Hackers shakedown businesses by encrypting their websites

Crypto-ransomware hackers who have plagued PCs for the past two years have found a new tack — high value business websites.

Website owners should be familiar with the hacker’s shakedown. Startups like Feedly and Evernote, gaming sites, and even the alleged operator of the Silk Road website, know what it’s like to face extortion demands at the hands of DDoS attackers.

But instead of throwing junk traffic at a website to knock it offline, hackers are locking down website databases and demanding payment for the decryption key. The attack is a blend of encryption attacks on PC hard-drives and DDoS attacks on high-value websites.

Swiss security firm two incidents since December of hackers quietly encrypting a business’ website database, disabling the site and demanding a fee to release it.

In both cases, the websites were valuable tools for communicating with customers. The first, discovered in December, hit a financial services firm. The attackers had compromised the company’s web application six months earlier and stealthily encrypted critical fields of its database. The attackers ensured the site remained available while waiting for database backups to be overwritten with encrypted data.

During that process, an encryption key was stored on a remote web server accessible via HTTPS. This ensured the site remained up. However, on the day that the attackers made their demand, they pulled the key from the remote server and disabled the website.

A second similar attack struck an small business’ customer service form that was running PHP-based forum software phpBB. This attack targeted the site’s authentication function, preventing users, forum moderators and admins from logging in.

According to HT Bridge, the forum was running the latest version of the software package, however the attackers managed to steal the site’s FTP password. From there, the attackers modified several files in order to encrypt users’ passwords and emails on the fly between the web application the site’s database. Again, a key was placed on a remote server but after two months the key was removed and a ransom payment demanded.

There are a few differences that make the attacks potentially worse than DDoS, in that it could force the website owner to rebuild their site from scratch.

On the other hand, it’s just one more attack on web applications — an area of security that the OWASP organisation has been drawing attention to for over a decade.

This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.

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