
And there are the tens of thousands of fuel pumps here in the United States that still allow chip-based card accounts to be swiped. The fuel pump industry has for years won delay after delay in implementing more secure payment requirements for cards (primarily by flexing their ability to favor their own fuel-branded cards, which largely bypass the major credit card networks).
Unsurprisingly, the past two decades have seen the emergence of organized gas theft gangs that take full advantage of the single weakest area of card security in the United States. These thieves use cloned cards to steal hundreds of gallons of gas at multiple filling stations. The gas is pumped into hollowed-out trucks and vans, which ferry the fuel to a giant tanker truck. The criminals then sell and deliver the gas at cut rate prices to shady and complicit fuel station owners and truck stops.
A great many people use debit cards for everyday purchases, but I’ve never been interested in assuming the added risk and pay for everything with cash or a credit card. Armed with your PIN and debit card data, thieves can clone the card and pull money out of your account at an ATM. Having your checking account emptied of cash while your bank sorts out the situation can be a huge hassle and create secondary problems (bounced checks, for instance).
The next skimmer post here will examine an inexpensive and ingenious analog device that helps retail workers quickly check whether their payment terminals have been tampered with by bad guys.
The leader of Mexico’s Green Party has been removed from office following allegations that he received money from a Romanian ATM skimmer gang that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from tourists visiting Mexico’s top tourist destinations over the past five years. The scandal is the latest fallout stemming from a three-part investigation into the organized crime group by KrebsOnSecurity in 2015.
Jose de la Peña Ruiz de Chávez, who leads the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM), was dismissed this month after it was revealed that his were among 79 bank accounts seized as part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation into a Romanian organized crime group that owned and operated an ATM network throughout the country.
In 2015, KrebsOnSecurity traveled to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to follow up on reports about a massive spike in ATM skimming activity that appeared centered around some of the nation’s primary tourist areas.
That three-part series concluded that Intacash, an ATM provider owned and operated by a group of Romanian citizens, had been paying technicians working for other ATM companies to install sophisticated Bluetooth-based skimming devices inside cash machines throughout the Quintana Roo region of Mexico, which includes Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Unlike most skimmers — which can be detected by looking for out-of-place components attached to the exterior of a compromised cash machine — these skimmers were hooked to the internal electronics of ATMs operated by Intacash’s competitors by authorized personnel who’d reportedly been bribed or coerced by the gang.
But because the skimmers were Bluetooth-based — allowing thieves periodically to collect stolen data just by strolling up to a compromised machine with a mobile device — KrebsOnSecurity was able to detect which ATMs had been hacked using nothing more than a cheap smart phone.
In a series of posts on Twitter, De La Peña denied any association with the Romanian organized crime gang, and said he was cooperating with authorities.
But it is likely the scandal will ensnare a number of other important figures in Mexico. According to a report in the Mexican publication Expansion Politica, the official list of bank accounts frozen by the Mexican Ministry of Finance include those tied to the notary Naín Díaz Medina; the owner of the Quequi newspaper, José Alberto Gómez Álvarez; the former Secretary of Public Security of Cancun, José Luis Jonathan Yong; his father José Luis Yong Cruz; and former governors of Quintana Roo.
In May 2020, the Mexican daily Reforma reported that the skimming gang enjoyed legal protection from a top anti-corruption official in the Mexican attorney general’s office.
The following month, my reporting from 2015 emerged as the primary focus of a documentary published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) into Intacash and its erstwhile leader — 44-year-old Florian “The Shark” Tudor. The OCCRP’s series painted a vivid picture of a highly insular, often violent transnational organized crime ring (referred to as the “Riviera Maya Gang“) that controlled at least 10 percent of the $2 billion annual global market for skimmed cards.
It also details how the group laundered their ill-gotten gains, and is alleged to have built a human smuggling ring that helped members of the crime gang cross into the U.S. and ply their skimming trade against ATMs in the United States. Finally, the series highlights how the Riviera Maya gang operated with impunity for several years by exploiting relationships with powerful anti-corruption officials in Mexico.
