My First Professional Social Engineering Job

Can you remember the first time you manipulated someone to give you information? The first time I used social engineering professionally to obtain information resulted in loads of pics of cool fighter aircraft.

This week my digital photo album made me aware of some pictures from a deployment in Afghanistan exactly 15 years ago and reminded me of one adventure I had while trying to obtain information on a specific air traffic control radar.

Why is this adventure still relevant to me so many years later? Well, back then I was in a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) unit, but this task required some Human Intelligence (HUMINT) skills. Or, speaking in civilian terms: Social Engineering. It was actually the first time I had directly gathered information from a conversation with my intelligence target, rather than relying on communications being intercepted. While I had quite the experience stepping into other characters in my free time (these are stories more suitable for a night out), I had never before tried this in my professional career.

A lot has been said and written about successfully manipulating people to make them give you information or allow access to restricted areas. For me, the most important aspect is the ability to read other people’s emotions and sentiment towards oneself and to anticipate their reactions. I think it is much like a game of chess and whoever plans several steps ahead, will be in control. To achieve this, I have learned that it is important to have your counterpart feel comfortable and give him or her the feeling that they are in control of the situation at all times. Last but not least, you should always have a good cover story, or pretext. Instead of going on about the methodology of social engineering in theory, I would just like to share my adventure with you.

In January 2015, I was stationed in Kabul (Afghanistan) with an electronic warfare detachment. Our parent unit back in Germany was in charge of monitoring radar systems worldwide, as part of their Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) mission. They had a large database in which they gathered information on all types of radars. Not only those used by potential adversaries, but also from allied nations. One day our detachment was asked to travel to a nearby US airbase, because a new air traffic control radar was apparently installed there. If possible, we were to take a picture of this new system, which would then be uploaded to the database. This should be a simple task. Fluent in English, I was asked to join this “mission”. After driving for about an hour, we arrived at the airbase and soon noticed that there was no way to get a clean shot of the radar system. Of course, it was located on the flight line. I knew we couldn’t just ask to see that radar system, as itwould seem a little bit too suspicious, and I also knew that “sightseeing” tours of the aircraft were fairly common. There actually is a German word to describe this: Gefechtsfeldtourismus.

One of the guys with us was an old German air force sergeant major and I came up with a pretext that might enable access to the flight line. We walked up to the nearest security office at one of the gates and I stepped into character. I introduced ourselves as a German patrol, which just happened to visit this air base in order to go to the PX and that my sergeant major was command sergeant major of a German fighter squadron back home. Obviously, I couldn’t state we were part of an electronic warfare detachment. And as it was the sergeant major’s final deployment before retirement, we kindly requested to get him one last look some of some the aircraft. A plausible (and made up) pretext, a direct and firm request and most important: leading this conversation with a friendly and calm demeanor. After all, a smile can open doors.

Soon afterwards, a young A-10 pilot showed up and gave us a full flight line tour. We had achieved step one and gained access to the flight line. We spent the next half hour of so walking around, taking pictures and acting like tourists. Now step two: get some pictures of the radar and possibly some additional information on it. In order to achieve this goal, I switched characters. While I was very serious, yet calm and friendly, to get inside, I was now the kid in the candy store.

What’s that? Can I look at that? Gosh, that’s cool.

I wanted it to appear as if I had no idea what everything around me was, so that when I asked questions it would seem like I was asking more out of personal interest than having a professional agenda.

Is that the control tower? I bet you have a great view from up there!

This got us into the control tower. It was manned by two civilian contractors who never really received any visitors. After all, most people would go have a look at the aircraft. Again, I was the kid in the candy store, asking many questions. The guys felt flattered that someone was interested in their work, they felt like they had the upper hand and ultimately shared a lot of information. I pointed to the radar.

What’s that green thing with the revolving dish?

From there on, I got a full briefing on my actual target. Frequencies, ranges, current issues and some more technical gibberish. Lastly, a couple of close-up pics as well. While many of you may think this was just a fun adventure, it was actually hard work. I had to memorize what I had heard and thus stay concentrated while remaining in character. I couldn’t take notes and I couldn’t record anything. I think this is one of the most challenging aspects of any social engineering attempt. Memorizing new information, while trying keep your pretext in mind.

After one and half hours the tour was finished. Personally, I got some awesome pictures of the aircraft, Professionally, I accomplished the mission. The information I had collected and the close-up pictures of the radar system were reported to our parent unit and they were quite surprised.

