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The Great $50M African IP Address Heist

Wed, 12/11/2019 - 16:31

A top executive at the nonprofit entity responsible for doling out chunks of Internet addresses to businesses and other organizations in Africa has resigned his post following accusations that he secretly operated several companies which sold tens of millions of dollars worth of the increasingly scarce resource to online marketers. The allegations stemmed from a three-year investigation by a U.S.-based researcher whose findings shed light on a murky area of Internet governance that is all too often exploited by spammers and scammers alike.

There are fewer than four billion so-called “Internet Protocol version 4” or IPv4 addresses available for use, but the vast majority of them have already been allocated. The global dearth of available IP addresses has turned them into a commodity wherein each IP can fetch between $15-$25 on the open market. This has led to boom times for those engaged in the acquisition and sale of IP address blocks, but it has likewise emboldened those who specialize in absconding with and spamming from dormant IP address blocks without permission from the rightful owners.

Perhaps the most dogged chronicler of this trend is California-based freelance researcher Ron Guilmette, who since 2016 has been tracking several large swaths of IP address blocks set aside for use by African entities that somehow found their way into the hands of Internet marketing firms based in other continents.

Over the course of his investigation, Guilmette unearthed records showing many of these IP addresses were quietly commandeered from African businesses that are no longer in existence or that were years ago acquired by other firms. Guilmette estimates the current market value of the purloined IPs he’s documented in this case exceeds USD $50 million.

In collaboration with journalists based in South Africa, Guilmette discovered tens of thousands of these wayward IP addresses that appear to have been sold off by a handful of companies founded by the policy coordinator for The African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC), one of the world’s five regional Internet registries which handles IP address allocations for Africa and the Indian Ocean region.

That individual — Ernest Byaruhanga — was only the second person hired at AFRINIC back in 2004. Byaruhanga did not respond to requests for comment. However, he abruptly resigned from his position in October 2019 shortly after news of the IP address scheme was first detailed by Jan Vermeulen, a reporter for the South African tech news publication Mybroadband.co.za who assisted Guilmette in his research.

KrebsOnSecurity sought comment from AFRINIC’s new CEO Eddy Kayihura, who said the organization was aware of the allegations and is currently conducting an investigation into the matter.

“Since the investigation is ongoing, you will understand that we prefer to complete it before we make a public statement,” Kayihura said. “Mr. Byauhanga’s resignation letter did not mention specific reasons, though no one would be blamed to think the two events are related.”

Guilmette said the first clue he found suggesting someone at AFRINIC may have been involved came after he located records suggesting that official AFRINIC documents had been altered to change the ownership of IP address blocks once assigned to Infoplan (now Network and Information Technology Ltd), a South African company that was folded into the State IT Agency in 1998.

“This guy was shoveling IP addresses out the backdoor and selling them on the streets,” said Guilmette, who’s been posting evidence of his findings for years to public discussion lists on Internet governance. “To say that he had an evident conflict of interest would be a gross understatement.”

For example, documents obtained from the government of Uganda by Guilmette and others show Byaruhanga registered a private company called ipv4leasing just a year after joining AFRINIC. Historic WHOIS records from domaintools.com [a former advertiser on this site] indicate Byaruhanga was the registrant of two domain names tied to this company — ipv4leasing.org and .net — back in 2013.

Guilmette and his journalist contacts in South Africa uncovered many instances of other companies tied to Byaruhanga and his immediate family members that appear to have been secretly selling AFRINIC IP address blocks to just about anyone willing to pay the asking price. But the activities of ipv4leasing are worth a closer look because they demonstrate how this type of shadowy commerce is critical to operations of spammers and scammers, who are constantly sullying swaths of IP addresses and seeking new ones to keep their operations afloat.

Historic AFRINIC record lookups show ipv4leasing.org tied to at least six sizable blocks of IP addresses that once belonged to a now defunct company from Cameroon called ITC that also did business as “Afriq*Access.”

In 2013, Anti-spam group Spamhaus.org began tracking floods of junk email originating from this block of IPs that once belonged to Afriq*Access. Spamhaus says it ultimately traced the domains advertised in those spam emails back to Adconion Direct, a U.S. based email marketing company that employs several executives who are now facing federal criminal charges for allegedly paying others to hijack large ranges of IP addresses used in wide-ranging spam campaigns.

Bill Woodcock is executive director of Packet Clearing House, a non-profit research institute dedicated to understanding and supporting Internet traffic exchange technology, policy, and economics. Woodcock said it’s not unheard of for employees at regional Internet registries (RIRs) to get caught selling off IP addresses as a side hustle, but that this case is by far the longest-running alleged scheme to date.

“It’s not unprecedented in the sense that there have been insider deals in the past done illicitly by employees of other RIRs,” he said. “But typically they’ve been one-off or short-lived before getting caught or fired.”

Anyone interested in a deeper dive on Guilmette’s years-long investigation — including the various IP address blocks in question — should check out MyBroadband’s detailed Dec. 4 story, How Internet Resources Worth R800 Million (USD $54M) Were Stolen and Sold on the Black Market.

Patch Tuesday, December 2019 Edition

Tue, 12/10/2019 - 19:51

Microsoft today released updates to plug three dozen security holes in its Windows operating system and other software. The patches include fixes for seven critical bugs — those that can be exploited by malware or miscreants to take control over a Windows system with no help from users — as well as another flaw in most versions of Windows that is already being exploited in active attacks.

By nearly all accounts, the chief bugaboo this month is CVE-2019-1458, a vulnerability in a core Windows component (Win32k) that is present in Windows 7 through 10 and Windows Server 2008-2019. This bug is already being exploited in the wild, and according to Recorded Future the exploit available for it is similar to CVE-2019-0859, a Windows flaw reported in April that was found being sold in underground markets.

CVE-2019-1458 is what’s known as a “privilege escalation” flaw, meaning an attacker would need to previously have compromised the system using another vulnerability. Handy in that respect is CVE-2019-1468, a similarly widespread critical issue in the Windows font library that could be exploited just by getting the user to visit a hacked or malicious Web site.

Chris Goettl, director of security at Ivanti, called attention to a curious patch advisory Microsoft released today for CVE-2019-1489, which is yet another weakness in the Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) client, a component of Windows which lets users view and manage their system from a remote computer. What’s curious about this advisory is that it applies only to Windows XP Service Pack 3, which is no longer receiving security updates.

“The Exploitability Assessment for Latest Software Release and Older Software Release is 0, which is usually the value reserved for a vulnerability that is known to be exploited, yet the Exploited value was currently set to ‘No’ as the bulletin was released today,” Goettl said. “If you look at the Zero Day from this month (CVE-2019-1458) the EA for Older Software Release is ‘0 – Exploitation Detected.’ An odd discrepancy on top of a CVE advisory for an outdated OS. It is very likely this is being exploited in the wild.”