In 2019, police in Mexico arrested Tudor for illegal weapons possession, and raided his various properties there in connection with an investigation into the 2018 murder of his former bodyguard, Constantin Sorinel Marcu.
According to prosecution documents, Marcu and The Shark spotted my reporting shortly after it was published in 2015, and discussed what to do next on a messaging app:
The Shark: Krebsonsecurity.com See this. See the video and everything. There are two episodes. They made a telenovela.
Marcu: I see. It’s bad.
The Shark: They destroyed us. That’s it. Fuck his mother. Close everything.
The intercepted communications indicate The Shark also wanted revenge on whoever was responsible for leaking information about their operations.
The Shark: Tell them that I am going to kill them.
Marcu: Okay, I can kill them. Any time, any hour.
The Shark: They are checking all the machines. Even at banks. They found over 20.
Marcu: Whaaaat?!? They found? Already??
Since the OCCRP published its investigation, KrebsOnSecurity has received multiple death threats. One was sent from an email address tied to a Romanian programmer and malware author who is active on several cybercrime forums. It read:
“Don’t worry.. you will be killed you and your wife.. all is matter of time amigo :)”
The U.S. Justice Department today unsealed indictments against three men accused of working with the North Korean regime to carry out some of the most damaging cybercrime attacks over the past decade, including the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures, the global WannaCry ransomware contagion of 2017, and the theft of roughly $200 million and attempted theft of more than $1.2 billion from banks and other victims worldwide.
Investigators with the DOJ, U.S. Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security told reporters on Wednesday the trio’s activities involved extortion, phishing, direct attacks on financial institutions and ATM networks, as well as malicious applications that masqueraded as software tools to help people manage their cryptocurrency holdings.
Prosecutors say the hackers were part of an effort to circumvent ongoing international financial sanctions against the North Korean regime. The group is thought to be responsible for the attempted theft of approximately $1.2 billion, although it’s unclear how much of that was actually stolen.
Confirmed thefts attributed to the group include the 2016 hacking of the SWIFT payment system for Bangladesh Bank, which netted thieves $81 million; $6.1 million in a 2018 ATM cash out scheme targeting a Pakistani bank; and a total of $112 million in virtual currencies stolen between 2017 and 2020 from cryptocurrency companies in Slovenia, Indonesia and New York.
“The scope of the criminal conduct by the North Korean hackers was extensive and longrunning, and the range of crimes they have committed is staggering,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison for the Central District of California. “The conduct detailed in the indictment are the acts of a criminal nation-state that has stopped at nothing to extract revenge and obtain money to prop up its regime.”
The indictments name Jon Chang Hyok (a.k.a “Alex/Quan Jiang”), Kim Il (a.k.a. “Julien Kim”/”Tony Walker”), and Park Jin Hyok (a.k.a. Pak Jin Hek/Pak Kwang Jin). U.S. prosecutors say the men were members of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), an intelligence division of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that manages the state’s clandestine operations.
The Justice Department says those indicted were members of a DPRK-sponsored cybercrime group variously identified by the security community as the Lazarus Group and Advanced Persistent Threat 38 (APT 38). The government alleges the men reside in North Korea but were frequently stationed by the DPRK in other countries, including China and Russia.
Park was previously charged in 2018 in connection with the WannaCry and Sony Pictures attacks. But today’s indictments expanded the range of crimes attributed to Park and his alleged co-conspirators, including cryptocurrency thefts, phony cryptocurrency investment schemes and apps, and efforts to launder the proceeds of their crimes.
Prosecutors in California also today unsealed an indictment against Ghaleb Alaumary, a 37-year-old from Mississauga, Ontario who pleaded guilty in November 2020 to charges of laundering tens of millions of dollars stolen by the DPRK hackers.
The accused allegedly developed and marketed a series of cryptocurrency applications that were advertised as tools to help people manage their crypto holdings. In reality, prosecutors say, the programs were malware or downloaded malware after the applications were installed.
