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Textbook Rental Scam

Here’s a story of someone who, with three compatriots, rented textbooks from Amazon and then sold them instead of returning them. They used gift cards and prepaid credit cards to buy the books, so there was no available balance when Amazon tried to charge them the buyout price for non-returned books. They also used various aliases and other tricks to bypass Amazon’s fifteen-book limit. In all, they stole 14,000 textbooks worth over $1.5 million.

The article doesn’t link to the indictment, so I don’t know how they were discovered.

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Details of a Computer Banking Scam

This is a longish video that describes a profitable computer banking scam that’s run out of call centers in places like India. There’s a lot of fluff about glitterbombs and the like, but the details are interesting. The scammers convince the victims to give them remote access to their computers, and then that they’ve mistyped a dollar amount and have received a large refund that they didn’t deserve. Then they convince the victims to send cash to a drop site, where a money mule retrieves it and forwards it to the scammers.

I found it interesting for several reasons. One, it illustrates the complex business nature of the scam: there are a lot of people doing specialized jobs in order for it to work. Two, it clearly shows the psychological manipulation involved, and how it preys on the unsophisticated and vulnerable. And three, it’s an evolving tactic that gets around banks increasingly flagging blocking suspicious electronic transfers.

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On the Twitter Hack

Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam — stealing bitcoin — but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

Whether the hackers had access to Twitter direct messages is not known. These DMs are not end-to-end encrypted, meaning that they are unencrypted inside Twitter’s network and could have been available to the hackers. Those messages — between world leaders, industry CEOs, reporters and their sources, heath organizations — are much more valuable than bitcoin. (If I were a national-intelligence agency, I might even use a bitcoin scam to mask my real intelligence-gathering purpose.) Back in 2018, Twitter said it was exploring encrypting those messages, but it hasn’t yet.

Internet communications platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.

In the Twitter case this week, the hacker’s tactics weren’t particularly sophisticated. We will almost certainly learn about security lapses at Twitter that enabled the hack, possibly including a SIM-swapping attack that targeted an employee’s cellular service provider, or maybe even a bribed insider. The FBI is investigating.

This kind of attack is known as a “class break.” Class breaks are endemic to computerized systems, and they’re not something that we as users can defend against with better personal security. It didn’t matter whether individual accounts had a complicated and hard-to-remember password, or two-factor authentication. It didn’t matter whether the accounts were normally accessed via a Mac or a PC. There was literally nothing any user could do to protect against it.

Class breaks are security vulnerabilities that break not just one system, but an entire class of systems. They might exploit a vulnerability in a particular operating system that allows an attacker to take remote control of every computer that runs on that system’s software. Or a vulnerability in internet-enabled digital video recorders and webcams that allows an attacker to recruit those devices into a massive botnet. Or a single vulnerability in the Twitter network that allows an attacker to take over every account.

For Twitter users, this attack was a double whammy. Many people rely on Twitter’s authentication systems to know that someone who purports to be a certain celebrity, politician, or journalist is really that person. When those accounts were hijacked, trust in that system took a beating. And then, after the attack was discovered and Twitter temporarily shut down all verified accounts, the public lost a vital source of information.

There are many security technologies companies like Twitter can implement to better protect themselves and their users; that’s not the issue. The problem is economic, and fixing it requires doing two things. One is regulating these companies, and requiring them to spend more money on security. The second is reducing their monopoly power.

The security regulations for banks are complex and detailed. If a low-level banking employee were caught messing around with people’s accounts, or if she mistakenly gave her log-in credentials to someone else, the bank would be severely fined. Depending on the details of the incident, senior banking executives could be held personally liable. The threat of these actions helps keep our money safe. Yes, it costs banks money; sometimes it severely cuts into their profits. But the banks have no choice.

The opposite is true for these tech giants. They get to decide what level of security you have on your accounts, and you have no say in the matter. If you are offered security and privacy options, it’s because they decided you can have them. There is no regulation. There is no accountability. There isn’t even any transparency. Do you know how secure your data is on Facebook, or in Apple’s iCloud, or anywhere? You don’t. No one except those companies do. Yet they’re crucial to the country’s national security. And they’re the rare consumer product or service allowed to operate without significant government oversight.

For example, President Donald Trump’s Twitter account wasn’t hacked as Joe Biden’s was, because that account has “special protections,” the details of which we don’t know. We also don’t know what other world leaders have those protections, or the decision process surrounding who gets them. Are they manual? Can they scale? Can all verified accounts have them? Your guess is as good as mine.

