Cyber attacks will hit more critical infrastructure and even result in loss of life in 2012, an expert warns Mark Twomey
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In mid-September, a European hacker
nicknamed Poxxie broke into the computer network of a U.S.
company and, he said, grabbed 1,400 credit-card numbers, the
account holders’ names and addresses, and the security code that
comes with each card.
With little trouble, he sold the numbers for $3.50 each on
his own seller’s site, called CVV2s.in, to underworld buyers who
have come to trust the quality of his goods, he said.
“The main thing in any business is honesty,” Poxxie said,
without any trace of irony.
The Traverse City, Michigan-based Ponemon Institute, which
researches data security, estimates that thieves annually steal
8.4 million credit-card numbers in the U.S. alone. How do
cyberbandits, who have turned hacking into a volume business,
unload all those numbers? A lot like Amazon.com (AMZN), it turns out.
Customers on CVV2s can search for card numbers by bank,
card type, credit limit and zip code, loading them into a
virtual shopping basket as they go. The site offers the ability
to search by bank identification number. That means customers
can choose cards by institutions known to have weak security,
Poxxie said. CVV2s even has an automated feature that lets
clients validate the numbers in real time, to make sure the bank
hasn’t canceled the card.
Sites like Poxxie’s make up the cyberunderworld’s version
of a pirate’s cove, offering their online booty at cut-rate
prices. Hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen data are
bought and sold in underground’s chat rooms and forums every
year, a fencing operation that becomes more robust annually,
according to RSA, the security division of EMC Corp. (EMC)
CrackHackForum.com, one of the sites, even mimics EBay Inc. (EBAY),
rating buyers and sellers with starred reviews.
Symantec Corp. (SYMC), the cybersecurity firm, estimates that
cyberthieves steal data worth $114 billion a year. By
comparison, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said the take
from all bank robberies in the U.S. in 2010 was just
$43 million. The global market in cocaine is an estimated
$85 billion, according to the United Nations.
“The problem is getting worse faster than we’re getting
better,” said Tony Sager, chief operating officer of the
Information Assurance Directorate at the National Security
Agency, which includes some of the U.S. government’s best
cyberexperts. “We’re not keeping pace.”
To look inside the cyberbazaar, to find details on prices
and goods for sale, Bloomberg News gathered information through
publicly available websites and in restricted forums, aided in
this search by cybersecurity experts. Some of the information
was provided through online interviews with participants, who
protected their real identities as they discussed details on
their lives and criminal operations.
The cyberunderground thrives because of anonymity: Hackers
can devise any persona to conduct business and use a variety of
technical tricks to hide their tracks. Their stories were
verified to the extent possible by security experts who have
watched the careers and methods of specific hackers for years.
As recently as 2008, the fight between those who protect
computer networks and those who attack them was about evenly
matched. That’s no longer the case, according to the cybercops.
The defenders are losing the battle because of a combination of
their opponents’ technical achievements and rapid advances in a
global supply chain of theft.
In 2009, Symantec cataloged 2.8 million new viruses
infecting computers. A year later, that number had jumped to
286 million. One reason for the hundredfold growth is that
sophisticated viruses now change their digital signatures as
they infect new machines. Because anti-virus software uses a
catalog of known signatures to stop infections, the dominant
cybersecurity technology in many cases is useless as a result.
Some of the market’s most advanced malware — stealth
software that steals data or lets hackers take remote command of
a computer — can be bought for a few thousand dollars.
Sophisticated spam operations implant the malware in computers
for pennies per victim.
Black-market vendors test malware against the latest anti-
virus programs; provide hosting for command-and-control servers
in countries that can’t be touched by U.S. law enforcement; or
start a directed denial-of-service attack on a commercial or
other website priced by the number of hours the site is down.
One enterprise, advertised recently on the Israeli forum
SecondZion, has created a language-aid call center for hackers
who need to pose as U.S. bank customers or communicate with a
German-speaking money mule, as currency transporters are called.
The hackers provide a script; operators do the rest. “Good
afternoon, ladies and gentleman crooks,” the site says, noting
that its translators are “all operators with extensive
experience.” Two users followed up with comments praising the
service as excellent.