How did you get all this?

I just asked friendly 😊

BAF2015Gefechtsfeldtourismus

Matthias Wilson / 14.01.2020

The Impact of OSINT on Christmas

Proper intelligence is vital to prepare military and law enforcement operations or to provide information to political and business leadership prior to decision making. However, these are not the only people relying on good intelligence to get the job done. I had the honor of interviewing a very special person on his views of intelligence and how his organization utilizes it for one of the most challenging tasks known to mankind.

Sir, it is such an honor to have you here. Tell us a little about yourself. What exactly is your job and how does it involve intelligence work?

I go by many names, but please just call me Santa. I am in charge of a large organization tasked with bringing joy and fun to children worldwide on Christmas Eve. While I’m pretty sure you all know what I do during the Christmas night, not many people know what happens prior to this.

My organization and I have roughly 24 hours to deliver presents to children who deserve them. In order to accomplish this, a lot of planning is necessary and this planning is based on the information I receive from an intelligence agency within my organization. In Santa’s Secret Service, or S3, we mainly conduct GEOINT along with OSINT to make sure everything runs smooth on that one special night. Oh, and don’t confuse us with the Amazon web service.

Santa, while most of my readers are acquainted with terms such as GEOINT and OSINT, could you please explain what they are and possibly provide a use case from your organization.

Sure. I only have a limited timeframe to make sure I deliver everything to the right address. The route I take has to be carefully planned. The number of children on this world is steadily growing, more deliveries leave less room for mistkes. Even though my sleigh travels at an incredible speed…

How fast and how does that work?

I’m afraid that is classified. In order to properly plan the route, I rely on precise satellite imagery and maps. Imagery and maps from search engine providers are not up to date and commercial satellite imagery is not detailed enough. Keep in mind, my team has to figure out the best way into a chimney. We need a resolution of less than 0.3m to do so. Before Christmas, my sleigh is outfitted with an ultra high resolution imaging system and flies several sorties. While the actual collection of the imagery does not take that long, creating maps and the final route based on this is a bit more time-consuming. The whole process I just described is referred to as geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT.

Wow, that alone is probably a large amount of data collected each year. How do you process such massive amounts of data?

We have our own server infrastructure at S3. Located in vicinity of the North Pole, our energy consumption is lower than usual, because we have a natural cooling system.

 What happens after you have mapped the world?

I forgot to mention one thing. In order to plan the route, we need to know who will receive a delivery. Luckily, I have information on the address of each child from a classified source. But, does this child even deserve anything? We have to figure out who was naughty and nice. A lot of this is done through open source intelligence, or OSINT.

While we could use classic signals intelligence (SIGINT) to tap into communications and try to answer the question who is naughty or nice, we have found that OSINT provides the best “bang for the buck”. S3 has a very large team of OSINTers, who mainly monitor social media activities.

What exactly is your team looking into?

My OSINTers start off looking into profiles of the children, but not only to see how they behave. Depending on the region they live in, the platforms they use will differ. From Ask.fm to Weibo, there are many differnt sources to look at. We have seen TikTok blow up over the past months, but we also still obtain a lot of information from “older” platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest. These platforms also provide leads on the interests of our targeted subjects, which enables my organization to match them with the perfect present. We not only look at the children, but also monitor profiles of their family and friends, since relevant information is hidden here as well. As you can see, this is all a very deep intrusion into personal privacy. Therefore, we have very strict rules on how to handle this data, a massive auditing and compliance system and constant trainings for my team. If you thought GDPR was challenging, you wouldn’t want to know how much effort we put into protecting the privacy of our subjects!

Many children nowadays are active in closed communications, such as messengers, or they have restricted public access to their acounts by changing their privacy settings. How do you cope with this?

There are two different approaches we can take here. The first one is what you would call virtual HUMINT, or VUMINT. We try to place someone within a closed chat group using a false persona. For example, a group of friends has a WhatsApp channel with 20 participants. Using OSINT, we create a sock puppet credible enough to be invited into this group. In cases in which this works, we then can then instantly monitor 20 people. Of course, such actions are subject to much stricter rules and regulations that normal OSINT and are not performed often.

The second approach would be a classic computer network operation, or “hacking” an account. This is very rarely done and the methods and techniques are highly classified.

What about children who don’t have access to modern communications?

In this case, we rely on classic human intelligence, or HUMINT. Throughout the world, we have a network of sources directly providing us information. A lot of this is hearsay, so we try to confirm information with other sources before processing it. This actually also applies to data won through OSINT.