In addition to security measures, the other solution is to break up the tech monopolies. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have so much power because they are so large, and they face no real competition. This is a national-security risk as well as a personal-security risk. Were there 100 different Twitter-like companies, and enough compatibility so that all their feeds could merge into one interface, this attack wouldn’t have been such a big deal. More important, the risk of a similar but more politically targeted attack wouldn’t be so great. If there were competition, different platforms would offer different security options, as well as different posting rules, different authentication guidelines — different everything. Competition is how our economy works; it’s how we spur innovation. Monopolies have more power to do what they want in the quest for profits, even if it harms people along the way.

This wasn’t Twitter’s first security problem involving trusted insiders. In 2017, on his last day of work, an employee shut down President Donald Trump’s account. In 2019, two people were charged with spying for the Saudi government while they were Twitter employees.

Maybe this hack will serve as a wake-up call. But if past incidents involving Twitter and other companies are any indication, it won’t. Underspending on security, and letting society pay the eventual price, is far more profitable. I don’t blame the tech companies. Their corporate mandate is to make as much money as is legally possible. Fixing this requires changes in the law, not changes in the hearts of the company’s leaders.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

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Cryptocurrency Pump and Dump Scams

Really interesting research: “An examination of the cryptocurrency pump and dump ecosystem“:

Abstract: The surge of interest in cryptocurrencies has been accompanied by a proliferation of fraud. This paper examines pump and dump schemes. The recent explosion of nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies in an unregulated environment has expanded the scope for abuse. We quantify the scope of cryptocurrency pump and dump schemes on Discord and Telegram, two popular group-messaging platforms. We joined all relevant Telegram and Discord groups/channels and identified thousands of different pumps. Our findings provide the first measure of the scope of such pumps and empirically document important properties of this ecosystem.

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How Apple’s “Find My” Feature Works

Matthew Green intelligently speculates about how Apple’s new “Find My” feature works.

If you haven’t already been inspired by the description above, let me phrase the question you ought to be asking: how is this system going to avoid being a massive privacy nightmare?

Let me count the concerns:

  • If your device is constantly emitting a BLE signal that uniquely identifies it, the whole world is going to have (yet another) way to track you. Marketers already use WiFi and Bluetooth MAC addresses to do this: Find My could create yet another tracking channel.

  • It also exposes the phones who are doing the tracking. These people are now going to be sending their current location to Apple (which they may or may not already be doing). Now they’ll also be potentially sharing this information with strangers who “lose” their devices. That could go badly.

  • Scammers might also run active attacks in which they fake the location of your device. While this seems unlikely, people will always surprise you.

The good news is that Apple claims that their system actually does provide strong privacy, and that it accomplishes this using clever cryptography. But as is typical, they’ve declined to give out the details how they’re going to do it. Andy Greenberg talked me through an incomplete technical description that Apple provided to Wired, so that provides many hints. Unfortunately, what Apple provided still leaves huge gaps. It’s into those gaps that I’m going to fill in my best guess for what Apple is actually doing.

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Amazon Is Losing the War on Fraudulent Sellers

Excellent article on fraudulent seller tactics on Amazon.

The most prominent black hat companies for US Amazon sellers offer ways to manipulate Amazon’s ranking system to promote products, protect accounts from disciplinary actions, and crush competitors. Sometimes, these black hat companies bribe corporate Amazon employees to leak information from the company’s wiki pages and business reports, which they then resell to marketplace sellers for steep prices. One black hat company charges as much as $10,000 a month to help Amazon sellers appear at the top of product search results. Other tactics to promote sellers’ products include removing negative reviews from product pages and exploiting technical loopholes on Amazon’s site to lift products’ overall sales rankings.

[…]

AmzPandora’s services ranged from small tasks to more ambitious strategies to rank a product higher using Amazon’s algorithm. While it was online, it offered to ping internal contacts at Amazon for $500 to get information about why a seller’s account had been suspended, as well as advice on how to appeal the suspension. For $300, the company promised to remove an unspecified number of negative reviews on a listing within three to seven days, which would help increase the overall star rating for a product. For $1.50, the company offered a service to fool the algorithm into believing a product had been added to a shopper’s cart or wish list by writing a super URL. And for $1,200, an Amazon seller could purchase a “frequently bought together” spot on another marketplace product’s page that would appear for two weeks, which AmzPandora promised would lead to a 10% increase in sales.

This was a good article on this from last year. (My blog post.)

Amazon has a real problem here, primarily because trust in the system is paramount to Amazon’s success. As much as they need to crack down on fraudulent sellers, they really want articles like these to not be written.

Slashdot thread. Boing Boing post.

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