Attacks/Breaches
8/31/2009
04:56 PM
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'Freakshow' Provides Inside Look At Real Malware Behind Big Breaches

Forensic specialists who investigated hacks of a hotel chain, casino, and restaurant share details on the sophisticated malware used to successfully steal confidential data

They planted malware that siphoned data from memory, deployed a bot, and camouflaged a keylogger, but all three of these real attacks were after the same thing: credit and debit-card data.

Nicholas Percoco, senior vice president of SpiderLabs, and Jibran Ilyas, senior forensics investigator at SpiderLabs, will talk about real and unique malware they discovered in major forensics investigations of breaches at a hotel chain, a casino, and a restaurant at the upcoming SecTor security conference in Toronto in a session entitled "Malware Freakshow."

"The old way was 'smash and grab,' where they'd find a database and the data they were looking for, download it, and leave," Percoco says. "Today they're going in and camping out for months or years. They're learning those systems better than the IT admins running them."

The malware samples the researchers will highlight at SecTor are all different, but with the main goal of grabbing credit and debit card data off the wire, input device, or from memory in hopes of selling them or creating counterfeit cards. The cases were a hotel in New York, a casino in Las Vegas, and a restaurant in Michigan, and they also had in common weak network controls: "A lot of their perimeter controls were very lax," Percoco says. "A simple vulnerability got them in."

In two of the cases, the attackers targeted a particular victim from the get-go; in the the other, they stumbled onto the victim. "Once the attacker first gets into the system, he uses reconnaissance malware that tells them these special processes [indicate] it's a hotel or restaurant," Percoco says.

One of the most advanced attack methods of the three breaches was the so-called "memory dumping" performed on the hotel chain to steal credit-card data. The attackers initially got inside a member hotel via its LAN, according to the researchers, which is where most hotels' computer systems also run.

In a memory-dumping attack, the attacker reads the unencrypted transaction or other information that sits in memory before it goes to the actual application. The hotel attack included several pieces of malware, including code that dumps the contents of the memory onto the attacker's machine, and another that performs data parsing. "One piece installs itself as a service so the malware can come back when it needs to boot up," Ilyas says.

Attackers are moving to methods like memory dumping to steal card information because more and more databases are getting encrypted, as are point-of-sale applications. "Once they get that track data, they can make counterfeit credit cards out of it," Percoco says. "They're trying to get the data as soon as it's swiped, like a keylogger. But some AV products are picking up keyloggers, so attackers are going to memory dumping."

Memory dumping isn't usually detected as malicious because many debuggers work similarly, he says.

The attackers were able to infiltrate the network and guess a weak administrative password on the hotel's own server. Then they used their parsing malware to search for credit and debit-card information and "dumped that data to disk," Percoco says.

The stolen card information was encrypted using a Russian version of a popular archiving and compression tool, the researchers say, which was their only clue to the actual attackers themselves. "But they were exporting the data to a system in South Korea," Percoco says.

Remaining under the radar is crucial for these types of attacks, and they typically get discovered only when the credit card company contacts the victim with reports of a wave of credit card fraud cases affecting customers who stayed at the hotel or shopped at the store, for instance.

"If they stay in the system long enough, say three months, they can learn it and test all of their activity, like memory dumping and data parsing on one computer...and if they know [the hotel's] 35 other locations are using the exact same infrastructure, then they exploit those other locations," Ilyas says. Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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