However, I would like to point out that at the end of the day we will never gather everything on everyone. Have you ever wondered why a spoiled and misbehaved child you knew received a nice present anyway? No matter how much effort we put into intelligence collection, there will always be a delta between what information is out there and which information we have obtained. I think that is the nature of intelligence work in general.

Circling back to OSINT, how does S3 ensure that they are up to date on new tools and techniques?

We do OSINT to enable OSINT. Of course, we follow #OSINT on Twitter and we also have someone monitoring osint.team as well as various blogs such as osintcurio.us and your blog.

Wow, I’m honored to have made it on S3’s reading list. I know you are quite busy, so we can wrap it up here. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Merry Christmas, happy OSINTing and I wish you all the best in 2020!

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Matthias Wilson / 22.12.2019

Communications Security on Iron March – An Intelligence Analysis

How do right-wing extremists secure their communications? The recent Iron March data leak gives insight into how its members tried to communicate outside the message board.

The recent leakage of a massive white supremacist message board named Iron March  sparked a wave of independent investigations by people all of over the world. The data contained in this leak provides many leads to practice OSINT skills in various disciplines. Whether it is googling usernames, correlating email addresses to social media profiles or looking up information on some of the domains shared on this message board; the breached data is a starting point for a plethora of different OSINT methods. Of course, I couldn’t resist and also took a dive into this leak as well! I decided to have a look at the content that was posted on Iron March. Not so much OSINT here, it is more general intelligence analysis I will be applying. One of the challenges was actually defining a clear goal. What did I want to unravel here? Did I want to reconstruct organizational structures? Did I want to investigate individuals and their backgrounds? Did I want to look at certain events?

Without narrowly defined intelligence requirements and thus key intelligence questions that should be answered, approaching such a big amount of data in a methodological way is nearly impossible. After reading the first couple of Iron March messages, I realized that the users often discussed others means of communication outside of the message board. So, I decided that my first goal would be to analyze the communications, security measures and the evolution of communications within this network. Having a better understanding of this topic will surely help the OSINT community to understand where to look for further information during this investigation.

When Iron March was set up, many users migrated from a previous platform called ITPF. Background information on both platforms can be found here. The first posts on Iron March clearly showed, that the users would regularly communicate outside of the message board as well. Among the these outside channels were mainly Skype, MSN, AIM and Facebook.

“You should download Skype it is a good service. Also you can use it just like MSN; you can type, I type most of the time.” Post on 23.09.2011 by Kacen (ID2)

“Not sure if you’re interested but I thought I’d ask, I’m launching a study group for American Fascism/Nationalism quite soon via facebook.” Post on 24.11.2011 by American_Blackshirt (ID35)

Eventually, members of Iron March even set up Skype groups to ensure communications. This enabled them to communicate directly with each other without delay, as it would have been on Iron March. At the time, Skype appeared secure to the members of the message board and was soon the preferred outside communication channel. Occasionally, other channels would also be used to communicate, sometimes even including gaming platforms.

“We have a good number of people in the Skype group and you should join.” Post on 25.01.2011 by Blood and Iron (ID3)

“do you have facebook, or steam, bf3 battlelog or something where us 2 can converse?” Post on 02.07.2012 by unkown

 The main reason people would use external messengers to communicate, was that they were more practical than using Iron March’s private messaging system. To gain access to Iron March PMs, the site had to be open in the browser. MSN and other messengers were client-based and could run in the background, immediately informing users of incoming messages. By late 2012, AIM and MSN were also still used frequently, something that would soon change after Microsoft discontinued MSN as a service in 2013.

“Hobbit, do you have MSN? A lot more practical than talking through PMs.” Post on 27.06.2012 by Damnatio Memoriae (ID279)

“Alright, I’ll get back to you again tomorrow, with my AIM, MSN, and SKYPE info.“ Post on 10.10.2012 by social_justice (ID17)

As early as mid 2012, many users were slowly turning away from Facebook, stating privacy issues as their main reason.

“I don’t use facebook anymore, it gives too much information away even if you use a proxy and false information, it’s an easy way to keep a “paper trail” on someone, so to speak.” Post on 03.07.2012 by Nebuchadnezzar II (ID288)

The use of external channels remained mostly unchanged until 2015, when new messaging and chat services started to appear on Iron March. Telegram and Tox were among the most popular services and were viewed as more secure than Skype. This also led to the exchange of Tox IDs, so the members could identify each other on the chat application.