A joint cyber advisory from the FBI, the Treasury and DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) delves deeper into these backdoored cryptocurrency apps, a family of malware activity referred to as “AppleJeus. “Hidden Cobra” is the collective handle assigned to the hackers behind the AppleJeus malware.
“In most instances, the malicious application—seen on both Windows and Mac operating systems—appears to be from a legitimate cryptocurrency trading company, thus fooling individuals into downloading it as a third-party application from a website that seems legitimate,” the advisory reads. “In addition to infecting victims through legitimate-looking websites, HIDDEN COBRA actors also use phishing, social networking, and social engineering techniques to lure users into downloading the malware.”
The alert notes that these apps have been posing as cryptocurrency trading platforms since 2018, and have been tied to cryptocurrency thefts in more than 30 countries.
For example, the DOJ indictments say these apps were involved in stealing $11.8 million in August 2020 from a financial services company based in New York. Warrants obtained by the government allowed the FBI to seize roughly $1.9 million from two different cryptocurrency exchanges used by the hackers, money that investigators say will be returned to the New York financial services firm.
Other moneymaking and laundering schemes attributed to the North Korean hackers include the development and marketing of an initial coin offering (ICO) in 2017 called Marine Chain Token.
That blockchain-based cryptocurrency offering promised early investors the ability to purchase “fractional ownership in marine shipping vessels,” which the government says was just another way for the North Korean government to “secretly obtain funds from investors, control interests in marine shipping vessels, and evade U.S. sanctions.”
A copy of the indictments is available here (PDF).
As a total sucker for anything skimming-related, I was interested to hear from a reader working security for a retail chain in the United States who recently found Bluetooth-enabled skimming devices placed over top of payment card terminals at several stores. Interestingly, these skimmers interfered with the terminal’s ability to read chip-based cards, forcing customers to swipe the stripe instead.
Here’s a closer look at the electronic gear jammed into these overlay skimmers. It includes a hidden PIN pad overlay that captures, stores and transmits via Bluetooth data from cards swiped through the machine, as well as PINs entered on the device:
My reader source shared these images on condition that the retailer in question not be named. But it’s worth pointing out these devices can be installed on virtually any customer-facing payment terminal in the blink of eye.
Newer, chip-based payment cards are more costly and difficult for thieves to clone, but virtually all cards still store card data on a magnetic stripe on the back of the cards — mainly for reasons of backwards compatibility. This overlay skimmer included a physical component designed to block the payment terminal from reading the chip, forcing the customer to swipe the stripe instead of dip the chip.
What’s remarkable is that these badboys went undetected for several weeks, particularly given that customers would have been forced to swipe.
“In this COVID19 world, with counter and terminal wipedowns frequent it was surprising that nobody noticed the overlay placements for a number of weeks,” the source said.
I realize a great many people use debit cards for everyday purchases, but I’ve never been interested in assuming the added risk and pay for everything with cash or a credit card. Armed with your PIN and debit card data, thieves can clone the card and pull money out of your account at an ATM. Having your checking account emptied of cash while your bank sorts out the situation can be a huge hassle and create secondary problems (bounced checks, for instance).
Want to learn more about overlay skimmers? Check out these other posts:
Stories about computer security tend to go viral when they bridge the vast divide between geeks and luddites, and this week’s news about a hacker who tried to poison a Florida town’s water supply was understandably front-page material. But for security nerds who’ve been warning about this sort of thing for ages, the most surprising aspect of the incident seems to be that we learned about it at all.
Spend a few minutes searching Twitter, Reddit or any number of other social media sites and you’ll find countless examples of researchers posting proof of being able to access so-called “human-machine interfaces” — basically web pages designed to interact remotely with various complex systems, such as those that monitor and/or control things like power, water, sewage and manufacturing plants.
And yet, there have been precious few known incidents of malicious hackers abusing this access to disrupt these complex systems. That is, until this past Monday, when Florida county sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a remarkably clear-headed and fact-filled news conference about an attempt to poison the water supply of Oldsmar, a town of around 15,000 not far from Tampa.
