Tag Archives: ransomware

Taken Hostage

by Rumbi Petrozzello
2019 Vice President – Central Virginia ACFE Chapter

On March 22, 2018, I flew into the Atlanta Airport and stopped by the airport’s EMS offices to request an incident report. The gentleman who greeted me at the entrance to the offices was very kind and asked me to wait while he pulled up the details of the report for me. He called over to his coworker, who was sitting in front of a computer, and asked him for help. I heard the coworker clicking on his mouse a few times and then he said that his machine didn’t seem to be working. “It hasn’t been working all morning,” he added. The gentleman then gave me a phone number to call for assistance and apologized for not being more helpful. After I called the number, got voicemail and left a message, I became concerned because I was leaving the country the next day for a week and a half and so hoped that someone would get back to me that day.

Unfortunately, no one had called me back by the time I left. When I returned, I found no voicemail. I called again and left a message. A week after that, the airport EMS Chief returned my call with apologies for the delay – their computers had been down, and he was only now able to start getting back to people. Because I had been out of the country and not really following the news, it was only after a couple of months that I put two and two together. At that point I was working on Eye on Fraud, a publication of the AICPA’s Fraud Task Force. The edition was on Ransomware and as I looked at the information concerning Atlanta, I noticed the dates and realized that the day that I flew into Atlanta and visited the EMS office was the same day that the city of Atlanta was struck by a ransomware attack that crippled the city for over a week and resulted in costs to the city exceeding $2.6 million; a lot more than the $52,000 that was demanded in ransom by the attackers. In late November, two Iranians were indicted for the Atlanta and other attacks. The Atlanta ransomware attack featured many characteristics shared by such attacks, be they on individuals, companies, or governments.

Ransomware attacks have been a problem for decades; the first such documented attack took place in 1989. At that time the malicious code was delivered to victims’ computers via floppy disk and the whole exploit was very easy for victims to reverse. 2006 saw a big uptick in ransomware attacks and, today, ransomware is big business for individual cyber criminals and for organized gangs alike, earning them about a billion dollars in 2016.

Ransomware is a form of malware (malicious software), and works in one of two general ways:

1. Crypto-ransomware encrypts hard drives or files and folders.
2. Locker-ransomware locks users out of their machines, without employing encryption.

As time has gone on, ransomware has become more complex and ransomware attacks more sophisticated. One way in which cyber criminals break into computer systems is via human engineering. This can take the form of an email with a malicious attachment or a link to a compromised website. Cyber criminals also take advantage of known weaknesses in computer operating systems. The WannaCry ransomware, which swept the globe several years ago, took advantage of a flaw in Microsoft Windows. This underscores how essential it is to provide cyber training to employees and to update this training often. Employees must be taught to always be vigilant and on the lookout for such attacks, and to maintain awareness of how such threats are constantly changing and migrating. All it takes is a single employee lapse in judgment and attention for malware to get into a business’s computer system. It’s also essential to keep computers and software up to date with the latest patches. WannaCry was successful in part because Microsoft had discontinued its support of some versions of Windows, including for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. The amount of money companies thought they were saving by continuing to use old unsupported software was dwarfed by the cost of recovery from malware attacks specifically targeting that software.

When CFEs and forensic accountants dialogue with clients about ransomware attack scenarios, we should remind them that cyber criminals are equal opportunity offenders when it comes to such exploits. Employees should be alert to this whether they are working on an employer’s machine or on a personal one. Ransomware has now made its way into the smartphone space, so employees should be made aware that heightened vigilance should extend even to their smartphones. CFEs should additionally work with clients to fund penetration and phishing tests to determine how effective staff training has been and to highlight areas for improvement.

Both individuals and companies should have a plan on how they will deal with a possible ransomware attack. A well-thought out plan can minimize the effects of an attack and can also mean that the reaction to the attack is measured and not mounted on the basis of uncoordinated panic. For example, when LabCorp was attacked in July 2018, the company contained the spread of the malware in less than an hour. Its, therefore, doubly important that we CFEs and forensic accountants work with IT specialists to formulate an advance plan in case of a ransomware or other malware, attack.