Microsoft didn’t release a patch for this bug on XP, and its advisory on it is about as sparse as they come. But if you’re still depending on Windows XP for remote access, you likely have bigger security concerns. Microsoft has patched many critical RDP flaws in the past year. Even the FBI last year encouraged users to disable it unless needed, citing flawed encryption mechanisms in older versions and a lack of access controls which make RDP a frequent entry point for malware and ransomware.

Speaking of no-longer-supported Microsoft operating systems, Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 will cease receiving security updates after the next decade’s first Patch Tuesday comes to pass on January 14, 2020. While businesses and other volume-license purchasers will have the option to pay for further fixes after that point, all other Windows 7 users who want to stick with Windows will need to consider migrating to Windows 10 soon.

Windows 10 likes to install patches and sometimes feature updates all in one go and reboot your computer on its own schedule, but you don’t have to accept this default setting. Windows Central has a useful guide on how to disable or postpone automatic updates until you’re ready to install them. For all other Windows OS users, if you’d rather be alerted to new updates when they’re available so you can choose when to install them, there’s a setting for that in Windows Update. To get there, click the Windows key on your keyboard and type “windows update” into the box that pops up.

Keep in mind that while staying up-to-date on Windows patches is a good idea, 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 probably not losing your mind when the odd buggy patch causes problems booting the system. So do yourself a favor and backup your files before installing any patches.

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 even chime in here with some helpful tips.

Finally, once again there are no security updates for Adobe Flash Player this month (there is a non-security update available), but Adobe did release critical updates for Windows and macOS versions of its Acrobat and PDF Reader that fix more than 20 vulnerabilities in these products. Photoshop and ColdFusion 2018 also received security updates today. Links to advisories here.

CISO Magazine Honors KrebsOnSecurity

Tue, 12/10/2019 - 10:46

CISO Magazine, a publication dedicated to covering issues near and dear to corporate chief information security officers everywhere, has graciously awarded this author the designation of “Cybersecurity Person of the Year” in its December 2019 issue.

KrebsOnSecurity is grateful for the unexpected honor. But I can definitely think of quite a few people who are far more deserving of this title. In fact, if I’m eligible for any kind of recognition, perhaps “Bad News Harbinger of the Year” would be more apt.

As in years past, 2019 featured quite a few big breaches and more than a little public speaking. Almost without fail at each engagement multiple C-level folks will approach after my talk, hand me their business cards and say something like, “I hope you never have to use this, but if you do please call me first.”

I’ve taken that advice to heart, and now endeavor wherever possible to give a heads up to CISOs/CSOs about a breach before reaching out to the public relations folks. I fully realize that in many cases the person in that role will refer me to the PR department eventually or perhaps immediately.

But on balance, my experience so far is that an initial outreach to the top security person in the organization often results in that inquiry being taken far more seriously. And including this person in my initial outreach makes it much more likely that this individual ends up being on the phone when the company returns my call.

Too often, these conversations are led by the breached organization’s general counsel, which strikes me as an unnecessarily confrontational and strategically misguided approach. Especially if this is also their playbook for responding to random security researchers trying to let the company know about a dangerous security vulnerability, data breach or leak.

At least when there is a C-level security person on the phone when that call comes in I can be relatively sure I’m not going to get snowed on the technical details. While this may a distant concern for the organization in the throes of responding to a data security incident, the truth is that the first report is usually what gets repeated in the media — whether or not it is wholly accurate or fair.

This year’s CISO Magazine awards also honor the contributions of Rik Ferguson, vice president security research at Trend Micro, and Troy Hunt, an expert on web security and author of the data breach search website Have I Been Pwned? More at cisomag.com.

Ransomware at Colorado IT Provider Affects 100+ Dental Offices

Sat, 12/07/2019 - 15:17

A Colorado company that specializes in providing IT services to dental offices suffered a ransomware attack this week that is disrupting operations for more than 100 dentistry practices, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

Multiple sources affected say their IT provider, Englewood, Colo. based Complete Technology Solutions (CTS), was hacked, allowing a potent strain of ransomware known as “Sodinokibi” or “rEvil” to be installed on computers at more than 100 dentistry businesses that rely on the company for a range of services — including network security, data backup and voice-over-IP phone service.

Reached via phone Friday evening, CTS President Herb Miner declined to answer questions about the incident. When asked about reports of a ransomware attack on his company, Miner simply said it was not a good time and hung up.

The attack on CTS comes little more than two months after Sodinokibi hit Wisconsin-based dental IT provider PerCSoft, an intrusion that encrypted files for approximately 400 dental practices.

Thomas Terronez, CEO of Iowa-based Medix Dental, said he’s heard from several affected practices that the attackers are demanding $700,000 in bitcoin from some of the larger victims to receive a key that can unlock files encrypted by the ransomware.

Others reported a ransom demand in the tens of thousands of dollars. In previous ransomware attacks, the assailants appear to have priced their ransom demands based on the number of workstation and/or server endpoints within the victim organization. According to CTS, its clients typically have anywhere from 10 to 100 workstations.

Terronez said he’s spoken with multiple other practices that have been sidelined by the ransomware attack, and that some CTS clients had usable backups of their data available off-site, while others have been working with third party companies to independently negotiate and pay the ransom for their practice only.

Many of CTS’s customers took to posting about the attack on a private Facebook group for dentists, discussing steps they’ve taken or attempted to take to get their files back.

“I would recommend everyone reach out to their insurance provider,” said one dentist based in Denver. “I was told by CTS that I would have to pay the ransom to get my corrupted files back.”

“My experience has been very different,” said dental practitioner based in Las Vegas. “No help from my insurance. Still not working, great loss of income, patients are mad, staff even worse.”

Terronez said the dental industry in general has fairly atrocious security practices, and that relatively few offices are willing to spend what’s needed to fend off sophisticated attackers. He said it’s common to see servers that haven’t been patched for over a year, backups that haven’t run for a while, Windows Defender as only point of detection, non-segmented wireless networks, and the whole staff having administrator access to the computers — sometimes all using the same or simple passwords.

“A lot of these [practices] are forced into a price point on what they’re willing to spend,” said Terronez, whose company also offers IT services to dental providers. “The most important thing for these offices is how fast can you solve their problems, and not necessarily the security stuff behind the scenes until it really matters.”

Apple Explains Mysterious iPhone 11 Location Requests

Thu, 12/05/2019 - 13:46

KrebsOnSecurity ran a story this week that puzzled over Apple‘s response to inquiries about a potential privacy leak in its new iPhone 11 line, in which the devices appear to intermittently seek the user’s location even when all applications and system services are individually set never to request this data. Today, Apple disclosed that this behavior is tied to the inclusion of a short-range technology that lets iPhone 11 users share files locally with other nearby phones that support this feature, and that a future version of its mobile operating system will allow users to disable it.

I published Tuesday’s story mainly because Apple’s initial and somewhat dismissive response — that this was expected behavior and not a bug — was at odds with its own privacy policy and with its recent commercials stating that customers should be in full control over what they share via their phones and what their phones share about them.

