“History is much decried; it is a tissue of errors, we are told, no doubt correctly; and rival historians expose each other’s blunders with gratification. Yet the worst historian has a clearer view of the period he studies than the best of us can hope to form of that in which we live. The obscurest epoch is to-day; and that for a thousand reasons of incohate tendency, conflicting report, and sheer mass and multiplicity of experience; but chiefly, perhaps, by reason of an insidious shifting of landmarks.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
To say that there is a law enforcement manhunt on for the individuals responsible for posting credit report information on public figures and celebrities at the rogue site exposed.su would be a major understatement. I like to think that when that investigation is completed, some of the information I’ve helped to uncover about those affiliated with the site will come to light. For now, however, I’m content to retrace some of my footwork this past weekend that went into tracking individuals who may have been responsible for attacking my site and SWATing my home last Thursday.
I state upfront that the information in this piece is certainly not the whole story (most news reporting is, at best, a snapshot in time, a first rough draft of history). While the clues I’ve uncovered thus far point to the role of a single individual, this person is likely part of a larger group involved in hacking and SWATing activity.
In my story last week, I posted a copy of the internal database for booter.tw, one of several fee-for-service “booter” sites. Booter sites are perhaps most popular among online gaming enthusiasts, who like to use them to knock opponents offline; but they are frequently also used to launch debilitating attacks on Web sites. That leaked booter.tw database shows that the denial-of-service attack that hit my site last week was paid for by a booter.tw user with the account name “countonme,” and using the address “email@example.com.”
Since the attack, I reached out to the proprietor of booter.tw, a hacker who uses the nickname “Askaa.” He informed me that the individual who launched the attack on my site was a hacker who used the screen name Phobia. “Phobia hacked into the countonme account to make it look like the according user attacked you,” Askaa said in a brief interview over Skype instant message. Askaa declined to say why he was so confident of this information.
Separately, over the weekend I received an email from a person who claimed to have direct knowledge of the attacks (perhaps because he, too, was involved). This individual said those who attacked my site were a group of young online video game enthusiasts who were upset that earlier in the week I’d written about ssndob.ru, a site that sells access to peoples’ credit files, Social Security numbers and other sensitive information.
According to this source, the hackers in this case belong to a four-man Xbox live gamer team that calls itself “Team Hype,” which until this past weekend had posted a number of videos to their own youtube.com channel, RealTeamHype (more on what happened to these videos in a moment).
According to the anonymous source, Team Hype consists of hackers who use the nicknames “Trojan,” “Shadow,” Convict,” and “Phobia.” The source said the group used SSNs from ssndob.ru to hijack “gamertags,” online personas tied to Xbox Live game accounts. In this case, specifically from Microsoft employees who work on the Xbox Live gaming platform. Some of the group members then sell those accounts to other Xbox Live players.
“They hack/social engineer Gamertags off Microsoft employees by using SSNs,” the source wrote. “I didn’t DDoS your site and I didn’t SWAT you, Phobia has been telling everyone he did. The method he released he said he gets SSNs, then calls phone companies and redirects the number and than gets xbox phone support to call number and confirm. I heard he got pissed that you released the site he uses. Also Trojan told a buddie of mines ‘fear’(on AIM) something about a dead body in your closet about your swat.”
The source said Phobia used the Twitter account @PhobiaTheGod (now closed, but partially available here and at this cache), and that Phobia’s personal information — including real name, address and phone number — had been “doxed” or released onto Pastebin-like sites some time ago. It didn’t take long to locate this profile at skidpaste.org (“skid” is a diminutive reference to the term “script kiddies,” referring to relatively unskilled young hackers who conduct most of their exploits using automated tools without understanding how those tools actually do the dirty work).
Having watched most of the videos at RealTeamHype’s youtube channel, it appeared that my source was telling the truth about the hijacked accounts: In fact, the videos at that channel documented such hijackings in progress using desktop screen-grabbing software. The videos even showed conversations with other team members in instant message windows in the background.
But I was reluctant to put much stock in the information until the source sent me a piece of information that only the attackers and my ISP would have known. On Friday, I received a call from Cox Communications, my Internet service provider. They wanted to know why I had paid $3,000 toward my account using several different credit card numbers. I assured them that I hadn’t made that payment. Then I heard from a member of Cox’s security team, who asked if I’d reset my password and if I’d indeed asked to cancel my Internet service. He was unsurprised to learn that I hadn’t. Apparently, hackers reset the password to my Cox email account by working out the answer to my secret question (this account is separate from my Cox user account, was set up over 10 years ago, and has never been used for anything remotely interesting or sensitive).
