New Charges Derail COVID Release for Hacker Who Aided ISIS

A hacker serving a 20-year sentence for stealing personal data on 1,300 U.S. military and government employees and giving it to an Islamic State hacker group in 2015 has been charged once again with fraud and identity theft. The new charges have derailed plans to deport him under compassionate release because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ardit Ferizi, a 25-year-old citizen of Kosovo, was slated to be sent home earlier this month after a federal judge signed an order commuting his sentence to time served. The release was granted in part due to Ferizi’s 2018 diagnosis if asthma, as well as a COVID outbreak at the facility where he was housed in 2020.

But while Ferizi was in quarantine awaiting deportation the Justice Department unsealed new charges against him, saying he’d conspired from prison with associates on the outside to access stolen data and launder the bitcoin proceeds of his previous crimes.

In the years leading up to his arrest, Ferizi was the administrator of a cybercrime forum called Pentagon Crew. He also served as the leader of an ethnic Albanian group of hackers from Kosovo known as Kosova Hacker’s Security (KHS), which focused on compromising government and private websites in Israel, Serbia, Greece, Ukraine and the United States.

The Pentagon Crew forum founded by Ferizi.

In December 2015, Ferizi was apprehended in Malaysia and extradited to the United States. In January 2016, Ferizi pleaded guilty to providing material support to a terrorist group and to unauthorized access. He admitted to hacking a U.S.-based e-commerce company, stealing personal and financial data on 1,300 government employees, and providing the data to an Islamic State hacking group.

Ferizi give the purloined data to Junaid “Trick” Hussain, a 21-year-old hacker and recruiter for ISIS who published it in August 2015 as part of a directive that ISIS supporters kill the named U.S. military members and government employees. Later that month, Hussain was reportedly killed by a drone strike in Syria.

The government says Ferizi and his associates made money by hacking PayPal and other financial accounts, and through pornography sites he allegedly set up mainly to steal personal and financial data from visitors.

Junaid Hussain’s Twitter profile photo.

Between 2015 and 2019, Ferizi was imprisoned at a facility in Illinois that housed several other notable convicts. For example, prosecutors allege that Ferizi was an associate of Mahmud “Red” Abouhalima, who was serving a 240 year sentence at the prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Another inmate incarcerated at the same facility was Shawn Bridges, a former U.S. Secret Service agent serving almost eight years for stealing $820,000 worth of bitcoin from online drug dealers while investigating the hidden underground website Silk Road. Prosecutors say Ferizi and Bridges discussed ways to hide their bitcoin.

The information about Ferizi’s inmate friends came via a tip from another convict, who told the FBI that Ferizi was allegedly using his access to the prison’s email system to share email and bitcoin account passwords with family members back home.

The Justice Department said subpoenas served on Ferizi’s email accounts and interviews with his associates show Ferizi’s brother in Kosovo used the information to “liquidate the proceeds of Ferizi’s previous criminal hacking activities.”

[Side note: It may be little more than a coincidence, but my PayPal account was hacked in Dec. 2015 by criminals who social engineered PayPal employees over the phone into changing my password and bypassing multi-factor authentication. The hackers attempted to send my balance to an account tied to Hussain, but the transfer never went through.]

Ferizi is being tried in California, but has not yet had an initial appearance in court. He’s charged with one count of aggravated identity theft and one count of wire fraud. If convicted of wire fraud, he faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. If convicted of aggravated identity theft, he faces a mandatory penalty of 2 years in prison in addition to the punishment imposed for a wire fraud conviction.

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Joker’s Stash Carding Market to Call it Quits

Joker’s Stash, by some accounts the largest underground shop for selling stolen credit card and identity data, says it’s closing up shop effective mid-February 2021. The announcement came on the heels of a turbulent year for the major cybercrime store, and just weeks after U.S. and European authorities seized a number of its servers.

A farewell message posted by Joker’s Stash admin on Jan. 15, 2021.

