Business-to-business payments provider Billtrust is still recovering from a ransomware attack that began last week. The company said it is in the final stages of bringing all of its systems back online from backups.
With more than 550 employees, Lawrence Township, N.J.-based Billtrust is a cloud-based service that lets customers view invoices, pay, or request bills via email or fax. In an email sent to customers today, Billtrust said it was consulting with law enforcement officials and with an outside security firm to determine the extent of the breach.
“Our standard security and back-up procedures have been and remain instrumental in our ability to execute the ongoing restoration of services,” the email reads. “Out of an abundance of caution, we cannot disclose the precise ransomware strains but will do so as soon as prudently possible.
In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity on Monday evening, Billtrust CEO Steven Pinado said the company became aware of a malware intrusion on Thursday, Oct. 17.
“We’re aware of the malware and have been able to stop the activity within our systems,” Pinado said. “We immediately started focusing on control, remediation and protection. The impact of that was several systems were no longer available to our customers. We’ve been fighting the fight, working on restoring services and also digging into the root cause.”
Pinado said Billtrust had restored most of its systems, and that it was in the process now of putting additional security measures in place. He declined to discuss anything related to the ransomware attack, such as whether the company paid a ransom demand in exchange for a key to unlock files scrambled by the malware, although he allowed Billtrust does have cybersecurity insurance for just such occasions.
Billtrust recently teamed up with Visa to launch the Billtrust Business Payments Network, an effort to digitize payments between businesses.
Cloud service providers are a favorite target of attackers who deal in ransomware. In August, Wisconsin-based PerCSoft paid a hefty ransom to get out from beneath an attack that separated hundreds of dental offices from their patient records.
In July, attackers hit QuickBooks cloud hosting firm iNSYNQ, holding data hostage for many of the company’s clients. In February, cloud payroll data provider Apex Human Capital Management was knocked offline for three days following a ransomware infestation.
On Christmas Eve 2018, cloud hosting provider Dataresolution.net took its systems offline in response to a ransomware outbreak on its internal networks. The company was adamant that it would not pay the ransom demand, but it ended up taking several weeks for customers to fully regain access to their data.
Antivirus and security giant Avast and virtual private networking (VPN) software provider NordVPN each today disclosed months-long network intrusions that — while otherwise unrelated — shared a common cause: Forgotten or unknown user accounts that granted remote access to internal systems with little more than a password.
Based in the Czech Republic, Avast bills itself as the most popular antivirus vendor on the market, with over 435 million users. In a blog post today, Avast said it detected and addressed a breach lasting between May and October 2019 that appeared to target users of its CCleaner application, a popular Microsoft Windows cleanup and repair utility.
Avast said it took CCleaner downloads offline in September to check the integrity of the code and ensure it hadn’t been injected with malware. The company also said it invalidated the certificates used to sign previous versions of the software and pushed out a re-signed clean update of the product via automatic update on October 15. It then disabled and reset all internal user credentials.
“Having taken all these precautions, we are confident to say that our CCleaner users are protected and unaffected,” Avast’s Jaya Baloo wrote.
This is not the first so-called “supply chain” attack on Avast: In September 2018, researchers at Cisco Talos and Morphisec disclosed that hackers had compromised the computer cleanup tool for more than a month, leading to some 2.27 million downloads of the corrupt CCleaner version.
Avast said the intrusion began when attackers used stolen credentials for a VPN service that was configured to connect to its internal network, and that the attackers were not challenged with any sort of multi-factor authentication — such as a one-time code generated by a mobile app.
“We found that the internal network was successfully accessed with compromised credentials through a temporary VPN profile that had erroneously been kept enabled and did not require 2FA,” Baloo wrote.THE NORDVPN BREACH
Separately, NordVPN, a virtual private networking services that promises to “protect your privacy online,” confirmed reports that it had been hacked. Today’s acknowledgment and blog post mortem from Nord comes just hours after it emerged that NordVPN had an expired internal private key exposed, potentially allowing anyone to spin out their own servers imitating NordVPN,” writes Zack Whittaker at TechCrunch.
VPN software creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and the VPN provider, effectively blocking your ISP or anyone else on the network (aside from you and the VPN provider) from being able to tell which sites you are visiting or viewing the contents of your communications. This can offer a measure of anonymity, but the user also is placing a great deal of trust in that VPN service not to get hacked and expose this sensitive browsing data.
NordVPN’s account seems to downplay the intrusion, saying while the attackers could have used the private keys to intercept and view traffic for some of its customers’ traffic, the attackers would have been limited to eavesdropping on communications routing through just one of the company’s more than 3,000 servers.
“The server itself did not contain any user activity logs; none of our applications send user-created credentials for authentication, so usernames and passwords couldn’t have been intercepted either,” reads the NordVPN blog post. “On the same note, the only possible way to abuse the website traffic was by performing a personalized and complicated man-in-the-middle attack to intercept a single connection that tried to access NordVPN.”