But in a statement provided today, Apple said the location beaconing I documented in a video was related to Ultra Wideband technology that “provides spatial awareness allowing iPhone to understand its position relative to other Ultra Wideband enabled devices (i.e. all new iPhone 11s, including the Pro and Pro Max).

Ultra-wideband (a.k.a UWB) is a radio technology that uses a very low energy level for short-range, high-bandwidth communications of a large portion of the radio spectrum without interfering with more conventional transmissions.

“So users can do things like share a file with someone using AirDrop simply by pointing at another user’s iPhone,” Apple’s statement reads. The company further explained that the location information indicator (a small, upward-facing arrow to the left of the battery icon) appears because the device periodically checks to see whether it is being used in a handful of countries for which Apple hasn’t yet received approval to deploy Ultra Wideband.

“Ultra Wideband technology is an industry standard technology and is subject to international regulatory requirements that require it to be turned off in certain locations,” the statement continues. “iOS uses Location Services to help determine if iPhone is in these prohibited locations in order to disable Ultra Wideband and comply with regulations. The management of Ultrawide Band compliance and its use of location data is done entirely on the device and Apple is not collecting user location data.”

Apple’s privacy policy says users can disable all apps and system services that query the user’s location all at once by toggling the main “Location Services” option to “off.” Alternatively, it says, users can achieve the same results by individually turning off all System Services that use location in the iPhone settings.

What prompted my initial inquiry to Apple about this on Nov. 13 was that the location services icon on the iPhone 11 would reappear every few minutes even though all of the device’s individual location services had been disabled.

“It is expected behavior that the Location Services icon appears in the status bar when Location Services is enabled,” Apple stated in their initial response. “The icon appears for system services that do not have a switch in Settings” [emphasis added].

Now we know more about at least one of those services. Apple says it plans to include the option of a dedicated toggle in System Services to disable the UWB activity in an upcoming update of its iOS operating system, although it didn’t specify when that option might be available.

The one head-scratcher remaining is that the new iPhone seems to check whether it’s in a country that allows UWB fairly frequently, even though the list of countries where this feature is not yet permitted is fairly small, and includes Argentina, Indonesia and Paraguay. A complete list of countries where iPhones can use UWB is here. The principal remaining concern may be that these periodic checks unnecessarily drain the iPhone 11’s battery.

It is never my intention to create alarm where none should exist; there are far too many real threats to security and privacy that deserve greater public attention and scrutiny from the news media. However, Apple does itself and its users no favors when it takes weeks to respond (or not, as my colleague Zack Whittaker at TechCrunch discovered) to legitimate privacy concerns, and then does so in a way that only generates more questions.

The iPhone 11 Pro’s Location Data Puzzler

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 21:51

One of the more curious behaviors of Apple’s new iPhone 11 Pro is that it intermittently seeks the user’s location information even when all applications and system services on the phone are individually set to never request this data. Apple says this is by design, but that response seems at odds with the company’s own privacy policy.

The privacy policy available from the iPhone’s Location Services screen says, “If Location Services is on, your iPhone will periodically send the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers (where supported by a device) in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple, to be used for augmenting this crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower locations.”

The policy explains users can disable all location services entirely with one swipe (by navigating to Settings > Privacy > Location Services, then switching “Location Services” to “off”). When one does this, the location services indicator — a small diagonal upward arrow to the left of the battery icon — no longer appears unless Location Services is re-enabled.

The policy continues: “You can also disable location-based system services by tapping on System Services and turning off each location-based system service.” But apparently there are some system services on this model (and possibly other iPhone 11 models) which request location data and cannot be disabled by users without completely turning off location services, as the arrow icon still appears periodically even after individually disabling all system services that use location.

On Nov. 13, KrebsOnSecurity contacted Apple to report this as a possible privacy bug in the new iPhone Pro and/or in iOS 13.x, sharing a video showing how the device still seeks the user’s location when each apps and system service is set to “never” request location information (but with the main Location Data service still turned on).

The video above was recorded on a brand new iPhone 11 Pro. The behavior appears to persist in the latest iPhone operating system (iOS 13.2.3) on iPhone 11 Pro devices. A review of Apple’s support forum indicates other users are experiencing the same issue. I was not able replicate this behavior on an older model iPhone 8 with the latest iOS.

This week Apple responded that the company does not see any concerns here and that the iPhone was performing as designed.

“We do not see any actual security implications,” an Apple engineer wrote in a response to KrebsOnSecurity. “It is expected behavior that the Location Services icon appears in the status bar when Location Services is enabled. The icon appears for system services that do not have a switch in Settings” [emphasis added].

Apple has not yet responded to follow-up questions, but it seems they are saying their phones have some system services that query your location regardless of whether one has disabled this setting individually for all apps and iOS system services.

Granted, the latest versions of iOS give users far more granular control over the sharing of this data than in the past, especially with respect to third-party apps. And perhaps this oddity is somehow related to adding support for super-fast new WiFi 6 routers, which may have involved the introduction of new hardware.

But it would be nice to know what has changed in the iPhone 11 and why, particularly given Apple’s recent commercials on how they respect user privacy choices — including location information. This post will be updated in the event Apple provides a more detailed response.

It’s Way Too Easy to Get a .gov Domain Name

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 20:08

Many readers probably believe they can trust links and emails coming from U.S. federal government domain names, or else assume there are at least more stringent verification requirements involved in obtaining a .gov domain versus a commercial one ending in .com or .org. But a recent experience suggests this trust may be severely misplaced, and that it is relatively straightforward for anyone to obtain their very own .gov domain.

Earlier this month, KrebsOnSecurity received an email from a researcher who said he got a .gov domain simply by filling out and emailing an online form, grabbing some letterhead off the homepage of a small U.S. town that only has a “.us” domain name, and impersonating the town’s mayor in the application.

“I used a fake Google Voice number and fake Gmail address,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous for this story but who said he did it mainly as a thought experiment. “The only thing that was real was the mayor’s name.”

The email from this source was sent from exeterri[.]gov, a domain registered on Nov. 14 that at the time displayed the same content as the .us domain it was impersonating — town.exeter.ri.us — which belongs to the town of Exeter, Rhode Island (the impostor domain is no longer resolving).

“I had to [fill out] ‘an official authorization form,’ which basically just lists your admin, tech guy, and billing guy,” the source continued. “Also, it needs to be printed on ‘official letterhead,’ which of course can be easily forged just by Googling a document from said municipality. Then you either mail or fax it in. After that, they send account creation links to all the contacts.”

Technically, what my source did was wire fraud (obtaining something of value via the Internet/telephone/fax through false pretenses); had he done it through the U.S. mail, he could be facing mail fraud charges if caught.

But a cybercriminal — particularly a state-sponsored actor operating outside the United States — likely would not hesitate to do so if he thought the $400 pricetag for registering a .gov was worth it to make his malicious website, emails or fake news social media campaign more believable.