Experts recommend that ransom should not be paid. Clients need to be made to understand that when their systems are taken hostage, they are dealing with criminals and criminals are, more often than not, not to be trusted. When the city of Leeds, Alabama, was attacked, the city paid the cyber criminals $12,000 in ransom. Despite making this payment, the hackers restored only a limited number of files. The city was then faced with the expenditure of additional funds in the attempt to recover or rebuild the remaining files. Sometimes hackers will disappear with ransom and restore nothing. In the face of this, companies and individuals should be encouraged to have back up and restoration plans. To be useful, backups must be made regularly and kept physically separate from the machine or network being protected. The recovery plan should be tested at least annually.

Ransomware exploits are not going away any time soon. Ransomware attacks are a way to get money, not only through the ransom demanded itself but also through access to other sensitive information belonging to employees and clients. Often the hacker will demand a nominal amount in ransom and sell the information stolen by access to the company’s network for a lot more.

We, as CFEs and forensic accountants, can help our client address the ballooning threat in a number of ways:

• by performing a risk assessments of clients’ systems and processes, to identify weaknesses and areas for control improvement.
• by providing staff training on security best practices. This training should be updated at least once a year; in addition to updating staff on changes, this will also serve to remind employees to be vigilant. This training must include everyone in a company, even top management and the board.
• by reminding clients to keep software up to date and to consider upgrades or total changes when an application is no longer supported. Encourage management to have software updates automated on employees’ machines.
• by working with clients to create a backup and recovery system, that features off-site backups. This program should be tested regularly, and backups should be reviewed to ensure their integrity.
• by working with IT and third-party vendors on annual penetration and social engineering testing at client locations. The third-party vendors used should be rotated ever three years.

CSO Online predicts that ransomware attacks will rise to one every 14 seconds by the end of 2019. We CFEs and forensic accountants should work with our clients to innovate effective ways to protect themselves and to mitigate the effects of the future attacks that certainly will occur. The key is to ensure that clients remain educated, vigilant and prepared.

Industrialized Theft

In at least one way you have to hand it to Ethically Challenged, Inc.;  it sure knows how to innovate, and the recent spate of ransomware attacks proves they also know how to make what’s old new again. Although society’s criminal opponents engage in constant business process improvement, they’ve proven again and again that they’re not just limited to committing new crimes from scratch every time. In the age of Moore’s law, these tasks have been readily automated and can run in the background at scale without the need for significant human intervention. Crime automations like the WannaCry virus allow transnational organized crime groups to gain the same efficiencies and cost savings that multinational corporations obtained by leveraging technology to carry out their core business functions. That’s why today it’s possible for hackers to rob not just one person at a time but 100 million or more, as the world saw with the Sony PlayStation and Target data breaches and now with the WannaCry worm.

As covered in our Chapter’s training event of last year, ‘Investigating on the Internet’, exploit tool kits like Blackhole and SpyEye commit crime “automagically” by minimizing the need for human labor, thereby dramatically reducing criminal costs. They also allow hackers to pursue the “long tail” of opportunity, committing millions of thefts in small amounts so that (in many cases) victims don’t report them and law enforcement has no way to track them. While high-value targets (companies, nations, celebrities, high-net-worth individuals) are specifically and individually targeted, the way the majority of the public is hacked is by automated scripted computer malware, one large digital fishing net that scoops up anything and everything online with a vulnerability that can be exploited. Given these obvious advantages, as of 2016 an estimated 61 percent of all online attacks were launched by fully automated crime tool kits, returning phenomenal profits for the Dark Web overlords who expertly orchestrated them. Modern crime has become reduced and distilled to a software program that anybody can run at tremendous profit.