Gualtieri told the media that someone (they don’t know who yet) remotely accessed a computer for the city’s water treatment system (using Teamviewer) and briefly increased the amount of sodium hydroxide (a.k.a. lye used to control acidity in the water) to 100 times the normal level.
“The city’s water supply was not affected,” The Tampa Bay Times reported. “A supervisor working remotely saw the concentration being changed on his computer screen and immediately reverted it, Gualtieri said. City officials on Monday emphasized that several other safeguards are in place to prevent contaminated water from entering the water supply and said they’ve disabled the remote-access system used in the attack.”
In short, a likely inexperienced intruder somehow learned the credentials needed to remotely access Oldsmar’s water system, did little to hide his activity, and then tried to change settings by such a wide margin that the alterations would be hard to overlook.
“The system wasn’t capable of doing what the attacker wanted,” said Joe Weiss, managing partner at Applied Control Solutions, a consultancy for the control systems industry. “The system isn’t capable of going up by a factor of 100 because there are certain physics problems involved there. Also, the changes he tried to make wouldn’t happen instantaneously. The operators would have had plenty of time to do something about it.”
Weiss was just one of a half-dozen experts steeped in the cybersecurity aspects of industrial control systems that KrebsOnSecurity spoke with this week. While all of those interviewed echoed Weiss’s conclusion, most also said they were concerned about the prospects of a more advanced adversary.
Here are some of the sobering takeaways from those interviews:
- There are approximately 54,000 distinct drinking water systems in the United States.
- The vast majority of those systems serve fewer than 50,000 residents, with many serving just a few hundred or thousand.
- Virtually all of them rely on some type of remote access to monitor and/or administer these facilities.
- Many of these facilities are unattended, underfunded, and do not have someone watching the IT operations 24/7.
- Many facilities have not separated operational technology (the bits that control the switches and levers) from safety systems that might detect and alert on intrusions or potentially dangerous changes.
So, given how easy it is to search the web for and find ways to remotely interact with these HMI systems, why aren’t there more incidents like the one in Oldsmar making the news? One reason may be that these facilities don’t have to disclose such events when they do happen.NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS?
The only federal law that applies to the cybersecurity of water treatment facilities in the United States is America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, which requires water systems serving more than 3,300 people “to develop or update risk assessments and emergency response plans.”
There is nothing in the law that requires such facilities to report cybersecurity incidents, such as the one that happened in Oldsmar this past weekend.
“It’s a difficult thing to get organizations to report cybersecurity incidents,” said Michael Arceneaux, managing director of the Water ISAC, an industry group that tries to facilitate information sharing and the adoption of best practices among utilities in the water sector. The Water ISAC’s 450 members serve roughly 200 million Americans, but its membership comprises less than one percent of the overall water utility industry.
“Some utilities are afraid that if their vulnerabilities are shared the hackers will have some inside knowledge on how to hack them,” Arceneaux said. “Utilities are rather hesitant to put that information in a public domain or have it in a database that could become public.”
Weiss said the federal agencies are equally reluctant to discuss such incidents.
“The only reason we knew about this incident in Florida was that the sheriff decided to hold a news conference,” Weiss said. “The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, none of them want to talk about this stuff publicly. Information sharing is broken.”
By way of example, Weiss said that not long ago he was contacted by a federal public defender representing a client who’d been convicted of hacking into a drinking water system. The attorney declined to share his client’s name, or divulge many details about the case. But he wanted to know if Weiss would be willing to serve as an expert witness who could help make the actions of a client sound less scary to a judge at sentencing time.
“He was defending this person who’d hacked into a drinking water system and had gotten all the way to the pumps and control systems,” Weiss recalled. “He said his client had only been in the system for about an hour, and he wanted to know how much damage could his client really could have done in that short a time. He was trying to get a more lenient sentence for the guy.”
Weiss said he’s tried to get more information about the defendant, but suspects the details of the case have been sealed.
Andrew Hildick-Smith is a consultant who served nearly 20 years managing remote access systems for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. Hildick-Smith said his experience working with numerous smaller water utilities has driven home the reality that most are severely under-staffed and underfunded.