“I need to get in contact with you. Download Tox and make an account with a secure login.” Post on 08.08.2015 by Fascism=Fun (ID7962)

“Another thing I wanna recommend is to use Telegram or Tox instead of Skype for organisational procedures and meetings. These are really good ways of communicating, and I know of three NatSoc and Fascist organisations within the U.S that use these services because of their security.” Post on 05.02.2016 by TheWeissewolfe (ID9304)

The post above is actually from the deputy leader of the infamous Atomwaffen Division. Whenever someone was interested in joining this organization, they were told to use Tox or Telegram for further communications. However, there was still a reasonable amount of doubt regarding the security of these new communication channels. Discussions about adding an extra layer of encryption ensued.

“Yeah I’m well aware the skype is compromised. Literally everything Microsoft is and has been for over a decade. Tox isn’t but it’s a WIP. Discord I don’t know much about but no doubt it is too. Secure channels aren’t really possible without doing your own encryption.” Post on 21.05.2016 by Xav (ID9476)

While most members of Iron March were very naïve in terms of operational security or communications security, some members had a fairly good understanding of the risks in open communications. One of these members was Atlas (ID9174), who claimed to be responsible for network and computer security for the British group National Action.

“Hi, I’m in charge of computer and online network security with National Action.” Post on 23.08.2015 by Atlas (ID9174)

Atlas often provided guidance on the use of secure emails and encryption with PGP. Overall, members were made aware not to use Hushmail and to rely on Protonmail or Tutonota instead. When sending emails to other providers they were to use PGP. He even wrote a PGP guide for National Action and distributed it on Iron March as well.

“Good job I just designed a PGP guide for National Action then, I’ll email you it, what’s your email?” Post on 01.09.2015 by Atlas (ID9174)

Other activities included checking the security of hosting servers. One of the most interesting conversations I have found in this dump so far was between Atlas and the founder and leader of the Atomwaffen Division, Odin. In September 2015, Odin reached out to Atlas regarding issues with PGP.

“Hello comrade I need to have my pgp shit setup properly and to be able to use it for communications with certain people before this weekend. I would be very greatful if you could help me.” Post on 14.09.2015 by Odin (ID7600)

Although many security measures were put in place, a lot of members of Iron March still were fairly confident that their activities had not drawn the attention of law enforcement yet. Some even openly expressed their total negligence of security openly on the message board. There was more fear of being doxed by left-wing organizations than becoming a target of police investigations.

“I’m glad you all understood the necessity for security. Here on IM I was shot down for daring to suggest such a necessity on the basis of: We don’t need it, we’re not ISIS. I ripped off all my ideas from some corny website anyway (that website being my blog btw lol).” Post on 04.05.2015 by Atlas (ID9174)

“The use of TOR, fake names, and these secure channels is more of security culture thing – we are not being actively monitored by say, the government (at least that is my personal opinon based on the information I have) but it encourages people to act more sensibly so they don’t get themselves doxed by leftists. I don’t like hearing about workplaces getting phoned up or individuals being exposed in the newspapers. Since the mirror article on my a couple of years ago practically everyone has been able to maintain a degree of anonymity. Obviously if they ever decide to raid anyone they are not going to find anything that can be used to build a case around them.” Post on 10.04.2016 by Daddy Terror (ID7)

Given the fact, that Daddy Terror (ID7) was the leader of the National Action movement in Great Britain, this statement is truly remarkable and shows how safe some of the members of these extremist communities felt in their online communications. Next to the platforms already revealed above, there were several other communications channels that were occasionally mentioned, e.g. Discord and even MySpace in the early days of Iron March. In the end, the use of external secure communications and additional encryption were blasted when the message board itself was hacked in 2017 and the data was recently leaked, exposing the identities and ideas of many members.

Thank god the Iron March admins didn’t have proper security measures in place and hopefully this data leak will help law enforcement worldwide investigate some of the malicious activities planned and discussed on the message board. Until then, I’ll continue to dig into this data, together with other OSINT enthusiasts, and see what stories can be unraveled next.

Matthias Wilson / 09.11.2019

 

The Importance of Grammar in Forensic Linguistics

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Commas matter and grammar matters. Especially when you deal with threat letters, poison pen letters or even ransom notes. In this case, grammatical errors, misspellings or unique writing styles might reveal the person behind the mischievous texts. Are you dealing with one author or multiple individuals? Can you link these letters to other reference documents, e.g. internal employee emails? The art of analyzing written documents in investigations is a subset of forensic linguistics.

