Author Archives: BrianKrebs

The Now-Defunct Firms Behind 8chan, QAnon

Some of the world’s largest Internet firms have taken steps to crack down on disinformation spread by QAnon conspiracy theorists and the hate-filled anonymous message board 8chan. But according to a California-based security researcher, those seeking to de-platform these communities may have overlooked a simple legal solution to that end: Both the Nevada-based web hosting company owned by 8chan’s current figurehead and the California firm that provides its sole connection to the Internet are defunct businesses in the eyes of their respective state regulators.

In practical terms, what this means is that the legal contracts which granted these companies temporary control over large swaths of Internet address space are now null and void, and American Internet regulators would be well within their rights to cancel those contracts and reclaim the space.

The IP address ranges in the upper-left portion of this map of QAnon and 8kun-related sites — some 21,000 IP addresses beginning in “206.” and “207.” — are assigned to N.T. Technology Inc. Image source: twitter.com/Redrum_of_Crows

That idea was floated by Ron Guilmette, a longtime anti-spam crusader who recently turned his attention to disrupting the online presence of QAnon and 8chan (recently renamed “8kun”).

On Sunday, 8chan and a host of other sites related to QAnon conspiracy theories were briefly knocked offline after Guilmette called 8chan’s anti-DDoS provider and convinced them to stop protecting the site from crippling online attacks (8Chan is now protected by an anti-DDoS provider in St. Petersburg, Russia).

The public face of 8chan is Jim Watkins, a pig farmer in the Philippines who many experts believe is also the person behind the shadowy persona of “Q” at the center of the conspiracy theory movement.

Watkin owns and operates a Reno, Nev.-based hosting firm called N.T. Technology Inc. That company has a legal contract with the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), the non-profit which administers IP addresses for entities based in North America.

ARIN’s contract with N.T. Technology gives the latter the right to use more than 21,500 IP addresses. But as Guilmette discovered recently, N.T. Technology is listed in Nevada Secretary of State records as under an “administrative hold,” which according to Nevada statute is a “terminated” status indicator meaning the company no longer has the right to transact business in the state.

N.T. Technology’s listing in the Nevada Secretary of State records. Click to Enlarge.

The same is true for Centauri Communications, a Freemont, Calif.-based Internet Service Provider that serves as N.T. Technology’s colocation provider and sole connection to the larger Internet. Centauri was granted more than 4,000 IPv4 addresses by ARIN more than a decade ago.

According to the California Secretary of State, Centauri’s status as a business in the state is “suspended.” It appears that Centauri hasn’t filed any business records with the state since 2009, and the state subsequently suspended the company’s license to do business in Aug. 2012. Separately, the California State Franchise Tax Board (FTB) suspended this company as of April 1, 2014.

Centauri Communications’ listing with the California Secretary of State’s office.

Neither Centauri Communications nor N.T. Technology responded to repeated requests for comment.

KrebsOnSecurity shared Guilmette’s findings with ARIN, which said it would investigate the matter.

“ARIN has received a fraud report from you and is evaluating it,” a spokesperson for ARIN said. “We do not comment on such reports publicly.”

Guilmette said apart from reclaiming the Internet address space from Centauri and NT Technology, ARIN could simply remove each company’s listings from the global WHOIS routing records. Such a move, he said, would likely result in most ISPs blocking access to those IP addresses.

“If ARIN were to remove these records from the WHOIS database, it would serve to de-legitimize the use of these IP blocks by the parties involved,” he said. “And globally, it would make it more difficult for the parties to find people willing to route packets to and from those blocks of addresses.”

QAnon/8Chan Sites Briefly Knocked Offline

A phone call to an Internet provider in Oregon on Sunday evening was all it took to briefly sideline multiple websites related to 8chan/8kun — a controversial online image board linked to several mass shootings — and QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory which holds that a cabal of Satanic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Donald Trump. Following a brief disruption, the sites have come back online with the help of an Internet company based in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The IP address range in the upper-right portion of this map of QAnon and 8kun-related sites — 203.28.246.0/24 — is assigned to VanwaTech and briefly went offline this evening.

A large number of 8kun and QAnon-related sites (see map above) are connected to the Web via a single Internet provider in Vancouver, Wash. called VanwaTech (a.k.a. “OrcaTech“). Previous appeals to VanwaTech to disconnect these sites have fallen on deaf ears, as the company’s owner Nick Lim reportedly has been working with 8kun’s administrators to keep the sites online in the name of protecting free speech.

But VanwaTech also had a single point of failure on its end: The swath of Internet addresses serving the various 8kun/QAnon sites were being protected from otherwise crippling and incessant distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks by Hillsboro, Ore. based CNServers LLC.

On Sunday evening, security researcher Ron Guilmette placed a phone call to CNServers’ owner, who professed to be shocked by revelations that his company was helping QAnon and 8kun keep the lights on.

Within minutes of that call, CNServers told its customer — Spartan Host Ltd., which is registered in Belfast, Northern Ireland — that it would no longer be providing DDoS protection for the set of 254 Internet addresses that Spartan Host was routing on behalf of VanwaTech.

Contacted by KrebsOnSecurity, the person who answered the phone at CNServers asked not to be named in this story for fear of possible reprisals from the 8kun/QAnon crowd. But they confirmed that CNServers had indeed terminated its service with Spartan Host. That person added they weren’t a fan of either 8kun or QAnon, and said they would not self-describe as a Trump supporter.

CNServers said that shortly after it withdrew its DDoS protection services, Spartan Host changed its settings so that VanwaTech’s Internet addresses were protected from attacks by ddos-guard[.]net, a company based in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Spartan Host’s founder, 25-year-old Ryan McCully, confirmed CNServers’ report. McCully declined to say for how long VanwaTech had been a customer, or whether Spartan Host had experienced any attacks as a result of CNServers’ action.

McCully said while he personally doesn’t subscribe to the beliefs espoused by QAnon or 8kun, he intends to keep VanwaTech as a customer going forward.

“We follow the ‘law of the land’ when deciding what we allow to be hosted with us, with some exceptions to things that may cause resource issues etc.,” McCully said in a conversation over instant message. “Just because we host something, it doesn’t say anything about we do and don’t support, our opinions don’t come into hosted content decisions.”

But according to Guilmette, Spartan Host’s relationship with VanwaTech wasn’t widely known previously because Spartan Host had set up what’s known as a “private peering” agreement with both VanwaTech and CNServers. That is to say, the two companies had a confidential business arrangement by which their mutual connections were not explicitly stated or obvious to other Internet providers on the global Internet.

Guilmette said private peering relationships often play a significant role in a good deal of behind-the-scenes-mischief when the parties involved do not want anyone else to know about their relationship.

