Category Archives: Breadcrumbs

The Not-So-Secret Network Access Broker x999xx

Most accomplished cybercriminals go out of their way to separate their real names from their hacker handles. But among certain old-school Russian hackers it is not uncommon to find major players who have done little to prevent people from figuring out who they are in real life. A case study in this phenomenon is “x999xx,” the nickname chosen by a venerated Russian hacker who specializes in providing the initial network access to various ransomware groups.

x999xx is a well-known “access broker” who frequently sells access to hacked corporate networks — usually in the form of remote access credentials — as well as compromised databases containing large amounts of personal and financial data.

In an analysis published in February 2019, cyber intelligence firm Flashpoint called x999xx one of the most senior and prolific members of the top-tier Russian-language cybercrime forum Exploit, where x999xx could be seen frequently advertising the sale of stolen databases and network credentials.

In August 2023, x999xx sold access to a company that develops software for the real estate industry. In July 2023, x999xx advertised the sale of Social Security numbers, names, and birthdays for the citizenry of an entire U.S. state (unnamed in the auction).

A month earlier, x999xx posted a sales thread for 80 databases taken from Australia’s largest retail company. “You may use this data to demand a ransom or do something different with it,” x999xx wrote on Exploit. “Unfortunately, the flaw was patched fast. [+] no one has used the data yet [+] the data hasn’t been used to send spam [+] the data is waiting for its time.”

In October 2022, x999xx sold administrative access to a U.S. healthcare provider.

ALIAS: MAXNM

The oldest account by the name x999xx appeared in 2009 on the Russian language cybercrime forum Verified, under the email address maxnm@ozersk.com. Ozersk is a city in the Chelyabinsk region of west-central Russia.

According to the breach tracking service Constella Intelligence, the address maxnm@ozersk.com was used more than a decade ago to create an account at Vktontakte (the Russian answer to Facebook) under the name Maxim Kirtsov from Ozersk. Mr. Kirtsov’s profile — “maxnm” — says his birthday is September 5, 1991.

Personal photos Maxnm shared on Vktontakte in 2016. The caption has been machine translated from Russian.

The user x999xx registered on the Russian language cybercrime community Zloy in 2014 using the email address maxnmalias-1@yahoo.com. Constella says this email address was used in 2022 at the Russian shipping service cdek.ru in by a Maksim Georgievich Kirtsov from Ozersk.

Additional searches on these contact details reveal that prior to 2009, x999xx favored the handle Maxnm on Russian cybercrime forums. Cyber intelligence company Intel 471 finds the user Maxnm registered on Zloy in 2006 from an Internet address in Chelyabinsk, using the email address kirtsov@telecom.ozersk.ru.

That same email address was used to create Maxnm accounts on several other crime forums, including Spamdot and Exploit in 2005 (also from Chelyabinsk), and Damagelab in 2006.

A search in Constella for the Russian version of Kirtsov’s full name — Кирцов Максим Георгиевич — brings up multiple accounts registered to maksya@icloud.com.

A review of the digital footprint for maksya@icloud.com at osint.industries reveals this address was used a decade ago to register a still-active account at imageshack.com under the name x999xx. That account features numerous screenshots of financial statements from various banks, chat logs with other hackers, and even hacked websites.

x999xx’s Imageshack account includes screenshots of bank account balances from dozens of financial institutions, as well as chat logs with other hackers and pictures of homegrown weed.

Some of the photos in that Imageshack account also appear on Kirtsov’s Vkontakte page, including images of vehicles he owns, as well as pictures of potted marijuana plants. Kirtsov’s Vkontakte profile says that in 2012 he was a faculty member of the Ozersk Technological Institute National Research Nuclear University.

The Vkontakte page lists Kirtsov’s occupation as a website called ozersk[.]today, which on the surface appears to be a blog about life in Ozersk. However, in 2019 the security firm Recorded Future published a blog post which found this domain was being used to host a malicious Cobalt Strike server.

Cobalt Strike is a commercial network penetration testing and reconnaissance tool that is sold only to vetted partners. But stolen or ill-gotten Cobalt Strike licenses are frequently abused by cybercriminal gangs to help lay the groundwork for the installation of ransomware on a victim network.

In August 2023, x999xx posted a message on Exploit saying he was interested in buying a licensed version of Cobalt Strike. A month earlier, x999xx filed a complaint on Exploit against another forum member named Cobaltforce, an apparent onetime partner whose sudden and prolonged disappearance from the community left x999xx and others in the lurch. Cobaltforce recruited people experienced in using Cobalt Strike for ransomware operations, and offered to monetize access to hacked networks for a share of the profits.

DomainTools.com finds ozersk[.]today was registered to the email address dashin2008@yahoo.com, which also was used to register roughly two dozen other domains, including x999xx[.]biz. Virtually all of those domains were registered to Maxim Kirtsov from Ozersk. Below is a mind map used to track the identities mentioned in this story.

A visual depiction of the data points connecting x999xx to Max Kirtsov.

x999xx is a prolific member of the Russian webmaster forum “Gofuckbiz,” with more than 2,000 posts over nearly a decade, according to Intel 471. In one post from 2016, x999xx asked whether anyone knew where he could buy a heat lamp that simulates sunlight, explaining that one his pet rabbits had recently perished for lack of adequate light and heat. Mr. Kirtsov’s Vkontakte page includes several pictures of caged rabbits from 2015 and earlier.

CONFIRMATION

Reached via email, Mr. Kirtsov acknowledged that he is x999xx. Kirtsov said he and his team are also regular readers of KrebsOnSecurity.

“We’re glad to hear and read you,” Kirtsov replied.

Asked whether he was concerned about the legal and moral implications of his work, Kirtsov downplayed his role in ransomware intrusions, saying he was more focused on harvesting data.

“I consider myself as committed to ethical practices as you are,” Kirtsov wrote. “I have also embarked on research and am currently mentoring students. You may have noticed my activities on a forum, which I assume you know of through information gathered from public sources, possibly using the new tool you reviewed.”

“Regarding my posts about selling access, I must honestly admit, upon reviewing my own actions, I recall such mentions but believe they were never actualized,” he continued. “Many use the forum for self-serving purposes, which explains why listings of targets for sale have dwindled — they simply ceased being viable.”

Kirtsov asserted that he is not interested in harming healthcare institutions, just in stealing their data.

“As for health-related matters, I was once acquainted with affluent webmasters who would pay up to $50 for every 1000 health-themed emails,” Kirtsov said. “Therefore, I had no interest in the more sensitive data from medical institutions like X-rays, insurance numbers, or even names; I focused solely on emails. I am proficient in SQL, hence my ease with handling data like IDs and emails. And i never doing spam or something like this.”

On the Russian crime forums, x999xx said he never targets anything or anyone in Russia, and that he has little to fear from domestic law enforcement agencies provided he remains focused on foreign adversaries.

x999xx’s lackadaisical approach to personal security mirrors that of Wazawaka, another top Russian access broker who sold access to countless organizations and even operated his own ransomware affiliate programs.

“Don’t shit where you live, travel local, and don’t go abroad,” Wazawaka said of his own personal mantra. “Mother Russia will help you. Love your country, and you will always get away with everything.”

In January 2022, KrebsOnSecurity followed clues left behind by Wazawaka to identify him as 32-year-old Mikhail Matveev from Khakassia, Russia. In May 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Matveev as a key figure in several ransomware groups that collectively extorted hundreds of millions of dollars from victim organizations. The U.S. State Department is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture and/or prosecution of Matveev.

Perhaps in recognition that many top ransomware criminals are largely untouchable so long as they remain in Russia, western law enforcement agencies have begun focusing more on getting inside the heads of those individuals. These so-called “psyops” are aimed at infiltrating ransomware-as-a-service operations, disrupting major cybercrime services, and decreasing trust within cybercriminal communities.

When authorities in the U.S. and U.K. announced in February 2024 that they’d infiltrated and seized the infrastructure used by the infamous LockBit ransomware gang, they borrowed the existing design of LockBit’s victim shaming website to link instead to press releases about the takedown, and included a countdown timer that was eventually replaced with the personal details of LockBit’s alleged leader.

In May 2024, law enforcement agencies in the United States and Europe announced Operation Endgame, a coordinated action against some of the most popular cybercrime platforms for delivering ransomware and data-stealing malware. The Operation Endgame website also included a countdown timer, which served to tease the release of several animated videos that mimic the same sort of flashy, short advertisements that established cybercriminals often produce to promote their services online.

KrebsOnSecurity Threatened with Defamation Lawsuit Over Fake Radaris CEO

On March 8, 2024, KrebsOnSecurity published a deep dive on the consumer data broker Radaris, showing how the original owners are two men in Massachusetts who operated multiple Russian language dating services and affiliate programs, in addition to a dizzying array of people-search websites. The subjects of that piece are threatening to sue KrebsOnSecurity for defamation unless the story is retracted. Meanwhile, their attorney has admitted that the person Radaris named as the CEO from its inception is a fabricated identity.

Radaris is just one cog in a sprawling network of people-search properties online that sell highly detailed background reports on U.S. consumers and businesses. Those reports typically include the subject’s current and previous addresses, partial Social Security numbers, any known licenses, email addresses and phone numbers, as well as the same information for any of their immediate relatives.

Radaris has a less-than-stellar reputation when it comes to responding to consumers seeking to have their reports removed from its various people-search services. That poor reputation, combined with indications that the true founders of Radaris have gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal their stewardship of the company, was what prompted KrebsOnSecurity to investigate the origins of Radaris in the first place.

On April 18, KrebsOnSecurity received a certified letter (PDF) from Valentin “Val” Gurvits, an attorney with the Boston Law Group, stating that KrebsOnSecurity would face a withering defamation lawsuit unless the Radaris story was immediately retracted and an apology issued to the two brothers named in the story as co-founders.

That March story worked backwards from the email address used to register radaris.com, and charted an impressive array of data broker companies created over the past 15 years by Massachusetts residents Dmitry and Igor Lubarsky (also sometimes spelled Lybarsky or Lubarski). Dmitry goes by “Dan,” and Igor uses the name “Gary.”

Those businesses included numerous websites marketed to Russian-speaking people who are new to the United States, such as russianamerica.com, newyork.ru, russiancleveland.com, russianla.com, russianmiami.com, etc. Other domains connected to the Lubarskys included Russian-language dating and adult websites, as well as affiliate programs for their international calling card businesses.

A mind map of various entities apparently tied to Radaris and the company’s co-founders. Click to enlarge.

The story on Radaris noted that the Lubarsky brothers registered most of their businesses using a made-up name — “Gary Norden,” sometimes called Gary Nord or Gary Nard.

Mr. Gurvits’ letter stated emphatically that my reporting was lazy, mean-spirited, and obviously intended to smear the reputation of his clients. By way of example, Mr. Gurvits said the Lubarskys were actually Ukrainian, and that the story painted his clients in a negative light by insinuating that they were somehow associated with Radaris and with vaguely nefarious elements in Russia.

But more to the point, Mr. Gurvits said, neither of his clients were Gary Norden, and neither had ever held any leadership positions at Radaris, nor were they financial beneficiaries of the company in any way.

“Neither of my clients is a founder of Radaris, and neither of my clients is the CEOs of Radaris,” Gurvits wrote. “Additionally, presently and going back at least the past 10 years, neither of my clients are (or were) officers or employees of Radaris. Indeed, neither of them even owns (or ever owned) any equity in Radaris. In intentional disregard of these facts, the Article implies that my clients are personally responsible for Radaris’ actions. Therefore, you intentionally caused all negative allegations in the Article made with respect to Radaris to be imputed against my clients personally.”

Dan Lubarsky’s Facebook page, just prior to the March 8 story about Radaris, said he was from Moscow.

We took Mr. Gurvits’ word on the ethnicity of his clients, and adjusted the story to remove a single mention that they were Russian. We did so even though Dan Lubarsky’s own Facebook page said (until recently) that he was from Moscow, Russia.

KrebsOnSecurity asked Mr. Gurvits to explain precisely which other details in the story were incorrect, and replied that we would be happy to update the story with a correction if they could demonstrate any errors of fact or omission.

We also requested specifics about several aspects of the story, such as the identity of the current Radaris CEO — listed on the Radaris website as “Victor K.” Mr. Gurvits replied that Radaris is and always has been based in Ukraine, and that the company’s true founder “Eugene L” is based there.

While Radaris has claimed to have offices in Massachusetts, Cyprus and Latvia, its website has never mentioned Ukraine. Mr. Gurvits has not responded to requests for more information about the identities of “Eugene L” or “Victor K.”

Gurvits said he had no intention of doing anyone’s reporting for them, and that the Lubarskys were going to sue KrebsOnSecurity for defamation unless the story was retracted in full. KrebsOnSecurity replied that journalists often face challenges to things that they report, but it is more than rare for one who makes a challenge to take umbrage at being asked for supporting information.

On June 13, Mr. Gurvits sent another letter (PDF) that continued to claim KrebsOnSecurity was defaming his clients, only this time Gurvits said his clients would be satisfied if KrebsOnSecurity just removed their names from the story.

“Ultimately, my clients don’t care what you say about any of the websites or corporate entities in your Article, as long as you completely remove my clients’ names from the Article and cooperate with my clients to have copies of the Article where my clients’ names appear removed from the Internet,” Mr. Gurvits wrote.

MEET THE FAKE RADARIS CEO

The June 13 letter explained that the name Gary Norden was a pseudonym invented by the Radaris marketing division, but that neither of the Lubarsky brothers were Norden.