The source told me via email: “Hey brian, i just spoke to fear he told me phobia and his buddies were telling him that they hacked your cox email and paid your cox bill with hacked credit card, im not sure if this is true but im letting you know.”
I decided to give a call to the phone number included in the doxed records for Phobia, which rang at a home in Milford, Ct. A 20-year-old named Ryan Stevenson picked up the phone. After introducing myself, I asked Ryan if he knew anything about booter.tw, and he said he didn’t bother with booter sites because they were lame.
I then asked if he was part of a Xbox gaming group called TeamHype. He said yes, but that he hadn’t been associated with that group for six months. When I asked why, he said that his teammates had repeatedly called his house posing as the police, and had even SWATed his home — something his father confirmed by interjecting over Ryan’s voice. I told Ryan I found this strange, since the youtube channel for TeamHype’s video channel was created on Dec. 26, 2012, and his youtube.com account “Phobia” had uploaded videos of Microsoft Xbox accounts being hijacked as recently as February 2013. What’s more, those videos (like the one reproduced here) show Phobia sending shouts out to his buddies.
Then I remembered where I’d heard the nickname “Phobia”: In a terrifying tale by Mat Honan, a wired.com reporter who woke up one day last year to find his Macbook and other Apple devices being remotely wiped of their data after hackers managed to commandeer his Apple iCloud account. According to Honan’s story, “How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking,” a hacker named Phobia reached out to him shortly after the incident. “Phobia was able to reveal enough detail about the hack and my compromised accounts that it became clear he was, at the very least, a party to how it went down,” Honan wrote of his ordeal. “I agreed not to press charges, and in return he laid out exactly how the hack worked.”
I asked Ryan if he knew Mat Honan. Here’s a snippet of our conversation:
BK: I’m looking at a story in Wired magazine from Mat Honan about how his Apple iCloud account was hacked. Do you know this guy?
RS: Yeah, I used to.
BK: Uh huh. And is Honan referring to you in this article?
RS: Uh huh.
BK: Did anything bad ever happen to you because of this?
BK: So, this was your doing with the Mat Honan hack, but you say you would never use a site like a stresser or…
RS: Yeah, I would never do that. That’s stupid.
BK: …or hack a reporter’s account or launch a denial of service attack against a reporter, or SWAT his house….
RS: <extended silence>
BK: So what’s the point of hacking a reporter’s iCloud account? Why’d you do that?
RS: Just to prove a point that, like…the security is breachable.
BK: Are you still on twitter?
RS: Yeah. But I changed my username yesterday.
BK: Really? Why?
RS: Because I don’t want to deal with people anymore. People call my house and pretend to be the police and stuff.
BK: Yeah, I know what you mean. So, what was your old Twitter account name?
RS: I think you know.
BK: So what’s your new Twitter handle?
RS: <extended silence>
BK: Look, did you launch the attack on my site or not? Some of your gaming buddies sure seem ready to throw you under the bus for it.
RS: I didn’t even know who you were until someone tweeted your site. I just went to it to see what it was about.
At this point, Ryan’s dad grabs the phone and tries to tell me that his son didn’t really say that he hacked Mat Honan’s iCloud account, but that what he really said was he only knew the guy who hacked Honan’s account. Ryan’s dad goes on to explain that his son is basically a good kid who fell in with the wrong crowd, and that his son wouldn’t stoop to hacking other people, and certainly not to sending SWAT teams or any of that nonsense.
I decide to share with Ryan’s dad the URL for the TeamHype channel at youtube.com, and I can hear the father taking notes on the other end of the line. From the racket in the background noise behind the voice of Ryan’s dad, it’s clear that someone is furiously banging away at a computer keyboard. My suspicions are confirmed when I refresh the TeamHype youtube channel and find all of the videos have been deleted (the one above was cached in my window so I was able to re-record it).
This entire episode is giving me flashbacks that date back almost a decade, when I began communicating with a hacker group that called itself Team Defonic. These young men positively lived to hack into and post online personal data and photos belonging to celebrities and public figures. They also were obsessed with plundering databases for Social Security numbers and other sensitive information. Most of them were later arrested and jailed for their roles in breaking into Paris Hilton’s cell phone and hacking into accounts at Accurint, a law enforcement database run by data aggregator LexisNexis.
Stay tuned for more on this developing story. Meantime, many thanks again to all of you who’ve expressed concern or reached out via Twitter, Facebook (and Paypal!) to voice support and solidarity.