The same miscreants responsible for breaking into the networks of America’s top consumer and business data brokers appear to have also infiltrated and stolen huge amounts of data from the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), a congressionally-funded non-profit organization that provides training, investigative support and research to agencies and entities involved in the prevention, investigation and prosecution of cybercrime.

The bot that was resident for  almost 3 months inside of NW3C.

The bot that was resident for almost 3 months inside of NW3C.

Last week, BreachTrace reported that entrepreneurs behind the underground criminal identity theft service ssndob[dot]ms also were responsible for operating a small but powerful collection of hacked computers exclusively at top data brokers, including LexisNexis, Dun & Bradstreet and HireRight/Kroll. A closer analysis of the Web server used to control that collection of hacked PCs shows that the attackers also had at least one infected system for several months this summer inside of the NW3c.

Core to the NW3C’s mission is its Investigative Support division, which according to the organization’s site “provides timely, relevant and effective services to member agencies involved in the prevention, investigation and prosecution of economic and high-tech crimes. The section has no investigative authority but can provide analytical assistance and perform public database searches.”

The NW3C said its analysts are frequently called upon to assist in establishing financial transaction patterns, developing possible links between criminal targets and associated criminal activity and providing link charts, timelines and graphs for court presentations. “Information obtained through public database searches can assist investigations by locating suspects, establishing property ownership and finding hidden assets, just to name a few of the benefits,” the organization’s Web site explains.

The NW3C also works with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to run the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), which accepts online Internet crime complaints from victims of cybercrime.

Neither the NW3C nor the IC3 responded to requests for comment on this story. FBI Spokeswoman Lindsay Godwin would say only that the FBI was “looking into it,” but declined to elaborate further, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.


A number of indicators suggest that the attackers first gained access to the NW3C’s internal network on or around May 28, 2013. According to records in the online communications panel that the miscreants used to control their network of hacked systems, the affected NW3C server was taken offline on or around Aug. 17, 2013, indicating that the organization’s networks were compromised for approximately 11 weeks this summer. It’s not clear at this point why the miscreants marked this organization’s listing with a “(hacker)” designation, as shown in the snapshot of their botnet control panel below.


The attackers appear to have compromised a public-facing server at NW3C that was designed to handle incoming virtual private network (VPN) communications. Organizations frequently set up VPNs so that their remote employees can create an encrypted communications tunnel back to an otherwise closed network, and these setups are an integral component of most modern business applications.

A page from the ColdFusion exploit server used by the attackers.

A page from the ColdFusion exploit server used by the attackers.

Alarmingly, the machine name of the compromised NW3C system was “data.” On May 28, 2013, the attackers uploaded a file — nbc.exe — designed to open up an encrypted tunnel of communications from the hacked VPN server to their botnet controller on the public Internet. This appears to be the same nbc.exe file that was found on the two hacked servers at LexisNexis.

Abundant evidence left behind by the attackers suggests that they broke into the NW3C using a Web-based attack tool that focuses on exploiting recently-patched weaknesses in servers powered by ColdFusion, a Web application platform owned by Adobe Systems. I managed to get hold of the multiple exploits used in the attack server, and shared them with Adobe and with Rob Brooks-Bilson, a ColdFusion expert and author of the O’Reilly books Programming ColdFusion MX and Programming ColdFusion.

Although some of the exploits were listed as “0day” in the attack tool — suggesting they were zero-day, unpatched vulnerabilities in Adobe ColdFusion — Bilson said all of the exploits appear to attack vulnerabilities that are fixed in the most recent versions of ColdFusion. For example, three of the four exploits seems to have involved CVE-2013-0632, a vulnerability that Adobe first patched in January 2013, not long after the flaw was first spotted in actual zero-day online attacks. The remaining exploit in the attack kit targets a bug that Adobe fixed in 2010.

“The big issue with ColdFusion is that so many people install and set it up without following any of Adobe’s hardening guidelines,” Brooks-Bilson said in an email to BreachTrace. “Most of the exploits that have come out in the recent past have all worked via a similar mechanism that is easily mitigated by following Adobe’s guide. Of course, so many people disregard that advice and end up with servers that are easily compromised.”


The ColdFusion exploit server contains plenty of records indicating that the attackers in this case plundered many of the databases that they were able to access while inside of NW3C. Part of the reason for the persistence of this evidence has to do with the way that the attackers queried local databases and offloaded stolen data. It appears that once inside the NW3C’s network, the bad guys quickly scanned all of the organization’s systems for security vulnerabilities and database servers. They also uploaded a Web-based “shell” which let them gain remote access to the hacked server via a Web browser.

The attack server and shell also let the attackers execute system commands on the compromised hosts, which appear to be Microsoft IIS servers. Their method also left a detailed (if not complete) log of many of their activities inside the network. One of the first things the attackers did upon compromising the “Data” server on the network was run a query that forced the local database to dump a copy of itself to a file — including a list of the authorized users and passwords —  that the attackers could download.

A snippet of redacted complaint data stolen from IC3.

A snippet of redacted complaint data stolen from IC3.

The bad guys in this case also appear to have used their access to the NW3C to steal 10 years’ worth of consumer complaint information from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), the aforementioned partnership between the NW3C and the FBI that tracks complaints about cybercrime.

Present on the attacker’s server are some 2.659 million records apparently lifted from the IC3. The records range in date from about the time of the IC3’s inception — May 8, 2000 — to Jan. 22, 2013.