“I never said it was legal, just that it was easy,” the source said. “I assumed there would be at least ID verification. The deepest research I needed to do was Yellow Pages records.”

On Tuesday, KrebsOnSecurity contacted officials in the real town of Exeter, RI to find out if anyone from the U.S. General Services Administration — the federal agency responsible for managing the .gov domain registration process — had sought to validate the request prior to granting a .gov in their name.

A person who called back from the town clerk’s office but who asked not to be named said someone from the GSA did phone the mayor’s office on Nov. 24 — which was four days after I reached out to the federal agency about the domain in question and approximately 10 days after the GSA had already granted the phony request.

WHO WANTS TO BE A GOVERNMENT?

Responding today via email, a GSA spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on open investigations.

“GSA is working with the appropriate authorities and has already implemented additional fraud prevention controls,” the agency wrote, without elaborating on what those additional controls might be.

KrebsOnSecurity did get a substantive response from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which is leading efforts to protect the federal .gov domain of civilian government networks [NB: The head of CISA, Christopher C. Krebs, is of no relation to this author].

The CISA said this matter is so critical to maintaining the security and integrity of the .gov space that DHS is now making a play to assume control over the issuance of all .gov domains.

“The .gov top-level domain (TLD) is critical infrastructure for thousands of federal, state and local government organizations across the country,” reads a statement CISA sent to KrebsOnSecurity. “Its use by these institutions should instill trust. In order to increase the security of all US-based government organizations, CISA is seeking the authority to manage the .gov TLD and assume governance from the General Services Administration.”

The statement continues:

“This transfer would allow CISA to modernize the .gov registrar, enhance the security of individual .gov domains, ensure that only authorized users obtain a .gov domain, proactively validate existing .gov holders, and better secure everyone that relies on .gov. We are appreciative of Congress’ efforts to put forth the DOTGOV bill [link added] that would grant CISA this important authority moving forward. GSA has been an important partner in these efforts and our two agencies will continue to work hand-in-hand to identify and implement near-term security enhancements to the .gov.”

FEELING LUCKY? LASVEGAS.GOV CAN BE YOURS FOR $400!

In an era when the nation’s top intelligence agencies continue to warn about ongoing efforts by Russia and other countries to interfere in our elections and democratic processes, it may be difficult to fathom that an attacker could so easily leverage such a simple method for impersonating state and local authorities.

Despite the ease with which apparently anyone can get their own .gov domain, there are plenty of major U.S. cities that currently do not have one, probably because they never realized they could with very little effort or expense. A review of the Top 10 most populous U.S. cities indicates only half of them have obtained .gov domains, including Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, and San Diego.

Yes, you read that right: houston.gov, losangeles.gov, newyorkcity.gov, and philadelphia.gov are all still available. As is the .gov for San Jose, Calif., the economic, cultural and political center of Silicon Valley. No doubt a great number of smaller cities also haven’t figured out they’re eligible to secure their own .gov domains.

In addition to being able to convincingly spoof communications from and websites for cities and towns, there are almost certainly a myriad other ways that possessing a phony .gov domain could be abused. For example, my source said he was able to register his domain in Facebook’s law enforcement subpoena system, although he says he did not attempt to abuse that access.

The source who successfully registered an impostor .gov domain said he was able to use that access to register for Facebook’s law enforcement subpoena system.

One way fraudsters might make a fake .gov domain even more convincing would be to equip the site with an SSL certificate so that the phony domain displays the green padlock icon in a user’s Web browser. While the presence of a lock icon is most definitely not an indicator that a site is legitimate (somewhere north of 50 percent of all phishing sites now include the padlock), anyone who obtains a .gov domain is automatically eligible to have an SSL cert issued for that domain by the GSA.

Now consider what a well-funded adversary could do on Election Day armed with a handful of .gov domains for some major cities in Democrat strongholds within key swing states: The attackers register their domains a few days in advance of the election, and then on Election Day send out emails signed by .gov from, say, miami.gov (also still available) informing residents that bombs had gone off at polling stations in Democrat-leaning districts. Such a hoax could well decide the fate of a close national election.

John Levine, a domain name expert, consultant and author of the book The Internet for Dummies, said the .gov domain space wasn’t always so open as it is today.

“Back in the day, everyone not in the federal government was supposed to register in the .us space,” Levine said. “At some point, someone decided .gov is going to be more democratic and let everyone in the states register. But as we see, there’s still no validation.”

Levine, who served three years as mayor of the village of Trumansburg, New York, said it would not be terribly difficult for the GSA to do a better job of validating .gov domain requests, but that some manual verification would probably be required.

“When I was a mayor, I was in frequent contact with the state, and states know who all their municipalities are and how to reach people in charge of them,” Levine said. “Also, every state has a Secretary of State that keeps track of what all the subdivisions are, and including them in the process could help as well.”

Levine said like the Internet itself, this entire debacle is yet another example of an important resource with potentially explosive geopolitical implications that was never designed with security or authentication in mind.

“It turns out that the GSA is pretty good at doing boring clerical stuff,” he said. “But as we keep discovering, what we once thought was a boring clerical thing now actually has real-world security implications.”

Sale of 4 Million Stolen Cards Tied to Breaches at 4 Restaurant Chains

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 07:32

On Nov. 23, one of the cybercrime underground’s largest bazaars for buying and selling stolen payment card data announced the immediate availability of some four million freshly-hacked debit and credit cards. KrebsOnSecurity has learned this latest batch of cards was siphoned from four different compromised restaurant chains that are most prevalent across the midwest and eastern United States.

An advertisement on the cybercrime store Joker’s Stash for a new batch of ~4 million credit/debit cards stolen from four different restaurant chains across the midwest and eastern United States.

Two financial industry sources who track payment card fraud and asked to remain anonymous for this story said the four million cards were taken in breaches recently disclosed by restaurant chains Krystal, Moe’s, McAlister’s Deli and Schlotzsky’s. Krystal announced a card breach last month. The other three restaurants are all part of the same parent company and disclosed breaches in August 2019.

KrebsOnSecurity heard the same conclusion from Gemini Advisory, a New York-based fraud intelligence company.

“Gemini found that the four breached restaurants, ranked from most to least affected, were Krystal, Moe’s, McAlister’s and Schlotzsky’s,”  Gemini wrote in an analysis of the New World Order batch shared with this author. “Of the 1,750+ locations belonging to these restaurants, nearly 50% were breached and had customer payment card data exposed. These breached locations were concentrated in the central and eastern United States, with the highest exposure in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Alabama.”

McAlister’s (green), Schlotzsky’s (blue), Moe’s (gray), and Krystal (orange) locations across the United States. There is an additional Moe’s location in Hawaii that is not depicted. Image: Gemini Advisory.

Focus Brands (which owns Moe’s, McAlister’s, and Schlotzsky’s) was breached between April and July 2019, and publicly disclosed this on August 23. Krystal claims to have been breached between July and September 2019, and disclosed this in late October.