This was a startling admission, given that Radaris has quoted the fictitious Gary Norden in press releases published and paid for by Radaris, and in news media stories where the company is explicitly seeking money from investors. In other words, Radaris has been misrepresenting itself to investors from the beginning. Here’s a press release from Radaris that was published on PR Newswire in April 2011:

A press release published by Radaris in 2011 names the CEO of Radaris as Gary Norden, which was a fake name made up by Radaris’ marketing department.

In April 2014, the Boston Business Journal published a story (PDF) about Radaris that extolled the company’s rapid growth and considerable customer base. The story noted that, “to date, the company has raised less than $1 million from Cyprus-based investment company Difive.”

“We live in a world where information becomes much more broad and much more available every single day,” the Boston Business Journal quoted Radaris’ fake CEO Gary Norden, who by then had somehow been demoted from CEO to vice president of business development.

A Boston Business Journal story from April 2014 quotes the fictitious Radaris CEO Gary Norden.

“We decided there needs to be a service that allows for ease of monitoring of information about people,” the fake CEO said. The story went on to say Radaris was seeking to raise between $5 million and $7 million from investors in the ensuing months.

THE BIG LUBARSKY

In his most recent demand letter, Mr. Gurvits helpfully included resumes for both of the Lubarsky brothers.

Gary/Dmitry Lubarsky’s resume states he is the owner of Difive.com, a startup incubator for IT companies. Recall that Difive is the same company mentioned by the fake Radaris CEO in the 2014 Boston Business Journal story, which said Difive was the company’s initial and sole investor.

Difive’s website in 2016 said it had offices in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Riga (Latvia) and Moscow (nothing in Ukraine). Meanwhile, DomainTools.com reports difive.com was originally registered in 2007 to the fictitious Gary Norden from Massachusetts.

Archived copies of the Difive website from 2017 include a “Portfolio” page indexing all of the companies in which Difive has invested. That list, available here, includes virtually every “Gary Norden” domain name mentioned in my original report, plus a few that escaped notice earlier.

Dan Lubarsky’s resume says he was CEO of a people search company called HumanBook. The Wayback machine at archive.org shows the Humanbook domain (humanbook.com) came online around April 2008, when the company was still in “beta” mode.

By August 2008, however, humanbook.com had changed the name advertised on its homepage to Radaris Beta. Eventually, Humanbook simply redirected to radaris.com.

Archive.org’s record of humanbook.com from 2008, just after its homepage changed to Radaris Beta.

Astute readers may notice that the domain radaris.com is not among the companies listed as Difive investments. However, passive domain name system (DNS) records from DomainTools show that between October 2023 and March 2024 radaris.com was hosted alongside all of the other Gary Norden domains at the Internet address range 38.111.228.x.

That address range simultaneously hosted every domain mentioned in this story and in the original March 2024 report as connected to email addresses used by Gary Norden, including radaris.com, radaris.ru, radaris.de, difive.com, privet.ru, blog.ru, comfi.com, phoneowner.com, russianamerica.com, eprofit.com, rehold.com, homeflock.com, humanbook.com and dozens more. A spreadsheet of those historical DNS entries for radaris.com is available here (.csv).

Image: DomainTools.com

The breach tracking service Constella Intelligence finds just two email addresses ending in difive.com have been exposed in data breaches over the years: dan@difive.com, and gn@difive.com. Presumably, “gn” stands for Gary Norden.

A search on the email address gn@difive.com via the breach tracking service osint.industries reveals this address was used to create an account at Airbnb under the name Gary, with the last four digits of the account’s phone number ending in “0001.”

Constella Intelligence finds gn@difive.com was associated with the Massachusetts number 617-794-0001, which was used to register accounts for “Igor Lybarsky” from Wellesley or Sherborn, Ma. at multiple online businesses, including audiusa.com and the designer eyewear store luxottica.com.

The phone number 617-794-0001 also appears for a “Gary Nard” user at russianamerica.com. Igor Lubarsky’s resume says he was the manager of russianamerica.com.

DomainTools finds 617-794-0001 is connected to registration records for three domains, including paytone.com, a domain that Dan Lubarsky’s resume says he managed. DomainTools also found that number on the registration records for trustoria.com, another major consumer data broker that has an atrocious reputation, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Dan Lubarsky’s resume says he was responsible for several international telecommunications services, including the website comfi.com. DomainTools says the phone number connected to that domain — 617-952-4234 — was also used on the registration records for humanbook.net/biz/info/mobi/us, as well as for radaris.me, radaris.in, and radaris.tel.

Two other key domains are connected to that phone number. The first is barsky.com, which is the website for Barsky Estate Realty Trust (PDF), a real estate holding company controlled by the Lubarskys. Naturally, DomainTools finds barsky.com also was registered to a Gary Norden from Massachusetts. But the organization listed in the barsky.com registration records is Comfi Inc., a VOIP communications firm that Igor Lubarsky’s resume says he managed.

The other domain of note is unipointtechnologies.com. Dan Lubarsky’s resume says he was the CEO of Wellesley Hills, Mass-based Unipoint Technology Inc. In 2012, Unipoint was fined $179,000 by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which said the company had failed to apply for a license to provide international telecommunications services.

PATENTLY REMARKABLE

The 2011 Radaris press release quoting their fake CEO Gary Norden said the company had four patents pending from a team of computer science PhDs. According to the resume shared by Mr. Gurvits, Dan Lubarsky has a PhD in computer science.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) says Dan Lubarsky/Lubarski has at least nine technology patents to his name. The fake CEO press release from Radaris mentioning its four patents was published in April 2011. By that time, the PTO says Dan Lubarsky had applied for exactly four patents, including, “System and Method for a Web-Based People Directory.” The first of those patents, published in 2009, is tied to Humanbook.com, the company Dan Lubarsky founded that later changed its name to Radaris.

If the Lubarskys were never involved in Radaris, how do they or their attorney know the inside information that Gary Norden is a fiction of Radaris’ marketing department? KrebsOnSecurity has learned that Mr. Gurvits is the same attorney responding on behalf of Radaris in a lawsuit against the data broker filed earlier this year by Atlas Data Privacy.

Mr. Gurvits also stepped forward as Radaris’ attorney in a class action lawsuit the company lost in 2017 because it never contested the claim in court. When the plaintiffs told the judge they couldn’t collect on the $7.5 million default judgment, the judge ordered the domain registry Verisign to transfer the radaris.com domain name to the plaintiffs.

Mr. Gurvits appealed the verdict, arguing that the lawsuit hadn’t named the actual owners of the Radaris domain name — a Cyprus company called Bitseller Expert Limited — and thus taking the domain away would be a violation of their due process rights.

The judge ruled in Radaris’ favor — halting the domain transfer — and told the plaintiffs they could refile their complaint. Soon after, the operator of Radaris changed from Bitseller to Andtop Company, an entity formed (PDF) in the Marshall Islands in Oct. 2020. Andtop also operates the aforementioned people-search service Trustoria.

Mr. Gurvits’ most-publicized defamation case was a client named Aleksej Gubarev, a Russian technology executive whose name appeared in the Steele Dossier. That document included a collection of salacious, unverified information gathered by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the direction of former president Donald Trump’s political rivals.

Gubarev, the head of the IT services company XBT Holding and the Florida web hosting firm Webzilla, sued BuzzFeed for publishing the Steele dossier. One of the items in the dossier alleged that XBT/Webzilla and affiliated companies played a key role in the hack of Democratic Party computers in the spring of 2016. The memo alleged Gubarev had been coerced into providing services to Russia’s main domestic security agency, known as the FSB.

In December 2018, a federal judge in Miami ruled in favor of BuzzFeed, saying the publication was protected by the fair report privilege, which gives news organizations latitude in reporting on official government proceedings.

Radaris was originally operated by Bitseller Expert Limited. Who owns Bitseller Expert Limited? A report (PDF) obtained from the Cyprus business registry shows this company lists its director as Pavel Kaydash from Moscow. Mr. Kaydash could not be reached for comment.

KrebsOnSecurity Threatened with Defamation Lawsuit Over Fake Radaris CEO

On March 8, 2024, KrebsOnSecurity published a deep dive on the consumer data broker Radaris, showing how the original owners are two men in Massachusetts who operated multiple Russian language dating services and affiliate programs, in addition to a dizzying array of people-search websites. The subjects of that piece are threatening to sue KrebsOnSecurity for defamation unless the story is retracted. Meanwhile, their attorney has admitted that the person Radaris named as the CEO from its inception is a fabricated identity.

Radaris is just one cog in a sprawling network of people-search properties online that sell highly detailed background reports on U.S. consumers and businesses. Those reports typically include the subject’s current and previous addresses, partial Social Security numbers, any known licenses, email addresses and phone numbers, as well as the same information for any of their immediate relatives.

Radaris has a less-than-stellar reputation when it comes to responding to consumers seeking to have their reports removed from its various people-search services. That poor reputation, combined with indications that the true founders of Radaris have gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal their stewardship of the company, was what prompted KrebsOnSecurity to investigate the origins of Radaris in the first place.

On April 18, KrebsOnSecurity received a certified letter (PDF) from Valentin “Val” Gurvits, an attorney with the Boston Law Group, stating that KrebsOnSecurity would face a withering defamation lawsuit unless the Radaris story was immediately retracted and an apology issued to the two brothers named in the story as co-founders.

That March story worked backwards from the email address used to register radaris.com, and charted an impressive array of data broker companies created over the past 15 years by Massachusetts residents Dmitry and Igor Lubarsky (also sometimes spelled Lybarsky or Lubarski). Dmitry goes by “Dan,” and Igor uses the name “Gary.”

Those businesses included numerous websites marketed to Russian-speaking people who are new to the United States, such as russianamerica.com, newyork.ru, russiancleveland.com, russianla.com, russianmiami.com, etc. Other domains connected to the Lubarskys included Russian-language dating and adult websites, as well as affiliate programs for their international calling card businesses.

A mind map of various entities apparently tied to Radaris and the company’s co-founders. Click to enlarge.

The story on Radaris noted that the Lubarsky brothers registered most of their businesses using a made-up name — “Gary Norden,” sometimes called Gary Nord or Gary Nard.

Mr. Gurvits’ letter stated emphatically that my reporting was lazy, mean-spirited, and obviously intended to smear the reputation of his clients. By way of example, Mr. Gurvits said the Lubarskys were actually Ukrainian, and that the story painted his clients in a negative light by insinuating that they were somehow associated with Radaris and with vaguely nefarious elements in Russia.

But more to the point, Mr. Gurvits said, neither of his clients were Gary Norden, and neither had ever held any leadership positions at Radaris, nor were they financial beneficiaries of the company in any way.

“Neither of my clients is a founder of Radaris, and neither of my clients is the CEOs of Radaris,” Gurvits wrote. “Additionally, presently and going back at least the past 10 years, neither of my clients are (or were) officers or employees of Radaris. Indeed, neither of them even owns (or ever owned) any equity in Radaris. In intentional disregard of these facts, the Article implies that my clients are personally responsible for Radaris’ actions. Therefore, you intentionally caused all negative allegations in the Article made with respect to Radaris to be imputed against my clients personally.”

Dan Lubarsky’s Facebook page, just prior to the March 8 story about Radaris, said he was from Moscow.

We took Mr. Gurvits’ word on the ethnicity of his clients, and adjusted the story to remove a single mention that they were Russian. We did so even though Dan Lubarsky’s own Facebook page said (until recently) that he was from Moscow, Russia.

KrebsOnSecurity asked Mr. Gurvits to explain precisely which other details in the story were incorrect, and replied that we would be happy to update the story with a correction if they could demonstrate any errors of fact or omission.

We also requested specifics about several aspects of the story, such as the identity of the current Radaris CEO — listed on the Radaris website as “Victor K.” Mr. Gurvits replied that Radaris is and always has been based in Ukraine, and that the company’s true founder “Eugene L” is based there.

While Radaris has claimed to have offices in Massachusetts, Cyprus and Latvia, its website has never mentioned Ukraine. Mr. Gurvits has not responded to requests for more information about the identities of “Eugene L” or “Victor K.”

Gurvits said he had no intention of doing anyone’s reporting for them, and that the Lubarskys were going to sue KrebsOnSecurity for defamation unless the story was retracted in full. KrebsOnSecurity replied that journalists often face challenges to things that they report, but it is more than rare for one who makes a challenge to take umbrage at being asked for supporting information.

On June 13, Mr. Gurvits sent another letter (PDF) that continued to claim KrebsOnSecurity was defaming his clients, only this time Gurvits said his clients would be satisfied if KrebsOnSecurity just removed their names from the story.

“Ultimately, my clients don’t care what you say about any of the websites or corporate entities in your Article, as long as you completely remove my clients’ names from the Article and cooperate with my clients to have copies of the Article where my clients’ names appear removed from the Internet,” Mr. Gurvits wrote.

MEET THE FAKE RADARIS CEO

The June 13 letter explained that the name Gary Norden was a pseudonym invented by the Radaris marketing division, but that neither of the Lubarsky brothers were Norden.

This was a startling admission, given that Radaris has quoted the fictitious Gary Norden in press releases published and paid for by Radaris, and in news media stories where the company is explicitly seeking money from investors. In other words, Radaris has been misrepresenting itself to investors from the beginning. Here’s a press release from Radaris that was published on PR Newswire in April 2011:

A press release published by Radaris in 2011 names the CEO of Radaris as Gary Norden, which was a fake name made up by Radaris’ marketing department.

In April 2014, the Boston Business Journal published a story (PDF) about Radaris that extolled the company’s rapid growth and considerable customer base. The story noted that, “to date, the company has raised less than $1 million from Cyprus-based investment company Difive.”

“We live in a world where information becomes much more broad and much more available every single day,” the Boston Business Journal quoted Radaris’ fake CEO Gary Norden, who by then had somehow been demoted from CEO to vice president of business development.

A Boston Business Journal story from April 2014 quotes the fictitious Radaris CEO Gary Norden.

“We decided there needs to be a service that allows for ease of monitoring of information about people,” the fake CEO said. The story went on to say Radaris was seeking to raise between $5 million and $7 million from investors in the ensuing months.

THE BIG LUBARSKY

In his most recent demand letter, Mr. Gurvits helpfully included resumes for both of the Lubarsky brothers.

Gary/Dmitry Lubarsky’s resume states he is the owner of Difive.com, a startup incubator for IT companies. Recall that Difive is the same company mentioned by the fake Radaris CEO in the 2014 Boston Business Journal story, which said Difive was the company’s initial and sole investor.

Difive’s website in 2016 said it had offices in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Riga (Latvia) and Moscow (nothing in Ukraine). Meanwhile, DomainTools.com reports difive.com was originally registered in 2007 to the fictitious Gary Norden from Massachusetts.

Archived copies of the Difive website from 2017 include a “Portfolio” page indexing all of the companies in which Difive has invested. That list, available here, includes virtually every “Gary Norden” domain name mentioned in my original report, plus a few that escaped notice earlier.

Dan Lubarsky’s resume says he was CEO of a people search company called HumanBook. The Wayback machine at archive.org shows the Humanbook domain (humanbook.com) came online around April 2008, when the company was still in “beta” mode.

By August 2008, however, humanbook.com had changed the name advertised on its homepage to Radaris Beta. Eventually, Humanbook simply redirected to radaris.com.

Archive.org’s record of humanbook.com from 2008, just after its homepage changed to Radaris Beta.

Astute readers may notice that the domain radaris.com is not among the companies listed as Difive investments. However, passive domain name system (DNS) records from DomainTools show that between October 2023 and March 2024 radaris.com was hosted alongside all of the other Gary Norden domains at the Internet address range 38.111.228.x.

That address range simultaneously hosted every domain mentioned in this story and in the original March 2024 report as connected to email addresses used by Gary Norden, including radaris.com, radaris.ru, radaris.de, difive.com, privet.ru, blog.ru, comfi.com, phoneowner.com, russianamerica.com, eprofit.com, rehold.com, homeflock.com, humanbook.com and dozens more. A spreadsheet of those historical DNS entries for radaris.com is available here (.csv).

Image: DomainTools.com

The breach tracking service Constella Intelligence finds just two email addresses ending in difive.com have been exposed in data breaches over the years: dan@difive.com, and gn@difive.com. Presumably, “gn” stands for Gary Norden.

A search on the email address gn@difive.com via the breach tracking service osint.industries reveals this address was used to create an account at Airbnb under the name Gary, with the last four digits of the account’s phone number ending in “0001.”

Constella Intelligence finds gn@difive.com was associated with the Massachusetts number 617-794-0001, which was used to register accounts for “Igor Lybarsky” from Wellesley or Sherborn, Ma. at multiple online businesses, including audiusa.com and the designer eyewear store luxottica.com.

The phone number 617-794-0001 also appears for a “Gary Nard” user at russianamerica.com. Igor Lubarsky’s resume says he was the manager of russianamerica.com.

DomainTools finds 617-794-0001 is connected to registration records for three domains, including paytone.com, a domain that Dan Lubarsky’s resume says he managed. DomainTools also found that number on the registration records for trustoria.com, another major consumer data broker that has an atrocious reputation, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Dan Lubarsky’s resume says he was responsible for several international telecommunications services, including the website comfi.com. DomainTools says the phone number connected to that domain — 617-952-4234 — was also used on the registration records for humanbook.net/biz/info/mobi/us, as well as for radaris.me, radaris.in, and radaris.tel.

Two other key domains are connected to that phone number. The first is barsky.com, which is the website for Barsky Estate Realty Trust (PDF), a real estate holding company controlled by the Lubarskys. Naturally, DomainTools finds barsky.com also was registered to a Gary Norden from Massachusetts. But the organization listed in the barsky.com registration records is Comfi Inc., a VOIP communications firm that Igor Lubarsky’s resume says he managed.

The other domain of note is unipointtechnologies.com. Dan Lubarsky’s resume says he was the CEO of Wellesley Hills, Mass-based Unipoint Technology Inc. In 2012, Unipoint was fined $179,000 by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which said the company had failed to apply for a license to provide international telecommunications services.

PATENTLY REMARKABLE

The 2011 Radaris press release quoting their fake CEO Gary Norden said the company had four patents pending from a team of computer science PhDs. According to the resume shared by Mr. Gurvits, Dan Lubarsky has a PhD in computer science.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) says Dan Lubarsky/Lubarski has at least nine technology patents to his name. The fake CEO press release from Radaris mentioning its four patents was published in April 2011. By that time, the PTO says Dan Lubarsky had applied for exactly four patents, including, “System and Method for a Web-Based People Directory.” The first of those patents, published in 2009, is tied to Humanbook.com, the company Dan Lubarsky founded that later changed its name to Radaris.

If the Lubarskys were never involved in Radaris, how do they or their attorney know the inside information that Gary Norden is a fiction of Radaris’ marketing department? KrebsOnSecurity has learned that Mr. Gurvits is the same attorney responding on behalf of Radaris in a lawsuit against the data broker filed earlier this year by Atlas Data Privacy.

Mr. Gurvits also stepped forward as Radaris’ attorney in a class action lawsuit the company lost in 2017 because it never contested the claim in court. When the plaintiffs told the judge they couldn’t collect on the $7.5 million default judgment, the judge ordered the domain registry Verisign to transfer the radaris.com domain name to the plaintiffs.

Mr. Gurvits appealed the verdict, arguing that the lawsuit hadn’t named the actual owners of the Radaris domain name — a Cyprus company called Bitseller Expert Limited — and thus taking the domain away would be a violation of their due process rights.

The judge ruled in Radaris’ favor — halting the domain transfer — and told the plaintiffs they could refile their complaint. Soon after, the operator of Radaris changed from Bitseller to Andtop Company, an entity formed (PDF) in the Marshall Islands in Oct. 2020. Andtop also operates the aforementioned people-search service Trustoria.

Mr. Gurvits’ most-publicized defamation case was a client named Aleksej Gubarev, a Russian technology executive whose name appeared in the Steele Dossier. That document included a collection of salacious, unverified information gathered by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the direction of former president Donald Trump’s political rivals.

Gubarev, the head of the IT services company XBT Holding and the Florida web hosting firm Webzilla, sued BuzzFeed for publishing the Steele dossier. One of the items in the dossier alleged that XBT/Webzilla and affiliated companies played a key role in the hack of Democratic Party computers in the spring of 2016. The memo alleged Gubarev had been coerced into providing services to Russia’s main domestic security agency, known as the FSB.

In December 2018, a federal judge in Miami ruled in favor of BuzzFeed, saying the publication was protected by the fair report privilege, which gives news organizations latitude in reporting on official government proceedings.

Radaris was originally operated by Bitseller Expert Limited. Who owns Bitseller Expert Limited? A report (PDF) obtained from the Cyprus business registry shows this company lists its director as Pavel Kaydash from Moscow. Mr. Kaydash could not be reached for comment.

Stark Industries Solutions: An Iron Hammer in the Cloud

The homepage of Stark Industries Solutions.

Two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, a large, mysterious new Internet hosting firm called Stark Industries Solutions materialized and quickly became the epicenter of massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on government and commercial targets in Ukraine and Europe. An investigation into Stark Industries reveals it is being used as a global proxy network that conceals the true source of cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns against enemies of Russia.

At least a dozen patriotic Russian hacking groups have been launching DDoS attacks since the start of the war at a variety of targets seen as opposed to Moscow. But by all accounts, few attacks from those gangs have come close to the amount of firepower wielded by a pro-Russia group calling itself “NoName057(16).”

This graphic comes from a recent report from Arbor NETSCOUT about DDoS attacks from Russian hacktivist groups.

As detailed by researchers at Radware, NoName has effectively gamified DDoS attacks, recruiting hacktivists via its Telegram channel and offering to pay people who agree to install a piece of software called DDoSia. That program allows NoName to commandeer the host computers and their Internet connections in coordinated DDoS campaigns, and DDoSia users with the most attacks can win cash prizes.

The NoName DDoS group advertising on Telegram. Image: SentinelOne.com.

A report from the security firm Team Cymru found the DDoS attack infrastructure used in NoName campaigns is assigned to two interlinked hosting providers: MIRhosting and Stark Industries. MIRhosting is a hosting provider founded in The Netherlands in 2004. But Stark Industries Solutions Ltd was incorporated on February 10, 2022, just two weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

PROXY WARS

Security experts say that not long after the war started, Stark began hosting dozens of proxy services and free virtual private networking (VPN) services, which are designed to help users shield their Internet usage and location from prying eyes.

Proxy providers allow users to route their Internet and Web browsing traffic through someone else’s computer. From a website’s perspective, the traffic from a proxy network user appears to originate from the rented IP address, not from the proxy service customer.

These services can be used in a legitimate manner for several business purposes — such as price comparisons or sales intelligence — but they are also massively abused for hiding cybercrime activity because they can make it difficult to trace malicious traffic to its original source.

What’s more, many proxy services do not disclose how they obtain access to the proxies they are renting out, and in many cases the access is obtained through the dissemination of malicious software that turns the infected system in a traffic relay — usually unbeknownst to the legitimate owner of the Internet connection. Other proxy services will allow users to make money by renting out their Internet connection to anyone.

Spur.us is a company that tracks VPNs and proxy services worldwide. Spur finds that Stark Industries (AS44477) currently is home to at least 74 VPN services, and 40 different proxy services. As we’ll see in the final section of this story, just one of those proxy networks has over a million Internet addresses worldwide available for rent worldwide.

Raymond Dijkxhoorn operates a hosting firm in The Netherlands called Prolocation. He also co-runs SURBL, an anti-abuse service that flags domains and Internet address ranges that are strongly associated with spam and cybercrime activity, including DDoS.

Dijkxhoorn said last year SURBL heard from multiple people who said they operated VPN services whose web resources were included in SURBL’s block lists.

“We had people doing delistings at SURBL for domain names that were suspended by the registrars,” Dijkhoorn told KrebsOnSecurity. “And at least two of them explained that Stark offered them free VPN services that they were reselling.”

Dijkxhoorn added that Stark Industries also sponsored activist groups from Ukraine.

“How valuable would it be for Russia to know the real IPs from Ukraine’s tech warriors?” he observed.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF BULLETS

Richard Hummel is threat intelligence lead at Arbor NETSCOUT. Hummel said when he considers the worst of all the hosting providers out there today, Stark Industries is consistently near or at the top of that list.

“The reason is we’ve had at least a dozen service providers come to us saying, ‘There’s this network out there inundating us with traffic,'” Hummel said. “And it wasn’t even DDoS attacks. [The systems] on Stark were just scanning these providers so fast it was crashing some of their services.”

Hummel said NoName will typically launch their attacks using a mix of resources from rented from major, legitimate cloud services, and those from so-called “bulletproof” hosting providers like Stark. Bulletproof providers are so named when they earn or cultivate a reputation for ignoring any abuse complaints or police reports about activity on their networks.

Combining bulletproof providers with legitimate cloud hosting, Hummel said, likely makes NoName’s DDoS campaigns more resilient because many network operators will hesitate to be too aggressive in blocking Internet addresses associated with the major cloud services.

“What we typically see here is a distribution of cloud hosting providers and bulletproof hosting providers in DDoS attacks,” he said. “They’re using public cloud hosting providers because a lot of times that’s your first layer of network defense, and because [many companies are wary of] over-blocking access to legitimate cloud resources.”

But even if the cloud provider detects abuse coming from the customer, the provider is probably not going to shut the customer down immediately, Hummel said.

“There is usually a grace period, and even if that’s only an hour or two, you can still launch a large number of attacks in that time,” he said. “And then they just keep coming back and opening new cloud accounts.”

MERCENARIES TEAM

Stark Industries is incorporated at a mail drop address in the United Kingdom. UK business records list an Ivan Vladimirovich Neculiti as the company’s secretary. Mr. Neculiti also is named as the CEO and founder of PQ Hosting Plus S.R.L. (aka Perfect Quality Hosting), a Moldovan company formed in 2019 that lists the same UK mail drop address as Stark Industries.

Ivan Neculiti, as pictured on LinkedIn.

Reached via LinkedIn, Mr. Neculiti said PQ Hosting established Stark Industries as a “white label” of its brand so that “resellers could distribute our services using our IP addresses and their clients would not have any affairs with PQ Hosting.”

“PQ Hosting is a company with over 1,000+ of [our] own physical servers in 38 countries and we have over 100,000 clients,” he said. “Though we are not as large as Hetzner, Amazon and OVH, nevertheless we are a fast growing company that provides services to tens of thousands of private customers and legal entities.”

Asked about the constant stream of DDoS attacks whose origins have traced back to Stark Industries over the past two years, Neculiti maintained Stark hasn’t received any official abuse reports about attacks coming from its networks.

“It was probably some kind of clever attack that we did not see, I do not rule out this fact, because we have a very large number of clients and our Internet channels are quite large,” he said. “But, in this situation, unfortunately, no one contacted us to report that there was an attack from our addresses; if someone had contacted us, we would have definitely blocked the network data.”

DomainTools.com finds Ivan V. Neculiti was the owner of war[.]md, a website launched in 2008 that chronicled the history of a 1990 armed conflict in Moldova known as the Transnistria War and the Moldo-Russian war.

An ad for war.md, circa 2009.

Transnistria is a breakaway pro-Russian region that declared itself a state in 1990, although it is not internationally recognized. The copyright on that website credits the “MercenarieS TeaM,” which was at one time a Moldovan IT firm. Mr. Neculiti confirmed personally registering this domain.

