This essay is part of our artistic research into vigilante online communities and Internet fraud. Online communities of so called scambaiters try to identify, block and report Internet crime activities. For this they have developed various strategies, ranging from creating warning platforms to collecting fake checks or blocking bank accounts, and they organize themselves in different forums.1 One of these subgroups call themselves “Artists against 419” and host the biggest open-access database of fake websites. As of November 2015, there are over 4800 registered users and on average about 35 websites are added to the database each day. They use “passive reconnaissance” and “open source intelligence” (osint) tools to gather information, so that they can file reports to the hosting provider to get the websites taken off the web. Since 2007, the group members have discontinued using web programs such as “Lad Vampire” or “Muguito” to run “Denial of Service” attacks against the websites2 and instead use online tools and written reports to maintain good relations with hosting providers and law enforcement3. In the following paragraphs we want to present one of their work-flow strategies to track and report fake websites.
Scambaiters use various vernacular tools and social engineering techniques in order to run background checks on suspicious business websites. Open source intelligence (osint) refers to intelligence that has been derived from publicly available sources both on- and offline. These tools are used in “ethical passive reconnaissance4” to gather as much information about the target as possible. In this version, passive reconnaissance is perpetrated by activists and hacktivists who are trying to gain information that will support their political causes or other such ethical motivations. Law enforcement officials may also use passive reconnaissance as part of a criminal investigation. Ethical or not, passive reconnaissance is always done without the authorization of the person or organization that is being targeted.5
This leads to an effective combination of classical social engineering attacks on the target, which in turn can be used to harvest more information. The following chapter summarizes the hands-on part of a workshop called “Credible fictions – Deceptive realities”6. In the workshop the Megacorp. installation served as a point of departure to further investigate Internet activism, resurfacing fake websites and osint tools. The online tools were presented to the group of participants, who gathered and discussed information using the collaborative writing tool “piratepad”.
As an example website we want to focus on www.start-office.biz. According to their website, start-office.biz is an international company specializing in organizing virtual offices. They are located at the Wienerberg Twin Towers in Vienna, Austria, and currently offer jobs to local agents who should “provide relevant information online for direct clients and other relevant stakeholders through through popular social networking sites”. In the following paragraphs, we will use the osint tools to analyze the website and raise suspicion about the legitimacy of the website.
Every website is designed differently. Over the years certain trends in usability set standards for web designers. You can always ask yourself, how coherent is the web design? Does a photo with the company logo have a pixelated, poor quality, whereas all other photos are crisp and sharp? Does the logo look badly manipulated into an image?
On the front page of our example website we see the dark black logo of start-office.biz. Font type and size of the logo look misplaced and don’t fit the overall dominant gray and dark blue color combination. In one of the header images the logo is clearly squeezed in the image. The company’s headquarter is supposedly located in Vienna, Austria. The website claims to operate on a global scale and runs hundreds of offices in the USA and Canada. The page language is English and there is no translation to German available. On the “testimonials” page we find a review from a person called ‘Michel’ from France, who refers positively to a different company:
Sunex’s virtual office allows me to service these clients from anywhere in the world, while maintaining a presence in Texas.
So it seems that this review was copied from another website and the company’s name was not changed. The “career” page offers an application form to apply for the “local agent” position. The salary is stated in USD and is paid on a weekly basis, which is also a very uncommon practice in Austria.
You can check how many other websites link to your targeted website. In search engines like Google or Waybackmachine, type “link: www.start-office.biz” or use online search tools like backlinkwatch to figure out how many websites link to your website in question. Both tools report no backlinks. It is not a criminal act to have no websites linking to your website, but it still looks suspicious, when a page claims to be a global player and no customers link to them.
Every page has to provide a possibility to contact the website owner. Is the contact email the same as the domain name, or is it a free-to-use webmail service. Is the postal address a valid address? This can easily be checked through online streetmap services. Also phone numbers can be checked to see whether the area code belongs to a local number or if it is part of a call forwarding program. What happens when you call the number? Is the line in use during office hours?
In our example the company’s address is the Twin Towers in Vienna, although it doesn’t provide a floor number. The phone number has the correct country code “+43” for Austria and “1” as a city code for Vienna. A quick search in the local online telephone database ensures that the telephone number is registered at the state telecommunication company A1, but there is no name entry to be found.
There are two email addresses on the website: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. An alter ego personality contacted both addresses and claimed to be looking for a job in Vienna. A person called Thomas Anderson replied as a representative of the company, sent me his Skype account details and three pdfs that I should read through, fill out and return in time. The three documents included an application for employment, a confidentiality agreement and a job offer signed by a Michael Adams, Director of Start-Office.biz. By using an IP tracker it is possible to analyze the email header and obtain the IP address from where the email was sent. In case of the email from Michael Adams, the email provider is Telmex Colombia S.a. in Barranquilla, Colombia.