The Russian and English language carding store first opened in October 2014, and quickly became a major source of “dumps” — information stolen from compromised payment cards that thieves can buy and use to create physical counterfeit copies of the cards.

But 2020 turned out to be a tough year for Joker’s Stash. As cyber intelligence firm Intel 471 notes, the curator of the store announced in October that he’d contracted COVID-19, spending a week in the hospital. Around that time, Intel 471 says many of Joker’s loyal customers started complaining that the shop’s payment card data quality was increasingly poor.

“The condition impacted the site’s forums, inventory replenishments and other operations,” Intel 471 said.

Image: Gemini Advisory

That COVID diagnosis may have affected the shop owner’s ability to maintain fresh and valid inventory on his site. Gemini Advisory, a New York City-based company that monitors underground carding shops, tracked a “severe decline” in the volume of compromised payment card accounts for sale on Joker’s Stash over the past six months.

“Joker’s Stash has received numerous user complaints alleging that card data validity is low, which even prompted the administrator to upload proof of validity through a card-testing service,” Gemini wrote in a blog post about the planned shutdown.

Image: Gemini Advisory

Then on Dec. 16, 2020, several of Joker’s long-held domains began displaying notices that the sites had been seized by the U.S. Department of Justice and Interpol. The crime shop quickly recovered, moving to new infrastructure and assuring the underground community that it would continue to operate normally.

Gemini estimates that Joker’s Stash generated more than a billion dollars in revenue over the past several years. Much of that revenue came from high-profile breaches, including tens of millions of payment card records stolen from major merchants including Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord and TaylorBebe StoresHilton HotelsJason’s DeliWhole FoodsChipotle, Wawa, Sonic Drive-In, the Hy-Vee supermarket chain, Buca Di Beppo, and Dickey’s BBQ.

Joker’s Stash routinely teased big breaches days or weeks in advance of selling payment card records stolen from those companies, and periodically linked to this site and other media outlets as proof of his shop’s prowess and authenticity.

Like many other top cybercrime bazaars, Joker’s Stash was a frequent target of phishers looking to rip off unwary or unsophisticated thieves. In 2018, KrebsOnSecurity detailed a vast network of fake Joker’s Stash sites set up to steal login credentials and bitcoin. The phony sites all traced back to the owners of a Pakistani web site design firm. Many of those fake sites are still active (e.g. jokersstash[.]su).

As noted here in 2016, Joker’s Stash attracted an impressive number of customers who kept five and six-digit balances at the shop, and who were granted early access to new breaches as well as steep discounts for bulk buys. Those “partner” customers will be given the opportunity to cash out their accounts. But the majority of Stash customers do not enjoy this status, and will have to spend their balances by Feb. 15 or forfeit those funds.

The dashboard for a Joker’s Stash customer who’s spent over $10,000 buying stolen credit cards from the site.

Gemini said another event that may have contributed to this threat actor shutting down their marketplace is the recent spike in the value of Bitcoin. A year ago, one bitcoin was worth about $9,000. Today a single bitcoin is valued at more than $35,000.

“JokerStash was an early advocate of Bitcoin and claims to keep all proceeds in this cryptocurrency,” Gemini observed in a blog post. “This actor was already likely to be among the wealthiest cybercriminals, and the spike may have multiplied their fortune, earning them enough money to retire. However, the true reason behind this shutdown remains unclear.”

If the bitcoin price theory holds, that would be fairly rich considering the parting lines in the closure notice posted to Joker’s Stash.

“We are also want to wish all young and mature ones cyber-gangsters not to lose themselves in the pursuit of easy money,” the site administrator(s) advised. “Remember, that even all the money in the world will never make you happy and that all the most truly valuable things in this life are free.”

Regardless, the impending shutdown is unlikely to have much of an impact on the overall underground carding industry, Gemini notes.

“Given Joker’s Stash’s high profile, it relied on a robust network of criminal vendors who offered their stolen records on this marketplace, among others,” the company wrote. “Gemini assesses with a high level of confidence that these vendors are very likely to fully transition to other large, top-tier dark web marketplaces.”

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