DON CHICHO & DFYZ

The data breach tracking service Constella Intelligence reports that an Ivan V. Neculiti registered multiple online accounts under the email address dfyz_bk@bk.ru. Cyber intelligence firm Intel 471 shows this email address is tied to the username “dfyz” on more than a half-dozen Russian language cybercrime forums since 2008. The user dfyz on Searchengines[.]ru in 2008 asked other forum members to review war.md, and said they were part of the MercenarieS TeaM.

Back then, dfyz was selling “bulletproof servers for any purpose,” meaning the hosting company would willfully ignore abuse complaints or police inquiries about the activity of its customers.

DomainTools reports there are at least 33 domain names registered to dfyz_bk@bk.ru. Several of these domains have Ivan Neculiti in their registration records, including tracker-free.cn, which was registered to an Ivan Neculiti at dfyz_bk@bk.ru and referenced the MercenarieS TeaM in its original registration records.

Dfyz also used the nickname DonChicho, who likewise sold bulletproof hosting services and access to hacked Internet servers. In 2014, a prominent member of the Russian language cybercrime community Antichat filed a complaint against DonChicho, saying this user scammed them and had used the email address dfyz_bk@bk.ru.

The complaint said DonChicho registered on Antichat from the Transnistria Internet address 84.234.55[.]29. Searching this address in Constella reveals it has been used to register just five accounts online that have been created over the years, including one at ask.ru, where the user registered with the email address neculitzy1@yandex.ru. Constella also returns for that email address a user by the name “Ivan” at memoraleak.com and 000webhost.com.

Constella finds that the password most frequently used by the email address dfyz_bk@bk.ru was “filecast,” and that there are more than 90 email addresses associated with this password. Among them are roughly two dozen addresses with the name “Neculiti” in them, as well as the address support@donservers[.]ru.

Intel 471 says DonChicho posted to several Russian cybercrime forums that support@donservers[.]ru was his address, and that he logged into cybercrime forums almost exclusively from Internet addresses in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. A review of DonChicho’s posts shows this person was banned from several forums in 2014 for scamming other users.

Cached copies of DonChicho’s vanity domain (donchicho[.]ru) show that in 2009 he was a spammer who peddled knockoff prescription drugs via Rx-Promotion, once one of the largest pharmacy spam moneymaking programs for Russian-speaking affiliates.

Mr. Neculiti told KrebsOnSecurity he has never used the nickname DonChicho.

“I may assure you that I have no relation to DonChicho nor to his bulletproof servers,” he said.

Below is a mind map that shows the connections between the accounts mentioned above.

A mind map tracing the history of the user Dfyz. Click to enlarge.

Earlier this year, NoName began massively hitting government and industry websites in Moldova. A new report from Arbor Networks says the attacks began around March 6, when NoName alleged the government of Moldova was “craving for Russophobia.”

“Since early March, more than 50 websites have been targeted, according to posted ‘proof’ by the groups involved in attacking the country,” Arbor’s ASERT Team wrote. “While NoName seemingly initiated the ramp of attacks, a host of other DDoS hacktivists have joined the fray in claiming credit for attacks across more than 15 industries.”

CORRECTIV ACTION

The German independent news outlet Correctiv.org last week published a scathing investigative report on Stark Industries and MIRhosting, which notes that Ivan Neculiti operates his hosting companies with the help of his brother, Yuri.

Image credit: correctiv.org.

The report points out that Stark Industries continues to host a Russian disinformation news outlet called “Recent Reliable News” (RRN) that was sanctioned by the European Union in 2023 for spreading links to propaganda blogs and fake European media and government websites.

“The website was not running on computers in Moscow or St. Petersburg until recently, but in the middle of the EU, in the Netherlands, on the computers of the Neculiti brothers,” Correctiv reporters wrote.

“After a request from this editorial team, a well-known service was installed that hides the actual web host,” the report continues. “Ivan Neculiti announced that he had blocked the associated access and server following internal investigations. “We very much regret that we are only now finding out that one of our customers is a sanctioned portal,” said the company boss. However, RRN is still accessible via its servers.”

Correctiv also points to a January 2023 report from the Ukrainian government, which found servers from Stark Industries Solutions were used as part of a cyber attack on the Ukrainian news agency “Ukrinform”. Correctiv notes the notorious hacker group Sandworm — an advanced persistent threat (APT) group operated by a cyberwarfare unit of Russia’s military intelligence service — was identified by Ukrainian government authorities as responsible for that attack.

PEACE HOSTING?

Public records indicate MIRhosting is based in The Netherlands and is operated by 37-year old Andrey Nesterenko, whose personal website says he is an accomplished concert pianist who began performing publicly at a young age.

DomainTools says mirhosting[.]com is registered to Mr. Nesterenko and to Innovation IT Solutions Corp, which lists addresses in London and in Nesterenko’s stated hometown of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

This is interesting because according to the book Inside Cyber Warfare by Jeffrey Carr, Innovation IT Solutions Corp. was responsible for hosting StopGeorgia[.]ru, a hacktivist website for organizing cyberattacks against Georgia that appeared at the same time Russian forces invaded the former Soviet nation in 2008. That conflict was thought to be the first war ever fought in which a notable cyberattack and an actual military engagement happened simultaneously.

Responding to questions from KrebsOnSecurity, Mr. Nesterenko said he couldn’t say whether his network had ever hosted the StopGeorgia website back in 2008 because his company didn’t keep records going back that far. But he said Stark Industries Solutions is indeed one of MIRhsoting’s colocation customers.

“Our relationship is purely provider-customer,” Nesterenko said. “They also utilize multiple providers and data centers globally, so connecting them directly to MIRhosting overlooks their broader network.”

“We take any report of malicious activity seriously and are always open to information that can help us identify and prevent misuse of our infrastructure, whether involving Stark Industries or any other customer,” Nesterenko continued. “In cases where our services are exploited for malicious purposes, we collaborate fully with Dutch cyber police and other relevant authorities to investigate and take appropriate measures. However, we have yet to receive any actionable information beyond the article itself, which has not provided us with sufficient detail to identify or block malicious actors.”

In December 2022, security firm Recorded Future profiled the phishing and credential harvesting infrastructure used for Russia-aligned espionage operations by a group dubbed Blue Charlie (aka TAG-53), which has targeted email accounts of nongovernmental organizations and think tanks, journalists, and government and defense officials.

Recorded Future found that virtually all the Blue Charlie domains existed in just ten different ISPs, with a significant concentration located in two networks, one of which was MIRhosting. Both Microsoft and the UK government assess that Blue Charlie is linked to the Russian threat activity groups variously known as Callisto Group, COLDRIVER, and SEABORGIUM.

Mr. Nesterenko took exception to Recorded Future’s report.

“We’ve discussed its contents with our customer, Stark Industries,” he said. “We understand that they have initiated legal proceedings against the website in question, as they firmly believe that the claims made are inaccurate.”

Recorded Future said they updated their story with comments from Mr. Nesterenko, but that they stand by their reporting.

Mr. Nesterenko’s LinkedIn profile says he was previously the foreign region sales manager at Serverius-as, a hosting company in The Netherlands that remains in the same data center as MIRhosting.

In February, the Dutch police took 13 servers offline that were used by the infamous LockBit ransomware group, which had originally bragged on its darknet website that its home base was in The Netherlands. Sources tell KrebsOnSecurity the servers seized by the Dutch police were located in Serverius’ data center in Dronten, which is also shared by MIRhosting.

Serverius-as did not respond to requests for comment. Nesterenko said MIRhosting does use one of Serverius’s data centers for its operations in the Netherlands, alongside two other data centers, but that the recent incident involving the seizure of servers has no connection to MIRhosting.

“We are legally prohibited by Dutch law and police regulations from sharing information with third parties regarding any communications we may have had,” he said.

A February 2024 report from security firm ESET found Serverius-as systems were involved in a series of targeted phishing attacks by Russia-aligned groups against Ukrainian entities throughout 2023. ESET observed that after the spearphishing domains were no longer active, they were converted to promoting rogue Internet pharmacy websites.

PEERING INTO THE VOID

A review of the Internet address ranges recently added to the network operated by Stark Industries Solutions offers some insight into its customer base, usage, and maybe even true origins. Here is a snapshot (PDF) of all Internet address ranges announced by Stark Industries so far in the month of May 2024 (this information was graciously collated by the network observability platform Kentik.com).

Those records indicate that the largest portion of the IP space used by Stark is in The Netherlands, followed by Germany and the United States. Stark says it is connected to roughly 4,600 Internet addresses that currently list their ownership as Comcast Cable Communications.

A review of those address ranges at spur.us shows all of them are connected to an entity called Proxyline, which is a sprawling proxy service based in Russia that currently says it has more than 1.6 million proxies globally that are available for rent.

Proxyline dot net.

Reached for comment, Comcast said the Internet address ranges never did belong to Comcast, so it is likely that Stark has been fudging the real location of its routing announcements in some cases.

Stark reports that it has more than 67,000 Internet addresses at Santa Clara, Calif.-based EGIhosting. Spur says the Stark addresses involving EGIhosting all map to Proxyline as well. EGIhosting did not respond to requests for comment.

EGIhosting manages Internet addresses for the Cyprus-based hosting firm ITHOSTLINE LTD (aka HOSTLINE-LTD), which is represented throughout Stark’s announced Internet ranges. Stark says it has more than 21,000 Internet addresses with HOSTLINE. Spur.us finds Proxyline addresses are especially concentrated in the Stark ranges labeled ITHOSTLINE LTD, HOSTLINE-LTD, and Proline IT.

Stark’s network list includes approximately 21,000 Internet addresses at Hockessin, De. based DediPath, which abruptly ceased operations without warning in August 2023. According to a phishing report released last year by Interisle Consulting, DediPath was the fourth most common source of phishing attacks in the year ending Oct. 2022. Spur.us likewise finds that virtually all of the Stark address ranges marked “DediPath LLC” are tied to Proxyline.

Image: Interisle Consulting.

A large number of the Internet address ranges announced by Stark in May originate in India, and the names that are self-assigned to many of these networks indicate they were previously used to send large volumes of spam for herbal medicinal products, with names like HerbalFarm, AdsChrome, Nutravo, Herbzoot and Herbalve.

The anti-spam organization SpamHaus reports that many of the Indian IP address ranges are associated with known “snowshoe spam,” a form of abuse that involves mass email campaigns spread across several domains and IP addresses to weaken reputation metrics and avoid spam filters.

It’s not clear how much of Stark’s network address space traces its origins to Russia, but big chunks of it recently belonged to some of the oldest entities on the Russian Internet (a.k.a. “Runet”).

For example, many Stark address ranges were most recently assigned to a Russian government entity whose full name is the “Federal State Autonomous Educational Establishment of Additional Professional Education Center of Realization of State Educational Policy and Informational Technologies.”

A review of Internet address ranges adjacent to this entity reveals a long list of Russian government organizations that are part of the Federal Guard Service of the Russian Federation. Wikipedia says the Federal Guard Service is a Russian federal government agency concerned with tasks related to protection of several high-ranking state officials, including the President of Russia, as well as certain federal properties. The agency traces its origins to the USSR’s Ninth Directorate of the KGB, and later the presidential security service.

Stark recently announced the address range 213.159.64.0/20 from April 27 to May 1, and this range was previously assigned to an ancient ISP in St. Petersburg, RU called the Computer Technologies Institute Ltd.

According to a post on the Russian language webmaster forum searchengines[.]ru, the domain for Computer Technologies Institute — ctinet[.]ruis the seventh-oldest domain in the entire history of the Runet.

Curiously, Stark also lists large tracts of Internet addresses (close to 48,000 in total) assigned to a small ISP in Kharkiv, Ukraine called NetAssist. Reached via email, the CEO of NetAssist Max Tulyev confirmed his company provides a number of services to PQ Hosting.

“We colocate their equipment in Warsaw, Madrid, Sofia and Thessaloniki, provide them IP transit and IPv4 addresses,” Tulyev said. “For their size, we receive relatively low number of complains to their networks. I never seen anything about their pro-Russian activity or support of Russian hackers. It is very interesting for me to see proofs of your accusations.”

Spur.us mapped the entire infrastructure of Proxyline, and found more than one million proxies across multiple providers, but by far the biggest concentration was at Stark Industries Solutions. The full list of Proxyline address ranges (.CSV) shows two other ISPs appear repeatedly throughout the list. One is Kharkiv, Ukraine based ITL LLC, also known as Information Technology Laboratories Group, and Integrated Technologies Laboratory.

The second is a related hosting company in Miami, called Green Floid LLC. Green Floid featured in a 2017 scoop by CNN, which profiled the company’s owner and quizzed him about Russian troll farms using proxy networks on Green Floid and its parent firm ITL to mask disinformation efforts tied to the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). At the time, the IRA was using Facebook and other social media networks to spread videos showing police brutality against African Americans in an effort to encourage protests across the United States.

How Did Authorities Identify the Alleged Lockbit Boss?

Last week, the United States joined the U.K. and Australia in sanctioning and charging a Russian man named Dmitry Yuryevich Khoroshev as the leader of the infamous LockBit ransomware group. LockBit’s leader “LockBitSupp” claims the feds named the wrong guy, saying the charges don’t explain how they connected him to Khoroshev. This post examines the activities of Khoroshev’s many alter egos on the cybercrime forums, and tracks the career of a gifted malware author who has written and sold malicious code for the past 14 years.

Dmitry Yuryevich Khoroshev. Image: treasury.gov.

On May 7, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Khoroshev on 26 criminal counts, including extortion, wire fraud, and conspiracy. The government alleges Khoroshev created, sold and used the LockBit ransomware strain to personally extort more than $100 million from hundreds of victim organizations, and that LockBit as a group extorted roughly half a billion dollars over four years.