“These arrangements are business agreements that are confidential between two parties, and no one knows about them, unless you start asking questions,” Guilmette said. “It certainly appears that a private peering arrangement was used in this instance in order to hide the direct involvement of Spartan Host in providing connectivity to VanwaTech and thus to 8kun. Perhaps Mr. McCully was not eager to have his involvement known.”

8chan, which rebranded last year as 8kun, has been linked to white supremacism, neo-Nazism, antisemitism, multiple mass shootings, and is known for hosting child pornography. After three mass shootings in 2019 revealed the perpetrators had spread their manifestos on 8chan and even streamed their killings live there, 8chan was ostracized by one Internet provider after another.

The FBI last year identified QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat, noting that some of its followers have been linked to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs.

Further reading:

What Is QAnon?

QAnon: A Timeline of Violent Linked to the Conspiracy Theory

Breach at Dickey’s BBQ Smokes 3M Cards

One of the digital underground’s most popular stores for peddling stolen credit card information began selling a batch of more than three million new card records this week. KrebsOnSecurity has learned the data was stolen in a lengthy data breach at more than 100 Dickey’s Barbeque Restaurant locations around the country.

An ad on the popular carding site Joker’s Stash for “BlazingSun,” which fraud experts have traced back to a card breach at Dickey’s BBQ.

On Monday, the carding bazaar Joker’s Stash debuted “BlazingSun,” a new batch of more than three million stolen card records, advertising “valid rates” of between 90-100 percent. This is typically an indicator that the breached merchant is either unaware of the compromise or has only just begun responding to it.

Multiple companies that track the sale in stolen payment card data say they have confirmed with card-issuing financial institutions that the accounts for sale in the BlazingSun batch have one common theme: All were used at various Dickey’s BBQ locations over the past 13-15 months.

KrebsOnSecurity first contacted Dallas-based Dickey’s on Oct. 13. Today, the company shared a statement saying it was aware of a possible payment card security incident at some of its eateries:

“We received a report indicating that a payment card security incident may have occurred. We are taking this incident very seriously and immediately initiated our response protocol and an investigation is underway. We are currently focused on determining the locations affected and time frames involved. We are utilizing the experience of third parties who have helped other restaurants address similar issues and also working with the FBI and payment card networks. We understand that payment card network rules generally provide that individuals who timely report unauthorized charges to the bank that issued their card are not responsible for those charges.”

The confirmations came from Miami-based Q6 Cyber and Gemini Advisory in New York City.

Q6Cyber CEO Eli Dominitz said the breach appears to extend from May 2019 through September 2020.

“The financial institutions we’ve been working with have already seen a significant amount of fraud related to these cards,” Dominitz said.

Gemini says its data indicated some 156 Dickey’s locations across 30 states likely had payment systems compromised by card-stealing malware, with the highest exposure in California and Arizona. Gemini puts the exposure window between July 2019 and August 2020.

“Low-and-slow” aptly describes the card breach at Dickie’s, which persisted for at least 13 months.

With the threat from ransomware attacks grabbing all the headlines, it may be tempting to assume plain old credit card thieves have moved on to more lucrative endeavors. Alas, cybercrime bazaars like Joker’s Stash have continued plying their trade, undeterred by a push from the credit card associations to encourage more merchants to install credit card readers that require more secure chip-based payment cards.

That’s because there are countless restaurant locations — usually franchise locations of an established eatery chain — that are left to decide for themselves whether and how quickly they should make the upgrades necessary to dip the chip versus swipe the stripe.

“Dickey’s operates on a franchise model, which often allows each location to dictate the type of point-of-sale (POS) device and processors that they utilize,” Gemini wrote in a blog post about the incident. “However, given the widespread nature of the breach, the exposure may be linked to a breach of the single central processor, which was leveraged by over a quarter of all Dickey’s locations.”

While there have been sporadic reports about criminals compromising chip-based payment systems used by merchants in the U.S., the vast majority of the payment card data for sale in the cybercrime underground is stolen from merchants who are still swiping chip-based cards.

This isn’t conjecture; relatively recent data from the stolen card shops themselves bear this out. In July, KrebsOnSecurity wrote about an analysis by researchers at New York University, which looked at patterns surrounding more than 19 million stolen payment cards that were exposed after the hacking of BriansClub, a top competitor to the Joker’s Stash carding shop.

The NYU researchers found BriansClub earned close to $104 million in gross revenue from 2015 to early 2019, and listed over 19 million unique card numbers for sale. Around 97% of the inventory was stolen magnetic stripe data, commonly used to produce counterfeit cards for in-person payments.

Visa and MasterCard instituted new rules in October 2015 that put retailers on the hook for all of the losses associated with counterfeit card fraud tied to breaches if they haven’t implemented chip-based card readers and enforced the dipping of the chip when a customer presents a chip-based card.

Dominitz said he never imagined back in 2015 when he founded Q6Cyber that we would still be seeing so many merchants dealing with magstripe-based data breaches.

“Five years ago I did not expect we would be in this position today with card fraud,” he said. “You’d think the industry in general would have made a bigger dent in this underground economy a while ago.”

Tired of having your credit card re-issued and updating your payment records at countless e-commerce sites every time some restaurant you frequent has a breach? Here’s a radical idea: Next time you visit an eatery (okay, if that ever happens again post-COVID, etc), ask them if they use chip-based card readers. If not, consider taking your business elsewhere.

Microsoft Patch Tuesday, October 2020 Edition

It’s Cybersecurity Awareness Month! In keeping with that theme, if you (ab)use Microsoft Windows computers you should be aware the company shipped a bevy of software updates today to fix at least 87 security problems in Windows and programs that run on top of the operating system. That means it’s once again time to backup and patch up.

Eleven of the vulnerabilities earned Microsoft’s most-dire “critical” rating, which means bad guys or malware could use them to gain complete control over an unpatched system with little or no help from users.

Worst in terms of outright scariness is probably CVE-2020-16898, which is a nasty bug in Windows 10 and Windows Server 2019 that could be abused to install malware just by sending a malformed packet of data at a vulnerable system. CVE-2020-16898 earned a CVSS Score of 9.8 (10 is the most awful).

Security vendor McAfee has dubbed the flaw “Bad Neighbor,” and in a blog post about it said a proof-of-concept exploit shared by Microsoft with its partners appears to be “both extremely simple and perfectly reliable,” noting that this sucker is imminently “wormable” — i.e. capable of being weaponized into a threat that spreads very quickly within networks.

