Looking at More Blackmail Spam

I recently published a post about blackmail spam in which the spammer was (as far as I could tell) unsuccessful in their efforts to scam people. Unfortunately, another campaign dropped into my inbox over the last couple of days where the spammer has been much more successful.

I’m not going to do the full breakdown that I did for the previous campaign, as they are rather similar, but I’ll try to highlight some differences. First, here’s the full text of the email I received:

Hello!
Have you recently noticed that I have e-mailed you from your account?
Yes, this simply means that I have total access to your device.

For the last couple of months, I have been watching you.
Still wondering how is that possible? Well, you have been infected with malware originating from an adult website that you visited. You may not be familiar with this, but I will try explaining it to you.

With help of the Trojan Virus, I have complete access to a PC or any other device.
This simply means I can see you at any time I wish to on your screen by simply turning on your camera and microphone, without you even noticing it. In addition, I have also got access to your contacts list and all your correspondence.

You may be asking yourself, “But my PC has an active antivirus, how is this even possible? Why didn’t I receive any notification?” Well, the answer is simple: my malware uses drivers, where I update the signatures every four hours, making it undetectable, and hence keeping your antivirus silent.

I have a video of you wanking on the left screen, and on the right screen – the video you were watching while masturbating.
Wondering how bad could this get? With just a single click of my mouse, this video can be sent to all your social networks, and e-mail contacts.
I can also share access to all your e-mail correspondence and messengers that you use.

All you have to do to prevent this from happening is – transfer bitcoins worth $1450 (USD) to my Bitcoin address (if you have no idea how to do this, you can open your browser and simply search: “Buy Bitcoin”).

My bitcoin address (BTC Wallet) is: 1A2BsswHPrE2RvUusSQY4w53P1WjuUdpbN

After receiving a confirmation of your payment, I will delete the video right away, and that’s it, you will never hear from me again.
You have 2 days (48 hours) to complete this transaction.
Once you open this e-mail, I will receive a notification, and my timer will start ticking.

Any attempt to file a complaint will not result in anything, since this e-mail cannot be traced back, same as my bitcoin id.
I have been working on this for a very long time by now; I do not give any chance for a mistake.

If, by any chance I find out that you have shared this message with anybody else, I will broadcast your video as mentioned above.

Some scammer, somewhere. Possibly Poland, based on the IP address.

As you can see, this is fundamentally the same as the email I featured last time, though this one is far more explicit regarding what they supposedly recorded me doing. I think it’s interesting that they say they will file a complaint; I’m not really sure what they mean by that, or where I would do that (except, perhaps, with the ISP who owns the IP address that this email was sent from… which I may yet do).

This scammer is also asking for more money; the last scammer asked for “only” $950 in Bitcoin, whereas this scammer is asking for $1,450, which is a markup of over 50%. And, sadly, when we look at the address in a blockchain explorer, we can see that their campaign has unfortunately been successful, and appears to have netted them over $6,750 as of 1/11/21.

As I write this, the scammer is moving the funds from the address in the email to another address, which may belong to a Bitcoin tumbler or another method to further anonymize the source of their funds so they can withdraw it and convert it to the currency of their choosing.

I’m pretty certain that more transactions will drain this new address (which is 3FxzHGbsojSPVf4d1FJ6QVrn8VcFGQMVJt for anyone interested in doing their own sleuthing) in fairly short order. And unfortunately for the five (or possibly six, if the $377.81 amount was intended as an initial payment to prevent the release of information) current victims of this campaign, their money is already gone and is very likely unrecoverable.

Remember, a hacker isn’t going to single you out for extortion unless you’re a head of state or high-powered executive somewhere. Don’t fall for it.


Have you come across a piece of spam that you think deserves some closer attention? Did you get a blackmail request like the ones I’ve written about? Send it to me at [email protected], one of my spam honeypots, and I’ll take a look at it.