The stolen cards went up for sale at the infamous Joker’s Stash carding bazaar. The most recent big breach marketed on Joker’s Stash was dubbed “Solar Energy,” and included more than five million cards stolen from restaurants, fuel pumps and drive-through coffee shops operated by Hy-Vee, a supermarket chain based in Iowa.

According to Gemini, Joker’s Stash likely delayed the debut of the New World Order cards to keep from flooding the market with too much stolen card data all at once, which can have the effect of lowering prices for stolen cards across the board.

“Joker’s Stash first announced their breach on November 11, 2019 and published the data on November 22,” Gemini found. “This delay between breaches occurring as early as July and data being offered in the dark web in November appears to be an effort to avoid oversaturating the dark web market with an excess of stolen payment records.”

Most card breaches at restaurants and other brick-and-mortar stores occur when cybercriminals manage to remotely install malicious software on the retailer’s card-processing systems, often by compromising third-party firms that help manage these systems. This type of point-of-sale malware is capable of copying data stored on a credit or debit card’s magnetic stripe when those cards are swiped at compromised payment terminals, and that data can then be used to create counterfeit copies of the cards.

The United States is embarrassingly the last of the G20 nations to make the shift to more secure chip-based cards, which are far more expensive and difficult for criminals to counterfeit. Unfortunately, many merchants have not yet shifted to using chip-based card readers and still swipe their customers’ cards.

According to stats released in September by Visa, 80 percent of U.S. storefronts now accept chip cards. Visa says for merchants who have completed the chip upgrade, counterfeit fraud dollars dropped 87 percent in March 2019 compared to September 2015. This may help explain why card thieves increasingly are shifting their attention to compromising e-commerce merchants, a trend seen in virtually every country that has already made the transition to chip-based cards.

Companies that accept, store, process and transmit credit and debit card payments are required to implement so-called Payment Card Industry (PCI) security standards, but not all entities are required to prove that they have met them. While the PCI standards are widely considered a baseline for merchants that accept payment cards, many security experts advise companies to put in place protections that go well beyond these standards.

Even so, the 2019 Payment Security Report from Verizon indicates the number of companies that maintain full compliance with PCI standards decreased for the second year in a row to just 36.7 percent worldwide.

As noted in previous stories here, the organized cyberthieves involved in stealing card data from main street merchants have gradually moved down the food chain from big box retailers like Target and Home Depot to smaller but far more plentiful and probably less secure merchants (either by choice or because the larger stores became a harder target).

It’s really not worth worrying about where your card number may have been breached, since it’s almost always impossible to say for sure and because it’s common for the same card to be breached at multiple establishments during the same time period.

Just remember that while consumers are not liable for fraudulent charges, it may still fall to you the consumer to spot and report any suspicious charges. So keep a close eye on your statements, and consider signing up for text message notifications of new charges if your card issuer offers this service. Most of these services also can be set to alert you if you’re about to miss an upcoming payment, so they can also be handy for avoiding late fees and other costly charges.

Hidden Cam Above Bluetooth Pump Skimmer

Mon, 11/25/2019 - 10:40

Tiny hidden spy cameras are a common sight at ATMs that have been tampered with by crooks who specialize in retrofitting the machines with card skimmers. But until this past week I’d never heard of hidden cameras being used at gas pumps in tandem with Bluetooth-based card skimming devices.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

“I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a camera on a gas pump with a Bluetooth card skimmer,” said Detective Matt Jogodka of the Las Vegas Police Department, referring to the compromised fuel pump pictured below.

The fake panel (horizontal) above the “This Sale” display obscures a tiny hidden camera angled toward the gas pump’s PIN pad.

It may be difficult to tell from the angle of the photograph above, but the horizontal bar across the top of the machine (just above the “This Sale $” indicator) contains a hidden pinhole camera angled so as to record debit card users entering their PIN.

Here’s a look at the fake panel removed from the compromised pump:

A front view of the hidden camera panel.

Jogodka said although this pump’s PIN pad is encrypted, the hidden camera sidesteps that security feature.

“The PIN pad is encrypted, so this is a NEW way to capture the PIN,” Jogodka wrote in a message to a mailing list about skimming devices found on Arizona fuel pumps. “The camera was set on Motion, [to] save memory space and battery life. Sad for the suspect, it was recovered 2 hours after it was installed.”

Whoever hacked this fuel pump was able to get inside the machine and install a Bluetooth-based circuit board that connects to the power and can transmit stolen card data wirelessly. This allows the thieves to drive by at any time and download the card data remotely from a mobile device or laptop.

The unauthorized Bluetooth circuit board can be seen at bottom left attached to the pump’s power and card reader.

This kind of fuel pump skimmer, while rare, serves as a reminder that it’s a good idea to choose credit over debit when buying fuel. For starters, there are different legal protections for fraudulent transactions on debit vs. credit cards.

With a credit card, your maximum loss on any transactions you report as fraud is $50; with a debit card, that protection only extends for within two days of the unauthorized transaction. After that, the maximum consumer liability can increase to $500 within 60 days, and to an unlimited amount after 60 days.

In practice, your bank or debit card issuer may still waive additional liabilities, and many do. But even then, having your checking account emptied of cash while your bank sorts out the situation can still be a huge hassle and create secondary problems (bounced checks, for instance).

Interestingly, this advice against using debit cards at the pump often runs counter to the messaging pushed by fuel station owners themselves, many of whom offer lower prices for cash or debit card transactions. That’s because credit card transactions typically are more expensive to process.

Anyone curious how to tell the difference between filling stations that prioritize card security versus those that haven’t should check out How to Avoid Card Skimmers at the Pump.

The compromised pump with the hidden camera bar still attached. Newer, more secure pumps have a horizontal card reader and a raised metallic keypad.

110 Nursing Homes Cut Off from Health Records in Ransomware Attack

Fri, 11/22/2019 - 23:02

A ransomware outbreak has besieged a Wisconsin based IT company that provides cloud data hosting, security and access management to more than 100 nursing homes across the United States. The ongoing attack is preventing these care centers from accessing crucial patient medical records, and the IT company’s owner says she fears this incident could soon lead not only to the closure of her business, but also to the untimely demise of some patients.

Milwaukee, Wisc. based Virtual Care Provider Inc. (VCPI) provides IT consulting, Internet access, data storage and security services to some 110 nursing homes and acute-care facilities in 45 states. All told, VCPI is responsible for maintaining approximately 80,000 computers and servers that assist those facilities.

At around 1:30 a.m. CT on Nov. 17, unknown attackers launched a ransomware strain known as Ryuk inside VCPI’s networks, encrypting all data the company hosts for its clients and demanding a whopping $14 million ransom in exchange for a digital key needed to unlock access to the files. Ryuk has made a name for itself targeting businesses that supply services to other companies — particularly cloud-data firms — with the ransom demands set according to the victim’s perceived ability to pay.

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity today, VCPI chief executive and owner Karen Christianson said the attack had affected virtually all of their core offerings, including Internet service and email, access to patient records, client billing and phone systems, and even VCPI’s own payroll operations that serve nearly 150 company employees.

