The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

From 2015 to 2018, a strain of ransomware known as SamSam paralyzed computer networks across North America and the UK. It caused more than $30m in damages to at least 200 entities, including the cities of Atlanta and Newark, the port of San Diego and Hollywood Presbyterian medical center in Los Angeles. It knocked out Atlanta’s water service requests and online billing systems, prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation to call in the national guard, and delayed medical appointments and treatments for patients nationwide whose electronic records couldn’t be retrieved. In return for restoring access to the files, the cyberattackers collected at least $6m in ransom.

“You just have 7 days to send us the BitCoin,” read the ransom demand to Newark. “After 7 days we will remove your private keys and it’s impossible to recover your files.”

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At a press conference last November, then deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein announced that the US Department of Justice had indicted two Iranian men on fraud charges for allegedly developing the strain and orchestrating the extortion. Many SamSam targets were “public agencies with missions that involve saving lives”, and the attackers impaired their ability to “provide healthcare to sick and injured people”, Rosenstein said. The hackers “knew that shutting down those computer systems could cause significant harm to innocent victims”.

In a statement that day, the FBI said the “criminal actors” were “out of the reach of US law enforcement”. But they weren’t beyond the reach of an American company that says it helps victims regain access to their computers. Proven Data Recovery of Elmsford, New York, regularly made ransom payments to SamSam hackers over more than a year, according to Jonathan Storfer, a former employee who dealt with them.

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Proven Data Recovery’s office in Elmsford, New York. Photograph: Jonno Rattman/ProPublica

Although bitcoin transactions are intended to be anonymous and difficult to track, ProPublica was able to trace four of the payments. Sent in 2017 and 2018 from an online wallet controlled by Proven Data to ones specified by the hackers, the money was then laundered through as many as 12 bitcoin addresses before reaching a wallet maintained by the Iranians, according to an analysis by bitcoin tracing firm Chainalysis at our request. Payments to that digital currency destination and another linked to the attackers were later banned by the US treasury department, which cited sanctions targeting the Iranian regime.

“I would not be surprised if a significant amount of ransomware both funded terrorism and also organized crime,” Storfer said. “So the question is, every time that we get hit by SamSam, and every time we facilitate a payment – and here’s where it gets really dicey – does that mean we are technically funding terrorism?”

Proven Data promised to help ransomware victims by unlocking their data with the “latest technology”, according to company emails and former clients. Instead, it obtained decryption tools from cyberattackers by paying ransoms, according to Storfer and an FBI affidavit obtained by ProPublica.

Every time that we get hit by SamSam, and every time we facilitate a payment ... does that mean we are technically funding terrorism?

Jonathan Storfer

Another US company, Florida-based MonsterCloud, also professes to use its own data recovery methods but instead pays ransoms, sometimes without informing victims such as local law enforcement agencies, ProPublica has found. The firms are alike in other ways. Both charge victims substantial fees on top of the ransom amounts. They also offer other services, such as sealing breaches to protect against future attacks.

The payments underscore the lack of other options for individuals and businesses devastated by ransomware, the failure of law enforcement to catch or deter the hackers, and the moral quandary of whether paying ransoms encourages extortion. Since some victims are public agencies or receive government funding, taxpayer money may end up in the hands of cybercriminals in countries hostile to the US, such as Russia and Iran.

In contrast to Proven Data and MonsterCloud, several other firms, such as Connecticut-based Coveware, openly help clients regain computer access by paying attackers. They assist victims who are willing to pay ransoms but don’t know how to deal in bitcoin or don’t want to contact hackers directly. At the same time, Coveware seeks to deter cybercrime by collecting and sharing data with law enforcement and security researchers, CEO Bill Siegel said.

Siegel refers to a handful of firms globally, including Proven Data and MonsterCloud, as “ransomware payment mills”. They “demonstrate how easily intermediaries can prey on the emotions of a ransomware victim” by advertising “guaranteed decryption without having to pay the hacker”, he said in a blogpost. “Although it might not be illegal to obfuscate how encrypted data is recovered, it is certainly dishonest and predatory.”

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. You can sign up to their Big Story newsletter for more stories like this.

MonsterCloud’s chief executive, Zohar Pinhasi, said that the company’s data recovery solutions vary from case to case. He declined to discuss them, saying they are a trade secret. MonsterCloud does not mislead clients, and never promises them that their data will be recovered by any particular method, he said.

“The reason we have such a high recovery rate is that we know who these attackers are and their typical methods of operation,” he said. “Those victims of attacks should never make contact themselves and pay the ransom because they don’t know who they are dealing with.”

