Ever wonder what happens when one’s hacked?
Here’s an insightful chilling account of how one victim attempted to trace the hacker who invaded into his onlife life and Bitcoin wallet.
Anatomy of a Hack
In the early morning hours of October 21st, 2014, Partap Davis lost $3,000. He had gone to sleep just after 2AM in his Albuquerque, New Mexico, home after a late night playing World of Tanks. While he slept, an attacker undid every online security protection he set up. By the time he woke up, most of his online life had been compromised: two email accounts, his phone, his Twitter, his two-factor authenticator, and most importantly, his bitcoin wallets.
Davis was careful when it came to digital security. He chose strong passwords and didn’t click on bogus links. He used two-factor authentication with Gmail, so when he logged in from a new computer, he had to type in six digits that were texted to his phone, just to make sure it was him. He had made some money with the rise of bitcoin and held onto the bitcoin in three protected wallets, managed by Coinbase, Bitstamp, and BTC-E. He also used two-factor with the Coinbase and BTC-E accounts. Any time he wanted to access them, he had to verify the login with Authy, a two-factor authenticator app on his phone.
Other than the bitcoin, Davis wasn’t that different from the average web user. He makes his living coding, splitting time between building video education software and a patchwork of other jobs. On the weekends, he snowboards, exploring the slopes around Los Alamos. This is his 10th year in Albuquerque; last year, he turned 40.
After the hack, Davis spent weeks tracking down exactly how it had happened, piecing together a picture from access logs and reluctant customer service reps. Along the way, he reached out to The Verge, and we added a few more pieces to the puzzle. We still don’t know everything — in particular, we don’t know who did it — but we know enough to say how they did it, and the points of failure sketch out a map of the most glaring vulnerabilities of our digital lives.
It started with Davis’ email. When he was first setting up an email account, Davis found that Partap@gmail.com was taken, so he chose a Mail.com address instead, setting up Partap@mail.com to forward to a less memorably named Gmail address.
Some time after 2AM on October 21st, that link was broken. Someone broke into Davis’ mail.com account and stopped the forwarding. Suddenly there was a new phone number attached to the account — a burner Android device registered in Florida. There was a new backup email too, email@example.com, which is still the closest thing we have to the attacker’s name.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call her Eve.
How did Eve get in? We can’t say for sure, but it’s likely that she used a script to target a weakness in Mail.com’s password reset page. We know such a script existed. For months, users on the site Hackforum had been selling access to a script that reset specific account passwords on Mail.com. It was an old exploit by the time Davis was targeted, and the going rate was $5 per account. It’s unclear how the exploit worked and whether it has been closed in the months since, but it did exactly what Eve needed. Without any authentication, she was able to reset Davis’ password to a string of characters that only she knew.
Eve’s next step was to take over Partap’s phone number. She didn’t have his AT&T password, but she just pretended to have forgotten it, and ATT.com sent along a secure link to firstname.lastname@example.org to reset it. Once inside the account, she talked a customer service rep into forwarding his calls to her Long Beach number. Strictly speaking, there are supposed to be more safeguards required to set up call forwarding, and it’s supposed to take more than a working email address to push it through. But faced with an angry client, customer service reps will often give way, putting user satisfaction over the colder virtues of security.
Once forwarding was set up, all of Davis’ voice calls belonged to Eve. Davis still got texts and emails, but every call was routed straight to the attacker. Davis didn’t realize what had happened until two days later, when his boss complained that Davis wasn’t picking up the phone.
Google and Authy
Next, Eve set her sights on Davis’ Google account. Experts will tell you that two-factor authentication is the best protection against attacks. A hacker might get your password or a mugger might steal your phone, but it’s hard to manage both at once. As long as the phone is a physical object, that system works. But people replace their phones all the time, and they expect to be able to replace the services, too. Accounts have to be reset 24 hours a day, and two-factor services end up looking like just one more account to crack.
Davis hadn’t set up Google’s Authenticator app, the more secure option, but he had two-factor authentication enabled — Google texted him a confirmation code every time he logged in from a new computer. Call forwarding didn’t pass along Davis’ texts, but Eve had a back door: thanks to Google’s accessibility functions, she could ask for the confirmation code to be read out loud over the phone.
Authy should have been harder to break. It’s an app, like Authenticator, and it never left Davis’ phone. But Eve simply reset the app on her phone using a mail.com address and a new confirmation code, again sent by a voice call. A few minutes after 3AM, the Authy account moved under Eve’s control.
It was the same trick that had fooled Google: as long as she had Davis’ email and phone, two-factor couldn’t tell the difference between them. At this point, Eve had more control over Davis’s online life than he did. Aside from texting, all digital roads now led to Eve.