It’s not clear if the stolen IC3 data set includes all of the consumer complaints ever filed, but it seems likely that the archive is lacking just the past few months of records. In a report released earlier this year, the IC3 said it was receiving about 24,000 complaints per month, and that consumers had filed 289,874 complaints last year. The IC3’s site doesn’t maintain annual complaint numbers prior to 2003, but according to the site some 2.35 million have been filed with the system since then. To put the year-over-year growth in complaints in perspective, the IC3 said it wasn’t until 2007 — nearly seven years after its birth — that the organization received its millionth complaint.

Many of the more recent complaints involve ransomware, a threat that holds computers hostage in a bid to frighten users into paying a ransom to regain control over their PCs. Ironically, ransomware attacks most often spoof the FBI, and state that the user was caught downloading child pornography or pirated content.

The following is an example of one such complaint, slightly redacted, taken directly from the stolen IC3 database. I liked this complaint because the person who filed it acknowledges up front that he was browsing porn when he got hit with the ransomware attack, and that his wife was the one who saved him from his own ignorance:

(‘I1211100143194982’, ‘Kernersville Police Dept.’, ‘174.98.xxx.xxx’, ‘2012-11-10 01:43:19’, ‘2012-11-10 01:47:01’, ‘I was on an adult website (I don’t know which one) when suddenly a screen popped up that had the FBI logo at the top and all this information about my having violated copyright laws or child pornography laws and my computer had been locked by the FBI and if I didn’t pay a $300 fine within 72 hours by MoneyPak a criminal charge would automatically be filed and I would go to prison for 2 to 12 years. It said once I paid the money my computer would be released within 1 to 4 hours and it listed where I could go to purchase a MoneyPak card and then how to put the MoneyPak into the computer for payment. It said if there were any problems to email [email protected]. I left to go buy this MoneyPak card and while gone my wife started looking carefully at this warning. When I returned she said she believed this was a scam and she wanted to turn my computer off, not give them any money and contact the FBI for confirmation, which we proceeded to do. First she tried the email address and it came back undeliverable. She then went on her computer and went on the FBI website and looked up scams and found the Citidel scam which fit the profile almost exactly. We have left my computer turned off, will contact my bank ASAP and will get our IT man in to try and remove this malware as soon as possible. We don’t have any paperwork as we couldn’t print the site but we will see if our IT guy can get anything of value to help you identify these perpetrators. We should be able to get our money back for the MoneyPak so we probably won’t be out any money but it sure was scary. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong but the site itself is very scary. Most people would pay up and if not for my wife, so would I.’, ‘5’, ”,”


The stolen IC3 data indicate that the attackers sought to grab and offload all of the data they could access, but the IC3 database itself isn’t particularly useful, except perhaps for spamming and phishing. Other database queries show the attackers had access to systems at NW3C that could look up records which appear to be related to ongoing criminal and possibly civil cases. Some of the more interesting data headers in the information returned by those requests include;

-ACCURINT – A LexisNexis tool designed to “assist law enforcement officials in identifying people and their assets, address, relatives, and business associates by providing instant access to a comprehensive database of public records that would ordinarily take days to collect.”

-AMCRIN – Information from Amcrin Corp., a company best known for its CrimeDex networked database of criminals.

-ASSIGNED TO / HANDLED BY – Ostensibly the law enforcement officer and/or agency tracking the case.

-CHOICEPOINT – A legacy entry from the now-defunct data aggregator that was purchased by LexisNexis in 2008.

-DOB (Date of Birth)

-NICB – Most likely short for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a non-profit member organization created by the insurance industry to address insurance-related crime, and one that works closely with law enforcement agencies.

-RISS – Regional Information Sharing Systems is an information-sharing program funded by the U.S. Federal government whose purpose is to connect databases from local and regional law enforcement so that they can use each other’s data for criminal investigations. (Update: A representative from RISS responded to this article in a comment below).

-“TLO” – TLO Online Investigative Systems is a data broker that caters to lawyers, private investigators, law enforcement and insurance firms. The company also sells, among other things services, locational information on license plates that have been filmed and identified.

-SSN (Social Security Number)

Alex Holden and his security consulting firm Hold Security LLC were instrumental in identifying and analyzing the attack server. Holden said that if the attackers had at least 11 weeks to access systems within the NW3C, they probably already have all of the data of consequence that could be gained from internal systems there.

“Based on sophistication of these guys, the custom tools they were using and the length of time they had to look around, it is unlikely that they walked away without whatever they were after,” Holden said. “Did they get 100 percent of it? Probably not. But from what I’ve seen of how these guys operate, they didn’t just plant their flag and leave. They were methodically exploiting systems and access to gain access to all of the data they could get their hands on.”

Holden added that while some of the information stolen from the NW3C may not be particularly useful for traditional cybercriminal purposes, that data may be of more interest to foreign governments. He noted that one of the more interesting lookups the attackers ran instructed the NW3C’s database to produce a list of foreign law enforcement agents who were working active criminal cases with the organization. Other queries forced the database to dump information from the law enforcement agents acting in a supervisory role at the NW3C.

“Other entities that might be interested in this data include foreign governments,” Holden said. “These guys may also be passing or selling this data off to other nations as well.”

Stay tuned for Part III and IV of this investigative series.


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