Ask the Expert

Questions sent to fall under this category.

CyberSec Tips: Email – Spam – Fraud – example 2

Another advance fee/419 fraud is the lottery.

> Subject: Dear User
> To: Recipients <>
> From: Alexander brown <>

Again, your email address, which supposedly “won” this lottery, is missing: this message is being sent to many people.  (If you really had won millions, don’t you think they’d take a bit more care getting it to you?)

> Dear Internet User,
>  We are pleased to inform you again of the result of the Internet Promotional
>  Draws. All email addresses entered for this promotional draws were randomly
>  inputted from an internet resource database using the Synchronized
> Data Collective Balloting Program.

Sounds impressive.  But it really doesn’t mean anything.  In the first place, you never entered.  And why would anyone set up a lottery based simply on random email sent around the net?  There is no benefit to anyone in that, not even as a promotion.

>  This is our second letter to you. After this automated computer ballot,your
>  email address was selected in Category A with Ref Number: GTL03-2013 and
>  E-Ticket Number: EUB/8974IT,this qualifies you to be the recipient of t
> he grand prize award sum of (US$2,500,000.00) Two Million, Five Hundred Thousand
> United States Dollars.

This is interesting: it presents still more impressive stuff–that really has no meaning.  It starts by saying this is the second message to you, implying that you missed the first.  This is intended to make you anxious, and probably a bit less questioning about things.  Watch out for anything that tries to rush or push you.

The numbers, of course, are meant to sound official, but are meaningless.

>  The payout of this cash prize to you will be subject to the final validations
>  and satisfactory report that you are the bona fide owner of the winning email
>  address. In line with the governing rules of claim, you are requ
> ired to establish contact with your designated claims agent via email or
> telephone with the particulars below:
>  Enquiry Officer: Mr. Samuel Trotti
> Phone: +39 3888146161
> Email:

Again, note that the person you are to contact is not the one (or even the same domain) as sent the message.

>  You may establish contact with the Enquiry Officer via the e-mail address above
>  with the information’s necessary: Name:, Address:, Phone:, Cell Phone:, Email:,
>  Alternative Email:, Occupation:, Ref Number and E-Ticket Number. All winnings
>  must be claimed within 14 days from today. After this date all unclaimed funds
>  would be included in the next stake. Remember to quote your reference
>  information in all correspondence with your claims agent.

This is interesting: the amount of information they ask from you means that this might not simply be advance fee fraud, but they might be doing phishing and identity theft, as well.

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CyberSec Tips: Email – Spam – Fraud – example 1

A lot of the advance fee fraud (also called 419 or Nigerian scams) these days say you’ve been named in a will:

> Subject: WILL EXECUTION!!!
> To: Recipients <>
> From: Clifford Chance <>

Note in this case that the message is sent “to” the person who sent it.  This is often an indication that many people have been sent the same message by being “blind” copied on it.  In any case, it wasn’t sent specifically to you.

> Late Mr.Robert Adler bequeathed US$20,500,000.00 USD, to you in his will.More
> info,contact your attorney(Clifford Chance Esq) via email
>  Tell+44-871-974-9198

This message doesn’t tell you very much: sometimes they have a reference to a recent tragic event.

Note also that the email address you are supposed to contact is not the same address that sent the message.  This is always suspicious.  (So is giving a phone number.)

If you look into the headers, there are more oddities:

> From: Clifford Chance <>
> Reply-To: <>
> Message-ID: <>

There are not only three different email addresses, but three different domains.  Microsoft owns Hotmail, and Hotmail became Outlook, so it’s possible, but it’s still a bit odd.

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In recent days there has been much interest in the “BadBIOS” infection being reported by Dragos Ruiu.  (The best overview I’ve seen has been from Naked Security.)  But to someone who has lived through several viral myths and legends, parts of it sound strange.

  • It is said to infect the low-level system firmware of your computer, so it can’t be removed or disabled simply by rebooting.

These things, of course, have been around for a while, so that isn’t necessarily wrong.  However, BIOS infectors never became a major vector.

  • It is said to include components that work at the operating system level, so it affects the high-level operation of your computer, too.
  • It is said to be multi-platform, affecting at least Windows, OS X, and OpenBSD systems.

This sounds bit odd, but we’ve had cross-platform stuff before.  But they never became major problems either.

  • It is said to prevent infected systems being booted from CD drives.

Possible: we’ve seen similar effects over the years, both intentionally and un.

  • It is said to spread itself to new victim computers using Software Defined Radio (SDR) program code, even with all wireless hardware removed.