NordVPN said the intrusion happened in March 2018 at one of its datacenters in Finland, noting that “the attacker gained access to the server by exploiting an insecure remote management system left by the datacenter provider while we were unaware that such a system existed.” NordVPN declined to name the datacenter provider, but said the provider removed the remote management account without notifying them on March 20, 2018.
“When we learned about the vulnerability the datacenter had a few months back, we immediately terminated the contract with the server provider and shredded all the servers we had been renting from them,” the company said. “We did not disclose the exploit immediately because we had to make sure that none of our infrastructure could be prone to similar issues. This couldn’t be done quickly due to the huge amount of servers and the complexity of our infrastructure.”
TechCrunch took NordVPN to task on the somewhat dismissive tone of its breach disclosure, noting that the company suffered a significant breach that went undetected for more than a year.
Kenneth White, director of the Open Crypto Audit Project, said on Twitter that based on the dumped Pastebin logs detailing the extent of the intrusion, “the attacker had full remote admin on their Finland node containers.”
“That’s God Mode folks,” White wrote. “And they didn’t log and didn’t detect it. I’d treat all their claims with great skepticism.”ANALYSIS
Many readers are curious about whether they should enshroud all of their online communications by using a VPN. However, it’s important to understand the limitations of this technology, and to take the time to research providers before entrusting them with virtually all your browsing data — and possibly even compounding your privacy woes in the process. For a breakdown on what you should keep in mind when considering a VPN service, see this post.
Forgotten user accounts that provide remote access to internal systems — such as VPN and Remote Desktop services (RDP) — have been a persistent source of data breaches for years. Thousands of small to mid-sized brick-and-mortar businesses have been relieved of millions of customer payment card records over the years when their hacked IT contractors used the same remote access credentials at each client location.
Almost all of these breaches could have been stopped by requiring a second form of authentication in addition to a password, which can easily be stolen or phished.
The persistent supply chain attack against Avast brings to mind something I was considering the other day about the wisdom of allowing certain software to auto-update itself whenever it pleases. I’d heard from a reader who was lamenting the demise of programs like Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector and FileHippo, which allowed users to automatically download and install available updates for a broad range of third-party Windows programs.
These days, I find myself seeking out and turning off any auto-update functions in software that I install. I’d rather be alerted to new updates when I launch the program and have the ability to review what’s changing and whether anyone has experienced issues with the new version. I guess you could say years of dealing with unexpected surprises on Microsoft Patch Tuesdays has cured me of any sort of affinity I may have once had for auto-update features.
Cybercrime forums have been abuzz this week over news that BriansClub — one of the underground’s largest shops for stolen credit and debit cards — has been hacked, and its inventory of 26 million cards shared with security contacts in the banking industry. Now it appears this brazen heist may have been the result of one of BriansClub’s longtime competitors trying to knock out a rival.
Last month, KrebsOnSecurity was contacted by an anonymous source who said he had the full database of 26M cards stolen from BriansClub, a carding site that has long used this author’s name and likeness in its advertising. The stolen database included cards added to the site between mid-2015 and August 2019.
This was a major event in the underground, as experts estimate the total number of stolen cards leaked from BriansClub represent almost 30 percent of the cards on the black market today.
The purloined database revealed BriansClub sold roughly 9.1 million stolen credit cards, earning the site and its resellers a cool $126 million in sales over four years.
In response to questions from KrebsOnSecurity, the administrator of BriansClub acknowledged that the data center serving his site had been hacked earlier in the year (BriansClub claims this happened in February), but insisted that all of the cards stolen by the hacker had been removed from BriansClub store inventories.
However, as I noted in Tuesday’s story, multiple sources confirmed they were able to find plenty of card data included in the leaked database that was still being offered for sale at BriansClub.
Perhaps inevitably, the admin of BriansClub took to the cybercrime forums this week to defend his business and reputation, re-stating his claim that all cards included in the leaked dump had been cleared from store shelves.
Meanwhile, some of BriansClub’s competitors gloated about the break-in. According to the administrator of Verified, one of the longest running Russian language cybercrime forums, the hack of BriansClub was perpetrated by a fairly established ne’er-do-well who uses the nickname “MrGreen” and runs a competing card shop by the same name.
The Verified site admin said MrGreen had been banned from the forum, and added that “sending anything to Krebs is the lowest of all lows” among accomplished and self-respecting cybercriminals. I’ll take that as a compliment.
This would hardly be the first time some cybercriminal has used me to take down one of his rivals. In most cases, I’m less interested in the drama and more keen on validating the data and getting it into the proper hands to do some good.
