How Brian Krebs tracks down hackers

US journalist talks about his process of finding criminals online
Brian Krebs. Photo by Ian Sharp.

Brian Krebs. Photo by Ian Sharp.

Simple mistakes by cyber criminals — such as reusing an email address — has helped US journalist Brian Krebs with his research.

Speaking at the Checkpoint cyber security symposium in Sydney, Krebs told delegates that while many cyber criminals constantly change their name, some who are “lazy or had tremendous egos” tended to use the same username constantly.

One of these cyber criminals went by the name Rescator. His name was on a website called which was selling Target US credit card data following the breach in 2013.

“Rescator was the lazy type hacker who re-used the same nickname over and over again as he moved from one cyber criminal forum to another over the years,” Krebs said.

Krebs was able to piece together information about Rescator from hacker forums that had been compromised.

“The only thing hackers like more than taking credit card data is hacking each other. If you wait long enough, every single cyber crime forum out there will get compromised,” he said.

On a hacked forum, he discovered photos of Rescator posing in a Soviet era vehicle in his hometown.

“I wrote a story about this guy based on the clues I had about who he was and where he was. I reached out to him and he offered me $10,000 not to run this story.”

Other cyber criminals use a name that revolves around a certain theme. For example, Krebs tracked down Blackhole exploit kit author Ponch.

“He picked names that revolved around Russian euphemisms for someone who is large and heavy set such as Tolst.”

Another way to track down Eastern Europe hackers was to pay attention to car forums.

“Almost all of these guys are really into cars and swapping them out every few years,” he said.

Krebs made contact with Spm, who he interviewed for his book Spam Nation, after noting that he was selling a BMW.

“He put photos up at Reactor2 was the site where his customers would log into his botnet.”

Not surprisingly, Krebs has been targeted in return.

For example, a Ukrainian going by the name Flycracker discovered that Krebs was on his forum.

He claimed that Krebs was a heroin addict, took up a collection of Bitcoins and bought heroin from the now-defunct underground market Silkroad.

Flycracker's group planned to spoof a call from a neighbour to the police saying that Krebs was a drug addict.

The heroin was subsequently sent to Kreb’s house and he had to explain the situation to local police.

Krebs wrote about the heroin case and Flycracker sent a floral arrangement in the shape of a cross to his wife. However, Krebs got his Russian contacts on the case.

“He [Flycracker] was engaged but he didn’t trust his partner. He had all of her emails sent to his bad guy inbox. That bad guy inbox was the same as his forum — which got hacked.”

Italian authorities caught up with Flycracker who ended up sending Krebs a letter from prison apologising for his actions.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia.