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New-style ransomware locks out your customers – demands money to let them log back in

The crooks took a low-key, annoyingly simple, and hard-to-spot approach. Change usernames like JIMMY to FKOVWH3Z7LUV, but hide the changes...for a while, anyway.

A boutique Swiss security outfit recently wrote about a sneaky new sort of ransomware.

It’s an intriguing story.

The crooks, it seems, decided to take it out on company X by means of extortion: encrypt customer data, and then offer the decryption key for a price.

There are several unsubtle way to do this, such as:

  • Hack into the network, shut down the network facing part of the webservers, scramble everything you can find, and make your demand.
  • Compromise the webservers with an exploit kit, foist ransomware on everyone who logs in, and extort money piecemeal from every customer.
  • Foist ransomware on everyone who logs in, and tell them to get the company to pay.

And so on: you can probably think of your own ways in which crooks could attack (and thinking of them is not some kind of “security sin” – understanding your enemy helps you predict and prevent possible problems).

In this case, however, the crooks took a surprisingly low-key, annoyingly simple, and hard-to-spot approach.

Take over the login database

X was using phpBB for its online customer forum.

So the crooks broke in and hacked the PHP code that dealt with the user database.

Basically, the database engine itself was slightly modified so that user login data was scrambled with a key held by the crooks when it was saved, but quietly decrypted when it was read out.

On the surface, everything was hunky-dory, but the raw data underneath was shredded cabbage.

The key was never actually stored on the hacked server, but was instead fetched into memory at startup time from a dodgy remote server operated by the crooks:

Come the day, apparently after about two months, and the crooks removed the decryption key from their dodgy server.

So, even though the vast majority of the forum data was intact, and accessible, and archivable, and online…

…customers couldn’t log in, because their usernames had suddenly changed from JIMMY to FKOVWH3Z7LUV.

Worse, of course, their password hashes were scrambled too.

So who knows what password could possibly produce the required hash and unlock each account?

So customers started calling up to say, “We can’t log in.”

Recovery, first attempt

Oh no!

What to do?

You recover from a backup, of course.

Except that your backups for the past two months include shredded-cabbage login data.

What next?

Recovery, second attempt

One thing you could do, but it wouldn’t be an exercise to be undertaken lightly, would be to trawl laboriously through all your databases, either automatically, manually, or using a bit of both, and work out what users had been transformed into which weird names.

Then you could reset their passwords, and email them with their new, unusual, usernames as a temporary measure.

It would be ugly, but it would work.

Oh no!

The crooks scrambled usernames, passwords, and email addresses.

So even if you can fix JIMMY‘s account, you can only let him know by emailing him by emailing someone called RDoj2PM4 AT yivLUZ6aabF DOT GzO3.

Recovery, third attempt

Guess what happens next?

A message arrives.

Would you like to buy the decryption key?

There’s no indication of how much the crooks in this case asked for, or whether X eventually paid up (the impression given is that the company did not).

But it’s an interesting reminder of how security on your server is as much about your customers and your reputation as it is about your server.

It’s also a reminder of how, even when the bulk of your database records look fine, crooks could have put a customer-facing spanner right in the works.

NB. Although this particular attack seems like a one-off, Sophos products detect the PHP components used to initiate this compromise as Troj/PHPRansm-A, and block connections to the crooks’ key server. Just in case.


yeah, comes by mail in *.cab form. we have som customers who have been compromised


Are you sure we’re talking about the same thing? (I’m surprised to hear of a email attachment with a .CAB extension that is targeting a PHP/Linux server admin. I could understand an email with a .tgz file, or even a .zip, but .CAB just seems too Microsoftie for this :-)

Would you mind sending a sample of one of these emails to, referencing this article?



This sounds very similar to the cryptowall and cryptolocker virus. As I understand the virus encrypts your data, and any drives attached via the network. Then sells you the key to unlock your data, with the ransom ranging in dollar figure.


Actually, it’s similar in that it starts with cryptography and ends in blackmail, but this hack is different because it deliberately encrypts only a tiny part of your data – the part that makes your forum useful to your customers (i.e. that they can use it at all).

On a technical side, it’s also different because the decryption key is on the computer, albeit in memory, whenever the malware is active, whereas Cryptolocker and friends use public key cryptography, where your computer only ever sees the encryption key…


The server administrator should not have used plaintext FTP! Once the crooks had the credentials, they could have just copied the entire database, deleted it, and asked for ransom. But then it could be restored from backup, if any. Also, the logs should have indicated that someone was accessing the server through FTP from a different IP than the admin’s IP, no?


It’s possible that it was stolen through a targetted virus on their remote computer (ftp/web/etc password stealing trojans are getting more and more common)


Or the unauthorised modifications might have been due to some unpatched security hole in yet another part of the system that gave enough write access to change parts of pppBB.


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