“It results in an immediate BSOD (Blue Screen of Death), but more so, indicates the likelihood of exploitation for those who can manage to bypass Windows 10 and Windows Server 2019 mitigations,” McAfee’s Steve Povolny wrote. “The effects of an exploit that would grant remote code execution would be widespread and highly impactful, as this type of bug could be made wormable.”

Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) calls special attention to another critical bug quashed in this month’s patch batch: CVE-2020-16947, which is a problem with Microsoft Outlook that could result in malware being loaded onto a system just by previewing a malicious email in Outlook.

“The Preview Pane is an attack vector here, so you don’t even need to open the mail to be impacted,” said ZDI’s Dustin Childs.

While there don’t appear to be any zero-day flaws in October’s release from Microsoft, Todd Schell from Ivanti points out that a half-dozen of these flaws were publicly disclosed prior to today, meaning bad guys have had a jump start on being able to research and engineer working exploits.

Other patches released today tackle problems in Exchange Server, Visual Studio, .NET Framework, and a whole mess of other core Windows components.

For any of you who’ve been pining for a Flash Player patch from Adobe, your days of waiting are over. After several months of depriving us of Flash fixes, Adobe’s shipped an update that fixes a single — albeit critical — flaw in the program that crooks could use to install bad stuff on your computer just by getting you to visit a hacked or malicious website.

Chrome and Firefox both now disable Flash by default, and Chrome and IE/Edge auto-update the program when new security updates are available. Mercifully, Adobe is slated to retire Flash Player later this year, and Microsoft has said it plans to ship updates at the end of the year that will remove Flash from Windows machines.

It’s a good idea for Windows users to get in the habit of updating at least once a month, but for regular users (read: not enterprises) it’s usually safe to wait a few days until after the patches are released, so that Microsoft has time to iron out any chinks in the new armor.

But before you update, please make sure you have backed up your system and/or important files. It’s not uncommon for a Windows update package to hose one’s system or prevent it from booting properly, and some updates even have known to erase or corrupt files.

So do yourself a favor and backup before installing any patches. Windows 10 even has some built-in tools to help you do that, either on a per-file/folder basis or by making a complete and bootable copy of your hard drive all at once.

And if you wish to ensure Windows has been set to pause updating so you can back up your files and/or system before the operating system decides to reboot and install patches on its own schedule, see this guide.

As always, if you experience glitches or problems installing any of these patches this month, please consider leaving a comment about it below; there’s a better-than-even chance other readers have experienced the same and may chime in here with some helpful tips.

Microsoft Uses Trademark Law to Disrupt Trickbot Botnet

Microsoft Corp. has executed a coordinated legal sneak attack in a bid to disrupt the malware-as-a-service botnet Trickbot, a global menace that has infected millions of computers and is used to spread ransomware. A court in Virginia granted Microsoft control over many Internet servers Trickbot uses to plunder infected systems, based on novel claims that the crime machine abused the software giant’s trademarks. However, it appears the operation has not completely disabled the botnet.

A spam email containing a Trickbot-infected attachment that was sent earlier this year. Image: Microsoft.

“We disrupted Trickbot through a court order we obtained as well as technical action we executed in partnership with telecommunications providers around the world,” wrote Tom Burt, corporate vice president of customer security and trust at Microsoft, in a blog post this morning about the legal maneuver. “We have now cut off key infrastructure so those operating Trickbot will no longer be able to initiate new infections or activate ransomware already dropped into computer systems.”

Microsoft’s action comes just days after the U.S. military’s Cyber Command carried out its own attack that sent all infected Trickbot systems a command telling them to disconnect themselves from the Internet servers the Trickbot overlords used to control them. The roughly 10-day operation by Cyber Command also stuffed millions of bogus records about new victims into the Trickbot database in a bid to confuse the botnet’s operators.

In legal filings, Microsoft argued that Trickbot irreparably harms the company “by damaging its reputation, brands, and customer goodwill. Defendants physically alter and corrupt Microsoft products such as the Microsoft Windows products. Once infected, altered and controlled by Trickbot, the Windows operating system ceases to operate normally and becomes tools for Defendants to conduct their theft.”

From the civil complaint Microsoft filed on October 6 with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia:

“However, they still bear the Microsoft and Windows trademarks. This is obviously meant to and does mislead Microsoft’s customers, and it causes extreme damage to Microsoft’s brands and trademarks.”

“Users subject to the negative effects of these malicious applications incorrectly believe that Microsoft and Windows are the source of their computing device problems. There is great risk that users may attribute this problem to Microsoft and associate these problems with Microsoft’s Windows products, thereby diluting and tarnishing the value of the Microsoft and Windows trademarks and brands.”

Microsoft said it will leverage the seized Trickbot servers to identify and assist Windows users impacted by the Trickbot malware in cleaning the malware off of their systems.

Trickbot has been used to steal passwords from millions of infected computers, and reportedly to hijack access to well more than 250 million email accounts from which new copies of the malware are sent to the victim’s contacts.

Trickbot’s malware-as-a-service feature has made it a reliable vehicle for deploying various strains of ransomware, locking up infected systems on a corporate network unless and until the company agrees to make an extortion payment.

A particularly destructive ransomware strain that is closely associated with Trickbot — known as “Ryuk” or “Conti” — has been responsible for costly attacks on countless organizations over the past year, including healthcare providers, medical research centers and hospitals.

One recent Ryuk victim is Universal Health Services (UHS), a Fortune 500 hospital and healthcare services provider that operates more than 400 facilities in the U.S. and U.K.

On Sunday, Sept. 27, UHS shut down its computer systems at healthcare facilities across the United States in a bid to stop the spread of the malware. The disruption caused some of the affected hospitals to redirect ambulances and relocate patients in need of surgery to other nearby hospitals.

Microsoft said it did not expect its action to permanently disrupt Trickbot, noting that the crooks behind the botnet will likely make efforts to revive their operations. But so far it’s not clear whether Microsoft succeeded in commandeering all of Trickbot’s control servers, or when exactly the coordinated seizure of those servers occurred.

As the company noted in its legal filings, the set of Internet address used as Trickbot controllers is dynamic, making attempts to disable the botnet more challenging.

Indeed, according to real-time information posted by Feodo Tracker, a Swiss security site that tracks Internet servers used as controllers for Trickbot and other botnets, nearly two dozen Trickbot control servers — some of which first went active at beginning of this month — are still live and responding to requests at the time of this publication.

Trickbot control servers that are currently online. Source: Feodotracker.abuse.ch

Cyber intelligence firm Intel 471 says fully taking down Trickbot would require an unprecedented level of collaboration among parties and countries that most likely would not cooperate anyway. That’s partly because Trickbot’s primary command and control mechanism supports communication over The Onion Router (TOR) — a distributed anonymity service that is wholly separate from the regular Internet.