Not only can botnets and other tools be used over and over to attack and offend, but they’re now enabling the commission of much more sophisticated crimes such as extortion, blackmail, and shakedown rackets. In an updated version of the old $500 million Ukrainian Innovative Marketing solutions “virus detected” scam, fraudsters have unleashed a new torrent of malware that hold the victim’s computer hostage until a ransom is paid and an unlock code is provided by the scammer to regain access to the victim’s own files. Ransomware attack tools are included in a variety of Dark Net tool kits, such as WannaCry and Gameover Zeus. According to the ACFE, there are several varieties of this scam, including one that purports to come from law enforcement. Around the world, users who become infected with the Reveton Trojan suddenly have their computers lock up and their full screens covered with a notice, allegedly from the FBI. The message, bearing an official-looking large, full-color FBI logo, states that the user’s computer has been locked for reasons such as “violation of the federal copyright law against illegally downloaded material” or because “you have been viewing or distributing prohibited pornographic content.”

In the case of the Reveton Trojan, to unlock their computers, users are informed that they must pay a fine ranging from $200 to $400, only accepted using a prepaid voucher from Green Dot’s MoneyPak, which victims are instructed they can buy at their local Walmart or CVS; victims of WannaCry are required to pay in BitCoin. To further intimidate victims and drive home the fact that this is a serious police matter, the Reveton scammers prominently display the alleged violator’s IP address on their screen as well as snippets of video footage previously captured from the victim’s Webcam. As with the current WannaCry exploit, the Reveton scam has successfully targeted tens of thousands of victims around the world, with the attack localized by country, language, and police agency. Thus, users in the U.K. see a notice from Scotland Yard, other Europeans get a warning from Europol, and victims in the United Arab Emirates see the threat, translated into Arabic, purportedly from the Abu Dhabi Police HQ.

WannaCry is even more pernicious than Reveton though in that it actually encrypts all the files on a victim’s computer so that they can no longer be read or accessed. Alarmingly, variants of this type of malware often present a ticking-bomb-type countdown clock advising users that they only have forty-eight hours to pay $300 or all of their files will be permanently destroyed. Akin to threatening “if you ever want to see your files alive again,” these ransomware programs gladly accept payment in Bitcoin. The message to these victims is no idle threat. Whereas previous ransomware might trick users by temporarily hiding their files, newer variants use strong 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard cryptography to lock user files so that they become irrecoverable. These types of exploits earn scores of millions of dollars for the criminal programmers who develop and sell them on-line to other criminals.

Automated ransomware tools have even migrated to mobile phones, affecting Android handset users in certain countries. Not only have individuals been harmed by the ransomware scourge, so too have companies, nonprofits, and even government agencies, the most infamous of which was the Swansea Police Department in Massachusetts some years back, which became infected when an employee opened a malicious e-mail attachment. Rather than losing its irreplaceable police case files to the scammers, the agency was forced to open a Bitcoin account and pay a $750 ransom to get its files back. The police lieutenant told the press he had no idea what a Bitcoin was or how the malware functioned until his department was struck in the attack.

As the ACFE and other professional organizations have told us, within its world, cybercrime has evolved highly sophisticated methods of operation to sell everything from methamphetamine to child sexual abuse live streamed online. It has rapidly adopted existing tools of anonymity such as the Tor browser to establish Dark Net shopping malls, and criminal consulting services such as hacking and murder for hire are all available at the click of a mouse. Untraceable and anonymous digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, are breathing new life into the underground economy and allowing for the rapid exchange of goods and services. With these additional revenues, cyber criminals are becoming more disciplined and organized, significantly increasing the sophistication of their operations. Business models are being automated wherever possible to maximize profits and botnets can threaten legitimate global commerce, easily trained on any target of the scammer’s choosing. Fundamentally, it’s been done. As WannaCry demonstrates, the computing and Internet based crime machine has been built. With these systems in place, the depth and global reach of cybercrime, mean that crime now scales, and it scales exponentially. Yet, as bad as this threat is today, it is about to become much worse, as we hand such scammers billions of more targets for them to attack as we enter the age of ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things.