This time it wasn't an "advanced persistent threat" associated with China: Instead, a fraud alert issued by the FBI today implicates China in a cybercrime operation that bilked U.S.-based small to midsize businesses of $11 million during the past year.
The FBI warned that it has identified 20 incidents in which SMBs' online banking credentials were stolen and their bank accounts siphoned, with the money wired to China-based economic and trade companies near the Russia border. The attackers attempted to steal some $20 million overall during the March 2010 and April 2011 time frame.
What was most striking about the FBI alert was the rare level of detail the bureau provided for both SMBs and banks. It spelled out the transaction increments and paths used by the attackers, as well as their geographic drops and phony company names. The FBI says the stolen funds were wired to companies located in China's Heilongjiang province, with company names that include Chinese ports such as Raohe, Fuyuan, and Jixi City, and the words “economic and trade,” “trade,” and “LTD."
The transactions ranged from $50,000 to $985,000, with most above $900,000. According to the FBI, the attackers had the most success in getting their hands on the money when they transferred less than $500,000 per transaction. When the money is transferred, it's immediately withdrawn or transferred elsewhere. They also use money mules in the U.S. "The malicious actors also sent domestic ACH and wire transfers to money mules in the United States within minutes of conducting the overseas transfers. The domestic wire transfers range from $200 to $200,000. The intended recipients are money mules -- individuals who the victim company has done business with in the past, and in one instance, a utility company located in another U.S. state," according to the FBI. These ACH transactions from the compromised bank accounts were anywhere from $222,500 to $1.3 million.
"We'd like see more of this from the FBI -- specific and actionable information on a regular basis," says Nick Selby, managing director of police-led intelligence at Trident Risk Management, and a police officer. "The FBI is telling the banks what to look out for, and the business owners [as well] -- both sides of the equation."
Mickey Boodaei, CEO of Trusteer, says he thinks that having that actionable intelligence on hand was why the FBI went public with the alert in the first place. "What's unique about this [case] is that all of this money goes to a specific region. The attacks themselves are not unique."
Like many attacks today -- including recent high-profile ones -- this one began with a phishing email or visiting a malicious website. Once a user is compromised, he is unable to reach his banking website and, in some cases, is rerouted to an "under maintenance" page. That's when the victim's account is raided, first by sending money to commercial accounts in banks in New York or other cities, and then ultimately to the China-based economic and trade company bank account. These companies typically have accounts with the Agricultural Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and the Bank of China.
"At this time, it is unknown who is behind these unauthorized transfers, if the Chinese accounts were the final transfer destination or if the funds were transferred elsewhere, or why the legitimate companies received the unauthorized funds. Money transfers to companies that contain these described characteristics should be closely scrutinized," according to the FBI alert.
And not surprisingly, the malware used in some of the attacks was Zeus, as well as Backdoor.bot and Spybot. The FBI says one of the victim organizations was unable to investigate its infected machine because the hard drive was remotely erased.
David Jevans, chair of the Anti-Phishing Working Group and CEO at IronKey, says while it's still too early to confirm exactly who is behind these SMB attacks, it shows how China also could be a cybercrime hot spot and not just one for cyberespionage. "It shows that cybercrime is expanding in a very big way, into a very big market," he says. "If China gets into it, it can be five to 10 times [as big]."
Cybercrime experts say the crimes appear to be the handiwork of a single operation. "What is obvious here is that a single criminal group" is behind it," Trusteer's Boodaei says.
And the total amount of $20 million represents only one such operation going on out there, he says. "That's quite a lot in a small period of time," he says. "And multiply that by dozens of different criminal groups operating today in the U.S."
The FBI warned banks to be on the lookout for wire activity going to the Chinese cities of Raohe, Fuyuan, Jixi City, Xunke, Tongjiang, and Dongning, and to alert their business customers accordingly. The full alert is available here (PDF) for download.
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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. 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