The care facilities that VCPI serves access their records and other systems outsourced to VCPI by using a Citrix-based virtual private networking (VPN) platform, and Christianson said restoring customer access to this functionality is the company’s top priority right now.

“We have employees asking when we’re going to make payroll,” Christianson said. “But right now all we’re dealing with is getting electronic medical records back up and life-threatening situations handled first.”

Christianson her firm cannot afford to pay the ransom amount being demanded — roughly $14 million worth of Bitcoin — and said some clients will soon be in danger of having to shut their doors if VCPI can’t recover from the attack.

“We’ve got some facilities where the nurses can’t get the drugs updated and the order put in so the drugs can arrive on time,” she said. “In another case, we have this one small assisted living place that is just a single unit that connects to billing. And if they don’t get their billing into Medicaid by December 5, they close their doors. Seniors that don’t have family to go to are then done. We have a lot of [clients] right now who are like, ‘Just give me my data,’ but we can’t.”

The ongoing incident at VCPI is just the latest in a string of ransomware attacks against healthcare organizations, which typically operate on razor thin profit margins and have comparatively little funds to invest in maintaining and securing their IT systems.

Earlier this week, a 1,300-bed hospital in France was hit by ransomware that knocked its computer systems offline, causing “very long delays in care” and forcing staff to resort to pen and paper.

On Nov. 20, Cape Girardeau, Mo.-based Saint Francis Healthcare System began notifying patients about a ransomware attack that left physicians unable to access medical records prior to Jan. 1.

Tragically, there is evidence to suggest that patient outcomes can suffer even after the dust settles from a ransomware infestation at a healthcare provider. New research indicates hospitals and other care facilities that have been hit by a data breach or ransomware attack can expect to see an increase in the death rate among certain patients in the following months or years because of cybersecurity remediation efforts.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University‘s Owen Graduate School of Management took the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) list of healthcare data breaches and used it to drill down on data about patient mortality rates at more than 3,000 Medicare-certified hospitals, about 10 percent of which had experienced a data breach.

Their findings suggest that after data breaches as many as 36 additional deaths per 10,000 heart attacks occurred annually at the hundreds of hospitals examined. The researchers concluded that for care centers that experienced a breach, it took an additional 2.7 minutes for suspected heart attack patients to receive an electrocardiogram.

Companies hit by the Ryuk ransomware all too often are compromised for months or even years before the intruders get around to mapping out the target’s internal networks and compromising key resources and data backup systems. Typically, the initial infection stems from a booby-trapped email attachment that is used to download additional malware — such as Trickbot and Emotet.

This graphic from US-CERT depicts how the Emotet malware is typically used to lay the groundwork for a full-fledged ransomware infestation.

In this case, there is evidence to suggest that VCPI was compromised by one (or both) of these malware strains on multiple occasions over the past year. Alex Holden, founder of Milwaukee-based cyber intelligence firm Hold Security, showed KrebsOnSecurity information obtained from monitoring dark web communications which suggested the initial intrusion may have begun as far back as September 2018.

Holden said the attack was preventable up until the very end when the ransomware was deployed, and that this attack once again shows that even after the initial Trickbot or Emotet infection, companies can still prevent a ransomware attack. That is, of course, assuming they’re in the habit of regularly looking for signs of an intrusion.

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

VCPI’s CEO said her organization plans to publicly document everything that has happened so far when (and if) this attack is brought under control, but for now the company is fully focused on rebuilding systems and restoring operations, and on keeping clients informed at every step of the way.

“We’re going to make it part of our strategy to share everything we’re going through,” Christianson said, adding that when the company initially tried several efforts to sidestep the intruders their phone systems came under concerted assault. “But we’re still under attack, and as soon as we can open, we’re going to document everything.”

DDoS-for-Hire Boss Gets 13 Months Jail Time

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 07:05

A 21-year-old Illinois man was sentenced last week to 13 months in prison for running multiple DDoS-for-hire services that launched millions of attacks over several years. This individual’s sentencing comes more than five years after KrebsOnSecurity interviewed both the defendant and his father and urged the latter to take a more active interest in his son’s online activities.

A screenshot of databooter[.]com, circa 2017. Image: Cisco Talos.

The jail time was handed down to Sergiy P. Usatyuk of Orland Park, Ill., who pleaded guilty in February to one count of conspiracy to cause damage to Internet-connected computers and owning, administering and supporting illegal “booter” or “stresser” services designed to knock Web sites offline, including exostress[.]in, quezstresser[.]com, betabooter[.]com, databooter[.]com, instabooter[.]com, polystress[.]com and zstress[.]net.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, in just the first 13 months of the 27-month long conspiracy, Usatyuk’s booter users ordered approximately 3,829,812 DDoS attacks. As of September 12, 2017, ExoStresser advertised on its website that this one booter service had launched 1,367,610 DDoS attacks, and caused targets to suffer 109,186.4 hours of network downtime (-4,549 days).

Usatyuk — operating under the hacker aliases “Andrew Quez” and “Brian Martinez,” among others — admitted developing, controlling and operating the aforementioned booter services from around August 2015 through November 2017. But Usatyuk’s involvement in the DDoS-for-hire space very much predates that period.

In February 2014, KrebsOnSecurity reached out to Usatyuk’s father Peter Usatyuk, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I did so because a brief amount of sleuthing on Hackforums[.]net revealed that his then 15-year-old son Sergiy — who at the time went by the nicknames “Rasbora” and “Mr. Booter Master” — was heavily involved in helping to launch crippling DDoS attacks.

I phoned Usatyuk the elder because Sergiy’s alter egos had been posting evidence on Hackforums and elsewhere that he’d just hit KrebsOnSecurity.com with a 200 Gbps DDoS attack, which was then considered a fairly impressive DDoS assault.

“I am writing you after our phone conversation just to confirm that you may call evening time/weekend to talk to my son Sergio regarding to your reasons,” Peter Usatyuk wrote in an email to this author on Feb. 13, 2014. “I also have [a] major concern what my 15 yo son [is] doing. If you think that is any kind of illegal work, please, let me know.”

That 2014 story declined to quote Rasbora by name because he was a minor then, but his father seemed alarmed enough about my inquiry that he insisted his son speak with me about the matter.

Here’s  an excerpt of what I wrote about Sergiy at the time:

Rasbora’s most recent project just happens to be gathering, maintaining huge “top quality” lists of servers that can be used to launch amplification attacks online. Despite his insistence that he’s never launched DDoS attacks, Rasbora did eventually allow that someone reading his posts on Hackforums might conclude that he was actively involved in DDoS attacks for hire.

“I don’t see what a wall of text can really tell you about what someone does in real life though,” said Rasbora, whose real-life identity is being withheld because he’s a minor. This reply came in response to my reading him several posts that he’d made on Hackforums not 24 hours earlier that strongly suggested he was still in the business of knocking Web sites offline: In a Feb. 12 post on a thread called “Hiring a hit on a Web site” that Rasbora has since deleted, he tells a fellow Hackforums user, “If all else fails and you just want it offline, PM me.”