While I won’t go through any real examples in the following article, I would like to share my experience when dealing with such cases. First up, I won’t even try to get into graphology. This is the analysis of handwriting, in an attempt to evaluate personal characteristics or the psychological state of the writer.

Graphologist: “The author is a male and he is very angry, possibly holding a grudge against the recipient.”

Intel analyst: “No shit, sherlock. The handwriting is sloppy and why else would he write a poison pen letter?”

The most important tool for me is a set of highlighters. If dealing with multiple documents, I found it easer to print them out and to mark peculiarities with the highlighters and also add handwritten notes of my own. I use different colors for different categories. One for spelling mistakes, one for grammatical errors, one for the use of uncommon words or unique word-creations and lastly the final color for certain style elements.

Let’s start off with the first category: spelling mistakes. Many people have distinct spelling mistakes they constantly make. And not always will they recognize mistakes when proof-reading their own work. Sometimes these mistakes might also indicate if the author is a native speaker or not. A German writing an English text might automatically use Telefon instead of telephone. Furthermore, many languages capitalize nouns, so look out for this as well. Other spelling mistakes may derive from auto-correct functions in office. When I open Word, it assumes I’ll write in German and does the autocorrect based on the German dictionary. Newer versions of Word notice I’m typing English after about one sentence and then automatically adjust, older versions might need a manual reset. When typing or writing quickly, one may produce clerical errors, such as forgetting letters, adding letters or switching letters. In this case, always check to see how letters are allocated on the keyboard to understand the origin of these typos. Keep in mind that different countries use different keyboard-layouts!

The next one is a bit more tricky. I have to admit, my grammar isn’t the best. I usually just know that something looks weird, without being able to grasp the actual reason or grammar rule. So, in this phase of investigations I often google certain grammar rules to make sure my hunch was right. From simple things such as mixing up your and you’re, to the inproper use of commas, there are many different errors that might show up in multiple documents. One important thing to remember is, that it will be the sum of indicators that lead to successfully solving the case. It most likely won’t just be one blatant error.

Depending on an individual’s background, they may have a different spelling of words. It may vary between British or American English, it may contain colloquial terms or even slang and different dialects. Everything that differs from the standard form of writing in the specific area you are working in, should be marked with a highlighter. Using modern-day slang might indicate a younger person, old-fashioned terms will probably not be used by a kid. I once had a case, in which the author creatively invented new curse words I had never heard of before. Some of them where so hilarious, I actually added them to my personal vocabulary. Another example would be the use of local dialect. In Germany bread rolls are named differently in many regions: Brötchen, Wecken, Semmel, Schrippe, Krossen, Normale, Rundstücke; these are all the same thing! I’m sure similar examples can found in other languages and for more relevant terms as well. Try to figure out which region the word originates from. Again, a little googling can be helpful here.

Next up, concentrate on the style of writing. Is there anything that sticks out? Specific punctuation, such as the frequent use of exclamation marks or multiple dots…. Also, concentrate on the sentence structure. Is the author using short sentences or is he fond of long-winding sentences? Does the whole document read as if it were written by the same person? A shift in style may indicate that some part was copied from another document. Finally, have a look at the format: font, size, line spacing, alignment. After marking all documents according to the above points, it’s time to spread them out and get a birds-eye view of all of them. Sometimes, this will reveal more similarities or conspicuous features shared by multiple documents.

No, for the most important aspect: Assume your adversary, the author, is well aware of his distinct mistakes and style of writing! He might try to deceive us. Chaning the usual format, by using odd fonts or changing the alignment are easy to recognize, but sometimes an author will substitute some of his unique identifiers with another. Mostly by doing the exact opposite of what his style of writing is usually known for. Someone that uses long and complex sentences might break these down into short and concise sentences, making the letter look more like an old telegram. Obvious spelling mistakes might be implemented as well, to put us on the wrong track. However, anything that is deliberately done will likely follow a certain pattern. It is our job to identify this pattern.

Of course, there is much more that can be done when handling cases like these. Analyzing handwriting by overlaying different sets of handwritten words on each other is one technique that might help. This works really well in MS Office, since the office suite has some pretty impressive features to handle images. Furthermore, fingerprint identification (dactyloscopy), analyzing the paper, trying to trace back emails; a broad variety of methods can be applied here. Maybe even the graphologist, if you’re that desperate. As with all intelligence analysis, it is important to never fully rely on just one method. Combine what you have at hand to achieve the best result.

