Attacks Continue on Retail Stores, Restaurants

Criminals exploit wireless vulnerabilities, social engineering to collect large volumes of customer data

Tim Wilson, Editor in Chief, Dark Reading, Contributor

August 18, 2008

3 Min Read

Attacks on local retail establishments continue to net criminals large volumes of personal data, despite the recent arrest and indictment of a large group of criminals using the same attack vector.

Authorities late last week acknowledged that a ring of cyber-thieves has stolen tens of thousands of credit card numbers from Louisiana and Mississippi restaurants this year. One bank alone says it has lost more than $1 million as a result of the attacks, according to news reports about the identity thefts.

And across the pond in Ireland, data thieves masquerading as bank technicians have fooled store owners into giving them access to credit card terminals and managed to download the details of over 20,000 credit and debit cards, according to an Irish news outlet.

The attacks come on the heels of a huge arrest and indictment made two weeks ago, when 11 perpetrators allegedly involved in the hacking of nine major U.S. retailers, and the theft and sale of more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers were charged with engineering the largest hacking and identity theft conspiracy ever prosecuted in the U.S. (See Feds Arrest Hackers of TJX, Other Retailers in Huge Conspiracy Bust.)

That case linked several high-profile data breaches of the last two years -- including TJX Companies, BJ's Wholesale Club, Barnes & Noble, and Dave & Buster's -- to a single group of conspirators. But apparently, it didn't break all of the rings of thieves who might use vulnerabilities in local retail wireless systems to crack credit card information.

The U.S. restaurants began reporting the thefts beginning in March in Baton Rouge, La. followed by similar cases in Flowood, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and West Monroe, Miss. The hackers stole credit and debit card numbers from 16 restaurants' computer systems, then sought to sell them for anywhere between $1 and $100 each, according to special agent Sean Connor of the U.S. Secret Service.

Law enforcement agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi did not give details on the methods used by the criminals, but they did say they believe that the thefts are connected and multiple thieves are likely working together. Experts speculate that the attackers are using a technique similar to the one used at TJX, in which criminals "eavesdrop" on in-store wireless systems and gain access to the database of customer and credit card data.

In Ireland, attackers are taking advantage of weaknesses in in-store security as well, but using a more brazen attack. The Irish Payment Services Organisation has warned that individuals pretending to be from Irish banks convinced shop owners that they were carrying out maintenance on point-of-sale systems on behalf of the banks. This enabled them to plug in wireless devices that pushed the data to the Internet, where the card numbers could be used overseas.

The scam has forced Irish banks to restrict cash withdrawals to about $200 a day for cardholders traveling outside the country. Law enforcement officials say they have retrieved closed-circuit TV footage of the gang in action.

The new attacks show that despite the blockbuster arrest, retail establishments are still being raided for large volumes of personal data. The PCI Standards Security Council issued further revisions to retail standards for handling credit card data earlier today. (See PCI SSC Announces Changes to PCI DSS Specs.)

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About the Author(s)

Tim Wilson, Editor in Chief, Dark Reading


Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one of the top cyber security journalists in the US in voting among his peers, conducted by the SANS Institute. In 2011 he was named one of the 50 Most Powerful Voices in Security by SYS-CON Media.

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