Federal investigators say Khoroshev ran LockBit as a “ransomware-as-a-service” operation, wherein he kept 20 percent of any ransom amount paid by a victim organization infected with his code, with the remaining 80 percent of the payment going to LockBit affiliates responsible for spreading the malware.

Financial sanctions levied against Khoroshev by the U.S. Department of the Treasury listed his known email and street address (in Voronezh, in southwest Russia), passport number, and even his tax ID number (hello, Russian tax authorities). The Treasury filing says Khoroshev used the emails sitedev5@yandex.ru, and khoroshev1@icloud.com.

According to DomainTools.com, the address sitedev5@yandex.ru was used to register at least six domains, including a Russian business registered in Khoroshev’s name called tkaner.com, which is a blog about clothing and fabrics.

A search at the breach-tracking service Constella Intelligence on the phone number in Tkaner’s registration records  — 7.9521020220 — brings up multiple official Russian government documents listing the number’s owner as Dmitri Yurievich Khoroshev.

Another domain registered to that phone number was stairwell[.]ru, which at one point advertised the sale of wooden staircases. Constella finds that the email addresses webmaster@stairwell.ru and admin@stairwell.ru used the password 225948.

DomainTools reports that stairwell.ru for several years included the registrant’s name as “Dmitrij Ju Horoshev,” and the email address pin@darktower.su. According to Constella, this email address was used in 2010 to register an account for a Dmitry Yurievich Khoroshev from Voronezh, Russia at the hosting provider firstvds.ru.

Image: Shutterstock.

Cyber intelligence firm Intel 471 finds that pin@darktower.ru was used by a Russian-speaking member called Pin on the English-language cybercrime forum Opensc. Pin was active on Opensc around March 2012, and authored 13 posts that mostly concerned data encryption issues, or how to fix bugs in code.

Other posts concerned custom code Pin claimed to have written that would bypass memory protections on Windows XP and Windows 7 systems, and inject malware into memory space normally allocated to trusted applications on a Windows machine.

Pin also was active at that same time on the Russian-language security forum Antichat, where they told fellow forum members to contact them at the ICQ instant messenger number 669316.

NEROWOLFE

A search on the ICQ number 669316 at Intel 471 shows that in April 2011, a user by the name NeroWolfe joined the Russian cybercrime forum Zloy using the email address d.horoshev@gmail.com, and from an Internet address in Voronezh, RU.

Constella finds the same password tied to webmaster@stairwell.ru (225948) was used by the email address 3k@xakep.ru, which Intel 471 says was registered to more than a dozen NeroWolfe accounts across just as many Russian cybercrime forums between 2011 and 2015.

NeroWolfe’s introductory post to the forum Verified in Oct. 2011 said he was a system administrator and C++ coder.

“Installing SpyEYE, ZeuS, any DDoS and spam admin panels,” NeroWolfe wrote. This user said they specialize in developing malware, creating computer worms, and crafting new ways to hijack Web browsers.

“I can provide my portfolio on request,” NeroWolfe wrote. “P.S. I don’t modify someone else’s code or work with someone else’s frameworks.”

In April 2013, NeroWolfe wrote in a private message to another Verified forum user that he was selling a malware “loader” program that could bypass all of the security protections on Windows XP and Windows 7.

“The access to the network is slightly restricted,” NeroWolfe said of the loader, which he was selling for $5,000. “You won’t manage to bind a port. However, it’s quite possible to send data. The code is written in C.”

In an October 2013 discussion on the cybercrime forum Exploit, NeroWolfe weighed in on the karmic ramifications of ransomware. At the time, ransomware-as-a-service didn’t exist yet, and many members of Exploit were still making good money from “lockers,” relatively crude programs that locked the user out of their system until they agreed to make a small payment (usually a few hundred dollars via prepaid Green Dot cards).

Lockers, which presaged the coming ransomware scourge, were generally viewed by the Russian-speaking cybercrime forums as harmless moneymaking opportunities, because they usually didn’t seek to harm the host computer or endanger files on the system. Also, there were still plenty of locker programs that aspiring cybercriminals could either buy or rent to make a steady income.

NeroWolfe reminded forum denizens that they were just as vulnerable to ransomware attacks as their would-be victims, and that what goes around comes around.

“Guys, do you have a conscience?,” NeroWolfe wrote. “Okay, lockers, network gopstop aka business in Russian. The last thing was always squeezed out of the suckers. But encoders, no one is protected from them, including the local audience.”

If Khoroshev was ever worried that someone outside of Russia might be able to connect his early hacker handles to his real life persona, that’s not clear from reviewing his history online. In fact, the same email address tied to so many of NeroWolfe’s accounts on the forums — 3k@xakep.ru — was used in 2011 to create an account for a Dmitry Yurevich Khoroshev on the Russian social media network Vkontakte.

NeroWolfe seems to have abandoned all of his forum accounts sometime in 2016. In November 2016, an exploit[.]ru member filed an official complaint against NeroWolfe, saying NeroWolfe had been paid $2,000 to produce custom code but never finished the project and vanished.

It’s unclear what happened to NeroWolfe or to Khoroshev during this time. Maybe he got arrested, or some close associates did. Perhaps he just decided it was time to lay low and hit the reset on his operational security efforts, given his past failures in this regard. It’s also possible NeroWolfe landed a real job somewhere for a few years, fathered a child, and/or had to put his cybercrime career on hold.

PUTINKRAB

Or perhaps Khoroshev saw the coming ransomware industry for the endless pot of gold that it was about to become, and then dedicated himself to working on custom ransomware code. That’s what the government believes.

The indictment against Khoroshev says he used the hacker nickname Putinkrab, and Intel 471 says this corresponds to a username that was first registered across three major Russian cybercrime forums in early 2019.

KrebsOnSecurity could find no obvious connections between Putinkrab and any of Khoroshev’s older identities. However, if Putinkrab was Khoroshev, he would have learned from his past mistakes and started fresh with a new identity (which he did). But also, it is likely the government hasn’t shared all of the intelligence it has collected against him (more on that in a bit).

Putinkrab’s first posts on the Russian cybercrime forums XSS, Exploit and UFOLabs saw this user selling ransomware source code written in C.

A machine-translated ad for ransomware source code from Putinkrab on the Russian language cybercrime forum UFOlabs in 2019. Image: Ke-la.com.

In April 2019, Putkinkrab offered an affiliate program that would run on top of his custom-made ransomware code.

“I want to work for a share of the ransoms: 20/80,” Putinkrab wrote on Exploit. “20 percent is my percentage for the work, you get 80% of the ransoms. The percentage can be reduced up to 10/90 if the volumes are good. But now, temporarily, until the service is fully automated, we are working using a different algorithm.”

Throughout the summer of 2019, Putinkrab posted multiple updates to Exploit about new features being added to his ransomware strain, as well as novel evasion techniques to avoid detection by security tools. He also told forum members he was looking for investors for a new ransomware project based on his code.

In response to an Exploit member who complained that the security industry was making it harder to profit from ransomware, Putinkrab said that was because so many cybercriminals were relying on crappy ransomware code.

“The vast majority of top antiviruses have acquired behavioral analysis, which blocks 95% of crypto-lockers at their root,” Putinkrab wrote. “Cryptolockers made a lot of noise in the press, but lazy system administrators don’t make backups after that. The vast majority of cryptolockers are written by people who have little understanding of cryptography. Therefore, decryptors appear on the Internet, and with them the hope that files can be decrypted without paying a ransom. They just sit and wait. Contact with the owner of the key is lost over time.”

Putinkrab said he had every confidence his ransomware code was a game-changer, and a huge money machine.

“The game is just gaining momentum,” Putinkrab wrote. “Weak players lose and are eliminated.”

The rest of his response was structured like a poem:

“In this world, the strongest survive.
Our life is just a struggle.
The winner will be the smartest,
Who has his head on his shoulders.”

Putinkrab’s final post came on August 23, 2019. The Justice Department says the LockBit ransomware affiliate program was officially launched five months later. From there on out, the government says, Khoroshev adopted the persona of LockBitSupp. In his introductory post on Exploit, LockBit’s mastermind said the ransomware strain had been in development since September 2019.

The original LockBit malware was written in C (a language that NeroWolfe excelled at). Here’s the original description of LockBit, from its maker:

“The software is written in C and Assembler; encryption is performed through the I/O Completion Port; there is a port scanning local networks and an option to find all DFS, SMB, WebDAV network shares, an admin panel in Tor, automatic test decryption; a decryption tool is provided; there is a chat with Push notifications, a Jabber bot that forwards correspondence and an option to terminate services/processes in line which prevent the ransomware from opening files at a certain moment. The ransomware sets file permissions and removes blocking attributes, deletes shadow copies, clears logs and mounts hidden partitions; there is an option to drag-and-drop files/folders and a console/hidden mode. The ransomware encrypts files in parts in various places: the larger the file size, the more parts there are. The algorithms used are AES + RSA.

You are the one who determines the ransom amount after communicating with the victim. The ransom paid in any currency that suits you will be transferred to your wallets. The Jabber bot serves as an admin panel and is used for banning, providing decryption tools, chatting – Jabber is used for absolutely everything.”

CONCLUSION

Does the above timeline prove that NeroWolfe/Khoroshev is LockBitSupp? No. However, it does indicate Khoroshev was for many years deeply invested in countless schemes involving botnets, stolen data, and malware he wrote that others used to great effect. NeroWolfe’s many private messages from fellow forum members confirm this.

NeroWolfe’s specialty was creating custom code that employed novel stealth and evasion techniques, and he was always quick to volunteer his services on the forums whenever anyone was looking help on a malware project that called for a strong C or C++ programmer.

Someone with those qualifications — as well as demonstrated mastery of data encryption and decryption techniques — would have been in great demand by the ransomware-as-a-service industry that took off at around the same time NeroWolfe vanished from the forums.

Someone like that who is near or at the top of their game vis-a-vis their peers does not simply walk away from that level of influence, community status, and potential income stream unless forced to do so by circumstances beyond their immediate control.

It’s important to note that Putinkrab didn’t just materialize out of thin air in 2019 — suddenly endowed with knowledge about how to write advanced, stealthy ransomware strains. That knowledge clearly came from someone who’d already had years of experience building and deploying ransomware strains against real-life victim organizations.

Thus, whoever Putinkrab was before they adopted that moniker, it’s a safe bet they were involved in the development and use of earlier, highly successful ransomware strains. One strong possible candidate is Cerber ransomware, the most popular and effective affiliate program operating between early 2016 and mid-2017. Cerber thrived because it emerged as an early mover in the market for ransomware-as-a-service offerings.

In February 2024, the FBI seized LockBit’s cybercrime infrastructure on the dark web, following an apparently lengthy infiltration of the group’s operations. The United States has already indicted and sanctioned at least five other alleged LockBit ringleaders or affiliates, so presumably the feds have been able to draw additional resources from those investigations.

Also, it seems likely that the three national intelligence agencies involved in bringing these charges are not showing all of their cards. For example, the Treasury documents on Khoroshev mention a single cryptocurrency address, and yet experts interviewed for this story say there are no obvious clues connecting this address to Khoroshev or Putinkrab.

But given that LockBitSupp has been actively involved in Lockbit ransomware attacks against organizations for four years now, the government almost certainly has an extensive list of the LockBit leader’s various cryptocurrency addresses — and probably even his bank accounts in Russia. And no doubt the money trail from some of those transactions was traceable to its ultimate beneficiary (or close enough).

Not long after Khoroshev was charged as the leader of LockBit, a number of open-source intelligence accounts on Telegram began extending the information released by the Treasury Department. Within hours, these sleuths had unearthed more than a dozen credit card accounts used by Khoroshev over the past decade, as well as his various bank account numbers in Russia.

The point is, this post is based on data that’s available to and verifiable by KrebsOnSecurity. Woodward & Bernstein’s source in the Watergate investigation — Deep Throat — famously told the two reporters to “follow the money.” This is always excellent advice. But these days, that can be a lot easier said than done — especially with people who a) do not wish to be found, and b) don’t exactly file annual reports.

How Did Authorities Identify the Alleged Lockbit Boss?

Last week, the United States joined the U.K. and Australia in sanctioning and charging a Russian man named Dmitry Yuryevich Khoroshev as the leader of the infamous LockBit ransomware group. LockBit’s leader “LockBitSupp” claims the feds named the wrong guy, saying the charges don’t explain how they connected him to Khoroshev. This post examines the activities of Khoroshev’s many alter egos on the cybercrime forums, and tracks the career of a gifted malware author who has written and sold malicious code for the past 14 years.

Dmitry Yuryevich Khoroshev. Image: treasury.gov.

On May 7, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Khoroshev on 26 criminal counts, including extortion, wire fraud, and conspiracy. The government alleges Khoroshev created, sold and used the LockBit ransomware strain to personally extort more than $100 million from hundreds of victim organizations, and that LockBit as a group extorted roughly half a billion dollars over four years.

Federal investigators say Khoroshev ran LockBit as a “ransomware-as-a-service” operation, wherein he kept 20 percent of any ransom amount paid by a victim organization infected with his code, with the remaining 80 percent of the payment going to LockBit affiliates responsible for spreading the malware.

Financial sanctions levied against Khoroshev by the U.S. Department of the Treasury listed his known email and street address (in Voronezh, in southwest Russia), passport number, and even his tax ID number (hello, Russian tax authorities). The Treasury filing says Khoroshev used the emails sitedev5@yandex.ru, and khoroshev1@icloud.com.

