Project Blitzkrieg e-banking heist is a credible threat, McAfee says

McAfee has detected malware activity linked to an online fraud operation allegedly planned by cybercriminals

Project Blitzkrieg, a coordinated attack against U.S. banking customers allegedly planned for the spring of 2013, is a real and credible threat, security researchers at McAfee have said.

A cybercriminal using the nickname "vorVzakone" announced the plan back in September on a semi-private Russian-language underground forum and invited others to join the project. The goal was to create a network of separate cybercriminal gangs that work together using the same malware and resources for a cut of the profits.

VorVzakone said at the time that the operation will target the customers of 30 U.S. banks using a Trojan program that has been in development since 2008 and has more functionality than Zeus or SpyEye -- crimeware toolkits commonly used to steal money from online banking accounts.

In a report about Project Blitzkrieg released in October, security researchers from RSA said that VorVzakone's Trojan program is based on an older piece of malware called Gozi. RSA dubbed the new variant Gozi Prinimalka.

The ambitious nature of Project Blitzkrieg and the way it was advertised has led to speculation that it's probably part of a law enforcement sting operation. However, after investigating the Gozi Prinimalka malware, security researchers from McAfee believe the project is authentic and the threat is real.

In a new report published Thursday, they reveal there are two main Prinimalka versions: one dubbed "nah" that dates back to 2008, lending credibility to VorVzakone's claim that the Trojan program has been in development since 2008, and one dubbed "gov" that first appeared in April 2012 and was probably used as a pilot for Project Blitzkrieg.

According to McAfee's report, older attack campaigns based on the "nah" version primarily used command and control servers hosted in the Ukraine, while the more recent attack campaigns based on the "gov" version used servers hosted in Romania,

The first "gov" Prinimalka campaign using servers in Romania started in early August 2012 and the latest one started in October. All of them targeted the customers of U.S. banks.

Based on McAfee telemetry data, the latest activity seen from the October Prinimalka campaign was on Nov. 30, Ryan Sherstobitoff, a McAfee Labs researcher, said Thursday. The fact that a campaign started in October suggests that the project is moving forward, he said.

Several hundred computers in the U.S. are currently infected with Gozi Prinimalka, Sherstobitoff said. It's not clear if attackers are already stealing money from victims' bank accounts, but it's certainly possible, he said.

That said, not everyone whose computer gets infected with the malware will automatically become a victim of bank fraud. The attackers will likely identify the most valuable accounts and focus on those, Sherstobitoff said.

Similar to other banking Trojan programs like Zeus or SpyEye, Gozi Prinimalka can detect when victims access banking websites and steal log-in credentials and other data associated with their accounts. That may include challenge-question answers for outgoing transactions, account balances and time-stamps for their last log-in. The malware targets a list of websites belonging to U.S. national banks, investment banks and credit unions.

After accounts with high balances have been identified, the attackers use the stolen credentials to initiate money transfers to accounts set up by co-conspirators known as money mules, who then withdraw the funds and wire them out of the country.

To prepare for Project Blitzkrieg, financial institutions can tweak their fraud detection systems to look for anomalous behavior such as log-ins coming from foreign locations, log-ins coming from the customer's IP (Internet Protocol) address at unusual hours or transactions from multiple unrelated accounts going to accounts owned by the same person, he said.

VorVzakone mentioned that he's going to be doing "Skype flooding," so financial institutions should be aware that their customer service lines might be flooded and they should take any action that they can to address that, Sherstobitoff said. They should also advise their customers to update their antivirus software and report any suspicious messages or pop-ups that are not typical of online banking.

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