Group-IB, a global threat hunting and intelligence company headquartered in Singapore, has discovered thousands of personal records of users from the UK, Australia, South Africa, the US, Singapore, Spain, Malaysia and other countries exposed in a targeted multi-stage bitcoin scam. Victim’s phone numbers, which in most cases came with names and emails, were contained in personalised URLs used to redirect people to websites posing as local news outlets with fabricated comments of prominent local personalities about cryptocurrency investment platform that “helped them build a fortune”. The source of the leak has not been established yet. The information has been provided to relevant authorities in the affected countries.
A joint investigation of Group-IB’s Threat Intelligence and Brand Protection teams revealed 248,926 sets of personally identifiable information exposed in what turned to be a complex three-stage fraud designed to drag people into a shady bitcoin investment scheme. The analysis of the exposed phone country codes showed that most of the victims were from the UK (147,610), followed by Australia (82,263), South Africa (4,149), the US (4,147), Singapore (3,499), Malaysia (2,491), Spain (2,420), and other countries.
Group-IB reported back on in Feb, 2020, the new scheme is similar to the “Bitcoin Evolution” scam, that , with one big difference – this time a massive amount of victim’s sensitive info was exposed. Group-IB’s team was able to identify all the stages of the fraud from its entry point to the last phase.
First, a victim receives a text message. Group-IB specialists managed to retrieve 4 samples of SMS. Scammers sometimes send out phishing messages using the name of a recognized media outlet as the sender.
Every message contained a unique short link. Further analysis of the URLs revealed that a short link takes a victim to another URL which already demonstrates their personal data, such as the phone number, first or/and last name, and sometimes an email address, and used for redirects to fake websites masquerading as a local media outlet. Group-IB researchers have run the exposed info through data breach repositories and have analyzed several underground marketplaces for the presence of this data but have not found any traces of the exposed info. The experts believe that the personal information info could have been obtained by fraudsters through a separate fraudulent scheme or simply bought from a third party.
The content a user would see often depends on their location. For example, users from the UK would be demonstrated a website disguised as the Sun or the Mirror, the Australians would likely see a fake ABC Australia website. However, all the websites feature similar made-up interviews and fabricated comments attributed to local celebrities whose names were hijacked by the scammers: Bryan Wong, Chris Brown, Andrew Forrest, Travers 'Candyman' Beynon, Gina Rinehart, and others. All these fake articles allege that famous people made a fortune thanks to the new cryptocurrency investment platform. All the fake pages discovered are almost identical in terms of design, but the URL and the page code are unique every time and contain users’ personal records. If a victim decides to click any link in the article, they are taken to a bitcoin investment platform website, where their data, contained in the URL, would already be pre-filled in the registration form without a user’s consent. Later a victim would be asked to add to their account balance in BTC.
Group-IB researchers spotted 6 active domains featuring the same bitcoin investment platform that operates under different names: Crypto Cash, Bitcoin Rejoin, Bitcoin Supreme, and Banking on Blockchain. Group-IB has shared its findings with the relevant organizations in the affected countries for further investigation.
“The bitcoin investment scams have been around for quite a while and we regularly detect new instances of crypto fraud, says Ilya Sachkov, CEO of Group‑IB. “This time however the scheme was significantly upgraded, and a tremendous amount of personal information was leaked. The bad guys got smarter in a bid to increase the success rate of their fraudulent operations. Using personal data allows them to carry out targeted attacks and make a victim’s journey easier and smoother, which levels up the overall effectiveness of the scheme. In general, many people tend to underestimate the risks of their names, phones or emails circulating online until bad things happen. In fact, such a huge amount of sensitive data in the wrong hands opens up a whole new world of opportunities for fraudsters. This data can be sold further, or they can push a new round of fraud.”
Group-IB urges online users to stay vigilant. A couple of simple rules: If you spot a long redirect chain, it’s a red flag. Always double-check the domain name, website registration date when entering personal information or payment data. The Singapore government has also launched the Do Not Call registry under the PDPA for consumers who do not wish to receive telemarketing messages via phone call, SMS or fax.
However, regular users are not the only ones who suffer here. Media brands and celebrities whose names were hijacked by fraudsters suffer reputational damage. According to market researchers, nearly 64% of users who have faced brand abuse online will never return to that brand — their trust in it has been undermined. For celebrities, these cases can cause significant loss in the audience’s trust which affects the sustainability of business relationships with their advertisers. Complete visibility of the scheme is the key to eradicate this type of fraud. Media and celebrity names are mentioned on separate stages of the scheme and blocking them will not have an effect. Just like with the Rabbit Hole fraud, the crooks can quickly rebuild the blocked parts and continue their fraudulent operations. Effective monitoring and blockage should involve the automated machine-learning powered brand protection system fueled by the regularly updated knowledge base about cybercriminals’ infrastructure, tactics, and tools.