WHOIS9 stands for “Who is?” and is a web-utility used to look up information on domain names, contact information as well as some technical information such as the domain’s name servers (DNS). Every domain owner has to provide valid contact information. This is part of the registration agreement and providing false information can result in your domain name being deleted, although some types of domains do allow you to have placeholder information from another company as the domain owner. By doing a whois look up on a targeted domain, you can see when a domain was registered, last updated, and how long this registration is valid. Often, scammers use the minimum period of one year to register their domain, since they are sure they will only be operating for a few months, and then they open another domain. Further important information one can gather is the hosting provider’s name and contact information. This to contact the hosting provider and report the fraudulent website. It is also possible to track down inconsistencies, e.g. different addresses or website owner from what is stated on the website.
In our example the registrant contact is a Mr. Fred Bohnsack, living at 2775 Holdom Avenue in Surrey, B.C., Canada. The website is hosted with hostgator.com and is registered for one year.
Using a reverse IP Address lookup tool10 it is possible to gain more insight into all the different websites and domains hosted on that IP-address. Often scammers run several websites at once, and it is just easier, cheaper and more convenient to host them under the same provider. This way, it is often possible to observe the working methods of a group of scammers who operate several websites at once.
Scammers often reuse their website templates. Once their websites are taken off the Internet, they make small changes, e.g. the business name, address, the logo or in the written text, and register a different domain and upload the site again. To be able to more quickly track down the website once it re-surfaces again, anti-scam activists use online services like ‘Talkwater alerts’ and ‘Google alerts’. With these services one can search for certain keywords or phrases and get instant alert messages when the website is indexed. Activists specialize in certain businesses and build up alert clusters.
Another toolset that can be used to track copied content on the web are online plagiarism detection services like “citeliner” or “copyscape”. Once you copy/paste phrases of the website’s text into the searchbox, the services use the Google API to return websites that use the same or similar text. This way it is possible to detect websites that are clones of other websites, and with our example website we found three other fake websites and also the “real” source company, from which the content for the other websites was copied.
In addition to analyzing the text on the website, when we look into the HMTL code we find a reference that the website was “mirrored from sunexsolutions.com/ by HTTrack Website Copier/3.x [XR&CO\blank'2013], Sat, 11 Oct 2014 06:46:46 GMT”. This reveals that the website “start-office.biz” is a clone from “sunexsolutions.com”. The sunexsolutions was amongst the Megacorp. business websites that were scraped and analyzed.
The research of the scambaiting community “Artists against 419” led to a deeper investigation into how this community tracks fake business websites and reports them. We wanted to visualize the database, so our idea was to look at all these fake companies as though they were one big evil corporate conglomerate that wants to take over the world. This so called Megacorp. is inspired by its equally powerful counterparts in science fiction. The term was coined by William Gibson and inspired many other authors of the dystopian cyberpunk science fiction genre to create megacorps in their fiction, amongst others the Tyrell corp. (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), Encom corp. (Tron), Weyland-Yutani (Alien series), Cyberdyne Skynet Systems (Terminator).
The artwork is based on a collection of 1000 fake websites scraped from Internet. The creation of the Megacorp. serves as an umbrella company that depicts the overall business segments and countries where these fake businesses are present. An interim report was published for the exhibition, and visitors have an opportunity to browse locally through the network of fake websites. Additionally a corporate presentation video and a location reconnaissance video reflect both the imaginary and the real world outreach of the Megacorp.
The data gathering process took several months. From September 2014 to April 2015. The aa419-database was visited on a daily basis and websites were automatically downloaded using a site scraper tool. The scraped websites were analyzed and categorized according to business segment, street address, most prominently used color on the webpage, registered city and country.
The findings are best described in the report, yet following
some key figures and reflections extracted from the CEO’s
(Megacorp. Interim report: First 1000 companies):
... We have divided our enterprise into 10 business segments, of which the biggest are ‘Transport and Logistics’ (32.6%), ‘Banking and Finance’ (21.9%) and ‘Online Merchandise and Trade’ (14.2%). It may come as a surprise that the ‘Pet Shops and Animal Transport’ (6.9%) segment has a good chance of being the fourth largest business segment. ... As mentioned, our company language is currently restricted to English, and this might limit our presence on some continents, especially Asia’s lucrative market, while apparently the Chinese phishers are responsible for 85% of the domain names that were registered for phishing.
The full report and screenshots from the websites can be found on the website www.megacorp.kairus.org
KairUs is a collective of two artists, Linda Kronman (FI) and Andreas Zingerle (AT). Our work focuses on human computer and computer mediated human-human interaction with a special interest in transmedia and interactive storytelling. Since 2010 we have worked with the theme of Internet fraud and online scams, constantly shifting our focus and therefore approaching the theme from a number of perspectives, such as data security, data privacy, ethics of vigilante communities, narratives of scam e-mails, and technologies in relation to fraud.colophon