Attackers do their dirty work from their own cloud-based server infrastructure rather than on the victim's PC in order to camouflage the crime

Law enforcement officials from around the globe are investigating an online financial crime ring that employs a sophisticated infrastructure of its own transaction servers to steal funds from high-balance bank accounts of businesses and individuals worldwide.

The campaign, dubbed “Operation High Roller” by researchers at McAfee and Guardian Analytics, which today published a report on these attacks occurring around the world, has now spread from Europe to the U.S. and North America and has hit thousands of financial institutions. The targets in the U.S. thus far have been companies with a minimum of several million dollars in their accounts, and all sizes of banks and credit unions are being abused in the attacks.

The thieves appear to have pilfered somewhere between $60- $100 million, and have attempted to steal as $2.5 billion overall so far, according to David Marcus, director of security research at McAfee.

What sets this series of financial fraud attacks apart from traditional online banking fraud is that most of it is fully automated such that an attacker doesn’t even use man-in-the-browser methods to intercept credentials and steal funds, the researchers say. Instead, one method of attack used in The Netherlands and the U.S. employs server-side automation to avoid detection: the attack logs in from the criminals’ servers, which are hosted at a so-called “bulletproof” ISP overseas and can be moved around as needed. McAfee and Guardian detected some 60 servers processing thousands of attempts to steal from commercial accounts and high net-worth individuals.

“This logic has been moved to servers under the control of the criminals, and the servers execute the fraudulent transactions in an automated way,” says Craig Priess, vice president of products and business development at Guardian Analytics. “This minimizes the amount of logic and execution of code on the clients. It allows the infected clients to remain under the radar, and the [operation] to be more agile in updating these servers.”

Operation High Roller attackers consist of at least 12 groups, some of which use traditional, more manual means of stealing from this high-value targets, and the rest that employ the automated server method. The attackers choose their victims via online reconnaissance and spear phishing, for instance. The attackers also are able to cheat two-factor authentication and chip-and-pin technology.

Automated transaction processes in banking fraud are becoming all the rage. Trend Micro last week revealed [Banks are finding ways to balance security with convenience, but consumers have no way of determining what's safe to use. See Making Mobile Banking Safe.]

Mike Lloyd, CTO at RedSeal Networks, says Operation High Roller is another example of how attackers are automating their operations. “The reason why is clear: automation helps attackers find weak points in complex environments. The trouble is that infrastructure has grown very complex, and can hide all kinds of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Targets of Operation High Roller range from high end, sophisticated banks down to smaller, local credit unions. All of them share a common defensive problem: too much complexity. As the attackers move to greater and greater automation, the defenders must do likewise, exhaustively testing their existing network defenses, so they find weaknesses before the attackers do."

The full report is available here for download (PDF).

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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