Last week I showed how the Senate Republicans were skimmed for 6 months (and then it was quietly fixed). But this is just one example of thousands of stores that have been compromised and are still being skimmed.
How it works
Online skimming is just like physical skimming: your card details are stolen so that other people can spend your money. However, online skimming is more effective because a) it is harder to detect and b) it is near impossible to trace the thieves.
Online skimming gains popularity
Online skimming is a new form of card fraud. In November 2015, the first case was reported. Upon investigating, I scanned a sample of 255K online stores globally and found 3501 stores to be skimmed. It is now ten months later. Are the culprits in jail yet? Not quite, here are the numbers of compromised stores:
Victims vary from car makers (Audi ZA) to government (NRSC, Malaysia) to fashion (Converse, Heels.com), to pop stars (Bjork) to NGOs (Science Museum, Washington Cathedral).
754 stores who are skimming today, were already skimming in 2015. Apparently you can skim cards undisturbed for months.
Culprits get professional
In 2015, reported malware cases were all minor variations of the same code base. In March 2016, another malware variety was discovered (report in Dutch). Today, at least 9 varieties and 3 distinct malware families can be identified (see my collection of samples). This suggests that multiple persons or groups are involved.
To trick the casual observer, the malware has sometimes been disguised as UPS code:
Another sign of malware sophistication is the maturity of the payment detection algorithm. The first malware just intercepted pages that had checkout in the URL. Newer versions also check for popular payment plugins such as Firecheckout, Onestepcheckout and Paypal.
Replies from worried merchants
I have manually reported several compromised shops and got some curious responses:
We don’t care, our payments are handled by a 3rd party payment provider
Or, even better:
Our shop is safe because we use https
New cases could be stopped right away if store owners would upgrade their software regularly. But this is costly and most merchants don’t bother.
Besides, that would not repair the current hausse of abuse. While stores could be contacted on an individual basis, it is a lot of work and nobody does it. Companies such as Visa or Mastercard could revoke the payment license of sloppy merchants. But it would be way more efficient if Google would add the compromised sites to its Chrome Safe Browsing blacklist. Visitors would be greeted with a fat red warning screen and induce the store owner to quickly resolve the situation. I have submitted all my malware samples to Google’s Safe Browsing team but only a small part of the detected malware has been blocked so far.
Did you order anything from the Senate Republicans in the last half year? In that case, your name and credit card details have been skimmed and sent to a Russian server. And subsequently sold on the dark web for $30.
Update Oct 6th: The Republicans have rushed to secure their store today. But no word about the skimming between March 16th and October 5th.
See a short video where I demonstrate how the skimming works. And read on to find out how I traced the culprits to a hornet’s nest of criminal activity.
I think I’ll pass on the Never Hillary sticker for now.
The crime scene
So our evidence consists of one compromised Republican store, which was fitted with hidden skimming software at least 6 months ago (dissection of the malware here). And we have two Russian credit card harvesters with the rather boring names jquery-cloud.net (March) and jquery-code.su (October).
Both domain names are hosted by a company called Dataflow, as is shown by the nameservers and IP addresses. Curiously, the Dataflow network and the jquery-cloud.net domain name were created in the same week:
I do not know how many credit cards were stolen from the Republican store but I can make an educated guess. According to TrafficEstimates, the Republican store has received some 350K visits per month lately. A conservative conversion ratio of 1% yields 3500 stolen credit cards per month, or 21K stolen credits cards since March. Black market value per card is between $4 and $120, so I assume a modest $30 per card. The villains could have made roughly $600K on this store alone.
Note, this is just the criminal yield. The monetary loss for society is higher, as credit card companies reimburse their clients for fraudulent deductions (actual deductions are much higher than the black market value!) and conduct investigations. They shift these fraud handling costs to their clients, so that merchants pay a higher transaction fee and, in turn, shift this to their customer (you).
This clever form of card skimming has been going for a while, at least since March. The culprits are hiding behind an shelf company in Belize. Their business is growing rapidly, which I will illustrate in a next post.
The world of card laundering is both alienating and oddly human.
I assumed that credit card fraud was big, but I only experienced how big after I stumbled upon this black market. Or rather, the public tentacles of a hairy underground scene. Which strangely enough has much of the dynamics of a regular market for, say, cattle.
Carder economics 101
This is how it generally works. Cards get stolen physically (“skimmed”) or online. In the latter case, there is either a breach of data: hackers steal a badly encrypted card database. Famous cases: Target, Home Depot, Adobe.
Another class is breach of process: hackers inject themselves somewhere in the payment process to digitally “skim” the payment data. No need for decryption, but stealth is required, as collecting credit cards takes time.
After the theft, the cards have to be sold quickly while they are still “fresh”. The value of stolen cards deteriorates as the chances of discovery increase.
To connect buyers and sellers, hundreds of sites exist, ranging from basic forums to sophisticated reputation-based markets. Have a go and Google for “cvv market”. And this is probably only the tip of the iceberg, as the biggest markets are rumoured to be hidden behind tor proxies (aka the “dark web”).
Interestingly, these exchanges have all the properties of a mature market.
First, a standardized lingua franca exists to conduct business. You gotta know the difference between Dumps and Fullz. See glossary below.
Pricing is very transparent and somewhat stabilized, with a German card going for $15 but a Visa Black Card will cost you $120.
Supporting technology has been standardized. Vendors demand payment in Bitcoins or Western Union. All sites run on the network of DDoS-protection provider Cloudflare, which hides the owner’s identity and protects against attacks from agitated competitors. (Some people protested that Cloudflare doesn’t do shit about this.)
Carding culture & cognitive dissonance
These trading sites offer a quaint view of the carding culture. As is to be expected, these market places are made up of grotesque pictures of money and weapons. Its (probably adolescent) members name themselves after famous mafia bosses.
However, the dynamics of the market resemble that of the ordinary world. It is almost as if people are trading second hand kitchen appliances. Ironically, sellers of stolen goods vow to be trusted:
We are verified on various well known underground/carding forums. So when you deal with Gold Bank Cards you are 100% safe.
Traders vie for the best service, such as “customer support” and “quick replacements” on their stolen wares:
High Balance Dumps are guaranteed to handle swipes of $2k-$3k per time. Any High Balance card which fails to authorize for this range will be replaced
Trader TuxedoJesus gives an interesting insight in the psyche of a fraudster. Apparently the local expert, he humbly apologizes for his busy family life before lecturing his followers on the tricks of the trade:
Sometime it takes me until 48 hours because I also have a family and I also work. [..] remember that the information I give you is for educational purpose only!!!
Somewhere in this ocean of zeroes and ones, the emotional connection between trade and theft was severely lost.
Some basic fraudster vocabulary to make sense of this mess:
Carder: Somebody who sells or buys stolen credit cards
CVV: The actual details of a card which can be used for online purchases: the 16-digit code, name, expiry date etc. Not to be confused with the 3 digit verification code which is called “cvv2”.
Fullz: CVV plus private data (social security number), can in some countries be used to open bank accounts, phone subscriptions etcetera.
Dump: A copy of the magnetric strip of a card. Can be written to a blank card to create a duplicate. This duplicate can then be used in physical stores to pay.
101/201: Indicates “high quality” type of card (no restrictions/pin code). First digit denotes magnetic or chip equipped card.
VBV: Verified by Visa, these cards require an additional password when used in online transactions.
The Mafia Animals art project by Nick Rudnicki. His photo was ripped by cardersmarket.su.