“As a result, it is highly likely a takedown of the Trickbot infrastructure would have little medium- to long-term impact on the operation of Trickbot,” Intel 471 wrote in an analysis of Microsoft’s action.

What’s more, Trickbot has a fallback communications method that uses a decentralized domain name system called EmerDNS, which allows people to create and use domains that cannot be altered, revoked or suspended by any authority. The highly popular cybercrime store Joker’s Stash — which sells millions of stolen credit cards — also uses this setup.

From the Intel 471 report [malicious links and IP address defanged with brackets]:

“In the event all Trickbot infrastructure is taken down, the cybercriminals behind Trickbot will need to rebuild their servers and change their EmerDNS domain to point at their new servers. Compromised systems then should be able to connect to the new Trickbot infrastructure. Trickbot’s EmerDNS fall-back domain safetrust[.]bazar recently resolved to the IP address 195.123.237[.]156. Not coincidentally, this network neighborhood also hosts Bazar malware control servers.”

“Researchers previously attributed the development of the Bazar malware family to the same group behind Trickbot, due to code similarities with the Anchor malware family and its methods of operation, such as shared infrastructure between Anchor and Bazar. On Oct. 12, 2020 the fall-back domain resolved to the IP address 23.92.93[.]233, which was confirmed by Intel 471 Malware Intelligence systems to be a Trickbot controller URL in May 2019. This suggests the fall-back domain is still controlled by the Trickbot operators at the time of this report.”

Intel 471 concluded that the Microsoft action has so far has done little to disrupt the botnet’s activity.

“At the time of this report, Intel 471 has not seen any significant impact on Trickbot’s infrastructure and ability to communicate with Trickbot-infected systems,” the company wrote.

The legal filings from Microsoft are available here.

Update, 9:51 a.m. ET: Feodo Tracker now lists just six Trickbot controllers as responding. All six were first seen online in the past 48 hours. Also added perspective from Intel 471.

Report: U.S. Cyber Command Behind Trickbot Tricks

A week ago, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that someone was attempting to disrupt the Trickbot botnet, a malware crime machine that has infected millions of computers and is often used to spread ransomware. A new report Friday says the coordinated attack was part of an operation carried out by the U.S. military’s Cyber Command.

Image: Shutterstock.

On October 2, KrebsOnSecurity reported that twice in the preceding ten days, an unknown entity that had inside access to the Trickbot botnet sent all infected systems a command telling them to disconnect themselves from the Internet servers the Trickbot overlords used to control compromised Microsoft Windows computers.

On top of that, someone had stuffed millions of bogus records about new victims into the Trickbot database — apparently to confuse or stymie the botnet’s operators.

In a story published Oct. 9, The Washington Post reported that four U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Trickbot disruption was the work of U.S. Cyber Command, a branch of the Department of Defense headed by the director of the National Security Agency (NSA).

The Post report suggested the action was a bid to prevent Trickbot from being used to somehow interfere with the upcoming presidential election, noting that Cyber Command was instrumental in disrupting the Internet access of Russian online troll farms during the 2018 midterm elections.

The Post said U.S. officials recognized their operation would not permanently dismantle Trickbot, describing it rather as “one way to distract them for at least a while as they seek to restore their operations.”

Alex Holden, chief information security officer and president of Milwaukee-based Hold Security, has been monitoring Trickbot activity before and after the 10-day operation. Holden said while the attack on Trickbot appears to have cut its operators off from a large number of victim computers, the bad guys still have passwords, financial data and reams of other sensitive information stolen from more than 2.7 million systems around the world.

Holden said the Trickbot operators have begun rebuilding their botnet, and continue to engage in deploying ransomware at new targets.

“They are running normally and their ransomware operations are pretty much back in full swing,” Holden said. “They are not slowing down because they still have a great deal of stolen data.”

Holden added that since news of the disruption first broke a week ago, the Russian-speaking cybercriminals behind Trickbot have been discussing how to recoup their losses, and have been toying with the idea of massively increasing the amount of money demanded from future ransomware victims.

“There is a conversation happening in the back channels,” Holden said. “Normally, they will ask for [a ransom amount] that is something like 10 percent of the victim company’s annual revenues. Now, some of the guys involved are talking about increasing that to 100 percent or 150 percent.”

Amid an Embarrassment of Riches, Ransom Gangs Increasingly Outsource Their Work

There’s an old adage in information security: “Every company gets penetration tested, whether or not they pay someone for the pleasure.” Many organizations that do hire professionals to test their network security posture unfortunately tend to focus on fixing vulnerabilities hackers could use to break in. But judging from the proliferation of help-wanted ads for offensive pentesters in the cybercrime underground, today’s attackers have exactly zero trouble gaining that initial intrusion: The real challenge seems to be hiring enough people to help everyone profit from the access already gained.

One of the most common ways such access is monetized these days is through ransomware, which holds a victim’s data and/or computers hostage unless and until an extortion payment is made. But in most cases, there is a yawning gap of days, weeks or months between the initial intrusion and the deployment of ransomware within a victim organization.

That’s because it usually takes time and a good deal of effort for intruders to get from a single infected PC to seizing control over enough resources within the victim organization where it makes sense to launch the ransomware.

This includes pivoting from or converting a single compromised Microsoft Windows user account to an administrator account with greater privileges on the target network; the ability to sidestep and/or disable any security software; and gaining the access needed to disrupt or corrupt any data backup systems the victim firm may have.

Each day, millions of malware-laced emails are blasted out containing booby-trapped attachments. If the attachment is opened, the malicious document proceeds to quietly download additional malware and hacking tools to the victim machine (here’s one video example of a malicious Microsoft Office attachment from the malware sandbox service any.run). From there, the infected system will report home to a malware control server operated by the spammers who sent the missive.

At that point, control over the victim machine may be transferred or sold multiple times between different cybercriminals who specialize in exploiting such access. These folks are very often contractors who work with established ransomware groups, and who are paid a set percentage of any eventual ransom payments made by a victim company.

THE DOCTOR IS IN

Enter subcontractors like “Dr. Samuil,” a cybercriminal who has maintained a presence on more than a dozen top Russian-language cybercrime forums over the past 15 years. In a series of recent advertisements, Dr. Samuil says he’s eagerly hiring experienced people who are familiar with tools used by legitimate pentesters for exploiting access once inside of a target company — specifically, post-exploit frameworks like the closely-guarded Cobalt Strike.

“You will be regularly provided select accesses which were audited (these are about 10-15 accesses out of 100) and are worth a try,” Dr. Samuil wrote in one such help-wanted ad. “This helps everyone involved to save time. We also have private software that bypasses protection and provides for smooth performance.”

