Minnesota’s First ‘Hacker-for-Hire’ Case Goes Federal

Law enforcement is grappling with the growing trend of hackers being hired to sabotage online assets, according to the FBI.

by Stephen Montemayor, Star Tribune / November 8, 2017
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(TNS) -- In the first Minnesota case to address a new and growing form of cybercrime, federal prosecutors have charged a former state resident with employing "hackers-for-hire" to sabotage the website of a local business.

The case reflects concern among law enforcement officials nationwide that hackers ranging from disgruntled ex-employees to enemy nation states are ramping up attacks on an ever-expanding array of personal digital devices connected to the web.

Prosecutors say John Kelsey Gammell, 46, paid hacking services to inflict a year's worth of "distributed denial of service" (DDoS) attacks to bring down websites affiliated with Washburn Computer Group, a Monticello business where he used to work.

DDoS attacks overwhelm a network with data, blocking access for legitimate users and even knocking web services offline. Washburn, a point-of-sale system repair company, told prosecutors that Gammell's attacks cost it about $15,000.

Authorities say Gammell didn't stop there: He is accused of paying $19.99 to $199.99 in monthly payments to try to bring down web networks that included those of the Minnesota Judicial Branch, Hennepin County and several banks.

"As a society that is increasingly reliant on network-connected devices, these types of cyberattacks pose a serious threat to individuals, businesses, and even our nation's critical infrastructure," Acting U.S. Attorney Gregory Brooker in Minneapolis said, speaking generally about the new forms of crime.

The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center reported more than $11 million in losses to victims of DDoS attacks last year.

"We have a growing trend where the sophistication of the dark web and the sophistication of certain professional hackers to provide resources is allowing individuals — and not just experienced individuals — to conduct hacks and conduct DDoS," said FBI Supervisory special agent Michael Krause, who leads the FBI's cyber squad in Minneapolis.

Devices such as digital video recorders and home appliances recently have been marshaled by cyber criminals to carry out massive operations like last year's flooding of a prominent web infrastructure company that affected sites like Amazon and Netflix. In a separate attack, in June 2016, the Minnesota Judicial Branch's website went down for 10 days, alarming local officials because so many government services have at least some nexus to the web.

"A lot of people think it's just a nuisance," said Chris Buse, Minnesota's chief information security officer. "But it's not. If you look at what government does — basic critical services — if those services don't continue, people can literally die."

Minnesota IT Services, which administers the state's computer systems, said state networks field an average of more than 3 million attempted cyberattacks daily. Officials say the state still hasn't experienced a major attack on par with a 2012 South Carolina breach that exposed personal data for 3.7 million residents and cost the state $20 million.

But with hackers able to take over hundreds of millions of unsecured devices worldwide to flood networks in a single DDoS attack, security professionals are trying to stay ahead of the threat.

"In our environment it's pretty clear now that every organization needs some sophisticated and expensive tools to mitigate these DDoS attacks," Buse said.

'We will do much business'

The government's case against Gammell underlines the difficulty of linking any suspect to the daily torrent of attacks often carried out by far-afield hackers who advertise their services online. Authorities might not have caught Gammell without tracing taunting e-mails he allegedly sent after attacks.

One of his preferred hacking-for-hire services was called vDOS, which was shuttered last year after the arrests of two alleged operators in Israel. The FBI obtained files from vDOS that included records of Gammell's purchases, attacks and communications with vDOS administrators and customers.

One day in 2015, according to a criminal complaint, Gammell eagerly wrote the company boasting of his success in blowing past a "DDoS mitigation" program to kick an unnamed network offline for at least two days. "We will do much business," Gammell allegedly wrote. "Thank you for your outstanding product."

According to an FBI agent's sworn affidavit, Gammell sought out seven sites offering DDoS-for-hire services and paid monthly fees to three to carry out web attacks from July 2015 to September 2016.

Charges are also expected out of Colorado and New Mexico for firearms offenses stemming from searches in the case.

Appearing in a Minneapolis courtroom last week, Gammell confirmed that he rejected a plea offer that would have resolved all charges and capped his possible prison sentence at a mandatory 15 to 17 years. A federal magistrate is reviewing motions filed by Gammell's attorney, Rachel Paulose, to dismiss the case or suppress evidence.

On Monday, Paulose told U.S. Magistrate Judge David Schultz that evidence the FBI obtained from an unnamed researcher should be thrown out and suggested the data could itself have been retrieved by hacking.

Paulose, who did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story, also argued in pretrial motions that Gammell didn't personally attack Washburn.

"The government has failed to charge a single one of those 'cyber hit men' services, named and evidently well known to the government," Paulose wrote. "Instead the government's neglect has allowed the professional cyber hit men for hire to skip off merrily into the night."

Addressing Schultz last week, Paulose described the attacks on Washburn as "essentially a prank on a dormant site not doing business."

"Even if Mr. Gammell thinks it's a prank," Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Rank replied, "it's a criminal prank."

©2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.