That said, if the remainder of BriansClub’s competitors want to use me to take down the rest of the carding market, I’m totally fine with that.
“BriansClub,” one of the largest underground stores for buying stolen credit card data, has itself been hacked. The data stolen from BriansClub encompasses more than 26 million credit and debit card records taken from hacked online and brick-and-mortar retailers over the past four years, including almost eight million records uploaded to the shop in 2019 alone.
Last month, KrebsOnSecurity was contacted by a source who shared a plain text file containing what was claimed to be the full database of cards for sale both currently and historically through BriansClub[.]at, a thriving fraud bazaar named after this author. Imitating my site, likeness and namesake, BriansClub even dubiously claims a copyright with a reference at the bottom of each page: “© 2019 Crabs on Security.”
Multiple people who reviewed the database shared by my source confirmed that the same credit card records also could be found in a more redacted form simply by searching the BriansClub Web site with a valid, properly-funded account.
All of the card data stolen from BriansClub was shared with multiple sources who work closely with financial institutions to identify and monitor or reissue cards that show up for sale in the cybercrime underground.
The leaked data shows that in 2015, BriansClub added just 1.7 million card records for sale. But business would pick up in each of the years that followed: In 2016, BriansClub uploaded 2.89 million stolen cards; 2017 saw some 4.9 million cards added; 2018 brought in 9.2 million more.
Between January and August 2019 (when this database snapshot was apparently taken), BriansClub added roughly 7.6 million cards.
Most of what’s on offer at BriansClub are “dumps,” strings of ones and zeros that — when encoded onto anything with a magnetic stripe the size of a credit card — can be used by thieves to purchase electronics, gift cards and other high-priced items at big box stores.
As shown in the table below (taken from this story), many federal hacking prosecutions involving stolen credit cards will for sentencing purposes value each stolen card record at $500, which is intended to represent the average loss per compromised cardholder.STOLEN BACK FAIR AND SQUARE
An extensive analysis of the database indicates BriansClub holds approximately $414 million worth of stolen credit cards for sale, based on the pricing tiers listed on the site. That’s according to an analysis by Flashpoint, a security intelligence firm based in New York City.
Allison Nixon, the company’s director of security research, said Flashpoint had help from numerous parties in crunching the numbers from the massive leaked database.
Nixon said the data suggests that between 2015 and August 2019, BriansClub sold roughly 9.1 million stolen credit cards, earning the site $126 million in sales (all sales are transacted in bitcoin).
If we take just the 9.1 million cards that were confirmed sold through BriansClub, we’re talking about $2.27 billion in likely losses at the $500 average loss per card figure from the Justice Department.
Also, it seems likely the total number of stolen credit cards for sale on BriansClub and related sites vastly exceeds the number of criminals who will buy such data. Shame on them for not investing more in marketing!
There’s no easy way to tell how many of the 26 million or so cards for sale at BriansClub are still valid, but the closest approximation of that — how many unsold cards have expiration dates in the future — indicates more than 14 million of them could still be valid.
The archive also reveals the proprietor(s) of BriansClub frequently uploaded new batches of stolen cards — some just a few thousand records, and others tens of thousands.
That’s because like many other carding sites, BriansClub mostly resells cards stolen by other cybercriminals — known as resellers or affiliates — who earn a percentage from each sale. It’s not yet clear how that revenue is shared in this case, but perhaps this information will be revealed in further analysis of the purloined database.BRIANS CHAT
In a message titled “Your site is hacked,’ KrebsOnSecurity requested comment from BriansClub via the “Support Tickets” page on the carding shop’s site, informing its operators that all of their card data had been shared with the card-issuing banks.
I was surprised and delighted to receive a polite reply a few hours later from the site’s administrator (“admin”):
“No. I’m the real Brian Krebs here
On Tuesday Microsoft issued software updates to fix almost five dozen security problems in Windows and software designed to run on top of it. By most accounts, it’s a relatively light patch batch this month. Here’s a look at the highlights.
Happily, only about 15 percent of the bugs patched this week earned Microsoft’s most dire “critical” rating. Microsoft labels flaws critical when they could be exploited by miscreants or malware to seize control over a vulnerable system without any help from the user.
Also, Adobe has kindly granted us another month’s respite from patching security holes in its Flash Player browser plugin.
Included in this month’s roundup is something Microsoft actually first started shipping in the third week of September, when it released an emergency update to fix a critical Internet Explorer zero-day flaw (CVE-2019-1367) that was being exploited in the wild.
That out-of-band security update for IE caused printer errors for many Microsoft users whose computers applied the emergency update early on, according to Windows update expert Woody Leonhard. Apparently, the fix available through this month’s roundup addresses those issues.
Security firm Ivanti notes that the patch for the IE zero day flaw was released prior to today for Windows 10 through cumulative updates, but that an IE rollup for any pre-Windows 10 systems needs to be manually downloaded and installed.
