High-profile Twitter accounts hijacked to push Bitcoin scam. How did it happen?

The Twittersphere went into overdrive on Wednesday as a bunch of prominent, verified Twitter accounts were hijacked and started promoting a COVID-19 cryptocurrency giveaway scam.

Twitter accounts hijacked

The attackers simultaneously compromised Twitter accounts of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Barack Obama, Jeff Bezos, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Apple, Uber, as well as those of cryptocurrency exchanges Binance, Coinbase, KuCoin and Gemini, the CoinDesk news site and other top crypto accounts.

Twitter reacted by locking down the affected accounts, removing Tweets posted by the attackers, and limiting functionality for all verified accounts, but not quickly enough to prevent many gullible users falling for the scam and sending money to the attackers.

The effect

“The accounts tweeted that they ‘partnered with’ a company called CryptoForHealth. The domain for this website was registered on July 15. The website itself claims that, to help with the hard times endured by COVID-19, they’re partnering with several exchanges to provide a ‘5000 Bitcoin (BTC) giveaway’ which is a ruse for advanced free fraud,” Satnam Narang, Staff Research Engineer at Tenable, explained.

This type of scam is common, but what makes this incident notable is that the scammers have managed to legitimate Twitter accounts to launch it, he notes. Because of this, users were more likely to place their trust in the CryptoForHealth website or the provided Bitcoin address.

RiskIQ has since identified some 400 domains linked to the one used for this scam, effectively brining to light the threat infrastructure belonging to the attackers.

Before Twitter locked the hijacked accounts and deleted the scammy tweets, the attackers apparently received nearly $118,000 in Bitcoin.

How have the Twitter accounts been hijacked?

As the compromised accounts began tweeting the scam in a coordinated manner, many speculated on how they attackers pulled off the massive compromise.

It soon became quite obvious that the attackers must have compromised them all from one central place.

Some users noticed that some of the hijacked accounts had been associated with one specific email address:

Motherboard’s sources said that a Twitter insider (admin) was bribed or coerced to use an internal user management tool to reset the email address and password on the affected accounts. Others speculated that the attackers managed to compromise the corporate account of a Twitter employee.

Earlier today, Twitter confirmed that last speculation.

“We detected what we believe to be a coordinated social engineering attack by people who successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools. We know they used this access to take control of many highly-visible (including verified) accounts and Tweet on their behalf. We’re looking into what other malicious activity they may have conducted or information they may have accessed and will share more here as we have it,” the company explained.

“We have locked accounts that were compromised and will restore access to the original account owner only when we are certain we can do so securely. Internally, we’ve taken significant steps to limit access to internal systems and tools while our investigation is ongoing. More updates to come as our investigation continues.”

The attack points to a greater poblem

According to the BBC, the same email address that was used to register the CryptoForHealth domain was used to register an Instagram account with the same name. On it, the attackers posted a message that said: “It was a charity attack. Your money will find its way to the right place.”

Many have pointed out that, given how much US politicians depend on Twitter to keep the citizenry informed about their thoughts and actions, the attackers could have used the access to those accounts to do much more damage.

Others have posited that the Bitcoin scam was perhaps just a smokescreen:

US Senator Josh Hawley demanded from Twitter more information about the hack, including and answer to the question of whether the attack threatened the security of US President Donald Trump’s account (which has not be made to tweet out the scammy message).

“The Twitter hack highlights how bad actors are using highly trafficked social media channels to wreak havoc,” noted Richard Bird, Chief Customer Information Officer, Ping Identity.

“The news of this exploit is extremely concerning as it really focuses attention on the inherent weaknesses in Big Tech security, which has been a point of focus across the country as we head into a presidential election and as we navigate the challenges driven by the pandemic. Disinformation and exploitation of supposedly trusted social media channels only amplifies the anxieties and concerns that consumers and citizens are already dealing with in this country and others.”

“Given the accounts’ relatively high profile, including that of a former US President, it’s likely that federal law enforcement and intelligence assets from both the public and private sector will be brought to bear on this very problem,” noted Kevin O’Brien, Co-Founder and CEO, GreatHorn.

“It’s highly likely that this will result in attribution, although I suspect we’ll find that this occurred from a non-US location, increasing the difficulty of apprehending the responsible parties.”

UPDATE (July 19, 2020, 1:55 a.m. PT):

Twitter has published an update on the situation, confirming that the attackers “manipulated a small number of employees and used their credentials to access Twitter’s internal systems, including getting through our two-factor protections,” accessed tools available to Twitter’s internal support teams, and targeted 130 accounts

On 45 of the accounts the attackers initiated a password reset, logged in to the accounts, and sent Tweets, and for eight of the Twitter accounts involved, they downloaded the account’s information through the ‘Your Twitter Data’ tool.

Don't miss