On its website, Proven Data says it “does not condone or support paying the perpetrator’s demands as they may be used to support other nefarious criminal activity, and there is never any guarantee to obtain the keys, or if obtained, they may not work”. Paying the ransom, it says, is “a last resort option”.

However, the chief executive, Victor Congionti, told ProPublica in an email that paying attackers is standard procedure at Proven Data. “Our mission is to ensure that the client is protected, their files are restored and the hackers are not paid more than the minimum required to serve our clients,” he said. Unless the hackers used an outdated variant for which a decryption key is publicly available, “most ransomware strains have encryptions that are too strong to break”, he said.

Congionti said that Proven Data paid the SamSam attackers “at the direction of our clients, some of which were hospitals where lives can be on the line”. It stopped dealing with the SamSam hackers after the USgovernment identified them as Iranian and took action against them, he said. Until then, he said, the company did not know they were affiliated with Iran. “Under no circumstances would we have knowingly dealt with a sanctioned person or entity,” he said.

Proven Data’s policy on disclosing ransom payments to clients has “evolved over time”, Congionti said. In the past, the company told them it would use any means necessary to recover data, “which we viewed as encompassing the possibility of paying the ransom”, he said. “That was not always clear to some customers.” The company informed all SamSam victims that it paid the ransoms, and currently is “completely transparent as to whether a ransom will be paid”, he said.

“It is easy to take the position that no one should pay a ransom in a ransomware attack because such payments encourage future ransomware attacks,” he said. “It is much harder, however, to take that position when it is your data that has been encrypted and the future of your company and all of the jobs of your employees are in peril. It is a classic moral dilemma.”

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laws prohibit paying ransoms. The FBI frowns on it officially – and winks at it in practice. Ransom payment “encourages continued criminal activity, leads to other victimizations, and can be used to facilitate serious crimes”, an FBI spokesperson told ProPublica. But in 2015, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s cyber program in Boston said at a cybersecurity conference that the bureau will “often advise people just to pay the ransom”, according to news reports.

Paying a ransom while pretending otherwise to a client, though, could constitute deceptive business practices prohibited by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act, said former FTC acting chairman Maureen Ohlhausen. Neither MonsterCloud nor Proven Data has been cited by the FTC.

Storfer, who worked for Proven Data from March 2017 until September 2018, said in a series of interviews that the company not only paid ransoms to the SamSam hackers, but also developed a mutually beneficial relationship with them. As that relationship developed, he said, Proven Data was able to negotiate extensions on payment deadlines.

“With SamSam, we could say, ‘Hello, this is Proven Data, please keep this portal open while we contact and interact with the customer while moving forward,’” Storfer said. “And they would remove the timer on the portal. And then they would respond quicker and in many cases would be able to provide things a little bit easier.”

The SamSam attackers didn’t identify themselves, he said. While Proven Data generally concealed its identity when responding to ransom demands, “we were very open” with the SamSam hackers, “and we would essentially announce ourselves”, Storfer said.

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The door to the office of Proven Data in Elmsford, New York. Photograph: Jonno Rattman/ProPublica

Eventually, the attackers began recommending that victims work with the firm. “SamSam would be like, ‘If you need assistance with this, contact Proven Data,’” said Storfer, who declined to identify clients. Some of them wondered about this endorsement. “Honestly, the weirdest thing was clients would ask us why, and we would have to respond to that, which was not a really fun conversation,” he added.

The referrals indicate the SamSam hackers’ confidence that Proven Data would pay the ransom, said Bart Huffman, a Houston lawyer specializing in privacy and information security. Such prior understandings could be seen as a criminal conspiracy and may violate the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, he said.

“That does seem like you are working for the other side,” Huffman said. “You are facilitating the payment at the recommendation of SamSam, in the manner suggested by SamSam.”

Proven Data has never been charged with such a violation. The company “never had a ‘close relationship’ with SamSam attackers”, said Congionti, who didn’t comment on the recommendations specifically. “Our contact with attackers is limited to minimizing the attack on the customer … Anyone can reach out to a hacker and tell them to keep the portal open longer.”

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Ransomware is one of the most common types of cybercrime. Since 2016, more than 4,000 ransomware attacks have taken place daily, or about 1.5m a year, according to statistics posted by the US Department of Homeland Security.

“Ransomware continues to spread and is infecting devices around the globe,” the FBI said in a statement. “We are seeing different kinds of ransomware, different deployment methods, and a coordinated distribution. The FBI considers it one of the top cybercriminal threats.”