From other classified ads he posted in August and September 2020, it seems clear Dr. Samuil’s team has some kind of privileged access to financial data on targeted companies that gives them a better idea of how much cash the victim firm may have on hand to pay a ransom demand. To wit:

“There is huge insider information on the companies which we target, including information if there are tape drives and clouds (for example, Datto that is built to last, etc.), which significantly affects the scale of the conversion rate.

Requirements:
– experience with cloud storage, ESXi.
– experience with Active Directory.
– privilege escalation on accounts with limited rights.

* Serious level of insider information on the companies with which we work. There are proofs of large payments, but only for verified LEADs.
* There is also a private MEGA INSIDE , which I will not write about here in public, and it is only for experienced LEADs with their teams.
* We do not look at REVENUE / NET INCOME / Accountant reports, this is our MEGA INSIDE, in which we know exactly how much to confidently squeeze to the maximum in total.

According to cybersecurity firm Intel 471, Dr. Samuil’s ad is hardly unique, and there are several other seasoned cybercriminals who are customers of popular ransomware-as-a-service offerings that are hiring sub-contractors to farm out some of the grunt work.

“Within the cybercriminal underground, compromised accesses to organizations are readily bought, sold and traded,” Intel 471 CEO Mark Arena said. “A number of security professionals have previously sought to downplay the business impact cybercriminals can have to their organizations.”

“But because of the rapidly growing market for compromised accesses and the fact that these could be sold to anyone, organizations need to focus more on efforts to understand, detect and quickly respond to network compromises,” Arena continued. “That covers faster patching of the vulnerabilities that matter, ongoing detection and monitoring for criminal malware, and understanding the malware you are seeing in your environment, how it got there, and what it has or could have dropped subsequently.”

WHO IS DR. SAMUIL?

In conducting research for this story, KrebsOnSecurity learned that Dr. Samuil is the handle used by the proprietor of multi-vpn[.]biz, a long-running virtual private networking (VPN) service marketed to cybercriminals who are looking to anonymize and encrypt their online traffic by bouncing it through multiple servers around the globe.

Have a Coke and a Molotov cocktail. Image: twitter.com/multivpn

MultiVPN is the product of a company called Ruskod Networks Solutions (a.k.a. ruskod[.]net), which variously claims to be based in the offshore company havens of Belize and the Seychelles, but which appears to be run by a guy living in Russia.

The domain registration records for ruskod[.]net were long ago hidden by WHOIS privacy services. But according to Domaintools.com [an advertiser on this site], the original WHOIS records for the site from the mid-2000s indicate the domain was registered by a Sergey Rakityansky.

This is not an uncommon name in Russia or in many surrounding Eastern European nations. But a former business partner of MultiVPN who had a rather public falling out with Dr. Samuil in the cybercrime underground told KrebsOnSecurity that Rakityansky is indeed Dr. Samuil’s real surname, and that he is a 32- or 33-year-old currently living in Bryansk, a city located approximately 200 miles southwest of Moscow.

Neither Dr. Samuil nor MultiVPN have responded to requests for comment.

Promising Infusions of Cash, Fake Investor John Bernard Walked Away With $30M

September featured two stories on a phony tech investor named John Bernard, a pseudonym used by a convicted thief named John Clifton Davies who’s fleeced dozens of technology companies out of an estimated $30 million with the promise of lucrative investments. Those stories prompted a flood of tips from Davies’ victims that paints a much clearer picture of this serial con man and his cohorts, including allegations of hacking, smuggling, bank fraud and murder.

KrebsOnSecurity interviewed more than a dozen of Davies’ victims over the past five years, none of whom wished to be quoted here out of fear of reprisals from a man they say runs with mercenaries and has connections to organized crime.

As described in Part II of this series, John Bernard is in fact John Clifton Davies, a 59-year-old U.K. citizen who absconded from justice before being convicted on multiple counts of fraud in 2015. Prior to his conviction, Davies served 16 months in jail before being cleared of murdering his third wife on their honeymoon in India.

The scam artist John Bernard (left) in a recent Zoom call, and a photo of John Clifton Davies from 2015.

After eluding justice in the U.K., Davies reinvented himself as The Private Office of John Bernard, pretending to a be billionaire Swiss investor who made his fortunes in the dot-com boom 20 years ago and who was seeking investment opportunities.

In case after case, Bernard would promise to invest millions in tech startups, and then insist that companies pay tens of thousands of dollars worth of due diligence fees up front. However, the due diligence company he insisted on using — another Swiss firm called Inside Knowledge — also was secretly owned by Bernard, who would invariably pull out of the deal after receiving the due diligence money.

Bernard found a constant stream of new marks by offering extraordinarily generous finders fees to investment brokers who could introduce him to companies seeking an infusion of cash. When it came time for companies to sign legal documents, Bernard’s victims interacted with a 40-something Inside Knowledge employee named “Katherine Miller,” who claimed to be his lawyer.

It turns out that Katherine Miller is a onetime Moldovan attorney who was previously known as Ecaterina “Katya” Dudorenko. She is listed as a Romanian lawyer in the U.K. Companies House records for several companies tied to John Bernard, including Inside Knowledge Solutions Ltd., Docklands Enterprise Ltd., and Secure Swiss Data Ltd (more on Secure Swiss data in a moment).

Another of Bernard’s associates listed as a director at Docklands Enterprise Ltd. is Sergey Valentinov Pankov. This is notable because in 2018, Pankov and Dudorenko were convicted of cigarette smuggling in the United Kingdom.

Sergey Pankov and Ecaterina Dudorenco, in undated photos. Source: Mynewsdesk.com

According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, “illicit trafficking of tobacco is a multibillion-dollar business today, fueling organized crime and corruption [and] robbing governments of needed tax money. So profitable is the trade that tobacco is the world’s most widely smuggled legal substance. This booming business now stretches from counterfeiters in China and renegade factories in Russia to Indian reservations in New York and warlords in Pakistan and North Africa.”

Like their erstwhile boss Mr. Davies, both Pankov and Dudorenko disappeared before their convictions in the U.K. They were sentenced in absentia to two and a half years in prison.

Incidentally, Davies was detained by Ukrainian authorities in 2018, although he is not mentioned by name in this story from the Ukrainian daily Pravda. The story notes that the suspect moved to Kiev in 2014 and lived in a rented apartment with his Ukrainian wife.

John’s fourth wife, Iryna Davies, is listed as a director of one of the insolvency consulting businesses in the U.K. that was part of John Davies’ 2015 fraud conviction. Pravda reported that in order to confuse the Ukrainian police and hide from them, Mr. Davies constantly changed their place of residence.

John Clifton Davies, a.k.a. John Bernard. Image: Ukrainian National Police.