At 3:19AM, Eve reset Davis’s Coinbase account, using Authy and his Mail.com address. At 3:55AM, she transferred the full balance (worth roughly $3,600 at the time) to a burner account she controlled. From there, she made three withdrawals — one 30 minutes after the account was opened, then another 20 minutes later, and another five minutes after that. After that, the money disappeared into a nest of dummy accounts, designed to cover her tracks. Less than 90 minutes after his Mail.com account was first compromised, Davis’ money was gone for good.
Authy might have known something was up. The service keeps an eye out for fishy behavior, and while they’re cagey about what they monitor, it seems likely that an account reset to an out-of-state number in the middle of the night would have raised at least a few red flags. But the number wasn’t from a known fraud center like Russia or Ukraine, even if Eve might have been. It would have seemed even more suspicious when Eve logged into Coinbase from the Canadian IP. Could they have stopped her then? Modern security systems like Google’s ReCAPTCHA often work this way, adding together small indicators until there’s enough evidence to freeze an account — but Coinbase and Authy each only saw half the picture, and neither had enough to justify freezing Partap’s account.
BTC-E and Bitstamp
When Davis woke up, the first thing he noticed was that his Gmail had mysteriously logged out. The password had changed, and he couldn’t log back in. Once he was back in the account, he saw how deep the damage went. There were reset emails from each account, sketching out a map of the damage. When he finally got into his Coinbase account, he found it empty. Eve had made off with 10 bitcoin, worth more than $3,000 at the time. It took hours on the phone with customer service reps and a faxed copy of his driver’s license before he could convince them he was the real Partap Davis.
What about the two other wallets? There was $2,500 worth of bitcoin in them, with no advertised protections that the Coinbase wallet didn’t have. But when Davis checked, both accounts were still intact. BTC-e had put a 48-hour hold on the account after a password change, giving him time to prove his identity and recover the account. Bitstamp had an even simpler protection: when Eve emailed to reset Davis’s authentication token, they had asked for an image of his driver’s license. Despite all Eve’s access, it was one thing she didn’t have. Davis’ last $2,500 worth of bitcoin was safe.
It’s been two months now since the attack, and Davis has settled back into his life. The last trace of the intrusion is Davis’ Twitter account, which stayed hacked for weeks after the other accounts. @Partap is a short handle, which makes it valuable, so Eve held onto it, putting in a new picture and erasing any trace of Davis. A few days after the attack, she posted a screenshot of a hacked Xfinity account, tagging another handle. The account didn’t belong to Davis, but it belonged to someone. She had moved onto the next target, and was using @partap as a disposable accessory to her next theft, like a stolen getaway car.
Who was behind the attack? Davis has spent weeks looking for her now — whole afternoons wasted on the phone with customer service reps — but he hasn’t gotten any closer. According to account login records, Eve’s computer was piping in from a block of IP addresses in Canada, but she may have used Tor or a VPN service to cover her tracks. Her phone number belonged to an Android device in Long Beach, California, but that phone was most likely a burner. There are only a few tracks to follow, and each one peters out fast. Wherever she is, Eve got away with it.
Why did she choose Partap Davis? She knew about the wallets upfront, we can assume. Why else would she have spent so much time digging through the accounts? She started at the mail.com account too, so we can guess that somehow, Eve came across a list of bitcoin users with Davis’ email address on it. A number of leaked Coinbase customer lists are floating around the internet, although I couldn’t find Davis’ name on any of them. Or maybe his identity came from an equipment manufacturer or a bitcoin retailer. Leaks are commonplace these days, and most go unreported.
Davis is more careful with bitcoin these days, and he’s given up on the mail.com address — but otherwise, not much about his life has changed. Coinbase has given refunds before, but this time they declined, saying the company’s security wasn’t at fault. He filed a report with the FBI, but the bureau doesn’t seem interested in a single bitcoin theft. What else is there to do? He can’t stop using a phone or give up the power to reset an account. There were just so many accounts, so many ways to get in. In the security world, they call this the attack surface. The bigger the surface, the harder it is to defend.
Most importantly, resetting a password is still easy, as Eve discovered over and over again. When a service finally stopped her, it wasn’t an elaborate algorithm or a fancy biometric. Instead, one service was willing to make customers wait 48 hours before authorizing a new password. On a technical level, it’s a simple fix, but a costly one. Companies are continuously balancing the small risk of compromise against the broad benefits of convenience. A few people may lose control of their account, but millions of others are able to keep using the service without a hitch. In the fight between security and convenience, security is simply outgunned.
3/5 11:10am ET: Updated to clarify Bitstamp security protocols.