March 9, 2001, 12:00 AM

Eastern European hackers extorting U.S. EC companies

Several organized hacker groups from Eastern Europe have penetrated U.S. e-commerce computer systems-stealing as many as 1 million credit cards numbers.

Over the past several months, the National Infrastructure Protection Center has been coordinating investigations into a series of organized hacker activities specifically targeting U.S. computer systems associated with e-commerce or e-banking. Despite previous advisories many computer owners have not patched their systems, allowing these kinds of attacks to continue, and prompting NIPC to start another awareness campaign about the threat. These problems were first discovered in 1998.

There have been more than 40 victims in 20 states. The FBI`s investigations have been closely coordinated with foreign law enforcement authorities, and the private sector. Specially trained prosecutors in the Computer and Telecommunication Coordinator program in U.S. Attorneys` Offices in a variety of districts have participated in the investigation, with the assistance of attorneys in the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section at the Department of Justice.

The investigations have disclosed several organized hacker groups from Eastern Europe, specifically Russia and the Ukraine, that have penetrated U.S. e-commerce computer systems by exploiting vulnerabilities in unpatched Microsoft Windows NT operating systems. As early as 1998, Microsoft discovered these vulnerabilities and developed and publicized patches to fix them. Computer users can download these patches from Microsoft for free.

Once the hackers gain access, they download proprietary information, customer databases, and credit card information. The hackers subsequently contact the victim company through facsimile, email, or telephone. After notifying the company of the intrusion and theft of information, the hackers make a veiled extortion threat by offering Internet security services to patch the system against other hackers. They tell the victim that without their services, they cannot guarantee that other hackers will not access the network and post the credit card information and details about the compromise on the Internet. If the victim company is not cooperative in making payments or hiring the group for its security services, the hackers` correspondence with the victim company has become more threatening. Investigators also believe that in some instances the credit card information is being sold to organized crime groups. There has been evidence that the stolen information is at risk whether or not the victim cooperates with the demands of the intruders. To date, more than 1 million credit card numbers have been stolen.

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