Rasbora has tried to clean up some of his more self-incriminating posts on Hackforums, but he remains defiantly steadfast in his claim that he doesn’t DDoS people. Who knows, maybe his dad will ground him and take away his Internet privileges.

I’m guessing young Sergiy never had his Internet privileges revoked, nor did he heed advice to use his skills for less destructive activities. His dad hung up on me when I called Wednesday evening requesting comment.

In addition to serving the 13-month jail sentence and three years of supervised release, Usatyuk will forfeit $542,925 in proceeds from the scheme, as well as dozens of servers and other computer equipment that powered his many DDoS-for-hire businesses.

Ransomware Bites 400 Veterinary Hospitals

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 08:43

National Veterinary Associates (NVA), a California company that owns more than 700 animal care facilities around the globe, is still working to recover from a ransomware attack late last month that affected more than half of those properties, separating many veterinary practices from their patient records, payment systems and practice management software. NVA says it expects to have all facilities fully back up and running normally within the next week.

Agoura Hills, Calif.-based NVA bills itself as is the largest private owner of freestanding veterinary hospitals in the United States. The company’s Web site says it currently owns roughly 700 veterinary hospitals and animal boarding facilities in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

NVA said it discovered the ransomware outbreak on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 27, and soon after hired two outside security firms to investigate and remediate the attack. A source close to the investigation told KrebsOnSecurity that NVA was hit with Ryuk, a ransomware strain first spotted in August 2018 that targets mostly large organizations for a high-ransom return.

NVA declined to answer questions about the malware, or whether the NVA paid the ransom demand.

“It was ransomware, but we’ve been referring to it as a malware incident,” said Laura Koester, NVA’s chief marketing officer.

Koester said because every NVA hospital runs their IT operations as they see fit, not all were affected. More importantly, she said, all of the NVA’s hospitals have remained open and able to see clients (animals in need of care), and access to patient records has been fully restored to all affected hospitals.

“For a few days, some [pet owners] couldn’t do online bookings, and some hospitals had to look at different records for their patients,” Koester said. “But throughout this whole thing, if there was a sick animal, we saw them. No one closed their doors.”

The source close to the investigation painted a slight less rosy picture of the situation at NVA, and said the company’s response has been complicated by the effects of wildfires surrounding its headquarters in Los Angeles County: A year ago, a destructive wildfire in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties burned almost 100,00 acres, destroyed more than 1,600 structures, killed three people and prompted the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people — including all residents of Agoura Hills.

“The support center was scheduled to be closed on Friday Oct 25, 2019 due to poor air quality caused by wildfires to the north,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “Around 2 am PT [Oct. 27], the Ryuk virus was unleashed at NVA. Approximately 400 locations were infected. [Microsoft] Active Directory and Exchange servers were infected. Many of the infected locations immediately lost access to their Patient Information Management systems (PIMs). These locations were immediately unable to provide care.”

The source shared internal communications from different NVA executives to their hospitals about the extent of the remediation efforts and possible source of the compromise, which seemed to suggest that at least some NVA properties have been struggling to accommodate patients.

A missive from NVA’s Director of Operations Robert Hill on Oct. 30 acknowledged that “we continue to be faced with a monumental effort to restore IT service [to] nearly 400 of our hospitals.”

“This really hit home for me Saturday,” Hill wrote. “One of my best friends had to take his Yellow Lab into Conejo Valley for urgent care. Thankfully CV was able to provide care as their [systems] were up and running, but many of our hospitals are not in as good shape.”

In an update sent to NVA hospitals on Nov. 6, the company’s new head of technology Greg Hartmann said its security system successfully blocked the ransomware from infiltrating its systems — at least at first.

“Because of the scale of the attack, the virus eventually found three smaller points of entry through accounts that were unaffiliated with NVA, but unfortunately opened within our network,” Hartmann said. “Upon discovery of the incident, our technology team immediately implemented procedures to prevent the malware from spreading; however, many local systems were affected. Still, we have many hospitals whose systems are not recovered. The technology team continues to set up interim workstations at each affected hospital while they prepare to rebuild servers.”

The source told KrebsOnSecurity that NVA suffered a separate ransomware infestation earlier this summer that also involved Ryuk, and they expressed concern that the first incident may not have been fully remediated — potentially letting the attackers maintain a foothold within the organization.

“This is the second time this year Ryuk struck NVA,” the source said. “The first time, NVA was rather open to all facilities about what happened. This time, however, they are simply referring to it as a ‘system outage.'”

A set of talking points NVA distributed to staff on Oct. 27, the day some 400 veterinary hospitals were hit with the Ryuk ransomware.

Koester said some NVA facilities did get hit with a malware incident earlier this year, but that she did not believe ransomware was involved in that intrusion.

The Ryuk ransomware has made a name for itself going after businesses that supply services to other companies — particularly cloud-data firms — with the ransom demands set according to the victim’s perceived ability to pay. In February, payroll software provider Apex Human Capital Management chose to pay the ransom demand after a Ryuk infection severed payroll management services for hundreds of the company’s customers. And on Christmas Eve 2018, cloud hosting provider Dataresolution.net suffered a multi-week outage after a Ryuk attack.

According to a bulletin released by the FBI in May, cybercriminals had targeted over 100 U.S. and international businesses with Ryuk since August 2018. Security firm CrowdStrike estimated that attackers deploying Ryuk had netted over $3.7 million in bitcoin ransom payments between Aug. 2018 and January 2019.

Many people and organizations may be under the impression that ransomware attacks like Ryuk can appear at a moment’s notice merely from someone clicking a malicious link or opening a booby-trapped email attachment. While the latter appears to be the most common vector for ransomware infestations, an advisory released in September by the U.K’s National Cyber Security Centre suggests most Ryuk victims are compromised weeks or months before the ransomware is actually deployed inside the victim’s network.

“The Ryuk ransomware is often not observed until a period of time after the initial infection – ranging from days to months – which allows the actor time to carry out
reconnaissance inside an infected network, identifying and targeting critical network systems and therefore maximizing the impact of the attack,” reads the NCSC advisory, which includes tips on spotting signs of a Ryuk infection. “But it may also offer the potential to mitigate against a ransomware attack before it occurs, if the initial infection is detected and remedied.”

As for what changes NVA will be making to prevent yet another ransomware outbreak, an internal update on Nov. 7 from NVA’s chief information officer Joe Leggio said NVA was investing in software from Carbon Black, a cloud-based security solution that will be installed on all NVA property computers.

“Throughout my career, I have witnessed incredible advances in technology making our lives better,” Leggio wrote. “At nearly the same rate, the bad guys have been increasing the aggressiveness and sophistication of their attacks. As we rebuild, we are also thinking of the future. That is why we are investing in cybersecurity talent, new infrastructure, and better software.”