Once again, Microsoft is fixing dangerous bugs in its Remote Desktop Client, the Windows feature that lets a user interact with a remote desktop as if they were sitting in front of the other PC. On the bright side, this critical bug can only be exploited by tricking a user into connecting to a malicious Remote Desktop server — not exactly the most likely attack scenario.
Other notable vulnerabilities addressed this month include a pair of critical security holes in Microsoft Excel versions 2010-2019 for Mac and Windows, as well as Office 365. These flaws would allow an attacker to install malware just by getting a user to open a booby-trapped Office file.
Windows 10 likes to install patches all in one go and reboot your computer on its own schedule. Microsoft doesn’t make it easy for Windows 10 users to change this setting, but it is possible. 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.
Staying up-to-date on Windows patches is good. Updating only after you’ve backed up your important data and files is even better. A reliable backup means you’re not pulling your hair out if the odd buggy patch causes problems booting the system. So do yourself a favor and backup your files before installing any patches.
As always, if you experience any problems installing any of the patches this month, please feel free to leave a comment about it below; there’s a decent chance other readers have experienced the same and may even chime in here with some helpful tips.
A Slovenian man convicted of authoring the destructive and once-prolific Mariposa botnet and running the infamous Darkode cybercrime forum has been arrested in Germany on request from prosecutors in the United States, who’ve recently re-indicted him on related charges.
The Slovenian Press Agency reported today that German police arrested Matjaž “Iserdo” Škorjanc last week, in response to a U.S.-issued international arrest warrant for his extradition.
In December 2013, a Slovenian court sentenced Škorjanc to four years and ten months in prison for creating the malware that powered the ‘Mariposa‘ botnet. Spanish for “Butterfly,” Mariposa was a potent crime machine first spotted in 2008. Very soon after its inception, Mariposa was estimated to have infected more than 1 million hacked computers — making it one of the largest botnets ever created.
Škorjanc and his hacker handle Iserdo were initially named in a Justice Department indictment from 2011 (PDF) along with two other men who allegedly wrote and sold the Mariposa botnet code. But in June 2019, the DOJ unsealed an updated indictment (PDF) naming Škorjanc, the original two other defendants, and a fourth man (from the United States) in a conspiracy to make and market Mariposa and to run the Darkode crime forum.
More recently, Škorjanc served as chief technology officer at NiceHash, a Slovenian company that lets users sell their computing power to help others mine virtual currencies like bitcoin. In December 2017, approximately USD $52 million worth of bitcoin mysteriously disappeared from the coffers of NiceHash. Slovenian police are reportedly still investigating that incident.
It will be interesting to see what happens with the fourth and sole U.S.-based defendant added in the latest DOJ charges — Thomas K. McCormick, a.k.a “fubar” — allegedly one of the last administrators of Darkode. Prosecutors say McCormick also was a reseller of the Mariposa botnet, the ZeuS banking trojan, and a bot malware he allegedly helped create called “Ngrbot.”
Between 2010 and 2013, Fubar would randomly chat me up on instant messenger apropos of nothing to trade information about the latest goings-on in the malware and cybercrime forum scene.
Fubar frequently knew before anyone else about upcoming improvements to or new features of ZeuS, and discussed at length his interactions with Iserdo/Škorjanc. Every so often, I would reach out to Fubar to see if he could convince one of his forum members to call off an attack against KrebsOnSecurity.com, an activity that had become something of a rite of passage for new Darkode members.
On Dec. 5, 2013, federal investigators visited McCormick at his University of Massachusetts dorm room. According to a memo filed by FBI agents investigating the case, in that interview McCormick acknowledged using the “fubar” identity on Darkode, but said he’d quit the whole forum scene years ago, and that he’d even interned at Microsoft for several summers and at Cisco for one summer.
A subsequent search warrant executed on his dorm room revealed multiple removable drives that held tens of thousands of stolen credit card records. For whatever reason, however, McCormick wasn’t arrested or charged until December 2018.
According to the FBI, back in that December 2013 interview McCormick voluntarily told them a great deal about his various businesses and online personas. He also apparently told investigators he talked with KrebsOnSecurity quite a bit, and that he’d tipped me off to some important developments in the malware scene. For example:
“TM had found the email address of the Spyeye author in an old fake antivirus affiliate program database and that TM was able to find the true name of the Spyeye author from searching online for an individual that used the email address,” the memo states. “TM passed this information on to Brian Krebs.”
Read more of the FBI’s interview with McCormick here (PDF).
German authorities said Friday they’d arrested seven people and were investigating six more in connection with the raid of a Dark Web hosting operation that allegedly supported multiple child porn, cybercrime and drug markets with hundreds of servers buried inside a heavily fortified military bunker. Incredibly, for at least two of the men accused in the scheme, this was their second bunker-based hosting business that was raided by cops and shut down for courting and supporting illegal activity online.
