Report: How Iranian hackers attempt to takeover your Gmail

Pierluigi Paganini August 30, 2015

According to a report published by the Citizen Lab Iranian hackers have elaborated a sophisticated phishing scheme to takeover Gmail accounts.

According to a report published by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, Iranian hackers have elaborated a sophisticated phishing scheme to circumvent security measures that defend Gmail accounts.

The attack scheme is not new, it was used by hackers in targeted attacks on financial institutions in the past.

The Iranian hackers used phone and email to bypass Google’s two-factor authentication system and take over the victim’s Gmail account.

“This report describes an elaborate phishing campaign against targets in Iran’s diaspora, and at least one Western activist. The ongoing attacks attempt to circumvent the extra protections conferred by two-factor authentication in Gmail, and rely heavily on phone-call based phishing and “real time” login attempts by the attackers. Most of the attacks begin with a phone call from a UK phone number, with attackers speaking in either English or Farsi.” states the authors of the report.

“It may be that, as a growing number of potential targets have begun using two-factor authentication on their email accounts out of a concern for their security, politically motivated attackers are borrowing from a playbook that financial criminals have written over the past decade,” state the authors of the report.

The attacks appear to be politically motivated, according to the senior research fellow at the Citizen Lab, John Scott-Railton, the list of targets includes a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Iranian activists.

According to security researchers, the Iranian government has increased its cyber capabilities in a significant way in the last years, for this reason US intelligence consider the country one of the most dangerous threats alongside with Russia, China and North Korea.

According to  the research firm Small Media, Iran increased cyber-security spending 12-fold since President Hassan Rouhani gained power in 2013. I suggest you to give a look to the report released by experts at Small Media. Vowing to ramp up the country’s cyber capabilities, Rouhani has given the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) an annual cybersecurity budget of roughly $19.8 million.

The recently observed attacks on Gmail accounts start with text messages that pretend to be sent from Google. The messages warn users that of unauthorized access to their Gmail accounts.

Gmail Accounts Iran hacked

Then the attackers would send a fake “password-reset” email that redirect victims to bogus “password reset page,” in reality the password reset pages are used to collect the victim’s password.

The attack is called “real time” attack, it attempts to phish both the user password and the 2FA one-time code used by Google.  The reset pages simulate the Gmail 2-step login process to the victim. The attacker uses the victim’s input, to login in real time to Gmail.  The attacker’s login attempt triggers Google to send a genuine 2FA code to the victim, which inserts it in the fraudulent page too. At this point, the attack bypasses the 2FA implemented by Google.

The attackers also use the phone to carry out the attack, in this second attack scenario the victims receive a phone call regarding a fake business proposal. The proposal would be sent to the target’s Gmail account with a fake Google Drive link that would display victims a bogus Gmail login page implementing a classic phishing scheme.

“Entering text into the login page and clicking on “View Document” yields a fake 2FA authentication page.”

Gmail hack sms

In some attacks, the attackers tried to deceive victims by pretending to Reuters journalists who wanted to arrange an interview.

To mitigate the risk of exposure to such attacks I always suggest to enable two-factor authentication for every online service that implements it.

Experts suggest that an easy way to discover the fake password reset pages is to check the URL searching for the https:// prefix, unfortunately I remind you that this isn’t a complete defense against phishing attacks because this kind of offensive is also exploiting HTTPs connections.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – Gmail, Iran)

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