Why Were the Russians So Set Against This Hacker Being Extradited?

Mon, 11/18/2019 - 15:19

The Russian government has for the past four years been fighting to keep 29-year-old alleged cybercriminal Alexei Burkov from being extradited by Israel to the United States. When Israeli authorities turned down requests to send him back to Russia — supposedly to face separate hacking charges there — the Russians then imprisoned an Israeli woman for seven years on trumped-up drug charges in a bid to trade prisoners. That effort failed as well, and Burkov had his first appearance in a U.S. court last week. What follows are some clues that might explain why the Russians are so eager to reclaim this young man.

Alexei Burkov, seated second from right, attends a hearing in Jerusalem in 2015. Andrei Shirokov / Tass via Getty Images.

On the surface, the charges the U.S. government has leveled against Burkov may seem fairly unremarkable: Prosecutors say he ran a credit card fraud forum called CardPlanet that sold more than 150,000 stolen credit cards.

However, a deep dive into the various pseudonyms allegedly used by Burkov suggests this individual may be one of the most connected and skilled malicious hackers ever apprehended by U.S. authorities, and that the Russian government is probably concerned that he simply knows too much.

Burkov calls himself a specialist in information security and denies having committed the crimes for which he’s been charged. But according to denizens of several Russian-language cybercrime forums that have been following his case in the Israeli news media, Burkov was by all accounts an elite cybercrook who primarily operated under the hacker alias “K0pa.”

This is the same nickname used by an individual who served as co-administrator of perhaps the most exclusive Russian-language hacking forums ever created, including Mazafaka and DirectConnection.

A screen shot from the Mazafaka cybercrime forum, circa 2011.

Since their inception in the mid-aughts, both of these forums have been among the most difficult to join — admitting only native Russian speakers and requiring each applicant to furnish a non-refundable cash deposit and “vouches” — or guarantees — from at least three existing members. Also, neither forum was accessible or even visible to anyone without a special encryption certificate supplied by forum administrators that allowed the sites to load properly in a Web browser.

DirectConnection, circa 2011. The identity shown at the bottom of this screenshot — Severa — belonged to Peter Levashov, a prolific spammer who pleaded guilty in the United States last year to operating the Kelihos spam botnet.

Notably, some of the world’s most-wanted cybercriminals were members of these two highly exclusive forums, and many of those individuals have already been arrested, extradited and tried for various cybercrime charges in the United States over the years. Those include convicted credit card fraudsters Vladislav “Badb” Horohorin and Sergey “zo0mer” Kozerev, as well as the infamous spammer and botnet master Peter “Severa” Levashov.

A user database obtained by KrebsOnSecurity several years back indicates K0pa relied on the same email address he used to register at Mazafaka and DirectConnection to register the user account “Botnet” on Spamdot, which for years was the closely-guarded stomping ground of the world’s most prolific spammers and virus writers, as well as hackers who created services catering to both professions.

As a reporter for The Washington Post in 2008, I wrote about the core offering that K0pa/Botnet advertised on Spamdot and other exclusive forums: A botnet-based anonymity service called FraudCrew. This service sold access to hacked computers, which FraudCrew customers used for the purposes of hiding their real location online while conducting cybercriminal activities.

FraudCrew, a botnet-based anonymity service offered by K0pa.

K0pa also was a top staff member at Verified, among the oldest and most venerated of Russian language cybercrime forums. Specifically, K0pa’s role at Verified was in maintaining its blacklist, a dispute resolution process designed to weed out “dishonest” cybercriminals who seek only to rip off less experienced crooks. From this vantage point, K0pa would have held considerable sway on the forum, and almost certainly played a key role in vetting new applicants to the site.

Prior to his ascendance at these forums, K0pa was perhaps best known for being a founding member of a hacker group calling themselves the CyberLords. Over nearly a decade, the CyberLords team would release dozens of hacking tools and exploits targeting previously unknown security vulnerabilities in Web-based services and computer software.

According to security firm Cybereason, Russia has a history of using contractors — even cybercriminals — to run intelligence operations. These crooks-turned-spies “offer a resource to the state while enjoying a cloak of semi-protected ‘status’ for their extracurricular activities, provided they are directed against foreign targets.”

“Cybercriminals are recruited to Russia’s national cause through a mix of coercion, payments and appeals to patriotic sentiment,” reads a 2017 story from The Register on Cybereason’s analysis of the Russian cybercrime scene. “Russia’s use of private contractors also has other benefits in helping to decrease overall operational costs, mitigating the risk of detection and gaining technical expertise that they cannot recruit directly into the government. Combining a cyber-militia with official state-sponsored hacking teams has created the most technically advanced and bold cybercriminal community in the world.”

A banner that ran on top of the Verified cybercrime forum for many years.

It’s probably worth noting that also present on both DirectConnection and Mazafaka were the core members of a prolific gang of online bank robbers called the JabberZeus Crew, who used custom versions of the ZeuS Trojan to steal tens — if not hundreds — of millions of dollars from hacked small businesses across the United States. In 2011, most of that crew was rounded up in an international cybercrime crackdown, although virtually all of them escaped prosecution in their home countries (mainly Russia and Ukraine).

I mention this because K0pa also was a member of the JabberZeus crew. This gang worked directly with the author of the ZeuS trojan — Evgeniy “Slavik” Bogachev — a Russian man with a $3 million bounty on his head from the FBI. The cybercriminal organization Bogchev allegedly ran was responsible for the theft of more than $100 million from banks and businesses worldwide that were infected with his ZeuS malware. That organization, dubbed the “Business Club,” had members spanning most of Russia’s 11 time zones.

In this 2011 screenshot of DirectConnection, we can see the nickname “aqua,” one of the JabberZeus crime gang actors. K0pa also was part of the JabberZeus crew.

Fox-IT, a Dutch security firm that infiltrated the Business Club’s back-end operations, found that beginning in late fall 2013 — about the time that conflict between Ukraine and Russia was just beginning to heat up — Slavik retooled his cyberheist botnet to serve as purely a spying machine, and began scouring infected systems in Ukraine for specific keywords in emails and documents that would likely only be found in classified documents.

Likewise, the keyword searches that Slavik used to scour bot-infected systems in Turkey suggested the botmaster was searching for specific files from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs – a specialized police unit. Fox-IT said it was clear that Slavik was looking to intercept communications about the conflict in Syria on Turkey’s southern border — one that Russia has supported by reportedly shipping arms into the region.

To my knowledge, no one has accused Burkov of being some kind of cybercrime fixer or virtual badguy Rolodex for the Russian government. On the other hand, from his onetime lofty perch atop some of the most exclusive Russian cybercrime forums, K0pa certainly would have fit that role nicely.

Further reading, including the fascinating story on the diplomatic back and forth between Russia and Israel mentioned in the first paragraph: The Russian Hacker Who Just Became One of Israel’s Most Famous Prisoners.

How Russia Recruited Elite Hackers for Its Cyberwar