Taking a look at blackmail spam

Introduction

Like many people, I receive quite a lot of spam email. Unlike most, I actually read it, because it’s often interesting. I’ve had a number of email addresses, and between them I think at least one of my email addresses has been included in most of the big website breaches over the last eight or ten years.

The spam that these emails receive varies rather widely. Some is the generic “hot woman saw your profile on this dating site, log in now for SEXXXXX!!!1!” spam that is quite common, though for a period of about a month almost all of the dating site spam I received was in German; I don’t know why. There’s also plenty of the “click here to buy cheap Viagra” spam, or its more recent and rather depressing counterpart, “click here to buy cheap N95/KN95 masks!” And there are of course lots of other types of spam that we’ve all been warned about for the last twenty-five years.

But I think my favorite type of spam email that I’ve received lately is probably the blackmail spam. Those are the “I infected your computer to take secret video of you having a ‘good time’ on adult sites, so pay me lots of money in Bitcoin or I’ll tell everyone” emails. Those have been far more persistent than I expected them to be when I originally received the first one; I honestly thought that they wouldn’t be that lucrative, but I guess when you’re sending out millions and millions of spam emails you’re bound to get a few people who fall for it. And if enough people fall for it to pay for the botnet and a bit more as profit, then it makes sense that they continue to be blasted out into our spam folders.

In fact, this kind of spam email has been one of the most prevalent spam messages I’ve been receiving lately, so I figured a quick analysis of one of these messages might be worthwhile.

A selection of blackmail emails I received on a single day (there were a lot more, all identical)

As you can see, all of these specific emails are from the same spammer; I received 58 copies of this exact email starting on November 17th and ending on November 19th, with 38 of them being sent starting at about 11pm on November 18th and ending at about 6am on November 19th. That lines up with about 8am in parts of Eastern Europe, almost like somebody woke up and kicked off a spam campaign just after breakfast. It ends about 7 hours later, again, as if somebody was done for the day and logged off. And in fact, the IP address attached to the email is registered to Kazakhstan’s largest telecommunications company, which lines up with that idea.

The Message

Looking at the contents of the message itself, it’s rather interesting. It’s using the fairly standard email address spoofing to make it looks like it’s coming from my email address, and points this out at the start of the message as “proof” that the spammer personally hacked me.

”’,,,:::…—***—***…:::”’—***
Hey, today I got some bad news for you.
Check the sender of this email, it’s your email, that means I sent it from your email account.
How?! Some time ago your computer was infected with my private malware, RAT (Remote Administration Tool).
My RAT gave me full access to all your files, accounts, contacts and it also was possible to spy on your desktop and on you over your webcam.
You can google about the functions of Remote Administration Tool.

Interestingly, the email starts with random characters. I’m pretty sure this is an attempt to circumvent spam filters, but if so it didn’t work. Every email I received has a slightly different combination of random characters; I’m guessing this is so hashes of the emails are all different, which could confuse some filters by making them think these are all unique emails and therefore not spam.

Next, it opens with a fairly standard opening that you’ll find variations of on almost all of these blackmail emails.

The sender is completely correct in that I would be having a very bad day if everything else in the email was true, but almost everything else here is false.

  • The email address is spoofed, but that doesn’t mean that the spammer had access to my account.
  • I’m pretty confident that my computer hasn’t been infected by a remote administration/access tool.
  • I don’t have a webcam on my computer.

I do appreciate that the spammer told me to “google about the functions” of the supposed malware that they definitely installed; that’s actually a fairly clever touch, since it means that they don’t need to explain it, and there are plenty of stories out there where people were infected by malware and had information stolen. Telling the recipient to Google for the capabilities is a good psychological trick to make them panic and be more likely to fall for the scam.

