[NetBehaviour] Cyberthieves Silently Copy as You Type.
marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Mon Feb 27 14:42:55 CET 2006
Cyberthieves Silently Copy as You Type.
By TOM ZELLER Jr.
February 27, 2006
The New York Times
Most people who use e-mail now know enough to be on guard against
"phishing" messages that pretend to be from a bank or business but are
actually attempts to steal passwords and other personal information.
But there is evidence that among global cybercriminals, phishing may
already be passé.
In some countries, like Brazil, it has been eclipsed by an even more
virulent form of electronic con - the use of keylogging programs that
silently copy the keystrokes of computer users and send that information
to the crooks. These programs are often hidden inside other software and
then infect the machine, putting them in the category of malicious
programs known as Trojan horses, or just Trojans.
Two weeks ago, Brazilian federal police descended on the northern city
of Campina Grande and several surrounding states, and arrested 55 people
- at least 9 of them minors - for seeding the computers of unwitting
Brazilians with keyloggers that recorded their typing whenever they
visited their banks online. The tiny programs then sent the stolen user
names and passwords back to members of the gang.
The fraud ring stole about $4.7 million from 200 different accounts at
six banks since it began operations last May, according to the Brazilian
police. A similar ring, broken up by Russian authorities earlier this
month, used keylogging software planted in e-mail messages and hidden in
Web sites to draw over $1.1 million from personal bank accounts in France.
These criminals aim to infect the inner workings of computers in much
the same way that mischief-making virus writers do. The twist here is
that the keylogging programs exploit security flaws and monitor the path
that carries data from the keyboard to other parts of the computer. This
is a more invasive approach than phishing, which relies on deception
rather than infection, tricking people into giving their information to
a fake Web site.
The monitoring programs are often hidden inside ordinary software
downloads, e-mail attachments or files shared over peer-to-peer
networks. They can even be embedded in Web pages, taking advantage of
browser features that allow programs to run automatically.
"These Trojans are very selective," said Cristine Hoepers, general
manager of Brazil's Computer Emergency Response Team, which runs under
the auspices of the country's public-private Internet Steering
Committee. "They monitor the Web access the victims make, and start
recording information only when the user enters the sites of interest to
the fraudster." She added: "In Brazil, we are rarely seeing traditional
According to data compiled by computer security companies in 2005, the
use of "crimeware" like keyloggers to steal user names and passwords -
and ultimately cash - has soared. The crimes often cross international
borders, and they put Internet users everywhere at risk.
"It's the wave of the future," said Peter Cassidy, the secretary general
of the Anti-Phishing Working Group, a consortium of industry and law
enforcement partners that fights online fraud and identity theft. "All
this stuff is becoming more and more automated and more and more opaque."
Mr. Cassidy's group found that the number of Web sites known to be
hiding this kind of malicious code nearly doubled between November and
December, rising to more than 1,900. The antivirus company Symantec has
reported that half of the malicious software it tracks is designed not
to damage computers but to gather personal data. Over the course of
2005, iDefense, a unit of Verisign that provides information on computer
security to government and industry clients, counted over 6,000
different keylogger variants - a 65 percent increase over 2004. About
one-third of all malicious code tracked by the company now contains some
keylogging component, according to Ken Dunham, the company's
And the SANS Institute, a group that trains and certifies computer
security professionals, estimated that at a single moment last fall, as
many as 9.9 million machines in the United States were infected with
keyloggers of one kind or another, putting as much as $24 billion in
bank account assets - and probably much more - literally at the
fingertips of fraudsters. John Bambenek, the SANS researcher who made
the estimate, suggested that the infection rate was probably much higher.
In most cases, a keylogger or similar program, once installed, will
simply wait for certain Web sites to be visited - a banking site, for
instance, or a credit card account online - or for certain keywords to
be entered - "SSN," for example - and then spring to life.
Keystrokes are saved to a file, Web forms are copied - even snapshots of
a user's screen can be silently recorded. The information is then sent
back to a Web site or some waiting server where a thief, or a different
piece of software, sifts through the data for useful nuggets.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, responding to the growing
threat of cybercrime to the financial industry, stiffened its guidelines
for Internet banking in October, effectively ordering banks to do more
than ask for a simple user name and password. But it stopped short of
requiring, for instance, the use of electronic devices that generate
numeric passcodes every 60 seconds, which many experts say would help
foil much online fraud, including the use of keyloggers.
Technology for grabbing text and screen images is not new - or
particularly sophisticated. Keyloggers are even sold commercially, as
tools for keeping an eye on what children are doing online, or what a
spouse might be doing in online chat rooms. And while most experts agree
that data-swiping software is spreading rapidly, there are some who say
the problem has been exaggerated.
"I get concerned that we're scaring people off the Internet," said Alex
Eckelberry, the president of Sun-Belt Software, a maker of antispyware
software based in Clearwater, Fla. Mr. Eckelberry believes that the
infection rate is probably far lower than most estimates indicate, in
part because the trend is hard to measure and so many computers are
"There's a lot of hyperbole out there," he said, adding that his company
has identified only about 30 keyloggers over the last six months, most
being variations on a piece of code known as Winldra.exe.
That code proudly bears the copyright signature of its creators, "Smash
and Sars," who also happen to be the proprietors of a Russian site,
RATSystems.org, which is well-known among traders at online swap meets
like theftservices.com and carders.ws/forum that traffic in confidential
personal data - or the means to steal it.
"Smash is one of the revolutionaries," said one member of a trading
site, who insisted on anonymity because the sites are often watched by
law enforcement. "If you're entry-level and want a keylogger, that's who
you're going to go to," he said, adding, "It's a simple, cheap way to
In fact, keylogging's simplicity may be why it is suddenly so popular
among thieves. "Phishing takes a lot of time and effort," said David
Thomas, the chief of the computer intrusion division at the Federal
Bureau of Investigation. "This type of software is a much more efficient
way to get what they're after."
The programming, too, is often trivial. "These can be developed by a
12-year-old hacker," said Eugene Kaspersky, a co-founder of Kaspersky
Labs, an international computer security and antivirus company based in
Being wary of unfamiliar Web links sent via e-mail is a first-line of
defense, according to experts, as is avoiding questionable downloads and
keeping up to date with Windows patches and antivirus updates.
It is worth noting, however, that in a test of major antivirus programs
conducted by Ms. Hoepers's group in Brazil last fall, the very best
detected only 88 percent of the known keyloggers flourishing there. In
this country, victims of fraudulent money transfers are typically
limited to $50 in liability under the Federal Reserve's Regulation E, so
long as they report the crime quickly enough - within two days. If they
report it within 60 days, their liability is capped at $500.
One Florida man has had trouble getting that kind of protection. In a
closely watched case, Joe Lopez, the owner of a small computer supply
company in Miami, sued Bank of America after cybercrooks were able to
use a keylogging Trojan planted on his business computers to swipe bank
account information and transfer $90,000 to Latvia.
Bank of America says it does not need to cover the loss because Mr.
Lopez was a business customer - and because it is not the bank's fault
that he did not practice good computer hygiene. Mr. Lopez claims he did,
and that in any case, Bank of America should have done more to warn him
of the risks of computer crime. That risk is one that Mr. Kaspersky
believes is in danger of getting out of hand.
"I'm afraid that if the number of criminals grows with this same speed,
the antivirus companies will not be able to create adequate protection,"
said Mr. Kaspersky, who added that the time has come for increased
investment in law enforcement and far better cross-border cooperation
among investigators, who are overwhelmed by the global nature of cybercrime.
"There are more criminals on the Internet street than policemen," he said.
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