Researchers discover leader of ‘wire-wire’ gang that’s made millions off by laundering victims’ business transactions.
BLACK HAT USA—Las Vegas—The head of a cybercrime gang out of Nigeria was outed by researchers after apparently infecting his machine with his own malware and ultimately leaving a trail of his online information and theft activity and his victims.
The cybercrime leader, dubbed “Mr. X” by SecureWorks researchers, is part of a next-generation Nigerian scam group that use business email compromise (BEC) attacks, stealing legitimate email credentials from businesspeople and then intercepting their business transactions and sending the money to their own accounts in a scam they call “wire-wire,” or “the new G work.” Unlike the traditional Nigerian 419 scams, this new generation of Nigerian scams is employed by not by college-age scammers but by men in their late 20s to 40s, many of whom are considered pillars of society, active in their churches and communities.
“This is an evolved Nigerian scam. The guys’ personalities are different: they are respected family men and leaders and are devoutly religious,” says James Bettke, a SecureWorks researcher. “They have Bible quotes on their desktops.”
Mr. X’s group, nicknamed WWGI by the researchers, makes some $3 million a year from the cybercrime money-laundering operation, with another $3 million paid out to money mules. Around 40 people work under Mr. X, and he is currently under investigation by the Nigerian authorities.
“We were just looking at malware, trying to attribution, and stumbled across a web server with a wide-open Web directory,” Bettke says. “He had infected himself with his own malware: it could have been a mistake or” a test of the malware, he says.
The server contained screenshots and keystroke logs from the group’s operation. And among those screenshots were Mr. X’s instant messaging, Facebook, and bank accounts. “We saw their day-to-day operations,” he says.
Meanwhile, INTERPOL and Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) this week arrested a BEC mastermind known as “Mike” who had been made some $60 million in his scams. According to the FBI, 17,642 victims this year reported some $2.3 billion in losses to BEC scams.
Not Your Father’s Prince
At the heart of WWGI’s operation is its ability to phish an organization and install malware on the victim’s machine to sniff their email credentials. Once in the email account, the wire-wire attackers looks for emails about the victim organization selling its products or services to a customer, and then redirects the seller’s email to hijack emails from the buyer. The wire-wire attacker spoofs the buyer’s email with modified purchase order, for example, and then sets up a man-in-the middle attack of the online transaction and reroutes payment to his own account.
One victim was a US chemical company, which SecureWorks declined to name. The chemical firm was trying to purchase chemicals from an Indian supplier. But the WWGI had stolen web email credentials from an employee at the Indian company, and hijacked the transaction, netting $400,000. “They didn’t get to sell their stuff to the chemical company, and the customer lost money,” Bettke says.
The SecureWorks team also released a tool today for researchers called Pdfexpose, which detects wire-wire fraud by looking for redacted text in PDF-based invoices. Meanwhile, the researchers are investigating other similar wire-wire groups. “This just scratches the surface of others we are trying to run down,” says Joe Stewart, director of malware research at SecureWorks.
Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise … View Full Bio