Next up, the spammer says this:

I COLLECTED ALL YOUR FILES, ACCOUNTS, CONTACTS.
I RECORDED SOME NICE MOMENTS OF YOU FROM YOUR WEBCAM! ;D
I can publish all your files, accounts, contacts, everywhere, including the darknet.
I can send the video of you to all your contacts, post it on social networks and everywhere else.
To stop me, pay 950$ in Bitcoin (BTC).
It’s easy to buy Bitcoin (BTC), for example here: http://exbase.io , https://paxful.om/buy-bitcoin , or google another exchanger.
My Bitcoin (BTC) wallet is: redacted for reasons I’ll explain below
Yes that’s how the wallet looks like, copy and paste it, it’s (CaSe-sEnSEtiVE).

Here’s where we get to the meat of the scam, and the actual threat. He says he has all my files, and recorded me having some “nice moments,” and he’ll release them all on social media if I don’t pay him lots of money. This is actually rather interesting, since this spammer is much less explicit than most spammers are about what their hacked webcam footage contains. Most of the many, many blackmail messages I’ve received over the last year or two specify that they were recording while I was masturbating to an adult video and take great pains to assure me that if I don’t cooperate they will send that footage to all of my friends. I actually kinda like the softer touch in this message, it feels nicer somehow. If the other spammers are trying to bludgeon me over the head with a baseball bat, it feels like this spammer at least wrapped it in a bit of foam first to cushion the blow slightly.

I do think it’s interesting that they threaten to publish my data on the darknet. For the record, there isn’t really a darknet where anyone would be particularly interested in any of the things they claim to have stolen from me. Would people on the darknet be interested in my identity information? Sure, that might be worth a couple dollars. Beyond that, though, it’s unlikely anyone would care– and I would be shocked if anyone was interested in webcam footage of me having “nice moments.” It’s a threat that sounds scary to relatively uninformed recipients, but not to anyone more familiar with technology.

The price for silence that this spammer is asking for is on the low end of what I usually see in these emails. When these started, they usually asked for a specific fraction of a Bitcoin (usually around 0.75 Bitcoin, or thereabouts), but with the price of BTC soaring recently, I’ve noticed that more spammers are asking for specific dollar amounts instead. Some of the other emails I’ve received recently were asking for about $1,450 in Bitcoin, making this spammer’s offer a relative steal for the price.

I redacted the wallet address, as I suspect that the wallet provided is unique to each email address– they’re identical in each email I received. I checked to see if any Bitcoin had been sent to the address, but it looks like nothing has been transferred to it.

So either the wallet is generated for each unique email address, or the spammer was unsuccessful in this specific campaign. If the wallets are indeed unique, that may be a bit of a differentiating factor in this specific campaign. I don’t track every Bitcoin address I receive in these blackmail emails, but I did check a couple others that I’ve received and determined that they were using shared addresses for all of their recipients. Using individual addresses could be a good way to determine who could be extorted for more money; again, I’m just surmising for now since I only received one BTC address across this campaign.

Lastly, this email concludes with a bit more pressure by introducing a time limit, and explains why I won’t find any evidence of the malware on my computer if I look for it:

I give you 2 days time to pay.
Showing this mail to someone else wont help you, my RAT is no longer on you computer and this email was sent from some random generated account.
After receiving the Bitcoin (BTC), I will delete everything and you never hear from me again.
Next time update your browser before browsing the web!
___***___…,,,”’—…___***…—”’—:::::::::

It’s now been well over two days since I received the email, so I think I can safely assume that my valuable information isn’t likely to be released anytime soon.

I’m really not sure why the spammer says I should update my browser before I browse the web; an adblocker extension such as uBlock Origin or a network-wide adblocker such as Pi-hole would be far more valuable in terms of blocking threats, and most browsers auto-update these days anyway. Even as a “you should have been more careful, so this is really your fault” message, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Analysis and Conclusion

My overall analysis of this message is that it’s a solid try, but I’m guessing that it’s an early effort from a fairly new spammer. The IP address it was sent from indicates it originated with a residential customer of a telecom that likely keeps records, and the message is a bit softer than most successful spammers tend to choose. Additionally, many of the emails appear to have been sent to the same email address over and over and over, instead of being sent to a broader list.