The Pravda story says Ukrainian authorities were working with the U.K. government to secure Davies’ extradition, but he appears to have slipped away once again. That’s according to one investment broker who’s been tracking Davies’ trail of fraud since 2015.

According to that source — who we’ll call “Ben” — Inside Knowledge and The Private Office of John Bernard have fleeced dozens of companies out of nearly USD $30 million in due diligence fees over the years, with one company reportedly paying over $1 million.

Ben said he figured out that Bernard was Davies through a random occurrence. Ben said he’d been told by a reliable source that Bernard traveled everywhere in Kiev with several armed guards, and that his entourage rode in a convoy that escorted Davies’ high-end Bentley. Ben said Davies’ crew was even able to stop traffic in the downtown area in what was described as a quasi military maneuver so that Davies’ vehicle could proceed unobstructed (and presumably without someone following his car).

Ben said he’s spoken to several victims of Bernard who saw phony invoices for payments to be made to banks in Eastern Europe appear to come from people within their own organization shortly after cutting off contact with Bernard and his team.

While Ben allowed that these invoices could have come from another source, it’s worth noting that by virtue of participating in the due diligence process, the companies targeted by these schemes would have already given Bernard’s office detailed information about their finances, bank accounts and security processes.

In some cases, the victims had agreed to use Bernard’s Secure Swiss Data software and services to store documents for the due diligence process. Secure Swiss Data is one of several firms founded by Davies/Inside Knowledge and run by Dudorenko, and it advertised itself as a Swiss company that provides encrypted email and data storage services. In February 2020, Secure Swiss Data was purchased in an “undisclosed multimillion buyout” by SafeSwiss Secure Communication AG.

Shortly after the first story on John Bernard was published here, virtually all of the employee profiles tied to Bernard’s office removed him from their work experience as listed on their LinkedIn resumes — or else deleted their profiles altogether. Also, John Bernard’s main website — the-private-office.ch — replaced the content on its homepage with a note saying it was closing up shop.

Incredibly, even after the first two stories ran, Bernard/Davies and his crew continued to ply their scam with companies that had already agreed to make due diligence payments, or that had made one or all of several installment payments.

One of those firms actually issued a press release in August saying it had been promised an infusion of millions in cash from John Bernard’s Private Office. They declined to be quoted here, and continue to hold onto hope that Mr. Bernard is not the crook that he plainly is.

Attacks Aimed at Disrupting the Trickbot Botnet

Over the past 10 days, someone has been launching a series of coordinated attacks designed to disrupt Trickbot, an enormous collection of more than two million malware-infected Windows PCs that are constantly being harvested for financial data and are often used as the entry point for deploying ransomware within compromised organizations.

A text snippet from one of the bogus Trickbot configuration updates. Source: Intel 471

On Sept. 22, someone pushed out a new configuration file to Windows computers currently infected with Trickbot. The crooks running the Trickbot botnet typically use these config files to pass new instructions to their fleet of infected PCs, such as the Internet address where hacked systems should download new updates to the malware.

But the new configuration file pushed on Sept. 22 told all systems infected with Trickbot that their new malware control server had the address 127.0.0.1, which is a “localhost” address that is not reachable over the public Internet, according to an analysis by cyber intelligence firm Intel 471.

It’s not known how many Trickbot-infected systems received the phony update, but it seems clear this wasn’t just a mistake by Trickbot’s overlords. Intel 471 found that it happened yet again on Oct. 1, suggesting someone with access to the inner workings of the botnet was trying to disrupt its operations.

“Shortly after the bogus configs were pushed out, all Trickbot controllers stopped responding correctly to bot requests,” Intel 471 wrote in a note to its customers. “This possibly means central Trickbot controller infrastructure was disrupted. The close timing of both events suggested an intentional disruption of Trickbot botnet operations.”

Intel 471 CEO Mark Arena said it’s anyone’s guess at this point who is responsible.

“Obviously, someone is trying to attack Trickbot,” Arena said. “It could be someone in the security research community, a government, a disgruntled insider, or a rival cybercrime group. We just don’t know at this point.

Arena said it’s unclear how successful these bogus configuration file updates will be given that the Trickbot authors built a fail-safe recovery system into their malware. Specifically, Trickbot has a backup control mechanism: A domain name registered on EmerDNS, a decentralized domain name system.

“This domain should still be in control of the Trickbot operators and could potentially be used to recover bots,” Intel 471 wrote.

But whoever is screwing with the Trickbot purveyors appears to have adopted a multi-pronged approach: Around the same time as the second bogus configuration file update was pushed on Oct. 1, someone stuffed the control networks that the Trickbot operators use to keep track of data on infected systems with millions of new records.

Alex Holden is chief technology officer and founder of Hold Security, a Milwaukee-based cyber intelligence firm that helps recover stolen data. Holden said at the end of September Trickbot held passwords and financial data stolen from more than 2.7 million Windows PCs.

By October 1, Holden said, that number had magically grown to more than seven million.

“Someone is flooding the Trickbot system with fake data,” Holden said. “Whoever is doing this is generating records that include machine names indicating these are infected systems in a broad range of organizations, including the Department of Defense, U.S. Bank, JP Morgan Chase, PNC and Citigroup, to name a few.”

Holden said the flood of new, apparently bogus, records appears to be an attempt by someone to dilute the Trickbot database and confuse or stymie the Trickbot operators. But so far, Holden said, the impact has been mainly to annoy and aggravate the criminals in charge of Trickbot.

“Our monitoring found at least one statement from one of the ransomware groups that relies on Trickbot saying this pisses them off, and they’re going to double the ransom they’re asking for from a victim,” Holden said. “We haven’t been able to confirm whether they actually followed through with that, but these attacks are definitely interfering with their business.”

Intel 471’s Arena said this could be part of an ongoing campaign to dismantle or wrest control over the Trickbot botnet. Such an effort would hardly be unprecedented. In 2014, for example, U.S. and international law enforcement agencies teamed up with multiple security firms and private researchers to commandeer the Gameover Zeus Botnet, a particularly aggressive and sophisticated malware strain that had enslaved up to 1 million Windows PCs globally.

Trickbot would be an attractive target for such a takeover effort because it is widely viewed as a platform used to find potential ransomware victims. Intel 471 describes Trickbot as “a malware-as-a-service platform that caters to a relatively small number of top-tier cybercriminals.”

One of the top ransomware gangs in operation today — which deploys ransomware strains known variously as “Ryuk” and “Conti,” is known to be closely associated with Trickbot infections. Both ransomware families have been used in some of the most damaging and costly malware incidents to date.