Distribution of goods and services is organized through
thousands of illicit chat rooms and invitation-only forums. Some
are publicly accessible: Any beginner looking to learn the
basics of a so-called SQL injection hack — a basic attack on
the security of a website — can join a forum like OpenSC and
ask for tips. Others are private and access is strictly
The most serious criminals congregate on forums such as
Maza. Membership to the forum is granted only by a vote of all
of its senior members and only after an eight-day waiting
period, according to researchers who have tried to infiltrate
it. Most deals done on the forum are large, so members use an
escrow system. Cash or goods are held either by a trusted senior
hacker or one who has retired from the business. In a criminal
world in which conspirators almost never meet and trust is in
short supply, the escrow system has evolved as a way for elite
hackers to do big business.
“Most of the transactions of in those forums will be in the
five figures,” said a security investigator who has infiltrated
several such forums. “The escrow system is the only way to make
those transactions viable.”
Public hacker sites, including CrackHackForum and
HackForums, usually have rules against selling stolen data.
Enforcement of sales postings is often weak and varies widely.
Poxxie’s site, which is well known to security experts, was
run until recently from a server in India, where U.S. law
enforcement carries little weight with local authorities when it
comes to computer crime. The site was recently moved or shut
down, a common security practice among hackers.
Poxxie has been in business long enough to see the price
for a stolen credit card plummet because of over-supply and more
sophisticated safety precautions by banks. Why charge $3.50 for
a stolen card number with the purchasing power to buy a car? The
card could be canceled at any time after purchase, he said, and
there are inherent risks in using it.
“In this whole carding scene, nothing is guaranteed,”
Poxxie said via ICQ, the online messaging network that is a
common platform for doing business in the cyberunderground.
Poxxie’s business is a boutique firm in an industrial-scale
crime wave. Although the targets of cybercrime are still
concentrated in the U.S. and Europe, the perpetrators are
global. Some are independent operators who make a few thousand
dollars a month, often supplementing their income with a day
job. Others are members of large criminal organizations.
Hex Nightmare falls somewhere in between. When you conduct
business with the 20-something cyberthief, the first — and only
– thing you see is an avatar on ICQ: an anime version of a girl
in hip huggers and a tank top. A person who has tracked her over
several years said Hex Nightmare has managed to gain an
impressive pedigree in the cyberunderground, learning quickly
and moving in some of the most trusted circles of top
Her take-home from cybertheft, which concentrates mostly on
stealing credit-card numbers and online banking credentials,
compares with the pay of some lower-level corporate executives,
she said via ICQ — keeping her true identity secret. “I can
possibly make an extra $8k a month on top of my regular income,”
To the young hacker, cybertheft is like a second job, one
she juggles, she said, with going out to clubs on weekend nights
and waitressing during the week. Her legitimate job is also a
way to launder illicit income, she said. Hex Nightmare said she
didn’t want the debt of a university education and instead spent
two years on the forums learning her trade. The hacker faces
none of the violence associated with other organized crime and
otherwise leads a relatively normal life.
“They have no idea what I do,” she said of friends and
acquaintances. The details of the cyberthief’s personal life –
including her real gender and age — couldn’t be verified but
her business model and activities were corroborated by a
security professional and fit the profile typical of young
hackers, according to Eric Strom, an FBI special agent who heads
an elite cyber team based in Pittsburgh.
“These are marketplaces, but they are also like
universities,” Strom said. “You have newbies on there, you have
seasoned guys. It’s a meeting place, it’s a social networking
place, everything wrapped into one.”
Working out of an office in a tech hub along the
Monongahela River, Strom wears short-sleeves and loose pants,
the uniform of a man who fights crime at a computer keyboard.
His unit has a storied place in that world. It was behind
DarkMarket, an elite English-language hackers forum that turned
out to be an FBI sting when 56 of its members were arrested in
Before turning to the cyber world, Strom spent most of his
FBI career fighting the Mafia. It’s was good training, he said.
“The stance we take is looking at it through the lens of
organized crime,” he said. It took the better part of the 1980s
and early 1990s for federal authorities to understand and begin
to dismantle the U.S. mafia: develop investigative capacity,
penetrate complex enterprises, pass new laws. It will take time
with global cybercrime as well, Strom said.