According to DomainTools.com, the address sitedev5@yandex.ru was used to register at least six domains, including a Russian business registered in Khoroshev’s name called tkaner.com, which is a blog about clothing and fabrics.

A search at the breach-tracking service Constella Intelligence on the phone number in Tkaner’s registration records  — 7.9521020220 — brings up multiple official Russian government documents listing the number’s owner as Dmitri Yurievich Khoroshev.

Another domain registered to that phone number was stairwell[.]ru, which at one point advertised the sale of wooden staircases. Constella finds that the email addresses webmaster@stairwell.ru and admin@stairwell.ru used the password 225948.

DomainTools reports that stairwell.ru for several years included the registrant’s name as “Dmitrij Ju Horoshev,” and the email address pin@darktower.su. According to Constella, this email address was used in 2010 to register an account for a Dmitry Yurievich Khoroshev from Voronezh, Russia at the hosting provider firstvds.ru.

Image: Shutterstock.

Cyber intelligence firm Intel 471 finds that pin@darktower.ru was used by a Russian-speaking member called Pin on the English-language cybercrime forum Opensc. Pin was active on Opensc around March 2012, and authored 13 posts that mostly concerned data encryption issues, or how to fix bugs in code.

Other posts concerned custom code Pin claimed to have written that would bypass memory protections on Windows XP and Windows 7 systems, and inject malware into memory space normally allocated to trusted applications on a Windows machine.

Pin also was active at that same time on the Russian-language security forum Antichat, where they told fellow forum members to contact them at the ICQ instant messenger number 669316.

NEROWOLFE

A search on the ICQ number 669316 at Intel 471 shows that in April 2011, a user by the name NeroWolfe joined the Russian cybercrime forum Zloy using the email address d.horoshev@gmail.com, and from an Internet address in Voronezh, RU.

Constella finds the same password tied to webmaster@stairwell.ru (225948) was used by the email address 3k@xakep.ru, which Intel 471 says was registered to more than a dozen NeroWolfe accounts across just as many Russian cybercrime forums between 2011 and 2015.

NeroWolfe’s introductory post to the forum Verified in Oct. 2011 said he was a system administrator and C++ coder.

“Installing SpyEYE, ZeuS, any DDoS and spam admin panels,” NeroWolfe wrote. This user said they specialize in developing malware, creating computer worms, and crafting new ways to hijack Web browsers.

“I can provide my portfolio on request,” NeroWolfe wrote. “P.S. I don’t modify someone else’s code or work with someone else’s frameworks.”

In April 2013, NeroWolfe wrote in a private message to another Verified forum user that he was selling a malware “loader” program that could bypass all of the security protections on Windows XP and Windows 7.

“The access to the network is slightly restricted,” NeroWolfe said of the loader, which he was selling for $5,000. “You won’t manage to bind a port. However, it’s quite possible to send data. The code is written in C.”

In an October 2013 discussion on the cybercrime forum Exploit, NeroWolfe weighed in on the karmic ramifications of ransomware. At the time, ransomware-as-a-service didn’t exist yet, and many members of Exploit were still making good money from “lockers,” relatively crude programs that locked the user out of their system until they agreed to make a small payment (usually a few hundred dollars via prepaid Green Dot cards).

Lockers, which presaged the coming ransomware scourge, were generally viewed by the Russian-speaking cybercrime forums as harmless moneymaking opportunities, because they usually didn’t seek to harm the host computer or endanger files on the system. Also, there were still plenty of locker programs that aspiring cybercriminals could either buy or rent to make a steady income.

NeroWolfe reminded forum denizens that they were just as vulnerable to ransomware attacks as their would-be victims, and that what goes around comes around.

“Guys, do you have a conscience?,” NeroWolfe wrote. “Okay, lockers, network gopstop aka business in Russian. The last thing was always squeezed out of the suckers. But encoders, no one is protected from them, including the local audience.”

If Khoroshev was ever worried that someone outside of Russia might be able to connect his early hacker handles to his real life persona, that’s not clear from reviewing his history online. In fact, the same email address tied to so many of NeroWolfe’s accounts on the forums — 3k@xakep.ru — was used in 2011 to create an account for a Dmitry Yurevich Khoroshev on the Russian social media network Vkontakte.

NeroWolfe seems to have abandoned all of his forum accounts sometime in 2016. In November 2016, an exploit[.]ru member filed an official complaint against NeroWolfe, saying NeroWolfe had been paid $2,000 to produce custom code but never finished the project and vanished.

It’s unclear what happened to NeroWolfe or to Khoroshev during this time. Maybe he got arrested, or some close associates did. Perhaps he just decided it was time to lay low and hit the reset on his operational security efforts, given his past failures in this regard. It’s also possible NeroWolfe landed a real job somewhere for a few years, fathered a child, and/or had to put his cybercrime career on hold.

PUTINKRAB

Or perhaps Khoroshev saw the coming ransomware industry for the endless pot of gold that it was about to become, and then dedicated himself to working on custom ransomware code. That’s what the government believes.

The indictment against Khoroshev says he used the hacker nickname Putinkrab, and Intel 471 says this corresponds to a username that was first registered across three major Russian cybercrime forums in early 2019.

KrebsOnSecurity could find no obvious connections between Putinkrab and any of Khoroshev’s older identities. However, if Putinkrab was Khoroshev, he would have learned from his past mistakes and started fresh with a new identity (which he did). But also, it is likely the government hasn’t shared all of the intelligence it has collected against him (more on that in a bit).

Putinkrab’s first posts on the Russian cybercrime forums XSS, Exploit and UFOLabs saw this user selling ransomware source code written in C.

A machine-translated ad for ransomware source code from Putinkrab on the Russian language cybercrime forum UFOlabs in 2019. Image: Ke-la.com.

In April 2019, Putkinkrab offered an affiliate program that would run on top of his custom-made ransomware code.

“I want to work for a share of the ransoms: 20/80,” Putinkrab wrote on Exploit. “20 percent is my percentage for the work, you get 80% of the ransoms. The percentage can be reduced up to 10/90 if the volumes are good. But now, temporarily, until the service is fully automated, we are working using a different algorithm.”

Throughout the summer of 2019, Putinkrab posted multiple updates to Exploit about new features being added to his ransomware strain, as well as novel evasion techniques to avoid detection by security tools. He also told forum members he was looking for investors for a new ransomware project based on his code.

In response to an Exploit member who complained that the security industry was making it harder to profit from ransomware, Putinkrab said that was because so many cybercriminals were relying on crappy ransomware code.

“The vast majority of top antiviruses have acquired behavioral analysis, which blocks 95% of crypto-lockers at their root,” Putinkrab wrote. “Cryptolockers made a lot of noise in the press, but lazy system administrators don’t make backups after that. The vast majority of cryptolockers are written by people who have little understanding of cryptography. Therefore, decryptors appear on the Internet, and with them the hope that files can be decrypted without paying a ransom. They just sit and wait. Contact with the owner of the key is lost over time.”

Putinkrab said he had every confidence his ransomware code was a game-changer, and a huge money machine.

“The game is just gaining momentum,” Putinkrab wrote. “Weak players lose and are eliminated.”

The rest of his response was structured like a poem:

“In this world, the strongest survive.
Our life is just a struggle.
The winner will be the smartest,
Who has his head on his shoulders.”

Putinkrab’s final post came on August 23, 2019. The Justice Department says the LockBit ransomware affiliate program was officially launched five months later. From there on out, the government says, Khoroshev adopted the persona of LockBitSupp. In his introductory post on Exploit, LockBit’s mastermind said the ransomware strain had been in development since September 2019.

The original LockBit malware was written in C (a language that NeroWolfe excelled at). Here’s the original description of LockBit, from its maker:

“The software is written in C and Assembler; encryption is performed through the I/O Completion Port; there is a port scanning local networks and an option to find all DFS, SMB, WebDAV network shares, an admin panel in Tor, automatic test decryption; a decryption tool is provided; there is a chat with Push notifications, a Jabber bot that forwards correspondence and an option to terminate services/processes in line which prevent the ransomware from opening files at a certain moment. The ransomware sets file permissions and removes blocking attributes, deletes shadow copies, clears logs and mounts hidden partitions; there is an option to drag-and-drop files/folders and a console/hidden mode. The ransomware encrypts files in parts in various places: the larger the file size, the more parts there are. The algorithms used are AES + RSA.

You are the one who determines the ransom amount after communicating with the victim. The ransom paid in any currency that suits you will be transferred to your wallets. The Jabber bot serves as an admin panel and is used for banning, providing decryption tools, chatting – Jabber is used for absolutely everything.”

CONCLUSION

Does the above timeline prove that NeroWolfe/Khoroshev is LockBitSupp? No. However, it does indicate Khoroshev was for many years deeply invested in countless schemes involving botnets, stolen data, and malware he wrote that others used to great effect. NeroWolfe’s many private messages from fellow forum members confirm this.

NeroWolfe’s specialty was creating custom code that employed novel stealth and evasion techniques, and he was always quick to volunteer his services on the forums whenever anyone was looking help on a malware project that called for a strong C or C++ programmer.

Someone with those qualifications — as well as demonstrated mastery of data encryption and decryption techniques — would have been in great demand by the ransomware-as-a-service industry that took off at around the same time NeroWolfe vanished from the forums.

Someone like that who is near or at the top of their game vis-a-vis their peers does not simply walk away from that level of influence, community status, and potential income stream unless forced to do so by circumstances beyond their immediate control.

It’s important to note that Putinkrab didn’t just materialize out of thin air in 2019 — suddenly endowed with knowledge about how to write advanced, stealthy ransomware strains. That knowledge clearly came from someone who’d already had years of experience building and deploying ransomware strains against real-life victim organizations.

Thus, whoever Putinkrab was before they adopted that moniker, it’s a safe bet they were involved in the development and use of earlier, highly successful ransomware strains. One strong possible candidate is Cerber ransomware, the most popular and effective affiliate program operating between early 2016 and mid-2017. Cerber thrived because it emerged as an early mover in the market for ransomware-as-a-service offerings.

In February 2024, the FBI seized LockBit’s cybercrime infrastructure on the dark web, following an apparently lengthy infiltration of the group’s operations. The United States has already indicted and sanctioned at least five other alleged LockBit ringleaders or affiliates, so presumably the feds have been able to draw additional resources from those investigations.

Also, it seems likely that the three national intelligence agencies involved in bringing these charges are not showing all of their cards. For example, the Treasury documents on Khoroshev mention a single cryptocurrency address, and yet experts interviewed for this story say there are no obvious clues connecting this address to Khoroshev or Putinkrab.

But given that LockBitSupp has been actively involved in Lockbit ransomware attacks against organizations for four years now, the government almost certainly has an extensive list of the LockBit leader’s various cryptocurrency addresses — and probably even his bank accounts in Russia. And no doubt the money trail from some of those transactions was traceable to its ultimate beneficiary (or close enough).

Not long after Khoroshev was charged as the leader of LockBit, a number of open-source intelligence accounts on Telegram began extending the information released by the Treasury Department. Within hours, these sleuths had unearthed more than a dozen credit card accounts used by Khoroshev over the past decade, as well as his various bank account numbers in Russia.

The point is, this post is based on data that’s available to and verifiable by KrebsOnSecurity. Woodward & Bernstein’s source in the Watergate investigation — Deep Throat — famously told the two reporters to “follow the money.” This is always excellent advice. But these days, that can be a lot easier said than done — especially with people who a) do not wish to be found, and b) don’t exactly file annual reports.

How Did Authorities Identify the Alleged Lockbit Boss?

Last week, the United States joined the U.K. and Australia in sanctioning and charging a Russian man named Dmitry Yuryevich Khoroshev as the leader of the infamous LockBit ransomware group. LockBit’s leader “LockBitSupp” claims the feds named the wrong guy, saying the charges don’t explain how they connected him to Khoroshev. This post examines the activities of Khoroshev’s many alter egos on the cybercrime forums, and tracks the career of a gifted malware author who has written and sold malicious code for the past 14 years.

Dmitry Yuryevich Khoroshev. Image: treasury.gov.

On May 7, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Khoroshev on 26 criminal counts, including extortion, wire fraud, and conspiracy. The government alleges Khoroshev created, sold and used the LockBit ransomware strain to personally extort more than $100 million from hundreds of victim organizations, and that LockBit as a group extorted roughly half a billion dollars over four years.

Federal investigators say Khoroshev ran LockBit as a “ransomware-as-a-service” operation, wherein he kept 20 percent of any ransom amount paid by a victim organization infected with his code, with the remaining 80 percent of the payment going to LockBit affiliates responsible for spreading the malware.

Financial sanctions levied against Khoroshev by the U.S. Department of the Treasury listed his known email and street address (in Voronezh, in southwest Russia), passport number, and even his tax ID number (hello, Russian tax authorities). The Treasury filing says Khoroshev used the emails sitedev5@yandex.ru, and khoroshev1@icloud.com.

According to DomainTools.com, the address sitedev5@yandex.ru was used to register at least six domains, including a Russian business registered in Khoroshev’s name called tkaner.com, which is a blog about clothing and fabrics.

A search at the breach-tracking service Constella Intelligence on the phone number in Tkaner’s registration records  — 7.9521020220 — brings up multiple official Russian government documents listing the number’s owner as Dmitri Yurievich Khoroshev.

Another domain registered to that phone number was stairwell[.]ru, which at one point advertised the sale of wooden staircases. Constella finds that the email addresses webmaster@stairwell.ru and admin@stairwell.ru used the password 225948.

DomainTools reports that stairwell.ru for several years included the registrant’s name as “Dmitrij Ju Horoshev,” and the email address pin@darktower.su. According to Constella, this email address was used in 2010 to register an account for a Dmitry Yurievich Khoroshev from Voronezh, Russia at the hosting provider firstvds.ru.