The latest busted cybercrime bunker is in Traben-Trarbach, a town on the Mosel River in western Germany. The Associated Press says investigators believe the 13-acre former military facility served a number of dark web sites, including: the “Wall Street Market,” a sprawling, online bazaar for drugs, hacking tools and financial-theft wares before it was taken down earlier this year; the drug portal “Cannabis Road;” and the synthetic drug market “Orange Chemicals.”
German police reportedly seized $41 million worth of funds allegedly tied to these markets, and more than 200 servers that were operating throughout the underground temperature-controlled, ventilated and closely guarded facility.
The authorities in Germany haven’t named any of the people arrested or under investigation in connection with CyberBunker’s alleged activities, but said those arrested were apprehended outside of the bunker. Still, there are clues in the details released so far, and those clues have been corroborated by sources who know two of the key men allegedly involved.
We know the owner of the bunker hosting business has been described in media reports as a 59-year-old Dutchman who allegedly set it up as a “bulletproof” hosting provider that would provide Web site hosting to any business, no matter how illegal or unsavory.
According to historic whois records maintained by Domaintools.com, Zyztm[.]com was originally registered to a Herman Johan Xennt in the Netherlands. Cb3rob[.]org was an organization hosted at CyberBunker registered to Sven Kamphuis, a self-described anarchist who was convicted several years ago for participating in a large-scale attack that briefly impaired the global Internet in some places.
Both 59-year-old Xennt and Mr. Kamphuis worked together on a previous bunker-based project — a bulletproof hosting business they sold as “CyberBunker” and ran out of a five-story military bunker in The Netherlands.
That’s according to Guido Blaauw, director of Disaster-Proof Solutions, a company that renovates and resells old military bunkers and underground shelters. Blaauw’s company bought the 12,500 square-meter Netherlands bunker from Mr. Xennt in 2011 for $700,000.
Media reports indicate that in 2002 a fire inside the CyberBunker 1.0 facility in The Netherlands summoned emergency responders, who discovered a lab hidden inside the bunker that was being used to produce the drug ecstasy/XTC.
Blaauw said nobody was ever charged for the drug lab, which was blamed on another tenant in the building. Blauuw said Xennt and others in 2003 were then denied a business license to continue operating in the bunker, and they were forced to resell servers from a different location — even though they bragged to clients for years to come about hosting their operations from an ultra-secure underground bunker.
“After the fire in 2002, there was never any data or servers stored in the bunker,” in The Netherlands, Blaauw recalled. “For 11 years they told everyone [the hosting servers where] in this ultra-secure bunker, but it was all in Amsterdam, and for 11 years they scammed all their clients.”
Blaauw said sometime between 2012 and 2013, Xennt purchased the bunker in Traben-Trarbach, Germany — a much more modern structure that was built in 1997. CyberBunker was reborn, and it began offering many of the same amenities and courted the same customers as CyberBunker 1.0 in The Netherlands.
“They’re known for hosting scammers, fraudsters, pedophiles, phishers, everyone,” Blaauw said. “That’s something they’ve done for ages and they’re known for it.”
About the time Xennt and company were settling into their new bunker in Germany, he and Kamphuis were engaged in a fairly lengthy and large series of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks aimed at sidelining a number of Web sites — particularly anti-spam organization Spamhaus. A chat record of that assault, detailed in my 2016 piece, Inside the Attack that Almost Broke the Internet, includes references to and quotes from both Xennt and Kamphuis.
Kamphuis was later arrested in Spain on the DDoS attack charges. He was convicted in The Netherlands and sentenced to time served, which was approximately 55 days of detention prior to his extradition to the United States.
The AP story mentioned above quoted German prosecutor Juergen Bauer saying the 59-year-old main suspect in the case was believed to have links to organized crime.
A 2015 expose’ (PDF) by the Irish newspaper The Sunday World compared Mr. Xennt (pictured below) to a villain from a James Bond movie, and said he has been seen frequently associating with another man: an Irish mobster named George “the Penguin” Mitchell, listed by Europol as one of the top-20 drug traffickers in Europe and thought to be involved in smuggling heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.
Blaauw said he doesn’t know whether Kamphuis was arrested or named in the investigation, but added that people who know him and can usually reach him have not heard from Kamphuis over several days.
Here’s what the CyberBunker in The Netherlands looked like back in the early aughts when Xennt still ran it:
Here’s what it looks like now after being renovated by Blaauw’s company and designed as a security operations center (SOC):
I’m glad when truly bad guys doing bad stuff like facilitating child porn are taken down. The truth is, almost anyone trafficking in the kinds of commerce these guys courted also is building networks of money laundering business that become very tempting to use or lease out for other nefarious purposes, including human trafficking, and drug trafficking.