“A decent portion of small water utilities depend on their community or town’s IT person to help them out with stuff,” he said. “When you’re running a water utility, there are so many things to take care of to keep it all running that there isn’t really enough time to improve what you have. That can spill over into the remote access side, and they may not have a IT person who can look at whether there’s a better way to do things, such as securing remote access and setting up things like two-factor authentication.”
Hildick-Smith said most of the cybersecurity incidents that he’s aware of involving water facilities fall into two categories. The most common are compromises where the systems affected were collateral damage from more opportunistic intrusions.
“There’ve been a bunch of times where water systems have had their control system breached, but it’s most often just sort of by chance, meaning whoever was doing it used the computer for setting up financial transactions, or it was a computer of convenience,” Hildick-Smith siad. “But attacks that involved the step of actually manipulating things is pretty short list.”
The other, increasingly common reason, he said, is of course ransomware attacks on the business side of water utilities.
“Separate from the sort of folks who wander into a SCADA system by mistake on the water side are a bunch of ransomware attacks against the business side of the water systems,” he said. “But even then you generally don’t get to hear the details of the attack.”
Hildick-Smith recalled a recent incident at a fairly large water utility that got hit with the Egregor ransomware strain.
“Things worked out internally for them, and they didn’t need to talk to the outside world or the press about it,” he said. “They made contact with the Water ISAC and the FBI, but it certainly didn’t become a press event, and any lessons they learned haven’t been able to be shared with folks.”AN INTERNATIONAL CHALLENGE
The situation is no different in Europe and elsewhere, says Marcin Dudek, a control systems security researcher at CERT Polska, the computer emergency response team which handles cyber incident reporting in Poland.
Marcin said if water facilities have not been a major target of profit-minded criminal hackers, it is probably because most of these organizations have very little worth stealing and usually no resources for paying extortionists.
“The access part is quite easy,” he said. “There’s no business case for hacking these types of systems. Quite rarely do they have a proper VPN [virtual private network] for secure remote connection. I think it’s because there is not enough awareness of the problems of cybersecurity, but also because they are not financed enough. This goes not only for the US. It’s very similar here in Poland and different countries as well.”
Many security professionals have sounded off on social media saying public utilities have no business relying on remote access tools like Teamviewer, which by default allows complete control over the host system and is guarded by a simple password.
But Marcin says Teamviewer would actually be an improvement over the types of remote access systems he commonly finds in his own research, which involves HMI systems designed to be used via a publicly-facing website.
“I’ve seen a lot of cases where the HMI was directly available from a web page, where you just log in and are then able to change some parameters,” Marcin said. “This is particularly bad because web pages can have vulnerabilities, and those vulnerabilities can give the attacker full access to the panel.”
According to Marcin, utilities typically have multiple safety systems, and in an ideal environment those are separated from control systems so that a compromise of one will not cascade into the other.
“In reality, it’s not that easy to introduce toxins into the water treatment so that people will get sick, it’s not as easy as some people say,” he said. Still, he worries about more advanced attackers, such as those responsible for multiple incidents last year in which attackers gained access to some of Israel’s water treatment systems and tried to alter water chlorine levels before being detected and stopped.
“Remote access is something we cannot avoid today,” Marcin said. “Most installations are unmanned. If it is a very small water or sewage treatment plant, there will be no people inside and they just login whenever they need to change something.”SELF EVALUTION TIME
Many smaller water treatment systems may soon be reevaluating their approach to securing remote access. Or at least that’s the hope of the Water Infrastructure of 2018, which gives utilities serving fewer than 50,000 residents until the end of June 2021 to complete a cybersecurity risk and resiliency assessment.
“The vast majority of these utilities have yet to really even think about where they stand in terms of cybersecurity,” said Hildick-Smith.
The only problem with this process is there aren’t any consequences for utilities that fail to complete their assessments by that deadline.
Hildick-Smith said while water systems are required to periodically report data about water quality to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency has no real authority to enforce the cybersecurity assessments.
“The EPA has made some kind of vague threats, but they have no enforcement ability here,” he said. “Most water systems are going to wait until close the deadline, and then hire someone to do it for them. Others will probably just self-certify, raise their hands and say, ‘Yeah, we’re good.'”