The latest Ryuk victim is Universal Health Services (UHS), a Fortune 500 hospital and healthcare services provider that operates more than 400 facilities in the U.S. and U.K.

On Sunday, Sept. 27, UHS shut down its computer systems at healthcare facilities across the United States in a bid to stop the spread of the malware. The disruption has reportedly caused the affected hospitals to redirect ambulances and relocate patients in need of surgery to other nearby hospitals.

Ransomware Victims That Pay Up Could Incur Steep Fines from Uncle Sam

Companies victimized by ransomware and firms that facilitate negotiations with ransomware extortionists could face steep fines from the U.S. federal government if the crooks who profit from the attack are already under economic sanctions, the Treasury Department warned today.

Image: Shutterstock

In its advisory (PDF), the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said “companies that facilitate ransomware payments to cyber actors on behalf of victims, including financial institutions, cyber insurance firms, and companies involved in digital forensics and incident response, not only encourage future ransomware payment demands but also may risk violating OFAC regulations.”

As financial losses from cybercrime activity and ransomware attacks in particular have skyrocketed in recent years, the Treasury Department has imposed economic sanctions on several cybercriminals and cybercrime groups, effectively freezing all property and interests of these persons (subject to U.S. jurisdiction) and making it a crime to transact with them.

A number of those sanctioned have been closely tied with ransomware and malware attacks, including the North Korean Lazarus Group; two Iranians thought to be tied to the SamSam ransomware attacks; Evgeniy Bogachev, the developer of Cryptolocker; and Evil Corp, a Russian cybercriminal syndicate that has used malware to extract more than $100 million from victim businesses.

Those that run afoul of OFAC sanctions without a special dispensation or “license” from Treasury can face several legal repercussions, including fines of up to $20 million.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies have tried to discourage businesses hit by ransomware from paying their extortionists, noting that doing so only helps bankroll further attacks.

But in practice, a fair number of victims find paying up is the fastest way to resume business as usual. In addition, insurance providers often help facilitate the payments because the amount demanded ends up being less than what the insurer might have to pay to cover the cost of the affected business being sidelined for days or weeks at a time.

While it may seem unlikely that companies victimized by ransomware might somehow be able to know whether their extortionists are currently being sanctioned by the U.S. government, they still can be fined either way, said Ginger Faulk, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of the law firm Eversheds Sutherland.

Faulk said OFAC may impose civil penalties for sanctions violations based on “strict liability,” meaning that a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction may be held civilly liable even if it did not know or have reason to know it was engaging in a transaction with a person that is prohibited under sanctions laws and regulations administered by OFAC.

“In other words, in order to be held liable as a civil (administrative) matter (as opposed to criminal), no mens rea or even ‘reason to know’ that the person is sanctioned is necessary under OFAC regulations,” Faulk said.

But Fabian Wosar, chief technology officer at computer security firm Emsisoft, said Treasury’s policies here are nothing new, and that they mainly constitute a warning for individual victim firms who may not already be working with law enforcement and/or third-party security firms.

Wosar said companies that help ransomware victims negotiate lower payments and facilitate the financial exchange are already aware of the legal risks from OFAC violations, and will generally refuse clients who get hit by certain ransomware strains.

“In my experience, OFAC and cyber insurance with their contracted negotiators are in constant communication,” he said. “There are often even clearing processes in place to ascertain the risk of certain payments violating OFAC.”

Along those lines, OFAC said the degree of a person/company’s awareness of the conduct at issue is a factor the agency may consider in assessing civil penalties. OFAC said it would consider “a company’s self-initiated, timely, and complete report of a ransomware attack to law enforcement to be a significant mitigating factor in determining an appropriate enforcement outcome if the situation is later determined to have a sanctions nexus.”

Who’s Behind Monday’s 14-State 911 Outage?

Emergency 911 systems were down for more than an hour on Monday in towns and cities across 14 U.S. states. The outages led many news outlets to speculate the problem was related to Microsoft‘s Azure web services platform, which also was struggling with a widespread outage at the time. However, multiple sources tell KrebsOnSecurity the 911 issues stemmed from some kind of technical snafu involving Intrado and Lumen, two companies that together handle 911 calls for a broad swath of the United States.

Image: West.com

On the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 28, several states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington reported 911 outages in various cities and localities.

Multiple news reports suggested the outages might have been related to an ongoing service disruption at Microsoft. But a spokesperson for the software giant told KrebsOnSecurity, “we’ve seen no indication that the multi-state 911 outage was a result of yesterday’s Azure service disruption.”

Inquiries made with emergency dispatch centers at several of the towns and cities hit by the 911 outage pointed to a different source: Omaha, Neb.-based Intrado — until last year known as West Safety Communications — a provider of 911 and emergency communications infrastructure, systems and services to telecommunications companies and public safety agencies throughout the country.

Intrado did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But according to officials in Henderson County, NC, which experienced its own 911 failures yesterday, Intrado said the outage was the result of a problem with an unspecified service provider.

“On September 28, 2020, at 4:30pm MT, our 911 Service Provider observed conditions internal to their network that resulted in impacts to 911 call delivery,” reads a statement Intrado provided to county officials. “The impact was mitigated, and service was restored and confirmed to be functional by 5:47PM MT.  Our service provider is currently working to determine root cause.”

The service provider referenced in Intrado’s statement appears to be Lumen, a communications firm and 911 provider that until very recently was known as CenturyLink Inc. A look at the company’s status page indicates multiple Lumen systems experienced total or partial service disruptions on Monday, including its private and internal cloud networks and its control systems network.

Lumen’s status page indicates the company’s private and internal cloud and control system networks had outages or service disruptions on Monday.

In a statement provided to KrebsOnSecurity, Lumen blamed the issue on Intrado.

“At approximately 4:30 p.m. MT, some Lumen customers were affected by a vendor partner event that impacted 911 services in AZ, CO, NC, ND, MN, SD, and UT,” the statement reads. “Service was restored in less than an hour and all 911 traffic is routing properly at this time. The vendor partner is in the process of investigating the event.”

It may be no accident that both of these companies are now operating under new names, as this would hardly be the first time a problem between the two of them has disrupted 911 access for a large number of Americans.

In 2019, Intrado/West and CenturyLink agreed to pay $575,000 to settle an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) into an Aug. 2018 outage that lasted 65 minutes. The FCC found that incident was the result of a West Safety technician bungling a configuration change to the company’s 911 routing network.

On April 6, 2014, some 11 million people across the United States were disconnected from 911 services for eight hours thanks to an “entirely preventable” software error tied to Intrado’s systems. The incident affected 81 call dispatch centers, rendering emergency services inoperable in all of Washington and parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, Minnesota and Florida.