Earlier this month, employees at more than 1,000 companies saw one or two paycheck’s worth of funds deducted from their bank accounts after the CEO of their cloud payroll provider absconded with $35 million in payroll and tax deposits from customers. On Monday, the CEO was arrested and allegedly confessed that the diversion was the last desperate gasp of a financial shell game that earned him $70 million over several years.
Michael T. Mann, the 49-year-old CEO of Clifton Park, NY-based MyPayrollHR, was arrested this week and charged with bank fraud. In court filings, FBI investigators said Mann admitted under questioning that in early September — on the eve of a big payroll day — he diverted to his own bank account some $35 million in funds sent by his clients to cover their employee payroll deposits and tax withholdings.
After that stunt, two different banks that work with Mann’s various companies froze those corporate accounts to keep the funds from being moved or withdrawn. That action set off a chain of events that led another financial institution that helps MyPayrollHR process payments to briefly pull almost $26 million out of checking accounts belonging to employees at more than 1,000 companies that use MyPayrollHR.
At the same time, MyPayrollHR sent a message (see screenshot above) to clients saying it was shutting down and that customers should find alternative methods for paying employees and for processing payroll going forward.
In the criminal complaint against Mann (PDF), a New York FBI agent said the CEO admitted that starting in 2010 or 2011 he began borrowing large sums of money from banks and financing companies under false pretenses.
“While stating that MyPayroll was legitimate, he admitted to creating other companies that had no purpose other than to be used in the fraud; fraudulently representing to banks and financing companies that his fake businesses had certain receivables that they did not have; and obtaining loans and lines of credit by borrowing against these non-existent receivables.”
“Mann estimated that he fraudulently obtained about $70 million that he has not paid back. He claimed that he committed the fraud in response to business and financial pressures, and that he used almost all of the fraudulently obtained funds to sustain certain businesses, and purchase and start new ones. He also admitted to kiting checks between Bank of America and Pioneer [Savings Bank], as part of the fraudulent scheme.”
Check-kiting is the illegal act of writing a check from a bank account without sufficient funds and depositing it into another bank account, explains MagnifyMoney.com. “Then, you withdraw the money from that second account before the original check has been cleared.”
Kiting also is known as taking advantage of the “float,” which is the amount of time between when an individual submits a check as payment and when the individual’s bank is instructed to move the funds from the account.
Magnify Money explains more:
“Say, for example, that you write yourself a check for $500 from checking account A, and deposit that check into checking account B — but the balance in checking account A is only $75. Then, you promptly withdraw the $500 from checking account B. This is check-kiting, a form of check fraud that uses non-existent funds in a checking account or other type of bank account. Some check-kiting schemes use multiple accounts at a single bank, and more complicated schemes involve multiple financial institutions.”
“In a more complex scenario, a person could open checking accounts at bank A and bank B, at first depositing $500 into bank A and nothing in bank B. Then, they could write a check for $10,000 with account A and deposit it into account B. Bank B immediately credits the account, and in the time it might take for bank B to clear the check (generally about three business days), the scammer writes a $10,000 check with bank B, which gets deposited into bank A to cover the first check. This could keep going, with someone writing checks between banks where there’s no actual funds, yet the bank believes the money is real and continues to credit the accounts.”
The government alleges Mann was kiting millions of dollars in checks between his accounts at Bank of American and Pioneer from Aug. 1, 2019 to Aug. 30, 2019.
For more than a decade, MyPayrollHR worked with California-based Cachet Financial Services to process payroll deposits for MyPayrollHR client employees. Every other week, MyPayrollHR’s customers would deposit their payroll funds into a holding account run by Cachet, which would then disburse the payments into MyPayrollHR client employee bank accounts.
But when Mann diverted $26 million in client payroll deposits from Cachet to his account at Pioneer Bank, Cachet’s emptied holding account was debited for the payroll payments. Cachet quickly reversed those deposits, causing one or two pay periods worth of salary to be deducted from bank accounts for employees of companies that used MyPayrollHR.
That action caused so much uproar from affected companies and their employees that Cachet ultimately decided to cancel all of those reversals and absorb that $26 million hit, which it is now trying to recover through the courts.
According to prosecutors in New York, Pioneer was Mann’s largest creditor.
“Mann stated that the payroll issue was precipitated by his decision to route MyPayroll’s clients’ payroll payments to an account at Pioneer instead of directly to Cachet,” wrote FBI Special Agent Matthew J. Wabby. “He did this in order to temporarily reduce the amount of money he owed to Pioneer. When Pioneer froze Mann’s accounts, it’s also (inadvertently) stopped movement of MyPayroll’s clients’ payroll payments to Cachet.”