“We’re trying to keep pace with how the crime is evolving,”
Facing sophisticated cartels, the FBI and European law
enforcement officials have created new cybersquads and launched
major investigations. In October 2010, the FBI began one of its
most ambitious cybercrime operations. Code-named Trident Breach,
authorities broke up an international crime ring responsible for
stealing $70 million from online bank accounts of small
businesses and local government throughout the U.S. and Europe.
There were arrests in four countries, including 39 in the U.S.
That success was accompanied by frustrations faced daily by
investigators: There is almost no chance the world’s top
cybercriminals — residing in haven countries like Belarus,
Romania, and Ukraine — will ever be brought to justice. Most of
the individuals detained last year were international students
who, acting as so-called mules, withdrew money from the hackers’
U.S. bank accounts and forwarded it home. Five people who were
described as kingpins were detained for questioning in Ukraine.
All five were eventually set free without seeing the inside of a
courtroom, the FBI said in September.
“Cybergangs, mainly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet
Union, are making money that rivals some drug cartels,” said
Richard Clarke, former special adviser on cybersecurity to U.S.
President George W. Bush, at an October conference on network
security. “There is frankly nothing the FBI and Secret Service
can do about it.”
In April, the Department of Justice dismantled one of the
largest known criminal botnets, a network of infected computers
programmed to send data automatically from their hard drives to
a server controlled by hackers. The department declared the
break-up of Coreflood, as the botnet was known, a major victory.
It said almost nothing about the criminals who ran it.
Researchers at Dell SecureWorks, the Atlanta-based security firm
that aided the investigation, said the kingpins behind Coreflood
are three Russians last known to be living comfortably in
Rostov, a mid-size city on the Don River.
“Our relationship with the Russians is always a work in
progress,” Strom said.
No one personifies Russia’s place at the top of the cyber
underworld more than Gribo-demon, a Russian programmer, around
30 years old, U.S. investigators estimate. He is one of the few
cybercriminals who is the focus of a his own FBI special
operation. Gribo-demon is the author of SpyEye, a sophisticated
malware package first released in late 2009 and upgraded several
times since then.
Once downloaded on a machine, the malware can be used by
hackers to take remote command of key functions. Using SpyEye, a
cyberthief can hijack an online banking session in real time,
transfer funds to accounts they or their mules control, and
adjust the balance displayed so nothing seems amiss.
The transaction looks legitimate because, in computer
terms, it is. All the bank can tell is that it was made from
their customer’s computer, using their correct password. A basic
version of SpyEye costs around $2,000, according to the hacker
“SpyEye provides military-grade intrusion capabilities for
the price of a TV,” said Gunter Ollmann, vice president of
research at Damballa Inc., the Atlanta-based security firm
that tracks major cyberthreats.
Gribo-demon’s real innovation stems from what he didn’t do:
keep SpyEye to himself. Hackers used to write their own code.
Good tools were trade secrets. Gribo-demon instead licenses
SpyEye, mimicking Microsoft and Oracle, a business model that
arguably opened cybercrime to the masses.
The model was pioneered by a competitor and fellow Russian
who created popular malware called ZeuS, according to security
experts. ZeuS first appeared in 2008. Both programmers provided
clients with customer service, offering an array of enticing
modules to add functionality for an additional price.
The ZeuS author, known as Slavik, even Beta-tested new
versions with elite users, according to Don Jackson, a
SecureWorks researcher. Slavik disappeared in late 2010, but not
before he handed the ZeuS source-code to Gribo, who incorporated
some of its features into his own product, Jackson said.
Security experts say it’s hard to overestimate impact of
Slavik’s and Gribo-demon’s handiwork. In September, the Tokyo-
based cybersecurity firm Trend Micro publicized a dossier on a
20-something Russian cyberthief who goes by the name Soldier,
tracing his activities in the underground forums over several
months. Using SpyEye, soldier stole $3.2 million from U.S.
customers of three banks in just six months — about $17,000 a
day — Trend Micro said.
The hacker used bank-account information scraped from more
than 25,000 victims’ computers, in some cases renting other
cyberthieves’ networks of infected computers. He created
counterfeit checks with banking data and mailed them to money
mules throughout the United States. They cashed them, then
forwarded the funds untraceably to Russia. He even used stolen
credit card numbers vacuumed from the victims’ hard drives to
buy pre-paid postal-service labels for the packages.
