Big Time Cyber-Crime

December 22, 2009

I’ve written here a couple of times before about a trend that has become apparent in worm, virus, and other malware attacks: whereas they were once most like vandalism, they are now serious (criminal) business.  The attacks are often targeted at specific organizations or individuals, with the aim of stealing credentials that can be used for further mischief.

A new article on the “Threat Level” blog at Wired is another example of this development.  It describes how an international group of crooks, apparently assembled ad hoc via the Internet, carried out a chain of operations to net more than $2 million stolen from Citibank ATMs.  The article is full of interesting details, but the key sequence of events went something like this:

  • Two Russian hackers attacked the public Web site of Seven-Eleven (the convenience store chain), apparently with an SQL injection attack, and managed to gain access to the company’s servers.
  • The hackers used this access to collect ATM card numbers and PINs from machines located in 7-11 stores. (These machines were provided by Citibank, and apparently at least some of them were especially vulnerable, because the offered “advanced” functions, such as selling money orders, that had to be supported by a server at 7-11.)
  • Using local workers recruited via the Internet, the gang then manufactured phony ATM cards, and used the captured PINs to withdraw money from ATMs in and around New York City.

The deal was organized so that the Russians provided the card numbers and PINs, the local workers got the money, and the take was split:

The deal was straightforward: They’d use the information to encode fraudulent ATM cards and withdraw cash, sending 70 percent of the take to the Russian and keeping 25 percent for themselves. Another 5 percent went for expenses.

One of the local participants also was allegedly involved in another scam to loot iWire pre-paid MasterCard accounts, which resulted in 9000 attempted withdrawals from cash machines around the world in just two days, and caused losses of approximately $5 million.

It should be apparent that this kind of organized crime operation is not the work of bored teenagers.  If you run a business, or are responsible for systems security at one, this is another wake-up call.  Just making sure that you put anti-virus on all the PCs doesn’t cut it anymore (if it ever did).  Any machine that is connected to the outside world (meaning the Internet, in particular) is a potential attack point.

New Cyber-Security Czar

December 22, 2009

The White House announced this morning that President Obama has appointed Howard Schmidt as Cyber-Security Coordinator (or “Czar”, as he will undoubtedly be called).   Mr. Schmidt has considerable experience in the area, having served as a security advisor in the Bush administration, and also as security chief at E-Bay and Microsoft.  He has worked for the FBI in computer forensics.  People in the security field generally regard him as competent and well-qualified; the major reservation about his appointment, shared by many, is that his position has a broad scope of responsibility, but very limited real authority (for example, he has no budgetary authority). Whether the position may evolve into one of greater influence remains to be seen.

The New York Times also has an article on Mr. Schmidt’s appointment.

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