I suspect this spammer was using a fairly inexpensive (or even free) email address list to send out this campaign; the email address I received these blackmail threats at has been on every major email list since 2013, and is likely fairly low-value. This could also explain the limited spread of the campaign; only one of my spam collection emails actually received it, and when I checked with others to verify if the Bitcoin address was unique per email, none of them had received a copy of it either. It could also explain why the monetary demand is low compared to similar spammers; the spammer’s costs may have been low enough that almost any money received would have been a profit.

Ultimately, this type of spam is just increasing. While it doesn’t appear to me that this particular campaign was successful, plenty of others are. In another post, I will dive a bit more into some other blackmail spam variants, including some which use some more sophisticated methods to convince their targets that they really were hacked by the spammer. But for now, remember: these are, in the end, just scams. If you’re here and reading through all of this because you received a message similar to it, it’s a scam. If somebody has full remote access to your computer, they’re not going to send you a polite email asking you nicely to pay up or have your information posted online, they’re going to encrypt your computer and (virtually) hold it for ransom. Don’t fall for it.

Format Aside

The vulnerability was patched in WordPress v4.7.2 two weeks ago, but millions of sites haven’t yet updated.  This leaves them open to a vulnerability in the WordPress REST API, which can allow malicious actors to edit any post on a site.

Ars Technica has a very nice writeup on the effects of the exploit, which has resulted in the defacement of a staggering number of websites (including the websites of Glenn Beck, the Utah Office of Tourism, and even the official Suse Linux site).  Sucuri and Wordfence also have very good articles about the effects of the vulnerability.

If you have a WordPress site, you should immediately check to make sure you’re on the latest version (v4.7.2).

Hacking the Hackers

Have you ever heard of Hacking Team?  It’s an Italian company specializing in “digital infiltration” products for governments, law enforcement agencies, and large corporations.  Simply put, they sell hacking tools.

You might think, given their business model, that they would monitor their own security religiously.  Last year, however, they were hacked.  Majorly hacked.  “Hundreds of Gb” of their internal files, emails, documents, and source code for their products were released online for all to inspect, as were their unencrypted passwords [1. By the way, here’s some advice: if you are in security (or anything, really, this isn’t security-specific) you should really make sure your passwords are more secure than “P4ssword”, “wolverine”, and “universo”.  Use a passphrase instead.].  Also released was a list of their customers, which included the governments of the United States, Russia, and Sudan—the last being a country controlled by an oppressive regime that has been embargoed by the E.U. [2. As an Italian company, this means that they were technically violating the embargo.]

Last Friday, the person claiming responsibility for the attack, “Phineas Phisher”, came forward with details about how they did it.  It’s worth reading through if you’re interested in security; if you’d like an explanation geared more towards the layperson, Ars Technica has a pretty good write-up/summary of the attack.

I was particularly struck by how they gained access to the network.  According to Phineas,

Hacking Team had very little exposed to the internet. For example, unlike Gamma Group, their customer support site needed a client certificate to connect. What they had was their main website (a Joomla blog in which Joomscan didn’t find anything serious), a mail server, a couple routers, two VPN appliances, and a spam filtering appliance… I had three options: look for a 0day in Joomla, look for a 0day in postfix, or look for a 0day in one of the embedded devices. A 0day in an embedded device seemed like the easiest option, and after two weeks of work reverse engineering, I got a remote root exploit…  I did a lot of work and testing before using the exploit against Hacking Team. I wrote a backdoored firmware, and compiled various post-exploitation tools for the embedded device.

Basically, to avoid detection, Phineas discovered a unique vulnerability [3. These unique vulnerabilities are called a “zero-day” in computer security circles, because the hackers find it before the company maintaining the software or device does— so once the company finds it, they have zero days to mitigate damage.] in one of their embedded devices (likely one of their routers), figured out how to use it to get into the rest of the network using that vulnerability, and then carried out the attack through that piece of hardware without anybody noticing.  No matter your feelings about the attack, this is an impressive feat.