“From start to finish, this guy leveraged every bit of
data,” said Alex Cox, an investigator for Netwitness, a
cybersecurity division of EMC Corp., which has also been
tracking Soldier’s activities.
The most remarkable thing about the theft — and this is,
to experts in the field, the most worrisome development of the
past few months — was that Soldier didn’t need any special
expertise with computers. All he needed was a shopping list.
“He’s not a lone hacker,” said Trend Micro’s David Perry.
“He didn’t write any code.”
Strom said the FBI is also tracking Soldier and is
confident they’ll get him. “These guys are very sophisticated,
but often times they slip up,” Strom said.
Strom and other investigators have one significant
advantage: the hackers have a habit of turning their skills on
one another. The FBI’s DarkMarket sting started with a hacker
war between a hacker, calling himself Iceman, who ran
CardersMarket, and JiLsi, the DarkMarket administrator, whose
real name was Renukanth Subramaniam, the FBI said.
“We took advantage of that animosity,” Strom said,
eventually persuading JiLsi to turn over the site to the FBI and
giving the bureau control over all communications involving
DarkMarket’s 2,500 members. As a result, Subramaniam was
sentenced to more than four years in prison in the U.K.
Maza, the elite Russian forum, was recently hacked and its
database dumped online. It presented a priceless opportunity for
law enforcement. The forum’s database held membership lists, e-
mail addresses, IP addresses, and passwords — the kind of
information the world’s top cyber thieves try very hard to keep
secret. The main suspect in the Maza attack is the administrator
of a rival site, Hex Nightmare said.
“We learned a lot of lessons with DarkMarket, and we’ve
passed that experience on not only to other offices within the
FBI but to our counterparts overseas,” Strom said. “We’re
definitely taking the fight back to them.”
Hex Nightmare agrees the FBI may eventually make more
progress. When Slavik, the author of the ZeuS malware,
disappeared in 2010, he was at the height of his fame. Theories
about his disappearance abound on the underground: Slavik was
killed; he now works as a cyberspy for the Russian government.
Hex Nightmare has her own: “I think Slavik thought it was a good
time to get out.”
To contact the reporter on this story:
Michael Riley in Washington
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Michael Hytha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Members of the group known as Anonymous stole subscriber information and credit card data from the U.S.-based Stratfor. One alleged hacker said the goal of the assault was to steal a million dollars and give it away as Christmas donations.
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Sometimes computer viruses and spyware gum up the works on computers, but Computer Man on Call Jon Sutton can make them go away — and people don’t have to wait for him to show up.
Holyoke resident Sutton uses a kind of securely encrypted software that people can upload onto their computers, and then he can clean up their drives online, he said. He can also recover lost data.
He calls them and walks them through installing the software, then they can watch his work on their monitors as he does the cleaning from his home computer, Sutton said.
When viruses and spyware are removed from computers, they speed up and many of the aggravations of everyday use disappear, he said.
Many software security systems do not block all viruses or spyware, and sometimes even brand-new computers will develop problems almost right away, Sutton said, and it is remarkable how well they will work when cleaned out.
In fact, some of the open source security software on the Internet is actually better than some of the security systems people buy, he said.
Sutton has worked as a computer consultant in Northeast Colorado for about six years, but has worked in computers overall since 1982.
He is Microsoft and other software supplier certified, but the real measure is what efforts a computer service person puts into the job, he said.
“I do the best possible job I can,” Sutton said, adding that he makes sure every virus is found and killed.
It normally only takes 20 to 45 minutes for the whole process, and customers can book a session by going to his Web site at computermanoncall.com or set up an appointment through e-mail at email@example.com. He can also be reached at 970-466-1593.
He does have references available, since this kind of remote work can make people nervous, Sutton said, but he is not out to break into computers and people can see exactly what he is doing in real time.
Currently, he has a special flat rate of $50 for a cleaning, and if he cannot fix it the customer does not pay.
– Contact Dan Barker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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HTCS1: The FBI has a warning for parents with children online. Read more at http://t.co/OE4zSZdl
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Thieves steal 8.4 million U.S. credit card numbers each year. They unload them on sites that operate like Amazon.com
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In mid-September, a European hackernicknamed Poxxie broke into the computer network of a U.S.company and, he said, grabbed 1,400 credit-card numbers, theaccount holders’ names and addresses, and the security …
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