After this brief introduction to the topic of forensic linguistics, I will prepare an example for a future article, highlighting the aforementioned. I just have to figure out who I want to blackmail or send a poison pen letter to. Maybe one of the scammers from a previous project.

Matthias Wilson / 01.10.2019

Unravelling the Norton Scam – Final Chapter

Gotcha! We found out who is responsible for this massive scam. Using OSINT and social engineering we tracked down the company behind the Norton Scam.

Chapter 1 – It all starts with a bad sock puppet

Chapter 2 – The Art of OSINT

Chapter 3 – What’s the big deal? And who’s to blame?

Chapter 4 – The more, the better

Chapter 5 – Mistakes on social media

Chapter 6 – Tracing ownership

Final Chapter – Putting the pieces together

Time to finally unravel the Norton scam. Sector and I have decided to conclude our investigations and put the pieces together, after spending countless hours working on this case. Every time we thought we had figured it out, new information was found, taking us down another rabbit hole. Sometimes we spent days following a lead, just to find out that it wasn’t related to our case at all. As with most investigations, we were not able to solve all mysteries, but we are pretty sure we identified the company and some individuals behind this massive scam scheme.

In the last chapter, we pointed out how everything led to specific Indian phone number (+91.9540878969). This number was used to register many of the domains we were looking into. Once more, I decided to make some phone calls to India. I found out that the number belongs to a web design office. The first four phone calls were answered by different men who did not understand English, so they hung up on me. My fifth phone call was more successful. I got a hold of a woman named Priya and told her that a friend of mine had recommend them and that I was looking to have a website set up for me. I had called the right place and I would need to speak to her boss, Priya explained. I also mentioned that the site was to be used as a scam site to obtain credit card data. This too was possible according to Priya. Soon afterwards I had a conversation with the boss, who remained nameless. If I was willing to pay roughly 150$ on PayPal, they would set up the site I needed. With these phone calls, we have proven that the web design office was responsible for setting up the type of scam sites that we have seen throughout our investigations.

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During our research, we also came across a site which offered web design services to US customers and to which we had actually found legit websites they had created. This is something very common: using a US frontend to sell IT-services that are performed in India. So, not everything the team did was illegal or scam-related.

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In order to promote the scam sites, another team was responsible for search engine optimization (SEO). The SEO team was most likely also located in the offices of the web design team, probably under the same leadership. Their job is to flood the internet with backlinks in order to promote the scam sites. So far, we have found more than 20,000 entries for this cause. From Facebook posts, to Medium blogs, to comments on non-related webpages; a large variety of backlinks were created in the past year.

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As mentioned in chapter 3, the purpose of the scam is have the victims call one of the tech support phone numbers. Thus, a team of call center agents is required. Remember how the scam works? If an unsuspecting victim calls the number, they provide ‘assistance’ by obtaining remote access to the victim’s computer. In some cases malware is installed, in other cases they ask for credit card data in order to bill the customers for their service.

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These call center agents were hired by a company named 4compserv, which is located at an address that was also used to register some of the identified scam domains. We suspect this is root of all evil, the company behind the scheme. Or at least some employees of the company, since we have also found evidence of 4compserv conducts legal business as well.

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More evidence came up, which proves that the web design office and the call center are definitely related. Shortly after I had spoken to the boss of the web design office, I received a phone call from the number linked to the call center (+91.97117613). Unfortunately, I missed the call and haven’t been able to reach them ever since. Furthermore, one of the scammers I had personally texted with recently updated the CV on his website. Have a look at his current jobs:

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While there are still some questions to be answered, our research has enabled us to have an overall understanding of the network and the techniques used to run their scam, as well as identifying the company most likely behind this scam: 4compserv in Noida, India.

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Along the way, we would often stumble upon funny facts. Some of the scam developers were just so sanguine, they didn’t want to obscure their tracks. Such as the preferred use of the name ‘Nancy Wilson’ to register domains or create sock puppets. The original websites the scammers had set up were very crude, now it seems they are using nice looking WordPress templates, including chatbots. Usually, the chatbot would ask for a phone number, so the scammers can call back. And guess who you would be chatting with on all of these sites? Good ol’ Nancy!