Microsoft today rolled out updates to plug at least 56 security holes in its Windows operating systems and other software. One of the bugs is already being actively exploited, and six of them were publicized prior to today, potentially giving attackers a head start in figuring out how to exploit the flaws.
Nine of the 56 vulnerabilities earned Microsoft’s most urgent “critical” rating, meaning malware or miscreants could use them to seize remote control over unpatched systems with little or no help from users.
The flaw being exploited in the wild already — CVE-2021-1732 — affects Windows 10, Server 2016 and later editions. It received a slightly less dire “important” rating and mainly because it is a vulnerability that lets an attacker increase their authority and control on a device, which means the attacker needs to already have access to the target system.
Two of the other bugs that were disclosed prior to this week are critical and reside in Microsoft’s .NET Framework, a component required by many third-party applications (most Windows users will have some version of .NET installed).
Windows 10 users should note that while the operating system installs all monthly patch roll-ups in one go, that rollup does not typically include .NET updates, which are installed on their own. So when you’ve backed up your system and installed this month’s patches, you may want to check Windows Update again to see if there are any .NET updates pending.
A key concern for enterprises is another critical bug in the DNS server on Windows Server 2008 through 2019 versions that could be used to remotely install software of the attacker’s choice. CVE-2021-24078 earned a CVSS Score of 9.8, which is about as dangerous as they come.
Recorded Future says this vulnerability can be exploited remotely by getting a vulnerable DNS server to query for a domain it has not seen before (e.g. by sending a phishing email with a link to a new domain or even with images embedded that call out to a new domain). Kevin Breen of Immersive Labs notes that CVE-2021-24078 could let an attacker steal loads of data by altering the destination for an organization’s web traffic — such as pointing internal appliances or Outlook email access at a malicious server.
Windows Server users also should be aware that Microsoft this month is enforcing the second round of security improvements as part of a two-phase update to address CVE-2020-1472, a severe vulnerability that first saw active exploitation back in September 2020.
The vulnerability, dubbed “Zerologon,” is a bug in the core “Netlogon” component of Windows Server devices. The flaw lets an unauthenticated attacker gain administrative access to a Windows domain controller and run any application at will. A domain controller is a server that responds to security authentication requests in a Windows environment, and a compromised domain controller can give attackers the keys to the kingdom inside a corporate network.
Microsoft’s initial patch for CVE-2020-1472 fixed the flaw on Windows Server systems, but did nothing to stop unsupported or third-party devices from talking to domain controllers using the insecure Netlogon communications method. Microsoft said it chose this two-step approach “to ensure vendors of non-compliant implementations can provide customers with updates.” With this month’s patches, Microsoft will begin rejecting insecure Netlogon attempts from non-Windows devices.
A couple of other, non-Windows security updates are worth mentioning. Adobe today released updates to fix at least 50 security holes in a range of products, including Photoshop and Reader. The Acrobat/Reader update tackles a critical zero-day flaw that Adobe says is actively being exploited in the wild against Windows users, so if you have Adobe Acrobat or Reader installed, please make sure these programs are kept up to date.
There is also a zero-day flaw in Google’s Chrome Web browser (CVE-2021-21148) that is seeing active attacks. Chrome downloads security updates automatically, but users still need to restart the browser for the updates to fully take effect. If you’re a Chrome user and notice a red “update” prompt to the right of the address bar, it’s time to save your work and restart the browser.
Standard reminder: 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 less likely to pull your hair out 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.
Keep in mind that Windows 10 by default will automatically download and install updates on its own schedule. If you wish to ensure Windows has been set to pause updating so you can back up your files and/or system before the operating system decides to reboot and install patches, see this guide.
And 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.
Cyber cops in Ukraine carried out an arrest and several raids last week in connection with the author of a U-Admin, a software package used to administer what’s being called “one of the world’s largest phishing services.” The operation was carried out in coordination with the FBI and authorities in Australia, which was particularly hard hit by phishing scams perpetrated by U-Admin customers.
