The Forensic Felons: The Next Generation Of Cyber Thieves

For years, retailers have been told that if they merely strictly abide by common sense security procedures?don't permit obvious passwords, check audit logs regularly, patch software immediately, etc.?they'd be in good security shape.

Although there is no doubt that is still sound counsel, security consultants are describing a new breed of professional cyber thieves out there, crooks who know as much about sophisticated forensic investigations as the good guys do.

An oversimplification would be to compare the old thieves to burglars who make serious attempts to be very quiet when breaking into a house and to leave as little evidence as possible whereas the new thieves care less about quiet entrances because they intend to meticulously clean the crime scene before they leave. They're not just covering their tracks: they're erasing them.

The reason for this change is that it's a response to how the industry (especially banks) have responded to the first wave of attacks. The reason we're hearing about such huge numbers of cards impacted by these attacks?the TJX breach reportedly accessed the records of some 46 million consumers?is that the thieves know how few of them will be active by the time they try and use them.

In other words, because the banks are getting so good at shutting down impacted accounts quickly, the thieves must grab tens of millions of account per attack in order to have a reasonable number of active accounts to use.

Javelin Strategy & Research, for example, estimates that in any largescale attack, some 99.2 percent of the numbers accessed will not be usable to the thieves. "We?re seeing only 0.8 percent of data breaches resulting in fraud," said Javelin analyst Mary Monahan. "Banks are closing these accounts rapidly. They're getting a lot better at reacting rapidly."

Bryan Sartin, a VP of investigative response for Cybertrust, said the new breed of cyber thief will delete their tracks and often purposely soil the crimescene, by perhaps using their own encryption to make transaction logs unreadable.

One datathief Sartin was tracking would, upon entry into a system, immediately set the system clock back one year and then bring it forward two months. At the end of the session, the clock would be returned to the correct time.

This made it less likely his efforts would be discovered because no one would have likely gone back to examine two-month old entries. "It would throw us off the trail. Any file access modification would not leave a distinctive track," he said.

They tracked his movements by leaving two tracking packages in the system, figuring that once he found one, he might not look so hard to find a second.

In another case, a retailer suffered a wireless breach in Florida. They had an inventory management system on the same network as their POS and the breach grabbed almost three years' worth of data. What turned out to be that store's weak link? The culprit had learned the retailer's wireless SSID (service set identifier). How? Someone on the IT staff had written the SSID right on the antennae in a public area of the store, for all consumers to see.

"Our investigator just typed their SSID into Google and it was like the second hit," Sartin said. Information about it had been posted.

They watched the speed of file downloads and concluded the thief was within about 60-70 feet of the store and was not likely sitting in a car given the long durations?often six to eight hours?of access, Sartin said. They zeroed in on a Kinkos next door, where the customer had bypassed Kinkos wireless network and was using the nearby retailer's instead.

One key problem he found: "Most of their servers had open and unfettered Interenet access. They should have a reason for that server to FTP data to Russia at 2 o'clock every morning. It's far too easy to get data out of these companies."