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We’re done! We managed to find the perpetrators behind all this. What started with a sock puppet on Medium led to unravelling a largescale scam network, targeting unsuspecting victims seeking tech support. We hope that our project may help counter the threat originating from this specific scam and raise awareness for similar schemes. Also, thanks to many of our readers for sharing the posts from this series on Twitter and LinkedIn, ultimetely ranking the articles higher and higher on Google. Using OSINT and social engineering to enable counter-SEO against the scammer’s massive SEO effort!

Now it’s time to relax a bit…before we start the next awesome project!

Sector035/Matthias Wilson – 25.08.2019

We explicitly decided to keep the disclosure of personal information on the investigated individuals to a minimum in these blog posts. However, the complete information gathered is available to law enforcement and/or the companies targeted by this scam upon request.

Unravelling the Norton Scam – Chapter 4

What are backlinks and how are they used in the Norton scam? Our OSINT investigations lead us into the world of SEO.

Chapter 1 – It all starts with a bad sock puppet

Chapter 2 – The Art of OSINT

Chapter 3 – What’s the big deal? And who’s to blame?

Chapter 4 – The more, the better

Our project started with a fake profile on Medium, which led us to several scam websites claiming to provide tech support. While the total number of these sites hasn’t risen much over the past months, entries promoting this scam on blogs, social media profiles and in comments on other websites have drastically risen. We see this as a crude search engine optimization (SEO) attempt.

Throughout the investigations we found individuals specializing in SEO, who where also likely linked to the network we were tracking. One of the sites that popped up in our search was yahoophonesupports(dot)com. Unlike previous fake sites that used Indian addresses and fake English-named personas, such as Nancy Wilson or Steven Dalton, this one was registered by someone named Jiya with a real looking email address. We had narrowed down our search to the city of Noida in India and the phone number used to register the site was definitely linked to our scam network. While most names used to register domains clearly came from fictitious peoples, maybe this was one was real.

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Searching for the name on Google led to a result that fits the picture: Jiya from Noida offering SEO services.

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Jiya mentions backlinks and blogger outreach, something we have seen in our scam as well. Let me explain the concept of backlinks, also known as inbound links. A backlink is a link on page A referring to page B. Most search engines interpret backlinks as votes on the popularity of a website. So, the more backlinks that lead to page B, the more popular this page seems and thus it will be rated higher in search results. The easiest way to create cheap backlinks is using free blogs, for example Medium. Googling the phone number used in this scam, we come up with over 1.000 Medium posts and sites, each also containing the link to one of the fake support sites, such as nortonhelpus(dot)com.

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We are not only seeing this on Medium, but across many platforms. The amount of backlinks created clearly indicates that we are dealing with a large team of people, as this is probably not possible by one person or a small team alone. The number of search results for the phone number shown above has risen from 4,000 in May to about 21,000 this week and is still rising!

Of course, most posts come from obvious sock puppets, created with fake names and stolen profile pictures. Here’s Brad Pitt, alias James Rocky, offering tech support.

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Once these sites are set up, clicking on the links can be automated, so that the target website (in this case all-emailsupport(dot)com) receives traffic, basically boosting its search index rating. The scam network is not expecting to generate any phone calls or support requests from these obviously fake Medium sites, these are just used in the SEO process for the actual scam site. We have been seeing these SEO-enablers on Twitter, Issuu and basically any platform that allows you to post information “quick and dirty”.

During our project we also looked at Google Trends, to figure out where the main targets of this scam were likely located. Obviously in the US, as the main tech support phone numbers were US toll-free numbers. However, we also noticed a British phone number. Google Trends allows you to look up search terms and see the interest over time and the region of interest for that specific search term. We were curious to see if any notable searches on one of the scam topics was googled in the UK often. We checked “activate Norton”, since this was one of the main services the scam network was allegedly offering: activating an expired Norton account.

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Sure enough, the main regions that googled this term were the US and India. The US is obvious. This is the market the scammers are targeting. But why does India rank higher? One explanation could be testing the search term during the SEO-process. Coincidently, some of the peaks in the interest over time relate to time periods in which new fake sites were created. No notable searches were seen coming from the UK.

As mentioned before, most of the bogus blog posts were created really sloppy, as their sole purpose was to generate backlinks. We also found several sites linked to this scam that were apparently selling software. A lot of these sites were created using predefined templates, in some cases showing the shipping time or the general location on a map.

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Apparently, the creator of this site had his location (likely based on a geolocation through Google) automatically added and didn’t bother to change it before putting the site online. In any case, he achieved his goal: A backlink to a scam site.