According to a 2014 Washington Post story about a subsequent investigation and report released by the FCC, that issue involved a problem with the way Intrado’s automated system assigns a unique identifying code to each incoming call before passing it on to the appropriate “public safety answering point,” or PSAP.

“On April 9, the software responsible for assigning the codes maxed out at a pre-set limit,” The Post explained. “The counter literally stopped counting at 40 million calls. As a result, the routing system stopped accepting new calls, leading to a bottleneck and a series of cascading failures elsewhere in the 911 infrastructure.”

Compounding the length of the 2014 outage, the FCC found, was that the Intrado server responsible for categorizing and keeping track of service interruptions classified them as “low level” incidents that were never flagged for manual review by human beings.

The FCC ultimately fined Intrado and CenturyLink $17.4 million for the multi-state 2014 outage. An FCC spokesperson declined to comment on Monday’s outage, but said the agency was investigating the incident.

Who is Tech Investor John Bernard?

John Bernard, the subject of a story here last week about a self-proclaimed millionaire investor who has bilked countless tech startups, appears to be a pseudonym for John Clifton Davies, a U.K. man who absconded from justice before being convicted on multiple counts of fraud in 2015. Prior to his conviction, Davies served 16 months in jail before being cleared of murdering his wife on their honeymoon in India.

The Private Office of John Bernard, which advertises itself as a capital investment firm based in Switzerland, has for years been listed on multiple investment sites as the home of a millionaire who made his fortunes in the dot-com boom 20 years ago and who has oodles of cash to invest in tech startups.

But as last week’s story noted, Bernard’s investment company is a bit like a bad slot machine that never pays out. KrebsOnSecurity interviewed multiple investment brokers who all told the same story: After promising to invest millions after one or two phone calls and with little or no pushback, Bernard would insist that companies pay tens of thousands of dollars worth of due diligence fees up front.

However, the due diligence company he insisted on using — another Swiss firm called Inside Knowledge — also was secretly owned by Bernard, who would invariably pull out of the deal after receiving the due diligence money.

Neither Mr. Bernard nor anyone from his various companies responded to multiple requests for comment over the past few weeks. What’s more, virtually all of the employee profiles tied to Bernard’s office have since last week removed those firms from their work experience as listed on their LinkedIn resumes — or else deleted their profiles altogether.

Sometime on Thursday John Bernard’s main website — the-private-office.ch — replaced the content on its homepage with a note saying it was closing up shop.

“We are pleased to announce that we are currently closing The Private Office fund as we have reached our intended investment level and that we now plan to focus on helping those companies we have invested into to grow and succeed,” the message reads.

As noted in last week’s story, the beauty of a scam like the one multiple investment brokers said was being run by Mr. Bernard is that companies bilked by small-time investment schemes rarely pursue legal action, mainly because the legal fees involved can quickly surpass the losses. What’s more, most victims will likely be too ashamed to come forward.

Also, John Bernard’s office typically did not reach out to investment brokers directly. Rather, he had his firm included on a list of angel investors focused on technology companies, so those seeking investments usually came to him.

Finally, multiple sources interviewed for this story said Bernard’s office offered a finders fee for any investment leads that brokers brought his way. While such commissions are not unusual, the amount promised — five percent of the total investment in a given firm that signed an agreement — is extremely generous. However, none of the investment brokers who spoke to KrebsOnSecurity were able to collect those fees, because Bernard’s office never actually consummated any of the deals they referred to him.

PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE EMPTY BOOKSHELVES

After last week’s story ran, KrebsOnSecurity heard from a number of other investment brokers who had near identical experiences with Bernard. Several said they at one point spoke with him via phone or Zoom conference calls, and that he had a distinctive British accent.

When questioned about why his staff was virtually all based in Ukraine when his companies were supposedly in Switzerland, Bernard replied that his wife was Ukrainian and that they were living there to be closer to her family.

One investment broker who recently got into a deal with Bernard shared a screen shot from a recent Zoom call with him. That screen shot shows Bernard bears a striking resemblance to one John Clifton Davies, a 59-year-old from Milton Keynes, a large town in Buckinghamshire, England about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of London.

John Bernard (left) in a recent Zoom call, and a photo of John Clifton Davies from 2015.

In 2015, Mr. Davies was convicted of stealing more than GBP 750,000 from struggling companies looking to restructure their debt. For at least seven years, Davies ran multiple scam businesses that claimed to provide insolvency consulting to distressed companies, even though he was not licensed to do so.

“After gaining the firm’s trust, he took control of their assets and would later pocket the cash intended for creditors,” according to a U.K. news report from 2015. “After snatching the cash, Davies proceeded to spend the stolen money on a life of luxury, purchasing a new upmarket home fitted with a high-tech cinema system and new kitchen.”

Davies disappeared before he was convicted of fraud in 2015. Two years before that, Davies was released from prison after being held in custody for 16 months on suspicion of murdering his new bride in 2004 on their honeymoon in India.

Davies’ former wife Colette Davies, 39, died after falling 80 feet from a viewing point at a steep gorge in the Himachal Pradesh region of India. Mr. Davies was charged with murder and fraud after he attempted to collect GBP 132,000 in her life insurance payout, but British prosecutors ultimately conceded they did not have enough evidence to convict him.

THE SWISS AND UKRAINE CONNECTIONS

While the photos above are similar, there are other clues that suggest the two identities may be the same person. A review of business records tied to Davies’ phony insolvency consulting businesses between 2007 and 2013 provides some additional pointers.

John Clifton Davies’ former listing at the official U.K. business registrar Companies House show his company was registered at the address 26 Dean Forest Way, Broughton, Milton Keynes.

A search on that street address at 4iq.com turns up several interesting results, including a listing for senecaequities.com registered to a John Davies at the email address john888@myswissmail.ch.

A Companies House official record for Seneca Equities puts it at John Davies’ old U.K. address at 26 Dean Forest Way and lists 46-year-old Iryna Davies as a director. “Iryna” is a uniquely Ukrainian spelling of the name Irene (the Russian equivalent is typically “Irina”).

A search on John Clifton Davies and Iryna turned up this 2013 story from The Daily Mirror which says Iryna is John C. Davies’ fourth wife, and that the two were married in 2010.

A review of the Swiss company registrar for The Inside Knowledge GmbH shows an Ihor Hubskyi was named as president of the company. This name is phonetically the same as Igor Gubskyi, a Ukrainian man who was listed in the U.K.’s Companies House records as one of five officers for Seneca Equities along with Iryna Davies.

KrebsOnSecurity sought comment from both the U.K. police district that prosecuted Davies’ case and the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA). Neither wished to comment on the findings. “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation or subjects of interest,” a spokesperson for the NCA said.