OK, it’s dangerous to go out on a limb when you haven’t seen details and say something can’t happen, but I’m calling bullshit on this one.  Not that I don’t think someone couldn’t create a communications channel without the hardware: anything the hardware guys can do the software guys can emulate, and vice versa.  However, I can’t see getting an infection channel this way, at least without some kind of minimal infection first.  (It is, of course, possible that the person doing the analysis may have made a mistake in what they observed, or in the reporting of it.)

  • It is said to spread itself to new victim computers using the speakers on an infected device to talk to the microphone on an uninfected one.

As above.

  • It is said to infect simply by plugging in a USB key, with no other action required.

We’ve seen that before.

  • It is said to infect the firmware on USB sticks.

Well, a friend has built a device to blow off dangerous firmware on USB sticks, so I don’t see that this would present any problem.

  • It is said to render USB sticks unusable if they aren’t ejected cleanly; these sticks work properly again if inserted into an infected computer.

Reminds me somewhat of the old “fast infectors” of the early 90s.  They had unintended effects that actually made the infections easy to remove.

  • It is said to use TTF (font) files, apparently in large numbers, as a vector when spreading.

Don’t know details of the internals of TTF files, but they should certainly have enough space.

  • It is said to block access to Russian websites that deal with reflashing software.

Possible, and irrelevant unless we find out what is actually true.

  • It is said to render any hardware used in researching the threat useless for further testing.

Well, anything that gets reflashed is likely to become unreliable and untrustworthy …

  • It is said to have first been seen more than three years ago on a Macbook.

And it’s taken three years to get these details?  Or get a sample to competent researchers?  Or ask for help?  This I find most unbelievable.

In sum, then, I think this might be possible, but I strongly suspect that it is either a promotion for PacSec, or a promo for some presentation on social engineering.


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Has your email been “hacked?”

I got two suspicious messages today.  They were identical, and supposedly “From” two members of my extended family, and to my most often used account, rather than the one I use as a spam trap.  I’ve had some others recently, and thought it a good opportunity to write up something on the general topic of email account phishing.

The headers are no particular help: the messages supposedly related to a Google Docs document, and do seem to come from or through Google.  (Somewhat ironically, at the time the two people listed in these messages might have been sharing information with the rest of us in the family in this manner.  Be suspicious of anything you receive over the Internet, even if you think it might relate to something you are expecting.)

The URLs/links in the message are from TinyURL (which Google wouldn’t use) and, when resolved, do not actually go to Google.  They seem to end up on a phishing site intended to steal email addresses.  It had a Google logo at the top, and asked the user to “sign in” with email addresses (and passwords) from Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, and a few other similar sites.  (The number of possible Webmail sites should be a giveaway in itself: Google would only be interested in your Google account.)

Beware of any messages you receive that look like this:

——- Forwarded message follows ——-
Subject:            Important Documents
Date sent:          Mon, 5 Aug 2013 08:54:26 -0700
From:               [a friend or relative]

How are you doing today? Kindly view the documents i uploaded for you using
Google Docs CLICK HERE <hxxp://>.
——- End of forwarded message ——-

That particular site was only up briefly: 48 hours later it was gone.  This tends to be the case: these sites change very quickly.  Incidentally, when I initially tested it with a few Web reputation systems, it was pronounced clean by all.

This is certainly not the only type of email phishing message: a few years ago there were rafts of messages warning you about virus, spam, or security problems with your email account.  Those are still around: I just got one today:

——- Forwarded message follows ——-
From:               “Microsoft HelpDesk” <>
Subject:            Helpdesk Mail Box Warning!!!
Date sent:          Wed, 7 Aug 2013 15:56:35 -0200

Helpdesk Mail Support require you to re-validate your Microsoft outlook mail immediately by clicking: hxxp://

This Message is From Helpdesk. Due to our latest IP Security upgrades we have reason to believe that your Microsoft outlook mail account was accessed by a third party. Protecting the security of your Microsoft outlook mail account is our primary concern, we have limited access to sensitive Microsoft outlook mail account features.

Failure to re-validate, your e-mail will be blocked in 24 hours.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Help Desk
Microsoft outlook Team
——- End of forwarded message ——-

Do you really think that Microsoft wouldn’t capitalize its own Outlook product?

(Another giveaway on that particular one is that it didn’t come to my Outlook account, mostly because I don’t have an Outlook account.)

(That site was down less than three hours after I received the email.