Approximately $9 million of the $35 million diverted by Mann was supposed to go to accounts at the National Payment Corporation (NatPay) — the Florida-based firm which handles tax withholdings for MyPayrollHR clients. NatPay said its insurance should help cover the losses it incurred when MyPayrollHR’s banks froze the company’s accounts.
Court records indicate Mann hasn’t yet entered a plea, but that he was ordered to be released today under a $200,000 bond secured by a family home and two vehicles. His passport also was seized.
In April 2013, I received via U.S. mail more than a gram of pure heroin as part of a scheme to get me arrested for drug possession. But the plan failed and the Ukrainian mastermind behind it soon after was imprisoned for unrelated cybercrime offenses. That individual recently gave his first interview since finishing his jail time here in the states, and he’s shared some select (if often abrasive and coarse) details on how he got into cybercrime and why. Below are a few translated excerpts.
When I first encountered now-31-year-old Sergei “Fly,” “Flycracker,” “MUXACC” Vovnenko in 2013, he was the administrator of the fraud forum “thecc[dot]bz,” an exclusive and closely guarded Russian language board dedicated to financial fraud and identity theft.
Many of the heavy-hitters from other fraud forums had a presence on Fly’s forum, and collectively the group financed and ran a soup-to-nuts network for turning hacked credit card data into mounds of cash.
Vovnenko first came onto my radar after his alter ego Fly published a blog entry that led with an image of my bloodied, severed head and included my credit report, copies of identification documents, pictures of our front door, information about family members, and so on. Fly had invited all of his cybercriminal friends to ruin my financial identity and that of my family.
Somewhat curious about what might have precipitated this outburst, I was secretly given access to Fly’s cybercrime forum and learned he’d freshly hatched a plot to have heroin sent to my home. The plan was to have one of his forum lackeys spoof a call from one of my neighbors to the police when the drugs arrived, complaining that drugs were being delivered to our house and being sold out of our home by Yours Truly.
Thankfully, someone on Fly’s forum also posted a link to the tracking number for the drug shipment. Before the smack arrived, I had a police officer come out and take a report. After the heroin showed up, I gave the drugs to the local police and wrote about the experience in Mail From the Velvet Cybercrime Underground.
Angry that I’d foiled the plan to have me arrested for being a smack dealer, Fly or someone on his forum had a local florist send a gaudy floral arrangement in the shape of a giant cross to my home, complete with a menacing message that addressed my wife and was signed, “Velvet Crabs.”
Vovnenko was arrested in Italy in the summer of 2014 on identity theft and botnet charges, and spent some 15 months in arguably Italy’s worst prison contesting his extradition to the United States. Those efforts failed, and he soon pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and wire fraud, and spent several years bouncing around America’s prison system.
Although Vovnenko sent me a total of three letters from prison in Naples (a hand-written apology letter and two friendly postcards), he never responded to my requests to meet him following his trial and conviction on cybercrime charges in the United States. I suppose that is fair: To my everlasting dismay, I never responded to his Italian dispatches (the first I asked to be professionally analyzed and translated before I would touch it).
After serving his 41 month sentence in the U.S., Vovnenko was deported, although it’s unclear where he currently resides (the interview excerpted here suggests he’s back in Italy, but Fly doesn’t exactly confirm that).
In an interview published on the Russian-language security blog Krober[.]biz, Vovnenko said he began stealing early in life, and by 13 was already getting picked up for petty robberies and thefts.
A translated English version of the interview was produced and shared with KrebsOnSecurity by analysts at New York City-based cyber intelligence firm Flashpoint.
Sometime in the mid-aughts, Vovnenko settled with his mother in Naples, Italy, but he had trouble keeping a job for more than a few days. Until a chance encounter led to a front job at a den of thieves.
“When I came to my Mom in Naples, I could not find a permanent job. Having settled down somewhere at a new job, I would either get kicked out or leave in the first two days. I somehow didn’t succeed with employment until I was invited to work in a wine shop in the historical center of Naples, where I kinda had to wipe the dust from the bottles. But in fact, the wine shop turned out to be a real den and a sales outlet of hashish and crack. So my job was to be on the lookout and whenever the cops showed up, take a bag of goods and leave under the guise of a tourist.”
Cocaine and hash were plentiful at his employer’s place of work, and Vovnenko said he availed himself of both abundantly. After he’d saved enough to buy a computer, Fly started teaching himself how to write programs and hack stuff. He quickly became enthralled with the romanticized side of cybercrime — the allure of instant cash — and decided this was his true vocation.
“After watching movies and reading books about hackers, I really wanted to become a sort of virtual bandit who robs banks without leaving home,” Vovnenko recalled. “Once, out of curiosity, I wrote an SMS bomber that used a registration form on a dating site, bypassing the captcha through some kind of rookie mistake in the shitty code. The bomber would launch from the terminal and was written in Perl, and upon completion of its work, it gave out my phone number and email. I shared the bomber somewhere on one of my many awkward sites.”