Image: Shutterstock.

Cyber intelligence firm Intel 471 finds that pin@darktower.ru was used by a Russian-speaking member called Pin on the English-language cybercrime forum Opensc. Pin was active on Opensc around March 2012, and authored 13 posts that mostly concerned data encryption issues, or how to fix bugs in code.

Other posts concerned custom code Pin claimed to have written that would bypass memory protections on Windows XP and Windows 7 systems, and inject malware into memory space normally allocated to trusted applications on a Windows machine.

Pin also was active at that same time on the Russian-language security forum Antichat, where they told fellow forum members to contact them at the ICQ instant messenger number 669316.

NEROWOLFE

A search on the ICQ number 669316 at Intel 471 shows that in April 2011, a user by the name NeroWolfe joined the Russian cybercrime forum Zloy using the email address d.horoshev@gmail.com, and from an Internet address in Voronezh, RU.

Constella finds the same password tied to webmaster@stairwell.ru (225948) was used by the email address 3k@xakep.ru, which Intel 471 says was registered to more than a dozen NeroWolfe accounts across just as many Russian cybercrime forums between 2011 and 2015.

NeroWolfe’s introductory post to the forum Verified in Oct. 2011 said he was a system administrator and C++ coder.

“Installing SpyEYE, ZeuS, any DDoS and spam admin panels,” NeroWolfe wrote. This user said they specialize in developing malware, creating computer worms, and crafting new ways to hijack Web browsers.

“I can provide my portfolio on request,” NeroWolfe wrote. “P.S. I don’t modify someone else’s code or work with someone else’s frameworks.”

In April 2013, NeroWolfe wrote in a private message to another Verified forum user that he was selling a malware “loader” program that could bypass all of the security protections on Windows XP and Windows 7.

“The access to the network is slightly restricted,” NeroWolfe said of the loader, which he was selling for $5,000. “You won’t manage to bind a port. However, it’s quite possible to send data. The code is written in C.”

In an October 2013 discussion on the cybercrime forum Exploit, NeroWolfe weighed in on the karmic ramifications of ransomware. At the time, ransomware-as-a-service didn’t exist yet, and many members of Exploit were still making good money from “lockers,” relatively crude programs that locked the user out of their system until they agreed to make a small payment (usually a few hundred dollars via prepaid Green Dot cards).

Lockers, which presaged the coming ransomware scourge, were generally viewed by the Russian-speaking cybercrime forums as harmless moneymaking opportunities, because they usually didn’t seek to harm the host computer or endanger files on the system. Also, there were still plenty of locker programs that aspiring cybercriminals could either buy or rent to make a steady income.

NeroWolfe reminded forum denizens that they were just as vulnerable to ransomware attacks as their would-be victims, and that what goes around comes around.

“Guys, do you have a conscience?,” NeroWolfe wrote. “Okay, lockers, network gopstop aka business in Russian. The last thing was always squeezed out of the suckers. But encoders, no one is protected from them, including the local audience.”

If Khoroshev was ever worried that someone outside of Russia might be able to connect his early hacker handles to his real life persona, that’s not clear from reviewing his history online. In fact, the same email address tied to so many of NeroWolfe’s accounts on the forums — 3k@xakep.ru — was used in 2011 to create an account for a Dmitry Yurevich Khoroshev on the Russian social media network Vkontakte.

NeroWolfe seems to have abandoned all of his forum accounts sometime in 2016. In November 2016, an exploit[.]ru member filed an official complaint against NeroWolfe, saying NeroWolfe had been paid $2,000 to produce custom code but never finished the project and vanished.

It’s unclear what happened to NeroWolfe or to Khoroshev during this time. Maybe he got arrested, or some close associates did. Perhaps he just decided it was time to lay low and hit the reset on his operational security efforts, given his past failures in this regard. It’s also possible NeroWolfe landed a real job somewhere for a few years, fathered a child, and/or had to put his cybercrime career on hold.

PUTINKRAB

Or perhaps Khoroshev saw the coming ransomware industry for the endless pot of gold that it was about to become, and then dedicated himself to working on custom ransomware code. That’s what the government believes.

The indictment against Khoroshev says he used the hacker nickname Putinkrab, and Intel 471 says this corresponds to a username that was first registered across three major Russian cybercrime forums in early 2019.

KrebsOnSecurity could find no obvious connections between Putinkrab and any of Khoroshev’s older identities. However, if Putinkrab was Khoroshev, he would have learned from his past mistakes and started fresh with a new identity (which he did). But also, it is likely the government hasn’t shared all of the intelligence it has collected against him (more on that in a bit).

Putinkrab’s first posts on the Russian cybercrime forums XSS, Exploit and UFOLabs saw this user selling ransomware source code written in C.

A machine-translated ad for ransomware source code from Putinkrab on the Russian language cybercrime forum UFOlabs in 2019. Image: Ke-la.com.

In April 2019, Putkinkrab offered an affiliate program that would run on top of his custom-made ransomware code.

“I want to work for a share of the ransoms: 20/80,” Putinkrab wrote on Exploit. “20 percent is my percentage for the work, you get 80% of the ransoms. The percentage can be reduced up to 10/90 if the volumes are good. But now, temporarily, until the service is fully automated, we are working using a different algorithm.”

Throughout the summer of 2019, Putinkrab posted multiple updates to Exploit about new features being added to his ransomware strain, as well as novel evasion techniques to avoid detection by security tools. He also told forum members he was looking for investors for a new ransomware project based on his code.

In response to an Exploit member who complained that the security industry was making it harder to profit from ransomware, Putinkrab said that was because so many cybercriminals were relying on crappy ransomware code.

“The vast majority of top antiviruses have acquired behavioral analysis, which blocks 95% of crypto-lockers at their root,” Putinkrab wrote. “Cryptolockers made a lot of noise in the press, but lazy system administrators don’t make backups after that. The vast majority of cryptolockers are written by people who have little understanding of cryptography. Therefore, decryptors appear on the Internet, and with them the hope that files can be decrypted without paying a ransom. They just sit and wait. Contact with the owner of the key is lost over time.”

Putinkrab said he had every confidence his ransomware code was a game-changer, and a huge money machine.

“The game is just gaining momentum,” Putinkrab wrote. “Weak players lose and are eliminated.”

The rest of his response was structured like a poem:

“In this world, the strongest survive.
Our life is just a struggle.
The winner will be the smartest,
Who has his head on his shoulders.”

Putinkrab’s final post came on August 23, 2019. The Justice Department says the LockBit ransomware affiliate program was officially launched five months later. From there on out, the government says, Khoroshev adopted the persona of LockBitSupp. In his introductory post on Exploit, LockBit’s mastermind said the ransomware strain had been in development since September 2019.

The original LockBit malware was written in C (a language that NeroWolfe excelled at). Here’s the original description of LockBit, from its maker:

“The software is written in C and Assembler; encryption is performed through the I/O Completion Port; there is a port scanning local networks and an option to find all DFS, SMB, WebDAV network shares, an admin panel in Tor, automatic test decryption; a decryption tool is provided; there is a chat with Push notifications, a Jabber bot that forwards correspondence and an option to terminate services/processes in line which prevent the ransomware from opening files at a certain moment. The ransomware sets file permissions and removes blocking attributes, deletes shadow copies, clears logs and mounts hidden partitions; there is an option to drag-and-drop files/folders and a console/hidden mode. The ransomware encrypts files in parts in various places: the larger the file size, the more parts there are. The algorithms used are AES + RSA.

You are the one who determines the ransom amount after communicating with the victim. The ransom paid in any currency that suits you will be transferred to your wallets. The Jabber bot serves as an admin panel and is used for banning, providing decryption tools, chatting – Jabber is used for absolutely everything.”

CONCLUSION

Does the above timeline prove that NeroWolfe/Khoroshev is LockBitSupp? No. However, it does indicate Khoroshev was for many years deeply invested in countless schemes involving botnets, stolen data, and malware he wrote that others used to great effect. NeroWolfe’s many private messages from fellow forum members confirm this.

NeroWolfe’s specialty was creating custom code that employed novel stealth and evasion techniques, and he was always quick to volunteer his services on the forums whenever anyone was looking help on a malware project that called for a strong C or C++ programmer.

Someone with those qualifications — as well as demonstrated mastery of data encryption and decryption techniques — would have been in great demand by the ransomware-as-a-service industry that took off at around the same time NeroWolfe vanished from the forums.

Someone like that who is near or at the top of their game vis-a-vis their peers does not simply walk away from that level of influence, community status, and potential income stream unless forced to do so by circumstances beyond their immediate control.

It’s important to note that Putinkrab didn’t just materialize out of thin air in 2019 — suddenly endowed with knowledge about how to write advanced, stealthy ransomware strains. That knowledge clearly came from someone who’d already had years of experience building and deploying ransomware strains against real-life victim organizations.

Thus, whoever Putinkrab was before they adopted that moniker, it’s a safe bet they were involved in the development and use of earlier, highly successful ransomware strains. One strong possible candidate is Cerber ransomware, the most popular and effective affiliate program operating between early 2016 and mid-2017. Cerber thrived because it emerged as an early mover in the market for ransomware-as-a-service offerings.

In February 2024, the FBI seized LockBit’s cybercrime infrastructure on the dark web, following an apparently lengthy infiltration of the group’s operations. The United States has already indicted and sanctioned at least five other alleged LockBit ringleaders or affiliates, so presumably the feds have been able to draw additional resources from those investigations.

Also, it seems likely that the three national intelligence agencies involved in bringing these charges are not showing all of their cards. For example, the Treasury documents on Khoroshev mention a single cryptocurrency address, and yet experts interviewed for this story say there are no obvious clues connecting this address to Khoroshev or Putinkrab.

But given that LockBitSupp has been actively involved in Lockbit ransomware attacks against organizations for four years now, the government almost certainly has an extensive list of the LockBit leader’s various cryptocurrency addresses — and probably even his bank accounts in Russia. And no doubt the money trail from some of those transactions was traceable to its ultimate beneficiary (or close enough).

Not long after Khoroshev was charged as the leader of LockBit, a number of open-source intelligence accounts on Telegram began extending the information released by the Treasury Department. Within hours, these sleuths had unearthed more than a dozen credit card accounts used by Khoroshev over the past decade, as well as his various bank account numbers in Russia.

The point is, this post is based on data that’s available to and verifiable by KrebsOnSecurity. Woodward & Bernstein’s source in the Watergate investigation — Deep Throat — famously told the two reporters to “follow the money.” This is always excellent advice. But these days, that can be a lot easier said than done — especially with people who a) do not wish to be found, and b) don’t exactly file annual reports.

Who Stole 3.6M Tax Records from South Carolina?

For nearly a dozen years, residents of South Carolina have been kept in the dark by state and federal investigators over who was responsible for hacking into the state’s revenue department in 2012 and stealing tax and bank account information for 3.6 million people. The answer may no longer be a mystery: KrebsOnSecurity found compelling clues suggesting the intrusion was carried out by the same Russian hacking crew that stole of millions of payment card records from big box retailers like Home Depot and Target in the years that followed.

Questions about who stole tax and financial data on roughly three quarters of all South Carolina residents came to the fore last week at the confirmation hearing of Mark Keel, who was appointed in 2011 by Gov. Nikki Haley to head the state’s law enforcement division. If approved, this would Keel’s third six-year term in that role.

The Associated Press reports that Keel was careful not to release many details about the breach at his hearing, telling lawmakers he knows who did it but that he wasn’t ready to name anyone.

“I think the fact that we didn’t come up with a whole lot of people’s information that got breached is a testament to the work that people have done on this case,” Keel asserted.

A ten-year retrospective published in 2022 by The Post and Courier in Columbia, S.C. said investigators determined the breach began on Aug. 13, 2012, after a state IT contractor clicked a malicious link in an email. State officials said they found out about the hack from federal law enforcement on October 10, 2012.

KrebsOnSecurity examined posts across dozens of cybercrime forums around that time, and found only one instance of someone selling large volumes of tax data in the year surrounding the breach date.

On Oct. 7, 2012 — three days before South Carolina officials say they first learned of the intrusion — a notorious cybercriminal who goes by the handle “Rescator” advertised the sale of “a database of the tax department of one of the states.”

“Bank account information, SSN and all other information,” Rescator’s sales thread on the Russian-language crime forum Embargo read. “If you purchase the entire database, I will give you access to it.”

A week later, Rescator posted a similar offer on the exclusive Russian forum Mazafaka, saying he was selling information from a U.S. state tax database, without naming the state. Rescator said the data exposed included employer, name, address, phone, taxable income, tax refund amount, and bank account number.

“There is a lot of information, I am ready to sell the entire database, with access to the database, and in parts,” Rescator told Mazafaka members. “There is also information on corporate taxpayers.”

On Oct. 26, 2012, the state announced the breach publicly. State officials said they were working with investigators from the U.S. Secret Service and digital forensics experts from Mandiant, which produced an incident report (PDF) that was later published by South Carolina Dept. of Revenue. KrebsOnSecurity sought comment from the Secret Service, South Carolina prosecutors, and Mr. Keel’s office. This story will be updated if any of them respond.

On Nov. 18, 2012, Rescator told fellow denizens of the forum Verified he was selling a database of 65,000 records with bank account information from several smaller, regional financial institutions. Rescator’s sales thread on Verified listed more than a dozen database fields, including account number, name, address, phone, tax ID, date of birth, employer and occupation.

Asked to provide more context about the database for sale, Rescator told forum members the database included financial records related to tax filings of a U.S. state. Rescator added that there was a second database of around 80,000 corporations that included social security numbers, names and addresses, but no financial information.

The AP says South Carolina paid $12 million to Experian for identity theft protection and credit monitoring for its residents after the breach.