The Ukrainian attorney general’s office said it worked with the nation’s police force to identify a 39-year-old man from the Ternopil region who developed a phishing package and special administrative panel for the product.
“According to the analysis of foreign law enforcement agencies, more than 50% of all phishing attacks in 2019 in Australia were carried out thanks to the development of the Ternopil hacker,” the attorney general’s office said, noting that investigators had identified hundreds of U-Admin customers.
Brad Marden, superintendent of cybercrime operations for the Australian Federal Police (AFP), said their investigation into who was behind U-Admin began in late 2018, after Australian citizens began getting deluged with phishing attacks via mobile text messages that leveraged the software.
“It was rampant,” Marden said, noting that the AFP identified the suspect and referred the case to the Ukrainians for prosecution. “At one stage in 2019 we had a couple of hundred SMS phishing campaigns tied to just this particular actor. Pretty much every Australian received a half dozen of these phishing attempts.”
U-Admin, a.k.a. “Universal Admin,” is crimeware platform that first surfaced in 2016. U-Admin was sold by an individual who used the hacker handle “Kaktys” on multiple cybercrime forums.
According to this comprehensive breakdown of the phishing toolkit, the U-Admin control panel isn’t sold on its own, but rather it is included when customers contact the developer and purchase a set of phishing pages designed to mimic a specific brand — such as a bank website or social media platform.
Cybersecurity threat intelligence firm Intel 471 describes U-Admin as an information stealing framework that uses several plug-ins in one location to help users pilfer victim credentials more efficiently. Those plug-ins include a phishing page generator, a victim tracker, and even a component to help manage money mules (for automatic transfers from victim accounts to people who were hired in advance to receive and launder stolen funds).
Perhaps the biggest selling point for U-Admin is a module that helps phishers intercept multi-factor authentication codes. This core functionality is what’s known as a “web inject,” because it allows phishers to dynamically interact with victims in real-time by injecting content into the phishing page that prompts the victim to enter additional information. The video below, produced by the U-Admin developer, shows a few examples (click to enlarge).
There are multiple recent reports that U-Admin has been used in conjunction with malware — particularly Qakbot (a.k.a. Qbot) — to harvest one-time codes needed for multi-factor authentication.
“Paired with [U-Admin’s 2FA harvesting functionality], a threat actor can remotely connect to the Qakbot-infected device, enter the stolen credentials plus the 2FA token, and begin initiating transactions,” explains this Nov. 2020 blog post on an ongoing Qakbot campaign that was first documented three months earlier by Check Point Research.
In the days following the Ukrainian law enforcement action, several U-Admin customers on the forums where Kaktys was most active began discussing whether the product was still safe to use following the administrator’s arrest.
The AFP’s Marden hinted that the suspicions raised by U-Admin’s customer base might be warranted.
“I wouldn’t be unhappy with the crooks continuing to use that piece of kit, without saying anything more on that front,” Marden said.
While Kaktys’s customers may be primarily concerned about the risks of using a product supported by a guy who just got busted, perhaps they should be more worried about other crooks [or perhaps the victim banks themselves] moving in on their turf: It appears the U-Admin package being sold in the underground has long included a weakness that could allow anyone to view or alter data that was phished with the help of this kit.
The security flaw was briefly alluded to in a 2018 writeup on U-Admin by the SANS Internet Storm Center.
“Looking at the professionality of the code, the layout and the functionality I’m giving this control panel 3 out of 5 stars,” joked SANS guest author Remco Verhoef. “We wanted to give them 4 stars, but we gave one star less because of an SQL injection vulnerability” [link added].
That vulnerability was documented in more detail at exploit archive Packet Storm Security in March 2020 and indexed by Check Point Software in May 2020, suggesting it still persists in current versions of the product.
The best advice to sidestep phishing scams is to avoid clicking on links that arrive unbidden in emails, text messages and other mediums. This advice is the same whether you’re using a mobile or desktop device. In fact, this phishing framework specialized in lures specifically designed to be loaded on mobile devices.
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.