Did Retailers Learn Any Lessons From Gonzalez?

Written by Evan Schuman
April 29th, 2010

Albert Gonzalez succeeded—for several years, at least—as arguably the world’s most effective cyberthief, breaking into many of the largest retail chains (Target, 7-Eleven, TJX, JCPenney, Sports Authority, etc.). His methodologies for breaking in were clean, but his methods of avoiding detection for years (despite extensive network activity and huge file transfers) and of cleaning up his tracks forensically kept the world’s top law enforcement agents stymied.

A post-conviction look at how Gonzalez was caught suggests a change in the type of retailers likely to be targeted and ways today’s largest chains can better protect themselves. But it also raises questions about whether the very nature of such a large-scale cyber-attack could ever succeed, assuming success is defined as both getting the money and not getting caught. Retailers are worried about protecting against similar attacks, but it’s not likely to be repeated—at least not in the same way.

According to the federal prosecutors who oversaw the cases, they got used to referring to Gonzalez as 201679996. That was his identification on the ICQ instant messaging service he used. For quite some time, authorities were convinced that 201679996 was behind the retail break-ins, but they had yet to identify that it was Gonzalez–their former paid, confidential informant.

As happens so often with elaborate, sophisticated criminal operations, the break in the case doesn’t typically come from standard detective work. It’s usually a matter of luck, coupled with one of the lower level people involved in the operation getting arrested for something. And then that person makes a deal. In a way, that’s what happened with Gonzalez.

His multinational crew was actually quite strict about communication procedures, and most had no idea who their colleagues really were. This tactic minimizes the damage to the group if one member gets caught. But when one Gonzalez colleague, Maksym Ystremskiy of the Ukraine, was arrested in July 2007 by the Turkish National Police, the officers seized his laptop and password and shared an image of his hard-drive with the U.S. Secret Service.

It was there they found stored ICQ messages, including a huge number from their friend, 201679996. The messages included lots of references to the break-ins, and at least one message broke code and said “TJX.” Another said “D&B,” standing for Dave & Buster’s, one of the first chains to be hit.

Another message spoke of a participant who was arrested the day before, so the Secret Service started pouring through their records of people who had been arrested on that date until they found a match. From there, the trail quickly led to various people and, ultimately, to Gonzalez.

The plans “were brilliantly executed. It was an incredible challenge to trace back and figure out” who was behind it, said Kim Peretti who, as senior counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Computer Crime Section, oversaw almost all of these cases.

Although Gonzalez did type letters that would ultimately destroy his operation, Peretti makes a good case that there really wasn’t much of a choice for him. To hit as many chains as Gonzalez did, a lot of people—with various skillsets—were needed. And with the stolen data hidden in servers in multiple countries, communication among team members was essential.


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