“At the time, it was one of the largest breaches in U.S. history but has since been surpassed greatly by hacks to Equifax, Yahoo, Home Depot, Target and PlayStation,” the AP’s Jeffrey Collins wrote.

As it happens, Rescator’s criminal hacking crew was directly responsible for the 2013 breach at Target and the 2014 hack of Home Depot. The Target intrusion saw Rescator’s cybercrime shops selling roughly 40 million stolen payment cards, and 56 million cards from Home Depot customers.

Who is Rescator? On Dec. 14, 2023, KrebsOnSecurity published the results of a 10-year investigation into the identity of Rescator, a.k.a. Mikhail Borisovich Shefel, a 36-year-old who lives in Moscow and who recently changed his last name to Lenin.

Mr. Keel’s assertion that somehow the efforts of South Carolina officials following the breach may have lessened its impact on citizens seems unlikely. The stolen tax and financial data appears to have been sold openly on cybercrime forums by one of the Russian underground’s most aggressive and successful hacking crews.

While there are no indications from reviewing forum posts that Rescator ever sold the data, his sales threads came at a time when the incidence of tax refund fraud was skyrocketing.

Tax-related identity theft occurs when someone uses a stolen identity and Social Security number (SSN) to file a tax return in that person’s name claiming a fraudulent refund. Victims usually first learn of the crime after having their returns rejected because scammers beat them to it. Even those who are not required to file a return can be victims of refund fraud, as can those who are not actually owed a refund from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

According to a 2013 report from the Treasury Inspector General’s office, the IRS issued nearly $4 billion in bogus tax refunds in 2012, and more than $5.8 billion in 2013. The money largely was sent to people who stole SSNs and other information on U.S. citizens, and then filed fraudulent tax returns on those individuals claiming a large refund but at a different address.

It remains unclear why Shefel has never been officially implicated in the breaches at Target, Home Depot, or in South Carolina. It may be that Shefel has been indicted, and that those indictments remain sealed for some reason. Perhaps prosecutors were hoping Shefel would decide to leave Russia, at which point it would be easier to apprehend him if he believed no one was looking for him.

But all signs are that Shefel is deeply rooted in Russia, and has no plans to leave. In January 2024, authorities in Australia, the United States and the U.K. levied financial sanctions against 33-year-old Russian man Aleksandr Ermakov for allegedly stealing data on 10 million customers of the Australian health insurance giant Medibank.

A week after those sanctions were put in place, KrebsOnSecurity published a deep dive on Ermakov, which found that he co-ran a Moscow-based IT security consulting business along with Mikhail Shefel called Shtazi-IT.

A Google-translated version of Shtazi dot ru. Image: Archive.org.

Who Stole 3.6M Tax Records from South Carolina?

For nearly a dozen years, residents of South Carolina have been kept in the dark by state and federal investigators over who was responsible for hacking into the state’s revenue department in 2012 and stealing tax and bank account information for 3.6 million people. The answer may no longer be a mystery: KrebsOnSecurity found compelling clues suggesting the intrusion was carried out by the same Russian hacking crew that stole of millions of payment card records from big box retailers like Home Depot and Target in the years that followed.

Questions about who stole tax and financial data on roughly three quarters of all South Carolina residents came to the fore last week at the confirmation hearing of Mark Keel, who was appointed in 2011 by Gov. Nikki Haley to head the state’s law enforcement division. If approved, this would Keel’s third six-year term in that role.

The Associated Press reports that Keel was careful not to release many details about the breach at his hearing, telling lawmakers he knows who did it but that he wasn’t ready to name anyone.

“I think the fact that we didn’t come up with a whole lot of people’s information that got breached is a testament to the work that people have done on this case,” Keel asserted.

A ten-year retrospective published in 2022 by The Post and Courier in Columbia, S.C. said investigators determined the breach began on Aug. 13, 2012, after a state IT contractor clicked a malicious link in an email. State officials said they found out about the hack from federal law enforcement on October 10, 2012.

KrebsOnSecurity examined posts across dozens of cybercrime forums around that time, and found only one instance of someone selling large volumes of tax data in the year surrounding the breach date.

On Oct. 7, 2012 — three days before South Carolina officials say they first learned of the intrusion — a notorious cybercriminal who goes by the handle “Rescator” advertised the sale of “a database of the tax department of one of the states.”

“Bank account information, SSN and all other information,” Rescator’s sales thread on the Russian-language crime forum Embargo read. “If you purchase the entire database, I will give you access to it.”

A week later, Rescator posted a similar offer on the exclusive Russian forum Mazafaka, saying he was selling information from a U.S. state tax database, without naming the state. Rescator said the data exposed included employer, name, address, phone, taxable income, tax refund amount, and bank account number.

“There is a lot of information, I am ready to sell the entire database, with access to the database, and in parts,” Rescator told Mazafaka members. “There is also information on corporate taxpayers.”

On Oct. 26, 2012, the state announced the breach publicly. State officials said they were working with investigators from the U.S. Secret Service and digital forensics experts from Mandiant, which produced an incident report (PDF) that was later published by South Carolina Dept. of Revenue. KrebsOnSecurity sought comment from the Secret Service, South Carolina prosecutors, and Mr. Keel’s office. This story will be updated if any of them respond.

On Nov. 18, 2012, Rescator told fellow denizens of the forum Verified he was selling a database of 65,000 records with bank account information from several smaller, regional financial institutions. Rescator’s sales thread on Verified listed more than a dozen database fields, including account number, name, address, phone, tax ID, date of birth, employer and occupation.

Asked to provide more context about the database for sale, Rescator told forum members the database included financial records related to tax filings of a U.S. state. Rescator added that there was a second database of around 80,000 corporations that included social security numbers, names and addresses, but no financial information.

The AP says South Carolina paid $12 million to Experian for identity theft protection and credit monitoring for its residents after the breach.

“At the time, it was one of the largest breaches in U.S. history but has since been surpassed greatly by hacks to Equifax, Yahoo, Home Depot, Target and PlayStation,” the AP’s Jeffrey Collins wrote.

As it happens, Rescator’s criminal hacking crew was directly responsible for the 2013 breach at Target and the 2014 hack of Home Depot. The Target intrusion saw Rescator’s cybercrime shops selling roughly 40 million stolen payment cards, and 56 million cards from Home Depot customers.

Who is Rescator? On Dec. 14, 2023, KrebsOnSecurity published the results of a 10-year investigation into the identity of Rescator, a.k.a. Mikhail Borisovich Shefel, a 36-year-old who lives in Moscow and who recently changed his last name to Lenin.

Mr. Keel’s assertion that somehow the efforts of South Carolina officials following the breach may have lessened its impact on citizens seems unlikely. The stolen tax and financial data appears to have been sold openly on cybercrime forums by one of the Russian underground’s most aggressive and successful hacking crews.

While there are no indications from reviewing forum posts that Rescator ever sold the data, his sales threads came at a time when the incidence of tax refund fraud was skyrocketing.

Tax-related identity theft occurs when someone uses a stolen identity and Social Security number (SSN) to file a tax return in that person’s name claiming a fraudulent refund. Victims usually first learn of the crime after having their returns rejected because scammers beat them to it. Even those who are not required to file a return can be victims of refund fraud, as can those who are not actually owed a refund from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

According to a 2013 report from the Treasury Inspector General’s office, the IRS issued nearly $4 billion in bogus tax refunds in 2012, and more than $5.8 billion in 2013. The money largely was sent to people who stole SSNs and other information on U.S. citizens, and then filed fraudulent tax returns on those individuals claiming a large refund but at a different address.

It remains unclear why Shefel has never been officially implicated in the breaches at Target, Home Depot, or in South Carolina. It may be that Shefel has been indicted, and that those indictments remain sealed for some reason. Perhaps prosecutors were hoping Shefel would decide to leave Russia, at which point it would be easier to apprehend him if he believed no one was looking for him.

But all signs are that Shefel is deeply rooted in Russia, and has no plans to leave. In January 2024, authorities in Australia, the United States and the U.K. levied financial sanctions against 33-year-old Russian man Aleksandr Ermakov for allegedly stealing data on 10 million customers of the Australian health insurance giant Medibank.

A week after those sanctions were put in place, KrebsOnSecurity published a deep dive on Ermakov, which found that he co-ran a Moscow-based IT security consulting business along with Mikhail Shefel called Shtazi-IT.

A Google-translated version of Shtazi dot ru. Image: Archive.org.

Fake Lawsuit Threat Exposes Privnote Phishing Sites

A cybercrook who has been setting up websites that mimic the self-destructing message service privnote.com accidentally exposed the breadth of their operations recently when they threatened to sue a software company. The disclosure revealed a profitable network of phishing sites that behave and look like the real Privnote, except that any messages containing cryptocurrency addresses will be automatically altered to include a different payment address controlled by the scammers.

The real Privnote, at privnote.com.

Launched in 2008, privnote.com employs technology that encrypts each message so that even Privnote itself cannot read its contents. And it doesn’t send or receive messages. Creating a message merely generates a link. When that link is clicked or visited, the service warns that the message will be gone forever after it is read.

Privnote’s ease-of-use and popularity among cryptocurrency enthusiasts has made it a perennial target of phishers, who erect Privnote clones that function more or less as advertised but also quietly inject their own cryptocurrency payment addresses when a note is created that contains crypto wallets.

Last month, a new user on GitHub named fory66399 lodged a complaint on the “issues” page for MetaMask, a software cryptocurrency wallet used to interact with the Ethereum blockchain. Fory66399 insisted that their website — privnote[.]co — was being wrongly flagged by MetaMask’s “eth-phishing-detect” list as malicious.

“We filed a lawsuit with a lawyer for dishonestly adding a site to the block list, damaging reputation, as well as ignoring the moderation department and ignoring answers!” fory66399 threatened. “Provide evidence or I will demand compensation!”

MetaMask’s lead product manager Taylor Monahan replied by posting several screenshots of privnote[.]co showing the site did indeed swap out any cryptocurrency addresses.

After being told where they could send a copy of their lawsuit, Fory66399 appeared to become flustered, and proceeded to mention a number of other interesting domain names:

You sent me screenshots from some other site! It’s red!!!!
The tornote.io website has a different color altogether
The privatenote,io website also has a different color! What’s wrong?????

A search at DomainTools.com for privatenote[.]io shows it has been registered to two names over as many years, including Andrey Sokol from Moscow and Alexandr Ermakov from Kiev. There is no indication these are the real names of the phishers, but the names are useful in pointing to other sites targeting Privnote since 2020.

DomainTools says other domains registered to Alexandr Ermakov include pirvnota[.]com, privatemessage[.]net, privatenote[.]io, and tornote[.]io.

A screenshot of the phishing domain privatemessage dot net.

The registration records for pirvnota[.]com at one point were updated from Andrey Sokol to “BPW” as the registrant organization, and “Tambov district” in the registrant state/province field. Searching DomainTools for domains that include both of these terms reveals pirwnote[.]com.

Other Privnote phishing domains that also phoned home to the same Internet address as pirwnote[.]com include privnode[.]com, privnate[.]com, and prevnóte[.]com. Pirwnote[.]com is currently selling security cameras made by the Chinese manufacturer Hikvision, via an Internet address based in Hong Kong.

It appears someone has gone to great lengths to make tornote[.]io seem like a legitimate website. For example, this account at Medium has authored more than a dozen blog posts in the past year singing the praises of Tornote as a secure, self-destructing messaging service. However, testing shows tornote[.]io will also replace any cryptocurrency addresses in messages with their own payment address.

These malicious note sites attract visitors by gaming search engine results to make the phishing domains appear prominently in search results for “privnote.” A search in Google for “privnote” currently returns tornote[.]io as the fifth result. Like other phishing sites tied to this network, Tornote will use the same cryptocurrency addresses for roughly 5 days, and then rotate in new payment addresses.

Tornote changed the cryptocurrency address entered into a test note to this address controlled by the phishers.

Throughout 2023, Tornote was hosted with the Russian provider DDoS-Guard, at the Internet address 186.2.163[.]216. A review of the passive DNS records tied to this address shows that apart from subdomains dedicated to tornote[.]io, the main other domain at this address was hkleaks[.]ml.

In August 2019, a slew of websites and social media channels dubbed “HKLEAKS” began doxing the identities and personal information of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. According to a report (PDF) from Citizen Lab, hkleaks[.]ml was the second domain that appeared as the perpetrators began to expand the list of those doxed.

HKleaks, as indexed by The Wayback Machine.

DomainTools shows there are more than 1,000 other domains whose registration records include the organization name “BPW” and “Tambov District” as the location. Virtually all of those domains were registered through one of two registrars — Hong Kong-based Nicenic and Singapore-based WebCC — and almost all appear to be phishing or pill-spam related.

Among those is rustraitor[.]info, a website erected after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022 that doxed Russians perceived to have helped the Ukrainian cause.

An archive.org copy of Rustraitor.

In keeping with the overall theme, these phishing domains appear focused on stealing usernames and passwords to some of the cybercrime underground’s busiest shops, including Brian’s Club. What do all the phished sites have in common? They all accept payment via virtual currencies.

It appears MetaMask’s Monahan made the correct decision in forcing these phishers to tip their hand: Among the websites at that DDoS-Guard address are multiple MetaMask phishing domains, including metarrnask[.]com, meternask[.]com, and rnetamask[.]com.

How profitable are these private note phishing sites? Reviewing the four malicious cryptocurrency payment addresses that the attackers swapped into notes passed through privnote[.]co (as pictured in Monahan’s screenshot above) shows that between March 15 and March 19, 2024, those address raked in and transferred out nearly $18,000 in cryptocurrencies. And that’s just one of their phishing websites.