 

What is asymmetric cryptography?

Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman were jointly awarded the 2015 ACM A.M. Turing Award today.  Their 1976 paper, New Directions in Cryptography, essentially created asymmetric cryptography.  Today, asymmetric cryptography secures our online communications—from PGP-secured texts, emails, and files, to TLS and SSL-secured websites (including this one).  So how does asymmetric cryptography work, and how is the Diffie-Hellman key exchange more secure than older methods of encryption?

Symmetric encryption

Symmetric encryption relies on a key [1. Essentially, a key is a piece of really complicated math.] shared between two or more people.  A message is encrypted using this key, and can then be decrypted by the same key held by somebody else.  Think of it like the front door of a house.  Alice has a key to the door, so she can lock and unlock the door.  Bob also has a key, so he can also lock and unlock the door.  In fact, anyone with a copy of that key can both lock and unlock the door whenever they want.  In the case of a message, this means that anyone with the right key can encrypt (lock) the message, or decrypt (unlock) the message.

It’s possible to break symmetric encryption [2. It’s also possible to break asymmetric encryption, or any encryption], though it takes time.  Perhaps one of the most famous examples is from World War II, when the Allies were struggling to crack encrypted Nazi communications.  The encryption was created with a key that changed daily, and through the use of the Enigma machines.   The cryptography was eventually broken, but largely through the skill of the codebreakers, poor operating practice from some of the German operators, and the capture of key tables and hardware by the Allies.

Asymmetric encryption

Asymmetric encryption, in contrast to symmetric encryption, uses a pair of keys to encrypt messages.  One of the two keys is made public to everyone, and one is kept private (the two types of keys were called, cleverly enough, the public key and the private key, respectively).  Messages encrypted with the public key can only be decrypted using the private key [3. Basically, the message is sent through a mathematical formula that only works one way… unless you have the incredibly complicated and unique formula that comprises the private key.], which ensures that the contents of the message can’t be read by anyone except the holder of the (hopefully secure) private key.  So if Alice wants to send an encrypted message to Bob, she starts by finding his public key.  She then encrypts her message using that, and sends it to Bob.  When Bob receives it, he uses his private key to decrypt the message.  If he wants to respond, he can encrypt his reply using Alice’s public key, and the cycle continues.  Since the public keys are usually published or exchanged in a way that lets each party be confident that it belongs to whomever they are sending it to, this ensures that the identity of the recipient can be verified.  Alice knows that only Bob can unlock her message, and Bob knows that only Alice can unlock his.

This is commonly used on websites that are secured by SSL/TLS (including this one).  Pretty much every major website is secured via SSL, and browsers will display a green padlock in the address bar of secured sites.  This serves two purposes; it will prove that the website belongs to whomever it purports to belong to, and it encrypts traffic between your computer and the website so that it can’t be read by attackers, your ISP, or others who may have a vested interest in what you do.
This works in exactly the same way that the messages between Alice and Bob did.  When you visit a website secured with SSL, your browser and the server exchange public keys.  The server encrypts traffic to you using your public key, which your browser decrypts.  And your browser encrypts traffic to the server using the server’s public key, which the server decrypts.  Anyone trying to listen in on the conversation your browser and the server are having will hear nothing but random gibberish.  There’s one additional thing that your browser does to ensure that it’s not talking to a fake server that’s pretending to be the real website: it takes the public key presented by the server, and it compares it to a repository of public keys.  If it matches, it’s the real server.  If it doesn’t, it could be an imposter– and somebody could be listening in.

So the next time you’re wandering around the web, take a minute to appreciate that little green padlock in the corner of your screen, and think about the incredibly complicated math that underpins security on the internet.  It works invisibly to keep your communications safe, secure, and most importantly—private.


 

I’m not a cryptographer or a security specialist, just somebody who enjoys reading and learning about security.  If you think I left out something important, please send me an email so I can fix it.