Bloomberg News

Threatened Cyber Attack on Banks ‘Credible,’ McAfee Says

December 13, 2012

A cyber fraud campaign targeting U.S. brokerages and banks is a “credible threat,” and at least 500 accounts are vulnerable after early attacks planted software that could help thieves steal money, according to a report released today.

Plans announced by a cybercriminal known as vorVzakone to attack 30 U.S. banks by next spring, in a campaign dubbed Project Blitzkrieg, appear to be authentic, according to the report from Intel Corp. (INTC:US)’s McAfee unit, which sells security software.

McAfee said it found evidence that initial forays had installed software on accountholders’ computers that would let hackers get access to balances and information needed to transfer money.

“We do know that the thieves have had an active system since April 2012, with at least 500 victims who can be linked to vorVzakone,” the report said. “Most victims’ accounts are at investment banks. It will be interesting to see how the attackers will move money from these accounts, which are certainly targets of high value.”

VorVzakone announced plans for the campaign in an online posting in September that sought to recruit hackers. The software being used in the campaign has been in development since 2008 and online thieves have used it to steal $5 million, according to the posting.

The McAfee report said that, while vorVzakone’s declaration was met with initial skepticism, it had found evidence of malware infecting computers with access to online accounts.

‘Real Attack’

“What the McAfee report has done has confirmed this may in fact be a real attack in the spring,” Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy at the American Bankers Association in Washington, said in an interview. “We’re operating under the assumption that the attack is going to occur and defending ourselves accordingly.”

The campaign is “fairly narrow in scope,” and the banking industry has a lot of information about the attackers’ methods, Johnson said.

The malicious software infects personal computers via e- mail messages, steals the user names and passwords of victims when they access their online accounts, and sends that information to a remote server, said Ryan Sherstobitoff, a researcher at McAfee Labs who prepared the report. The software lets online thieves connect remotely and access accounts through the victim’s computer, making it harder to identify the location of the criminals, he said.

Under Radar

In some cases, the malware is grabbing account balance information, an indication that the criminals are sifting through the data to target rich clients, Sherstobitoff said.

“McAfee Labs believes that Project Blitzkrieg is a credible threat to the financial industry and appears to be moving forward as planned,” the report said.

The campaign is targeting accounts at investment banks, consumer banks and credit unions, Sherstobitoff said, declining to name targeted companies. The report said attacks appears to be selective, rather than a mass campaign.

“Rather they will stay under the radar by attacking selected groups,” according to the report. “A limited number of infections reduces the malware’s footprint and makes it hard for network defenses to detect its activities.”

While coordinated fraud campaigns against banks aren’t new, the latest threat is noteworthy for the mass profit-sharing model the attackers have proposed, said Sean Bodmer, chief researcher at CounterTack Inc., a computer security firm.

“It would seem that the criminal underground is maturing at a much faster pace than world governments believe,” Bodmer wrote in an e-mail.

Many of the largest U.S. banks including Bank of America Corp. (BAC:US) and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM:US) were targeted by hackers in a series of so-called denial of service attacks this year that flooded the banks’ websites with traffic and caused disruptions for online customers.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric Engleman in Washington at eengleman1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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