OK, so far I have only been talking about things that should make you suspicious when you receive them.  But what happens if and when you actually follow through, and get hit by these tricks?  Well, to explain that, we have to ask why the bad guys would want to phish for your email account.  After all, we usually think of phishing in terms of bank accounts, and money.

The blackhats phishing for email accounts might be looking for a number of things.  First, they can use your account to send out spam, and possibly malicious spam, at that.  Second, they can harvest email addresses from your account (and, in particular, people who would not be suspicious of a message when it comes “From:” you).  Third, they might be looking for a way to infect or otherwise get into your computer, using your computer in a botnet or for some other purpose, or stealing additional information (like banking information) you might have saved.  A fourth possibility, depending upon the type of Webmail you have, is to use your account to modify or create malicious Web pages, to serve malware, or do various types of phishing.

What you have to do depends on what it was the bad guys were after in getting into your account.

If they were after email addresses, it’s probably too late.  They have already harvested the addresses.  But you should still change your password on that account, so they won’t be able to get back in.  And be less trusting in future.

The most probable thing is that they were after your account in order to use it to send spam.  Change your password so that they won’t be able to send any more.  (In a recent event, with another relative, the phishers had actually changed the password themselves.  This is unusual, but it happens.  In that case, you have to contact the Webmail provider, and get them to reset your password for you.)  The phishers have probably also sent email to all of your friends (and everyone in your contacts or address list), so you’d better send a message around, ‘fess up to the fact that you’ve been had, and tell your friends what they should do.  (You can point them at this posting.)  Possibly in an attempt to prevent you from finding out that your account has been hacked, the attackers often forward your email somewhere else.  As well as changing your password, check to see if there is any forwarding on your account, and also check to see if associated email addresses have been changed.

It’s becoming less likely that the blackhats want to infect your computer, but it’s still possible.  In that case, you need to get cleaned up.  If you are running Windows, Microsoft’s (free!) program Microsoft Security Essentials (or MSE) does a very good job.  If you aren’t, or want something different, then Avast, Avira, Eset, and Sophos have products available for free download, and for Windows, Mac, iPhone, and Android.  (If you already have some kind of antivirus program running on your machine, you might want to get these anyway, because yours isn’t working, now is it?)

(By the way, in the recent incident, both family members told me that they had clicked on the link “and by then it was too late.”  They were obviously thinking of infection, but, in fact, that particular site wasn’t set up to try and infect the computer.  When they saw the page asked for their email addresses and password, it wasn’t too late.  if they had stopped at that point, and not entered their email addresses and passwords, nothing would have happened!  Be aware, and a bit suspicious.  It’ll keep you safer.)

When changing your password, or checking to see if your Web page has been modified, be very careful, and maybe use a computer that is protected a bit better than your is.  (Avast is very good at telling you if a Web page is trying to send you something malicious, and most of the others do as well.  MSE doesn’t work as well in this regard.)  Possibly use a computer that uses a different operating system: if your computer uses Windows, then use a Mac: if your computer is a Mac, use an Android tablet or something like that.  Usually (though not always) those who set up malware pages are only after one type of computer.

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The Biggest Gap in Information Security is…?

As a person who’s committed to helping raise awareness in the security community as a whole, I’ve often found myself asking this question. While there are several issues that I think contribute to the state of information security today, I’m going to outline a few of the major ones.

One major problem that spans every industry group from government to finance, all the way over to retail, is the massive amounts of data stored, the large number of devices to manage and frankly, not enough people to do it all. Or not enough people with the appropriate level of security skills to do it. I recently had a student in an Ethical Hacking class who asked me if I would be open to discussing some things in private with him concerning some issues he had at work. During dinner he confided in me that he sees his job as becoming more and more impossible with all the security requirements. He let me know that he had recently completed a penetration test within his company and felt he didn’t really get anything out of it. My first question was how many nodes were in the scope of the test. His response was 20,000. So naturally my next question was how big was his pen test team. To that he looked at me blankly and said “It was just me”. My next question was how long did he have to complete the test. And to that his reply was 3 days. This shocked me greatly and I candidly let this individual know that with a scope that big it will usually take one person more than three days to do proper discovery and recon and wouldn’t even give you time to even start vulnerability discovery, mapping, and exploitation testing/development.  I also informed him that for a job like that I usually deploy 3 people and usually contract a time of 2 to 4 weeks. Keep in mind this young man was a very intelligent and skilled person, but he lacked the skills to pull this off. After more conversation I realized that he himself was responsible for scoping the 3 day time to complete the test.