Now that we’ve learned how this scam uses SEO to promote their wrongdoings, is there anything that can be done to effectively tamper this scam network? How about Google, Bing, Yahoo and other major search engines take any site off their listing that features “+1-844-947-4746”.

Except ours, we’re the good guys!

Sector035/Matthias Wilson – 11.08.2019

Unravelling the Norton Scam – Chapter 3

Not all information can be found using OSINT. Sometimes a little social engineering can be useful to verify data or provide new leads.

Chapter 1 – It all starts with a bad sock puppet

Chapter 2 – The Art of OSINT

Chapter 3 – What’s the big deal? And who’s to blame?

Previously, we warned you not to call a certain phone number linked to multiple scam sites. So, what exactly happens if you call +1-844-947-4746? Although it was obvious that the sites we were looking at and this phone number were involved in some kind of scam, I was curious to see what the exact business model was. Before making the call, I googled a bit and found out that the number was toll-free in the US. After topping one of my burner phones, I dialed the number.

It rang shortly and a gentleman with an Indian accent answered and asked which kind of assistance I required. I explained that I had problems with Norton 360. I couldn’t activate it. The gentleman wanted my name and my phone number, upon which I provided him with some bogus data. At first, he asked if I was able to install software, as he wanted to use Supremo to check my computer. Playing dumb, I just told him that I didn’t understand what he wanted me to do and that I have never personally installed anything on this computer. My son always did all the IT-stuff for me.

Next up, he mentioned two URLs that I should try to visit: helpme(dot)net and 1234computer(dot)com. It turns out that both sites were also meant to give him remote access to my computer.

remote access

This is where another important lesson in OSINT (and life) can be learned: Proper preparation prevents poor performance! I had not expected this and therefore hadn’t set up a clean Windows VM to play around with. Sadly, I had to find an excuse why I couldn’t access the URLs he had cited. I promised to call back, but never managed to get through again. From there on, the number only redirected me to voicemail. Funny enough, the mailbox mentions a typical American name as the owner. Maybe this could be useful in the future.

In any case, it was clear how the scam worked. Unsuspecting, non-tech-savvy users would call the hotline and give the scammers remote access to their computers. From there on, the possibilities to do harm are countless. Ever since then, I have always made sure to have a clean Windows VM that I can use in such cases.

Since we now had an idea what the scam was about, we decided to push forward with our investigations. Sector found a phone number associated with the site energeticsquad(dot)com. This site belonged to an IT-company named Energetic Squad LLC in Illinois, which coincidentally was also located at the address we had already seen on multiple scamming sites. The number found by Sector was an Indian mobile and I decided to get in touch with this person to find out if he or she was in any way related to the aforementioned website or any of the other scam sites. I noticed that it was registered in WhatsApp, so I decided to have a little chat. Of course, I used a burner phone for this; to be more precise, I was running WhatsApp in an Android VM on my computer.

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What struck me here, is that I was indeed on the right track. I never said that the company was a LLC, yet it was immediately mentioned by the person I was texting with. By this, the owner of the Illinois company offering local tech-support was using an Indian phone number. He wasn’t keen on giving me his name, but his reactions showed that me that the name I had was also likely correct. At least he didn’t deny it.

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I offered to buy his domain and we went back and forth regarding the price. I was pushing hard, something I usually wouldn’t do in a real case, and soon he asked if I could come to the US for further negotiations. I assume he was just trying to put me off track and distracting from the fact that he was actually located in India. His English also wasn’t what I would expect from a native speaker. Of course, I was able to travel to the US and at this point he decided to end the conversation.

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Being blocked by a scammer, because he accuses you of being a scammer. Now there’s a pot calling the kettle black! Of course, I burned bridges here and wasn’t able to reestablish contact after this. However, we did learn that the Indian mobile phone number was in fact connected to the website and the company. Also, we had likely found an actual name. Later on, we found out that the company Energetic Squad LLC had been registered in Illinois in the meantime, and that the name of their manager was the same name that is being used on the fake tech support voicemail. Everything and everyone is linked!

There were several other suspects which we had also contacted, and almost everyone acted as suspicious as the person I wanted to buy the domain from. In any case, these conversations gave us many new leads to follow up on and had us pivot toward social media profiles. Maybe these will provide some insight on the scam network (in the next chapter).

Sector035/Matthias Wilson – 07.08.2019