GoDaddy Attack Started With Spear-Phishing

Last week's attack on Websites hosted by GoDaddy likely originated with a spear-phishing attack to steal user credentials. Trustwave researchers said it could have been worse.

More than 400 Websites hosted with domain registrar GoDaddy were compromised, redirecting unsuspecting visitors to a malicious site. It appears the sites were hit by a spear-phishing attack and the attackers could have done far greater damage, security researchers said.

"Many" sites hosted on GoDaddy servers had their Apache configuration files modified to include rules to redirect visitors to another domain, security researchers at Sucuri wrote on a blog post Sept. 14. GoDaddy's security team identified approximately 445 hosting accounts that had been compromised and it cleaned up the affected systems by Sept. 15, according to Todd Redfood, GoDaddy's CISO.

Attackers modified .htaccess, an Apache file often used for authentication, with new rules that were executed every time a user visited the site, Nicholas Percoco, senior vice president and head of Trustwave Spider Labs, told eWEEK. The redirect code applied only to visitors coming to the site from search engines, including Google, Yahoo and Bing. Those visitors were first redirected to the domain, registered to a person in Florida, and then to other malware-laden sites.

This type of attack is commonly seen on sites running outdated versions of content management systems such as WordPress and Joomla, according to Sucuri. The fact that this specific attack affected only sites hosted on GoDaddy, regardless of the software installed, makes it likely that the company's servers were compromised, the researchers speculated. However, Redfoot said the sites were accessed using the account holder's username and password.

"Our security team is confirming this was not an infrastructure breakdown," Redfoot said.

Account holders were most likely compromised by targeted phishing attacks, according to Percoco. It isn't "technically difficult" to search for Websites hosted by a specific provider and obtain e-mail addresses of the registered owners and administrators, Percoco said. With the information in hand, users are sent a phishing e-mail requesting them to log in to "confirm or update" some information. Attackers would then be able to intercept the username and passwords used to manage the sites, Percoco said.

Attackers could have done more damage to the sites than just redirect them to malicious domains, according to Percoco. The primary target was to propagate malicious code onto the computers of the visitors of those sites, but attackers could have modified anything, including how to accept and process credit card or other payment data.

For example, EMC's RSA Security was compromised earlier this year and attackers stole information relating to the SecurID two-factor authentication technology after tricking employees into opening a file they thought came from the Human Resources department.

"Once an attacker has access to make changes to a Website, the sky is the limit for the nefarious activity that could come from it," Percoco said.

GoDaddy does not think the attack was against the company because it impacted less than 1 percent of domains hosted on the platform. However, there was no discernable pattern to the types of sites that were affected. Percoco agreed, speculating that the attackers went after a large hosting provider in order to get a big pool of potential victims. This kind of attack has a "high success-to-failure ratio with minimal effort," according to Percoco.