This brings me to the first main point; I see a trend of corporations and entities placing more security responsibility on individuals without giving them enough resources or training. This person admitted he really didn’t even have the skills to know how long it would take him and he based his time estimate off something he found on the web using google, which was why he was in the class. After the class he emailed me and thanked me for finally giving him the understanding to realize what it would take to successfully complete his internal testing. He drafted a plan for a 4 week test and put in a request to have temporary help for the 4 week duration. 2 months later he sent me another email and a redacted copy of the penetration test (after I signed a NDA of course). I was impressed with his work and let him know that. This demonstrated that even the most intelligent people can become overwhelmed if put into an impossible situation with no tools.

Second is the increasingly swift changing threat models. What would be considered a very secure computer 10 years ago (basic firewall, and up to date anti-virus) would be considered a joke today. I can remember when OS patches were mostly just non-security related bug fixes. If the bug didn’t affect you, you didn’t worry about the patch since it often broke other things. This way of thinking became the norm, and still exists in some places today. Add to that the web based attack vectors and client side attacks, it gets even more detrimental. I watched as Dan Kaminsky wrote himself into the infosec history books with his DNS attack. At the same time I saw one pen test customer after the other totally ignore it. Once we were able to exploit this in their environment we usually got responses like “i thought this mostly affected public/root dns servers”. The bottom line is DNS is DNS, internal or external. While Dans’ demonstration was impressive, thorough and concise, it left the average IT admin lost in the weeds. As humans when we don’t truly understand things we typically either do nothing, or do the wrong things. A lot of the media coverage of this vulnerability mostly focused on the public side threat. So from a surface look, it appeared to be something for “others” to worry about. Within weeks of that presentation there were new mobile device threats identified, new adobe reader threats, and many other common application vulnerabilities were identified. With all these “critical” things identified and disclosed within weeks of each other, it is apparent why some security professionals feel overwhelmed and behind the curve! Throw in the fact that I’m learning from clients and students alike that they’re now expected to be able to perform forensics investigations, and the weeds get deeper.

The last thing I want to point out is a trend I’ve noticed in recent years. The gap between what I like to call the “elite” of the information security world and the average IT admin or average whitehat/security professional is bigger than it’s ever been. Comments I’ve heard is “I went to blackhat and I was impressed with all of what I witnessed, but I don’t truly understand how it works and what to really do about it”. I think part of this is due to the fact that some in the information security community assume their audience should have a certain level of knowledge and refuse to back off that stance.

Overall I think the true gap is in knowledge. Often times individuals are not even sure what knowledge is required to perform their job.  Check back soon as I’ll be sharing some ideas as to how to address this problem.

Keatron Evans, one of the two lead authors of “Chained Exploits: Advanced Hacking Attacks From Start to Finish”, is a Senior Instructor and Training Services Director at the InfoSec Institute.

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Read this book. If you have anything to do with security, read this book.

I have been reviewing security books for over twenty years now.  When I think of how few are really worthwhile that gets depressing.

However, Ross Anderson is always worth reading.  And when Ross Anderson first published “Security Engineering” I was delighted to be able to tell everyone that it was a worthwhile read.  If you are, in any way, interested in, or working in, the field of security, there is something there for you.  Probably an awful lot.

When Ross Anderson made the first edition available online, for free, and then published the second edition, I was delighted to be able to tell everyone that they should buy the second edition, but, if they didn’t trust me, they should read the first edition free, and then buy the second edition because it was even better.

Now Ross has made the second edition available, online, for free.

Everyone should read it, if they haven’t already done so.

(I am eagerly awaiting the third edition  :-)

    SecuriTeam Secure Disclosure

    SecuriTeam Secure Disclosure (SSD) helps researchers turn their vulnerability discovery skills into a highly paid career. Contact SSD to get the most for your hard work.

Teacherless classrooms?

Someone has made yet another prediction that teachers will shortly be replaced by technology.  Teacherless classrooms are, apparently, the way of the future.

I recall this prediction being made, to great fanfare, thirty years ago.  I was, at the time, a public school teacher, and at a conference on science education.  The first speaker of the day took a bit of time out from his presentation to discuss the issue, and stated that any teacher who *could* be replaced by a computer, *should* be replaced by a computer.  His point was that teaching is a profession, not the push button assembly line job that many people seem to mistake it for.  Any teacher who is so repetitive, so lacking in imagination, so single dimensional, so robotic that they can be replaced by a machine or a process, should be replaced.  A teacher should be able to handle more than “do you want a diploma with that?”

(Go ahead.  Make my day.  Ask me if this is going to be on the final.)