Yet the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center counted only 1,493 ransomware victims in 2018 – a figure the bureau itself says represents only a small fraction of total incidents. Victims don’t report attacks, perhaps because they’re embarrassed, or reluctant to acknowledge gaps in their IT security, according to law enforcement officials.

Even when victims do report ransomware, the culprits are rarely caught. While demands to businesses and municipal governments have reached as high as six figures, the average ransom sought is a few thousand dollars, according to cyber-research firms. That’s well below the thresholds maintained by federal prosecutors to trigger an investigation, said former FBI deputy director John Pistole.

Local police departments lack the resources to solve cybercrime and themselves are frequently ransomware targets. “It is a weird gray area where there is a law but it isn’t enforced,” said Jeffrey Kosseff, an assistant professor of cybersecurity law at the US Naval Academy. “Ransomware is a real failure of the current legal system. There is not a good remedy.”

European law enforcement agencies have had more success. In March 2018, for example, the Polish police – in cooperation with the Belgian federal police and Europol – arrested a Polish national suspected of having infected several thousand computers with ransomware. European law enforcement officials “just hang out on Slack channels where we tell them stuff”, said Fabian Wosar, a UK-based security researcher, referring to the popular messaging platform.

Asked whether its agents also gather information via Slack, the FBI said that it “must adhere to rules relating to federal agency recordkeeping, which makes the adoption of more agile communication methods trickier for us than for private sector companies”.

When Wosar discovered servers in the US and the Netherlands that probably contained the attackers’ decryption keys for the ASN1 ransomware strain and could help identify the criminals, he and another researcher notified the FBI and the Dutch national police. “Great news,” a member of the Dutch high-tech crime team responded. “We are eager to start things up” and “try to seize the servers”. The FBI replied with basic questions that reflected a lack of understanding of how ransomware works, said Wosar, who is head of research at anti-virus provider Emsisoft.

The bureau declined to comment on the incident.

As ransomware proliferated without an effective law enforcement response, an industry sprang up to unlock victims’ computers. In the US, it was dominated by two firms: Proven Data and MonsterCloud. Each says it has assisted thousands of ransom victims.

The companies’ claims to be able to release files using their own technology aroused Wosar’s curiosity. He and other security experts sometimes find ways to disable ransomware, and they post those fixes online for free. But they can decrypt ransomware only if there are errors in the underlying software or if a security lapse allows the researchers themselves to hack into the attacker’s server, he said; otherwise, it’s essentially bulletproof.

“If there is a company that claims they broke the ransomware, we are skeptical,” Wosar said. “Everything the ransomware did has been analyzed by other researchers. It’s incredibly unlikely they were the only ones to break it.”

In December 2016, he devised an experiment dubbed Operation Bleeding Cloud, after MonsterCloud and the Heartbleed software vulnerability. He and another researcher created a variant of ransomware and used it to infect one of their own test computers. Then they emailed MonsterCloud, Proven Data and several other data recovery firms based in the UK and Australia, posing as a victim who didn’t want to pay a ransom.

Wosar said he sent some sample encrypted files to the firms along with a fake ransom note that he himself had written. Like many ransom notes, the demand included an email address to contact the attacker for instructions on how to pay. Each note also contained a unique ID sequence for the victim, so Wosar could later identify which firm had contacted him even if it used an anonymous email account.

The firms eagerly agreed to help. “They all claimed to be able to decrypt ransomware families that definitely weren’t decryptable and didn’t mention that they paid the ransom,” Wosar said. “Quite the contrary actually. They all seemed very proud not to pay ransomers.”

Soon the email accounts that he had set up for the imaginary attacker began receiving emails from anonymous addresses offering to pay the ransom, he said. He traced the requests to the data recovery firms, including MonsterCloud and Proven Data.

“The victims are getting taken advantage of twice,” he said.

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Proven Data’s Congionti and MonsterCloud’s Pinhasi both said they could not recall this particular case. “If someone is saying that we promised up front that we would be able to decrypt their files, I am certain that this is inaccurate,” Pinhasi said.

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In testimonials on MonsterCloud’s website, four local law enforcement agencies praise the firm for restoring their data following ransomware attacks.

One was the Trumann police department in Arkansas. When its computer system was infected in November, decades’ worth of data including case notes, witness statements, affidavits and payroll records were frozen. The department’s IT manager came across MonsterCloud on a Google search while “frantically looking for a way to fix the problem”, said the chief of police, Chad Henson.

Henson, who oversees about two dozen officers serving a population of 8,000, said he was reassured about MonsterCloud’s capabilities when he discovered “how friendly they are to law enforcement and to government entities”.

