The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Well-designed phishing attack

I had planned to note Bruce Schneier's latest essay, "The Misaligned Incentives for Cloud Security," along with a report that Microsoft has noticed an uptick in SolarWinds attacks against its own services. But twice in two weeks I've received bogus DMCA takedown notices that tried to trick me into downloading files from a Google site, and I'm impressed by the effort that went into these phishing attacks.

In both cases, the attacks came through the blog's Contact page, meaning someone had to copy and paste the text into the form. They both lay out most, but not all, of the elements of a DMCA takedown notice, with lots of threatening (but inaccurate) text about what could happen if I don't comply. But here's the kicker: instead of specifying which of the Daily Parker's nearly 8,000 posts contain infringing material, as required by the DMCA, they contain a link to a file on a Google site that I should download to see the material they claim to own.

It turns out, I know a thing or two about copyright law, and about computer security, so I didn't fall for the phish. I worry, though, that this attack could fool a lot of people. Reminder, folks: never download a file you didn't specifically ask for. (In my case, I did attempt to download one of the files, in a sandbox, with virus protection jacked all the way up. The virus protection took one look at the file and didn't even allow the download.)

Let me enumerate the really sophisticated features of this attack:

  • It contained mostly true information. People send out DMCA takedown notices all the time; experienced website administrators take them seriously when received. The author of this phish included the correct and relevant US Code sections, and a mostly-correct description of how the DMCA operates. They got the statutory damage amount totally wrong, but only because the number they used would scare people more.
  • It didn't contain any English language errors. Whoever wrote the copy for this attack speaks perfect English. This wasn't a laughable 409 scam.
  • It came through the Contact feature, not an email. The attacker took the time to go to the Daily Parker contact page, copy and paste the phishing text, and click "send." A human had to do that.
  • It stated a plausible claim. This is Daily Parker post #7,922 since the blog started on 13 May 1998. It is conceivable that at some point in the last 23 years I posted a photo for which I didn't obtain a proper license. This would be true of any large blog or website.
  • It used a real Google Sites link. The download link pointed to an asset actually stored on a google.com computer somewhere. That might convince someone of its legitimacy, unless you remember that anyone can put anything up on a Google Site or other cloud storage service. Again: never download a file you didn't specifically ask for.
  • It came from a network in the US. Reverse-IP lookups showed the origin IP addresses to be owned by a major ISP in Colorado, not a scary Eastern European location. Of course, it means that the attacker has access to a computer physically located in the US, which means I'll send my own legal notice to the ISP if I receive another one of these.

Now, here's where they missed the mark:

  • They asked me to download a file. No. No, no, no. GFY a thousand times with a chainsaw.
  • The phish did not contain all the required elements of a DMCA takedown notice. They didn't list specific assets, with URLs, that they allege infringed their copyrights; they didn't assert a claim of ownership in a legally-sufficient manner; they didn't provide full contact information; and they didn't sign it. But of course they didn't, because the closer they got to legal sufficiency, the more information I'd have that they have no real claim.
  • They sent two nearly-identical (but not identical enough) phishes 8 days apart. You think I didn't remember the first one? You think I didn't compare them? The second attempt simply confirmed that the first attempt wasn't merely an amateur-hour legal notice but, as I suspected, a phish.
  • One of the phishes came through a non-publicized FQDN. Because I host the Daily Parker on Microsoft Azure, it has an Azure-provided fully-qualified domain name (FQDN) in addition to www.thedailyparker.com. I have never publicized the Azure FQDN, and as far as I know the Azure FQDN has no inbound links. I suppose it could have gotten picked up by a search engine, but again, without inbound links, I can't see how. It's not secret; it's just really odd that someone would use it.
  • The claimant's names were...weird. I said earlier that the text of the phish used correct English throughout, but the names of the supposed claimants seem to have come from a name-generation tool. Seriously, the names were Ford Prefect-weird.
  • It turns out, I'm well-versed in both copyright law and cybersecurity. This type of mistake even has an entire TV Tropes entry. I guess a criminal wouldn't necessarily know that, however. They might find out, should they send a third phishing attempt my way. Will I haul them into Illinois court to answer a tortious trespassing case? Probably not. But I might tell their ISP. And the FBI. Because at some point, they will get someone to open whatever malicious file they linked to, which I expect will lead to actual crimes.

In recognition the effort that went into this phishing attack, I wanted to publicize it in case it happens to anyone else. If you get an alleged DMCA takedown notice, and it doesn't meet the legal requirements as outlined by the USPTO, ignore it. And once more, with feeling: never download a file you didn't specifically ask for.

And if you're the script kiddie who sent the phish, GFY with a tree. Sideways.

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