“And a couple of weeks later they called me. Nah, not the cops, but some guy who comes from Sri Lanka who called himself Enrico. He told me that he used my program and earned a lot of money, and now he wants to share some of it with me and hire me. By a happy coincidence, the guy also lived in Naples.”
“When we met in person, he told me that he used my bomber to fuck with a telephone company called Wind. This telephone company had such a bonus service: for each incoming SMS you received two cents on the balance. Well, of course, this guy bought a bunch of SIM cards and began to bomb them, getting credits and loading them into his paid lines, similar to how phone sex works.”
But his job soon interfered with his drug habit, and he was let go.
“At the meeting, Enrico gave me 2K euros, and this was the first money I’ve earned, as it is fashionable to say these days, on ‘cybercrime’. I left my previous job and began to work closely with Enrico. But always stoned out of my mind, I didn’t do a good job and struggled with drug addiction at that time. I was addicted to cocaine, as a result, I was pulling a lot more money out of Enrico than my work brought him. And he kicked me out.”
After striking out on his own, Vovnenko says he began getting into carding big time, and was introduced to several other big players on the scene. One of those was a cigarette smuggler who used the nickname Ponchik (“Doughnut”).
I wonder if this is the same Ponchik who was arrested in 2013 as being the mastermind behind the Blackhole exploit kit, a crimeware package that fueled an overnight explosion in malware attacks via Web browser vulnerabilities.
In any case, Vovnenko had settled on some schemes that were generating reliably large amounts of cash.
“I’ve never stood still and was not focusing on carding only, with the money I earned, I started buying dumps and testing them at friends’ stores,” Vovnenko said. “Mules, to whom I signed the hotlines, were also signed up for cashing out the loads, giving them a mere 10 percent for their work. Things seemed to be going well.”
There is a large chronological gap in Vovnenko’s account of his cybercrime life story from that point on until the time he and his forum friends started sending heroin, large bags of feces and other nasty stuff to our Northern Virginia home in 2013.
Vovnenko claims he never sent anything and that it was all done by members of his forum.
-Tell me about the packages to Krebs.
“That ain’t me. Suitcase filled with sketchy money, dildoes, and a bouquet of coffin wildflowers. They sent all sorts of crazy shit. Forty or so guys would send. When I was already doing time, one of the dudes sent it. By the way, Krebs wanted to see me. But the lawyer suggested this was a bad idea. Maybe he wanted to look into my eyes.”
In one part of the interview, Fly is asked about but only briefly touches on how he was caught. I wanted to add some context here because this part of the story is richly ironic, and perhaps a tad cathartic.
Around the same time Fly was taking bitcoin donations for a fund to purchase heroin on my behalf, he was also engaged to be married to a nice young woman. But Fly apparently did not fully trust his bride-to-be, so he had malware installed on her system that forwarded him copies of all email that she sent and received.
But Fly would make at least two big operational security mistakes in this spying effort: First, he had his fiancée’s messages forwarded to an email account he’d used for plenty of cybercriminal stuff related to his various “Fly” identities.
Mistake number two was the password for his email account was the same as one of his cybercrime forum admin accounts. And unbeknownst to him at the time, that forum was hacked, with all email addresses and hashed passwords exposed.
Soon enough, investigators were reading Fly’s email, including the messages forwarded from his wife’s account that had details about their upcoming nuptials, such as shipping addresses for their wedding-related items and the full name of Fly’s fiancée. It didn’t take long to zero in on Fly’s location in Naples.
While it may sound unlikely that a guy so immeshed in the cybercrime space could make such rookie security mistakes, I have found that a great many cybercriminals actually have worse operational security than the average Internet user.
I suspect this may be because the nature of their activities requires them to create vast numbers of single- or brief-use accounts, and in general they tend to re-use credentials across multiple sites, or else pick very poor passwords — even for critical resources.
In addition to elaborating on his hacking career, Fly talks a great deal about his time in various prisons (including their culinary habits), and an apparent longing or at least lingering fondness for the whole carding scene in general.
Towards the end, Fly says he’s considering going back to school, and that he may even take up information security as a study. I wish him luck in that whatever that endeavor is as long as he can also avoid stealing from people.
I don’t know what I would have written many years ago to Fly had I not been already so traumatized by receiving postal mail from him. Perhaps it would go something like this:
“Dear Fly: Thank you for your letters. I am very sorry to hear about the delays in your travel plans. I wish you luck in all your endeavors — and I sincerely wish the next hopeful opportunity you alight upon does not turn out to be a pile of shit.”
The entire translated interview is here (PDF). Fair warning: Many readers may find some of the language and topics discussed in the interview disturbing or offensive.