Cyber Criminals Demand Ransom From Travelex

Hackers are holding foreign exchange company Travelex to ransom after a cyber-attack forced the firm to turn off all computer systems and resort to using pen and paper. As a result, the company took down its websites across 30 countries to "contain the virus and protect data".

New questions have been raised about the security of Travelex’s computer network after it emerged the company waited eight months to patch vulnerable VPN servers.

Four days following the attack the company has now disclosed it is facing demands for payment to decrypt critical computer files after it was hit by one of the most sophisticated ransomware attacks, known as Sodinokibi.

The malware struck Travelex in the early hours of 31 December 2019, when it encrypted critical business files and left readme documents on infected computers.The readme files instructed Travelex to pay a ransom in bitcoin through a website with a top-level domain registered in China in March 2019. 

The attack has resulted in the Travelex websites in at least 20 countries becoming inaccessible and left its outlets in airports and other retail sites without access to the internet or email or Travelex’s IT systems, as the company shut down systems to prevent the spread of the virus.

Travelex
Travelex has operations in 27 countries and has faced days of disruption after criminal hackers penetrated its computer networks and delivered a devastating attack timed to hit the company when many of its staff were on holiday. According to security specialists, criminals are expected to demand a six-figure sum to supply Travelex with decryption tools that will allow it to recover the contents of files across its computer network that have been encrypted by the virus. 

The attack has also disrupted banks, including Sainsbury’s Bank, Barclays, HSBC, Virgin Money, First Direct and Asda Money, along with others that rely on Travelex to provide their foreign exchange services. Travelex staff have been forced to record transactions manually, and are unable to take card payments for foreign currency or deliver pre-ordered currency to travellers who had pre-ordered it for collection.

Customers have complained they have been unable to top up their Travelex currency cards, confirm transactions have taken place, check balances or use the Travelex app.

  • Travelex host the Virgin Money Travel Money site on behalf of Virgin Money as a third party supplier, this site is also not functioning while Travelex is not operating online. 
  • Sainsbury's Bank also said its online travel money services were unavailable, although it said customers could still buy travel money in its stores. In a statement to the BBC, the bank said: "We're in close contact with Travelex so that we can resume our online service as soon as possible."

Hackers Demand Decryption Ransom
Sodinokibi, also known as REvil, appeared in April 2019, offering criminal gangs the opportunity to rent the ransomware and customise it to target their own victims in return for a cut of the profits. Some criminal groups have links to Syria and Iran, according to research by McAfee.

The disclosure comes amid new evidence that Travelex took eight months to patch computer servers containing a critical security vulnerability after the problem was first disclosed by security researchers, leaving its networks vulnerable to attacks from cyber criminals.

The hackers instructed Travelex staff to visit a website, which appears to be hosted in a datacentre in Colorado, US, using the Tor secure browser, which prompts users to enter a long pass key that will unlock instructions on how to pay a ransom to release decryption tools.

Apparently computers containing confidential information, including names of clients and bank account and transaction details, had been infected by Sodinikibi, which adds a random character string to the end of each encrypted file.

Travelex was Slow to Patch Critical Servers 
Security researchers reported that Pulse Secure VPN services contained bugs that could allow people to gain covert access to a company’s network, prompting Pulse Secure to issue an advisory notice and software patches to correct the problem in April 2019. On 13 September, security company Bad Packets sent emails to thousands of companies with vulnerable Pulse Secure VPN services, after identifying that hackers were attempting to exploit the vulnerabilities.

It warned Travelex that it had seven unpatched Pulse Secure VPN servers in Australia, the Netherlands, the UK and the US, with vulnerabilities that could allow attackers to access its networks. 

Analysis by Bad Packets shows that Travelex did not patch the servers until early November 2019, leaving a critical window in which the servers were vulnerable to attack.

Travelex Remote Desktops Vulnerable
Researchers at McAfee Labs say that cyber attackers use a variety of techniques to plant Sodinokibi on targeted computer networks. These include targeted phishing email attacks and exploit kits, compromised websites used to spread malware.The majority of attacks, however, start by hackers targeting Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), which allows IT services engineers remote access to Windows machines.

According to Coveware, a company which specialises in negotiating ransom payments with cyber criminals, any company using RDP is ‘Playing roulette with Ransomware’. RDP has become a common attack vector used by hackers to sidestep endpoint security and makes penetrating portioned networks and backup systems simple. It is “the perfect access point for planting malware”, it says.

Remedial Action
Travelex said it had deployed teams of IT specialists and external computer security experts, who have been working continuously since New Year’s Eve to isolate the virus and restore affected systems. It has declined to say whether it will pay the ransom. Raj Samani, chief scientist at McAfee, said it may be possible for companies to identify Sodinokibi attacks early and close the door, but once they have received a ransomware note it is more difficult for them to recover.

Once inside a network, hackers may delete logs to cover their tracks and develop other ways to gain access to networks, even if companies patch vulnerabilities.

“If they have access to Microsoft Active Directory, it means they have the keys to your castle. They have got admin rights. They have got multiple entry vectors,” Samani said. “Paying the ransom is only the top of the iceberg, because it is at this point you are going to have to figure out whether you can recover the systems. There have been companies that have had to rebuild their entire networks.”

'Planned Maintenance'
Currently Travelex websites in 20 countries in Europe and the Middle East remained inaccessible. Visitors to Travelex’s websites in Europe, including the UK, Germany and France, were greeted with notices that services were unavailable because of “planned maintenance”.

Other Travelex websites, including those in Italy and Bahrain, reported that services were temporarily unavailable while Travelex makes improvements. Visitors to the Canadian site were told that the Travelex was 'excited' about a planned redesign of its website and apologised that it was temporarily unavailable “before the big reveal”. Websites in New Zealand and Turkey returned application errors.

McAfee:         Computer Weekly:      BBC:      The Sun:        Coveware 1:      Coveware 2:         

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