Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Attacks/Breaches

7/28/2010
03:14 PM
Connect Directly
Google+
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Researcher Exposes Massive Automated Check Counterfeiting Operation Out of Russia

'Big Boss' operation used VPN-tunneling botnet, Zeus Trojan, database-hacking, and money mules to help print and cash phony checks

BLACK HAT USA -- Las Vegas -- A researcher has blown wide open a sophisticated online check-counterfeiting operation out of Russia that used a combination of a VPN'ed botnet, Zeus, and Gozi Trojans, SQL injection attacks, and money mules to print around $9 million worth of counterfeited U.S. checks in the past year.

Click here for more of Dark Reading's Black Hat articles.
The so-called "Big Boss" operation was uncovered during the past three months by Joe Stewart, director of malware research for the counter threat unit at Secureworks, who came across a new variant of the Zeus Trojan while dissecting another bit of malware. He then traced Zeus malware to a botnet, which he infiltrated, discovering that the traffic it was supporting was a counterfeiting checking operation.

"I've never seen this before. Check counterfeiting has always been an offline crime," Stewart says. Law enforcement has been alerted, and the operation remains under way as of now, he says.

In the end, Stewart found that the Russian-backed operation had printed and mailed out -- but not necessarily cashed in -- some $9 million in counterfeit checks from 1,280 bank accounts (mostly businesses and one U.S. government entity). The 3,285 checks that were mailed out tallied $65,000 in fraud against an overnight shipping firm. Some 2,884 job-seekers on online job sites responded to email messages from the counterfeit operation that posed as employers, using fake names, like Global Business Payments Ltd., in order to appear legitimate. They lured the money mules by offering them jobs such as that of a check-processing manager.

Stewart says the botnet used some sophisticated and novel techniques, such as a VPN connection over the Windows Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol. But the botnet itself wasn't as intriguing as the traffic it moved, that of the counterfeiting operation, he says.

The botnet, which contained thousands of bots, let Big Boss operate anonymously and offer spam job offers to potential money mules, scrape job websites to gather new money mule prospects, and scrape the databases for scanned, processed checks.

The attackers also waged SQL injection attacks on some databases storing processed and imaged checks.

"They were amassing huge databases of processed checks. What they need to keep their operation large-scale is a fresh supply of account numbers, routing numbers, so they were getting a constant stream of new ones," Stewart says. They were able to hack into databases of so-called "lockbox" services that store dual copies of scanned check images for small banks and check-cashing services. "They either hacked them or stole account credentials" to them, Stewart says.

They then used off-the-shelf check-printing software. "There was no fancy counterfeiting press, all just off-the-shelf software. They put in the payments, formats, bank logo, and it was a go," he says. Stewart was able to view tens of thousands of these phony checks, all of which were under $3,000 so they could be quickly cashed since any checks more than $3,000 are subject to being held for additional time before banks will cash them.

"And individually [victim companies] weren't losing very much money. Each check was less than $3,000. The most that any business was losing was $9,000," he says.

The phony checks were shipped or mailed overnight to the money mules, who would cash the checks. They also were later told to wire the money to Russia, for instance. Stewart met several of the money mules, most of whom said they had no clue the operation was not legitimate.

Stewart says Big Boss is an organized criminal operation, but may only consist of two people or so. "They not only have the technical knowledge of the ins and outs of hacking -- SQL injection, credential theft, anonymization of VPNs and proxies -- but they also have the knowledge of archaic check systems and how they interface with storage sites. They know where those databases of information are," he says.

The reason the scam was so effective, he says, is that the checks were made from the same type of paper and ink that businesses use. "They devised this system to automate as much as possible to send out spam, recruit new mules, put out fake job ads, and mail these checks out overnight. They go to the proxy botnet in order to shipping labels, and pay with stolen credit cards ... The only human is someone that has to run the mule network," he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

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

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Firms Improve Threat Detection but Face Increasingly Disruptive Attacks
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  2/20/2020
Ransomware Damage Hit $11.5B in 2019
Dark Reading Staff 2/20/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
6 Emerging Cyber Threats That Enterprises Face in 2020
This Tech Digest gives an in-depth look at six emerging cyber threats that enterprises could face in 2020. Download your copy today!
Flash Poll
How Enterprises Are Developing and Maintaining Secure Applications
How Enterprises Are Developing and Maintaining Secure Applications
The concept of application security is well known, but application security testing and remediation processes remain unbalanced. Most organizations are confident in their approach to AppSec, although others seem to have no approach at all. Read this report to find out more.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2019-17274
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-26
NetApp FAS 8300/8700 and AFF A400 Baseboard Management Controller (BMC) firmware versions 13.x prior to 13.1P1 were shipped with a default account enabled that could allow unauthorized arbitrary command execution via local access.
CVE-2019-17275
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-26
OnCommand Cloud Manager versions prior to 3.8.0 are susceptible to arbitrary code execution by remote attackers.
CVE-2020-3169
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-26
A vulnerability in the CLI of Cisco FXOS Software could allow an authenticated, local attacker to execute arbitrary commands on the underlying Linux operating system with a privilege level of root on an affected device. The vulnerability is due to insufficient validation of arguments passed to a spe...
CVE-2020-3170
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-26
A vulnerability in the NX-API feature of Cisco NX-OS Software could allow an unauthenticated, remote attacker to cause an NX-API system process to unexpectedly restart. The vulnerability is due to incorrect validation of the HTTP header of a request that is sent to the NX-API. An attacker could expl...
CVE-2020-3171
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-26
A vulnerability in the local management (local-mgmt) CLI of Cisco FXOS Software and Cisco UCS Manager Software could allow an authenticated, local attacker to execute arbitrary commands on the underlying operating system (OS) of an affected device. The vulnerability is due to insufficient input vali...