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Cyber thieves piggyback off Stratfor breach, target feds

Hackers posing as officials from the geopolitical analysis publisher Stratfor are emailing infected links to government subscribers whose email addresses were stolen during an earlier raid on the company's computers, Microsoft researchers say.

To expose the ruse, Stratfor has instituted a temporary no-link policy for all official emails, according to a notice on the company's website. The policy is fallout from the Christmas Day 2011 data breach, when hacker collective Anonymous claimed responsibility for exposing the credit card data and email addresses of federal personnel. Potentially more than 860,000 public and private sector subscribers to Stratfor's online analysis were affected.

Now, cyber crooks are taking financial advantage of the addresses, according to Microsoft research published Monday. The bad guys are employing social engineering to trick Stratfor subscribers into visiting malicious websites. Their messages, which were written on apparent Stratfor letterhead and captured by Microsoft, state, "we strongly discourage you to open emails and attachments from doubtful senders" and "we also warn you about the distribution of harmful software through our website." The messages then direct readers to download software that will infect their computers.

In reality, if wary subscribers ignore the messages and go to the company's website they will see alerts discrediting the senders of these messages.

On Feb. 7, Stratfor, through emails and on its website, warned that individuals are sending spam emails attempting to lead recipients to bogus Stratfor websites and convincing them to provide private information.

The fake Stratfor message described by Microsoft goes on to recommend that readers download, through an external link, an antivirus program that checks for the Win32Azee virus -- a fictional worm. The URL, displayed as http://stratfor.com/av, is embedded with a link to a Web address located in Turkey, according to Microsoft. Stratfor is based in Austin, Texas, a fact even noted in the phony message.

Clicking on the embedded link injects malicious software that steals bank account passwords and other sensitive information, according to Microsoft.

Stratfor earlier this year was publicly embarrassed for not encrypting its clients' credit card information and coming forward after it knew of the infiltration in early December. The firm has since taken steps to be more forthcoming with the public. Stratfor provides an online list of authorized emails sent to customers along with the dates they were sent, a company spokesman noted. And Stratfor.com maintains a news section dedicated to the hack.

"Due to the ongoing law enforcement investigation, we're not commenting beyond those communications," Stratfor spokesman Kyle Rhodes said.

Stratfor's disclosure practices demonstrate the difficulty many companies -- and federal agencies -- face in deciding what kind of information about threats is helpful or harmful to disclose. Congress may make that decision for everyone in forthcoming legislation that is expected to address information sharing between targeted organizations and authorities, organizations and their customers, and among intelligence agencies and potential targets.

In a separate incident during the past week, an Anonymous faction took credit for repeatedly knocking offline the CIA's public-facing website. That episode appears to have been a denial-of-service attack using a barrage of useless traffic, rather than a hack that gained unauthorized access to the U.S. spy agency's computers.

Almost a year ago, CIA.gov and the agency's unclassified email system were down for a few days during a suspected hacker activist onslaught. Experts not involved with the investigation said hacktivists may have executed the outages to show off their skills.

CIA officials would not comment on their site's reliability beyond a statement issued Friday night that said, "we are aware of the problems accessing our website, and are working to resolve them."

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