12/11/2017
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Russian-Speaking 'MoneyTaker' Group Helps Itself to Millions from US Banks

Banks in Latin America appear to be next big target, Group-IB says.

A Russian-speaking cybercrime group has stolen millions of dollars from more than 20 banks in the US and Russia since at least May 2016 and appears poised to strike financial institutions across Latin America next, Moscow-based Group-IB warned Monday.

According to the security vendor, the so-called MoneyTaker group's modus operandi has been to break into a targeted bank's network and then manipulate its card processing systems in order to enable fraudulent ATM withdrawals. The group's victims have included banks in 10 states, including California, Illinois, and Florida. On average, the banks have lost around $500,000 each in these attacks.

The MoneyTaker group primarily has been targeting card processing systems such as SWIFT and STAR in the US and AWS CBR in Russia. It has stolen extensive documentation from its bank victims — such as admin guides, change request forms, and internal rules and regulations — in apparent preparation for future attacks via these systems.

The stolen documents include those pertaining to money transfers via the SWIFT network. Last year, hackers believed to be from North Korea stole tens of millions from banks worldwide by exploiting the interface between a bank's systems and the SWIFT network.

Dmitry Volkov, Group-IB's co-founder and head of intelligence, says one reason why MoneyTaker has avoided detection so far has been its use of publicly available tools. That has made it hard to attribute attacks to the group.

For example, MoneyTaker has tended to use the Metasploit penetration-testing tool to look for and exploit vulnerabilities in target bank networks. Once on a network, it also has been using Metasploit to conduct all network reconnaissance, to search for other vulnerabilities to exploit and to escalate privileges. A lot of the malware the group has been using is fileless and exists in system memory only, making it hard to detect. In some cases, MoneyTaker has shown the ability to change code midstream during an attack. 

MoneyTaker's habit of switching between targets in the US, Russia, and, in one case, the UK may have helped it hide the fact the attacks were connected, Volkov says. In fact, it is quite likely that the group has broken into banks in other regions as well, but because of the geographically distributed nature of the victims it is possible that no one has connected the dots yet, he says.

Group-IB said it analysis shows MoneyTaker's preferred approach for stealing money is to break into a bank's network and then try and connect to its card processing system. If successful, members of the group then open legitimate accounts at the compromised bank or buy prepaid cards from it. Once the accounts are activated, group members use their access to the bank's card processing network to increase or remove withdrawal and overdraft limits on their accounts in order to steal money via fraudulent ATM withdrawals.

MoneyTaker's arsenal of tools includes some it has developed on its own. One of them is for spying on a bank's activities and includes features to capture screenshots and keystrokes at timed intervals. Another one contains multiple components, each one designed for different functions such as searching for payment orders and modifying them and replacing original payment details with fraudulent details. The tool includes one module capable of making a payment order that has been fraudulently modified appear unchanged to the bank after it has been executed. According to Group-IB, the tool was used in an attack against a Russian bank.

MoneyTaker has shown a tendency to use different infrastructures to carry out its attacks. For example, it might use Russia-hosted servers for an attack on a US bank and US-based servers and equipment for an attack on a Russian bank. One unique feature about the group's infrastructure is its use of a server that delivers attack payloads only to IP addresses on a whitelist of bank IPs.

Nicholas Palmer, director of international business development at Group-IB, says that despite the MoneyTaker's apparent sophistication, it does not appear to be state-sponsored. "We have spent a lot of time researching this group. We have checked and rechecked the technical indicators we could find for connections with other groups," he says. "There is nothing to suggest nation-state activity."

Banks and financial institutions need to pay close attention to third-party intermediaries with whom they interoperate, such as vendors of card processing services, he says. This is especially true for institutions in Latin America, which appears to be MoneyTaker's next big target, he says.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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