> In testimonials on MonsterCloud’s website, four local law enforcement agencies praise the firm for restoring their data following ransomware attacks. > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
In testimonials on MonsterCloud’s website, four local law enforcement agencies praise the firm for restoring their data following ransomware attacks. Photograph: Jeffery A Salter/Jeffery Salter

“That’s when we made the phone call to them,” he recalled. “They said: ‘Don’t worry about it. We are pretty sure we can get everything back.”

Another reason he chose MonsterCloud, he said, was that it wouldn’t pay the ransom. “I’m the one in the seat, the one charged to safeguard the department,” he said. “To turn around and spend taxpayer money on a ransom – that is absolutely the wrong decision. It is the nuclear option. But with MonsterCloud, we can just remove that option.”

MonsterCloud restored the police department’s files within 72 hours, and assured the department it did not pay a ransom, Henson said. In return for the testimonial, it waived its $75,000 fee.

To turn around and spend taxpayer money on a ransom – that is absolutely the wrong decision. It is the nuclear option

Chad Henson

MonsterCloud’s contract with the Trumann police, obtained under a public records request, calls its recovery method a “trade secret” and says the firm would not explain the “proprietary means and methods by which client’s files were restored”. It also says that if “all possible means of directly decrypting client’s files have been exhausted”, the firm would attempt to recover data by “communicating with the cyber attacker”.

Pinhasi said that the Trumann department was crippled by the Dharma strain of ransomware. Wosar and Michael Gillespie, a software analyst in Illinois whom the FBI has honored with a community leadership award for his help on ransomware, said there was no known way of decrypting the Dharma ransomware in use at the time. They said MonsterCloud must have paid a hacker.

Pinhasi declined to say how MonsterCloud retrieved Trumann’s data, but noted that it did so for free. “We provide complimentary services to law enforcement agencies,” he said. “There has never been one cent of taxpayer money used for any ransom we’ve been involved with.”

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In April 2016, a strain of ransomware called DMA Locker infiltrated the computer files and backups for Leif Herrington’s real estate brokerage in Anchorage, Alaska. The ransom note demanded four bitcoin, then worth about $1,680. Herrington called the FBI’s office there. “They said: ‘There’s thousands of these going on every day, we don’t have the resources to do anything,” Herrington said.

He called Proven Data Recovery. It told him it could unlock his files for $6,000. “They represented that they had proprietary software they developed to unencrypt,” Herrington said. “They never said anything about paying the ransom.”

A January 2018 FBI affidavit, seeking a search warrant to obtain information from Proven Data and its email provider, lays out what happened next. Herrington’s IT consultant, Simon Schroeder, gave Proven Data a sample infected file for evaluation. A couple of days later, Schroeder watched as Proven Data unlocked a set of files in 45 minutes.

The firm cleared the files so quickly that Schroeder suspected it paid the ransom. Although Herrington was back in business, he called the FBI again. An agent came to his office to ask about Proven Data, Herrington said, adding that he and Schroeder turned over all their documents.

Herrington told the agent that he didn’t know whether Proven Data “actually had keys or if they were in cahoots with the ransomware attackers and just collected the money”, he said.

The FBI confirmed his hunch. Records provided to the FBI pursuant to a federal grand jury subpoena showed four bitcoin flowing from a Proven Data account to the online wallet that the attackers had designated for payment. An email from the hacker’s address thanked Proven Data for the payment and included instructions on decrypting Herrington’s files.

“Subsequent investigation by the FBI confirmed that PDR was only able to decrypt the victim’s files by paying the subject the ransom amount,” the affidavit said. (An FBI spokeswoman said in January that the bureau could not discuss the case because it was active. The US Department of Justice declined this month to identify the target of the investigation or to say if it’s still ongoing. As yet, no charges have been publicly filed.)

Storfer wondered if the hacker behind DMA Locker was a British soccer fan because his emails contained references to Manchester United including one username of “John United” and another honoring former team manager Alex Ferguson. The ransom price was in British pounds, an unusual currency in ransomware circles, he said.

Congionti acknowledged that the company paid Herrington’s ransom. “It was the only option to get his data back,” Congionti said. “We regret that he felt misled … There was obviously a misunderstanding as to how we would solve his problem. We have re-examined all of our practices and procedures to ensure that such a misunderstanding does not occur again.”

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In 2017, Storfer was a year out of college and looking for a job when he spotted an opening for an office manager at Proven Data Recovery. After a short time there, he was assigned to negotiate with hackers. Storfer “was responsible for some of the correspondence with ransomware attackers”, Congionti said.

