Do Cyber Bank Robbers Care If the Public Knows Their Secrets?

What happens when news gets out that a gang is recruiting botmasters to help them with online breaking-and-entering? Does it help the banks or halt the attacks? Maybe, say experts.

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Hard to say if there are more attacks on U.S. banks or we're just hearing more about them. Possibly both.

On Tuesday, Capital One said it was the latest target in a new round of coordinated cyber attacks aimed at disrupting the websites of major U.S. banks, and SunTrust Banks and Regions Financial said they expect to be next. This comes after last week news from RSA that an internet gang is (or was) recruiting some 100 botmasters to join a planned Trojan attack spree against 30 US banks.

The RSA report raised a whole bunch of interesting questions, like:

  • Does it make any difference to the bad guys that word of this has gotten out?
  • What are the banks supposed to do with this information?

So I went and asked a few experts about it.

But first, some background about what was being planned.

The campaign, dubbed "Project Blitzkrieg" by its inventor who goes by the name "vorVzakone," is supposed to use a whole bunch of hacker cells who will all attack at the same time. RSA says they will all be using a version of the Gozi Trojan called "Gozi Prinimalka."

Previous incidents involving this Trojan, handled by RSA and other information security vendors, appear to corroborate the gang's claims that since 2008 their Trojan has been at the source of siphoning $5 million from American bank accounts.

Analysis by the company said attacks by this Trojan can be identified by several features, notably phone-flooding that will block a bank's attempts to verify unusual online account transfers. According to RSA, this includes:

  • A novel virtual-machine-synching module announced by the gang, installed on the botmaster’s machine, will purportedly duplicate the victim’s PC settings, including the victim’s time zone, screen resolution, cookies, browser type and version, and software product IDs. Impersonated victims' accounts will thus be accessed via a SOCKS proxy connection installed on their infected PCs, enabling the cloned virtual system to take on the genuine IP address when accessing the bank’s website.
  • Using VoIP phone-flooding software, the gang plans to prevent victim account holders from receiving the bank's confirmation call or text message used to verify new or unusual online account transfers.

That's all pretty detailed info for the public to know. If you were robbing a physical bank, that would put the kibosh on your efforts. The online world – as you know – is different.

While it's possible this attack may get called off, that won't make much difference as far as the targets are concerned.

Even "without the call-out of this event from RSA we've been seeing similar attacks all the time," says Zheng Bu, senior director of security research at FireEye. "With the multiple layers of obfuscations [in these attacks] it is very difficult for traditional anti-malware vendors to catch those attacks. These malicious binaries can be changed easily over time. People may call off this operation and tomorrow there will be another set of malware generated to do the same thing."

So how much good does a story like this do?

"Reports such as this are a double-edged sword," says Ori Eisen, founder, chairman and chief innovation officer for 41st Parameter. "On one end they help recruit new attackers and teach attackers about new MOs. On the other side, these reports also notify the good guys about the latest attacks so they learn about it and then can help to stop it by knowing what to look for."

While spear-phishing attacks like these can be very sophisticated, the best way to combat them involves giving your staff training and training and then more training on basic computer security hygiene. They are the weak link the hackers are going after.

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