The Forensic Felons: The Next Generation of Cyber Thieves

The new thieves care less about quiet entrances because they intend to meticulously clean the crime scene before they leave. They're not just covering their tracks-they're erasing them.

For years, retailers have been told that if they merely abide by common sense security procedures—dont permit obvious passwords, check audit logs regularly and patch software immediately—theyd be in good security shape.

Although there is no doubt that is still sound counsel, security consultants are describing a new breed of professional cyber thieves out there, crooks who know as much about sophisticated forensic investigations as the good guys do.

An oversimplification would be to compare the old thieves to burglars who make serious attempts to be very quiet when breaking into a house and to leave as little evidence as possible. The new thieves care less about quiet entrances because they intend to meticulously clean the crime scene before they leave. Theyre not just covering their tracks—theyre erasing them.

The reason for this change is that its a response to how the industry, especially banks, have responded to the first wave of attacks. The reason were hearing about such huge numbers of cards impacted by these attacks—the TJX breach reportedly accessed the records of 46 million consumers—is that the thieves know how few of them will be active by the time they try to use them.

In other words, because the banks are getting so good at shutting down impacted accounts quickly, the thieves must grab tens of millions of account per attack in order to have a reasonable number of active accounts to use.

/zimages/4/28571.gifRead more here about the massive TJX data breach.

Javelin Strategy & Research, for example, estimates that in any large-scale attack, 99.2 percent of the numbers accessed will not be usable to the thieves.

"Were seeing only 0.8 percent of data breaches resulting in fraud," said Javelin analyst Mary Monahan. "Banks are closing these accounts rapidly. Theyre getting a lot better at reacting rapidly."

Bryan Sartin, a vice president of investigative response for Cybertrust, said the new breed of cyber thief will delete their tracks and often purposely soil the crime scene, by perhaps using their own encryption to make transaction logs unreadable.

One data thief Sartin was tracking would, upon entry into a system, immediately set the system clock back one year and then bring it forward two months. At the end of the session, the clock would be returned to the correct time.

This made it less likely his efforts would be discovered because no one would have likely gone back to examine two-month old entries. "It would throw us off the trail. Any file access modification would not leave a distinctive track," he said.

They tracked his movements by leaving two tracking packages in the system, figuring that once he found one, he might not look so hard to find a second.

In another case, a retailer suffered a wireless breach in Florida. They had an inventory management system on the same network as their POS and the breach grabbed almost three years worth of data. What turned out to be that stores weak link? The culprit had learned the retailers wireless SSID (service set identifier). How? Someone on the IT staff had written the SSID right on the antennae in a public area of the store, for all consumers to see.

"Our investigator just typed their SSID into Google and it was like the second hit," Sartin said. Information about it had been posted.

They watched the speed of file downloads and concluded the thief was within about 60-70 feet of the store and was not likely sitting in a car given the long durations—often six to eight hours—of access, Sartin said. They zeroed in on a Kinkos next door, where the customer had bypassed Kinkos wireless network and was using the nearby retailers instead.

One key problem he found: "Most of their servers had open and unfettered Interenet access. They should have a reason for that server to FTP data to Russia at 2 oclock every morning. Its far too easy to get data out of these companies."

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at

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