He soon realized that ransomware is a vast global industry. Most attacks on US targets originate from foreign countries, especially Russia and eastern Europe. There are hundreds of ransomware strains, and thousands of variants of those strains. Some are sidelined as their financial returns diminish or cybersecurity researchers devise ways to neutralize them, while new ones are always emerging.

Some ransomware attacks hit millions of computers indiscriminately, hoping to infiltrate them through infected spam email attachments. Others target businesses, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations, sometimes with “brute-force” tools that invade computer networks. While individuals are frequently attacked, criminals increasingly extort institutions that have deeper pockets and that readily pay the ransom to minimize disruption to their operations.

Once ransomware penetrates the computer, a ransom note pops up on the screen. It may direct victims to a page only accessible through Tor, a dark web browser, or to a hacker’s email address, for information on how to pay. Once the hackers receive confirmation of payment – usually in bitcoin but sometimes in even less traceable forms of cryptocurrency, such as Dash and Monero – they send the software and key to unlock the files.

The hackers sometimes offer discounts, which Congionti said Proven Data’s “present policy” is to pass on to clients. The dark website for the GandCrab strain offers a “promo code” box on its ransom checkout page exclusively for data recovery firms. After paying a ransom, the firms receive a code for a discount on a future ransom.

Proven Data kept a list of hackers who could supply decryption keys quickly and cheaply as needed, Storfer said. He bargain-hunted by stirring up “market rate competition” among them. “Even though one group may have done the hacking, a different group could provide you with the key” and unlock the files of Proven Data’s client, he said.

Storfer often didn’t know who he was dealing with. It could have been the ransomware creator or a middleman. He learned quickly never to use the term “hacking”. Instead, he would assume his correspondent “thinks they’re a businessman”, Storfer said. “I’d say: ‘Look, we can’t afford this at this time. Do you mind providing your product at a lower rate?’ And it worked,” he said. “They’re doing a job where everyone hates them, so feeling like they were respected made them work with us. I like to think empathy goes a long way.”

The rapport reaped discounts. Once, “we were able to get a $5,000 ransom lessened to $3,000 because they knew we could deliver it exactly when we said we were going to get it to them”, Storfer said.

Once the attackers agreed to lower the ransom for one client, it was easier to persuade them to reduce it for others as well. He’d tell them: “‘Look, we have another client who you may be able to help. Can you provide this pricing?’ Their response is: ‘Sure thing.’”

Storfer rarely revealed his company’s name to hackers. Still, by using the same anonymous email address repeatedly, he became familiar to them. The hackers would “want to verify that we worked with them before”.

“And I want to be clear, ‘worked with them’ being the most accurate term, but I want to say that there is no love in this agreement,” Storfer said. “And it was something that we would openly talk about – about how creepy and crawly we felt in general to have to put yourself on their side and empathize with these individuals to get them to work with you. Because you kind of have to shed your skin afterwards.”

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Despite Storfer’s best efforts, sometimes the hackers behaved erratically. Proven Data would pay the requested ransom, but they would not respond. At such times, Storfer would share the attacker’s email address and details of the snub with other hackers in the same group.

Then the hacker “would come back and say: ‘Sorry, I’ve been on a coke binge for three weeks’”, Storfer said.

Storfer’s conscience was weighing on him. He took a “don’t ask, don’t tell,” approach to informing clients that Proven Data would pay their ransoms. If they didn’t ask, “it was more of a lie by omission,” he said. If they asked, he told the truth. He “never felt comfortable” interacting with cybercriminals. “But for the good of helping people that we were dealing with and making their lives easier, I thought it was a real benefit.”

Even after Storfer left for a job outside the data recovery industry, Proven Data still paid the SamSam hackers. Chainalysis found that on 16 November 2018, 1.6 bitcoins, or about $9,000 at the time, moved from Proven Data’s wallet to a digital currency address associated with the SamSam attackers – an intermediary step on the chain to the Iranian-controlled wallet. Twelve days later, the Iranians were indicted, and payments into their wallets were banned.

Today, hardly any money is left in those Iranian wallets.

  • Garen Hartunian contributed to this report.

  • An unabridged version of this story has been published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. You can sign up to their Big Story newsletter for more stories like this.

    Source : https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/may/15/ransomware-samsam-payments-bitcoin-scam

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The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

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The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

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The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

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The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

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The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

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The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom

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The Secret Trick Used By Firms Helping Cyberhacking Victims: Pay The Ransom