One way or another I have been teaching for more than forty years.  I have taught (in the public school system) every grade level from kindergarten to grade twelve.  I have taught in two-year colleges, and at the post graduate level in academia.  I have taught for business and in commercial training.

I also have a rather broad experience in “distance education.”  I have participated as both director and teacher in video and audio production of teaching materials.  I have created online tutorials for computer-based courses.  I have designed and programmed interactive computer-based training.  Over twenty-five years ago I ran the telecommujnications component of the World Logo Conference, which was the first (and possibly still only) event to fully integrate onsite with online participation.  (And which also, since Logo is a “teaching” language, involved many teachers and computer educators.)

I have mentioned that I don’t like Webinars.  That isn’t because I inherently object to the very idea.  I think a good Webinar might be an interesting experience.  But, so far, nobody has figured out that that good distance education requires more work, not less.  (In the same way, publishers of textbooks haven’t yet understood that a good textbook requires better writing, not worse.)  We figured this out at the WLC more than two decades ago.  The developers of debuggy figured it out about programmed learning more than three decades ago.

There are some, few, isolated examples of individual lessons that have been done well using video, or the Web, or programmed learning, or various other forms of technology.  But they are, still, few and isolated, and drowned out in the vast sea of mediocre and wretched attempts.  Technology has uses, and good teachers know that.  It’s great for drill and practice in some areas.  The Web is a great place for discovery and research.  Letting a kid loose on the Internet without guidance is a recipe for disaster.  We are a long way, a very, VERY long way, from the use of technology to create entirely teacherless classrooms.

Yes, we can certainly use extra training for a number, possibly a very large number, of teachers who are afraid of the technology and don’t use it well.  But don’t tell me that you can replace them with droids until you can show me that you understand what teaching is all about.

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Using Skype Manager? no? Expect incoming fraud

I have been using Skype ever since it came out, so I know my stuff.

I know how to write strong passwords, how to use smart security questions and how to – most importantly – avoid Phishing attempts on my Skype account.

But all that didn’t help me avoid a Skype mishap (or more bluntly as a friend said – Skype f*ckup).

It all started Saturday late at night (about 2am GMT), when I started receiving emails in Mandarin from Skype, my immediate thought was fraud, a phishing attempt, so I ignored it. But then I noticed I got also emails from Paypal with charges from Skype for 100$ 200$ 300$, and I was worried, was my account hacked?

I immediately went to PayPal and disconnected my authorization to Skype, called in Transaction Dispute on PayPal and then went on to look at my Skype account.

I looked into the recent logons to my account – nothing.

I looked into email changes, or passwords – nothing.

I couldn’t figure out how the thing got to where it was, and then I noticed, I have become a Skype Manager – wow I was promoted and I didn’t even send in my CV.

Yeah, joke aside, Skype Manager, is a service Skype gives to businesses to allow one person to buy Skype Credit and other people to use that Credit to make calls. A great idea, but the execution is poor.

The service appears to have been launched in 2012, and a few weeks after that, fraud started popping up. The how is very simple and so stupid it shameful for Skype to not have fixed this, since it was first reported (which I found) on the 21st of Jan 2012 on the Skype forum.

Apparently having this very common combinations of:
1) Auto-charge PayPal
2) Never used Skype Manager
3) Never setup a Work email for Skype

Makes it possible for someone to:
1) Setup you as a Skype Manager
2) Setup a new work email on some obscure service (mailinator was used in my case), and have all Skype emails for confirmations sent there

Yes, they don’t need to know anything BESIDE the Skype Call name of your account – which is easy to get using Skype Search.

Once you have become a Skype Manager, “you” can add users to the group you are managing – they don’t need to logon as all they need to do is use the (email) link you get to the newly assigned Work Email, yes, it doesn’t confirm the password – smart ha?

The users added to your Skype Manager can now take the Credit (its not money, it just call credits) and call anywhere they want.

Why this bug / feature not been fixed/addressed since the first time it was made public on the Skype Forum (probably was exploited before then), is anyone’s guess, talking to the Fraud department of Skype – he mainly stated that I should:
1) Change my password for Skype – yes, that would have helped nothing in this case
2) Make sure I authorize Skype only on trustworthy devices

The bottom line, Skype users, make sure:
1) You have configured your Skype Manager – if you are using Auto-Charge feature – I have disabled my Auto-Charge and PayPal authorization since then, and don’t plan on enabling it anytime (ever)
2) You have configured your Skype Work email – yes, if its unset, anyone can change it – without needing to know your current password – is this company a PCI authorized company? 😀

If you have more insight on the matter, let me know

– Noam

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