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A Russian crime ring has amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion username and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses, security researchers say.

The records, discovered by Hold Security, a firm in Milwaukee, include confidential material gathered from 420,000 websites, ranging from household names to small Internet sites. Hold Security has a history of uncovering significant hacks, including the theft last year of tens of millions of records from Adobe Systems.

Hold Security would not name the victims, citing nondisclosure agreements and a reluctance to name companies whose sites remained vulnerable. At the request of the New York Times, a security expert not affiliated with Hold Security analyzed the database of stolen credentials and confirmed it was authentic. Another computer crime expert who had reviewed the data, but was not allowed to discuss it publicly, said some big companies were aware that their records were among the stolen information.

“Hackers did not just target U.S. companies, they targeted any website they could get, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to very small websites,” said Alex Holden, the founder and chief information security officer of Hold Security. “And most of these sites are still vulnerable.”

So far, the criminals have not sold many of the records online. Instead, they appear to be using the stolen information to send spam on social networks like Twitter at the behest of other groups, collecting fees for their work.

But selling more of the records on the black market would be lucrative.

While a credit card can be easily canceled, personal credentials like an email address, Social Security number or password can be used for identity theft. Because people tend to use the same passwords for different sites, criminals test stolen credentials on websites where valuable information can be gleaned, like those of banks and brokerage firms.

Like other computer security consulting firms, Hold Security has contacts in the criminal hacking community and has been monitoring and even communicating with this particular group for some time.

The hacking ring is based in a small city in south central Russia, the region flanked by Kazakhstan and Mongolia. The group includes fewer than a dozen men in their 20s who know one another personally — not just virtually. Their computer servers are believed to be in Russia.

“There is a division of labor within the gang,” Holden said. “Some are writing the programming, some are stealing the data. It’s like you would imagine a small company; everyone is trying to make a living.”

They began as amateur spammers in 2011, buying stolen databases of personal information on the black market. But in April, the group accelerated its activity. Holden surmised they partnered with another entity, whom he has not identified, that may have shared hacking techniques and tools.

Since then, the Russian hackers have been able to capture credentials on a mass scale using botnets — networks of zombie computers that have been infected with a computer virus — to do their bidding. Any time an infected user visits a website, criminals command the botnet to test that website to see if it is vulnerable to a well-known hacking technique known as a SQL injection, in which a hacker enters commands that cause a database to produce its contents. If the website proves vulnerable, criminals flag the site and return later to extract the full contents of the database.