Target Breach Started as E-Mail Phishing Expedition

The data thieves who attacked Target Corp. stole the network credentials of a heating and refrigeration contractor via phishing e-mails sent to the company's employees, according to the blogger who first revealed the breach.

Data security reporter Brian Krebs blogged Wednesday at KrebsonSecurity.com that Target's breach started with a "malware-laced e-mail phishing attack" on employees of Sharpsburg, Pa.-based Fazio Mechanical Services Inc.

Krebs cited "multiple sources close to the investigation" and said the phishing e-mails were sent at least two months before thieves started hoovering up card data from cash registers.

"Two of those sources said the malware in question was Citadel -- a password-stealing bot program that is a derivative of the ZeuS banking trojan -- but that information could not be confirmed," Krebs said.

Phishing e-mails are a common tactic thieves use to try to get people to click on a malicious link or download an infected file.

Fazio's main tool for detecting malicious software on its internal system was a free version of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, Krebs said, which wasn't adequate. It's intended for spot use by individual users, and not an organization.

Krebs reported that a former member of Target's security team, whom he did not identify, told him that nearly all Target vendors use an external network called Ariba, which he described as an external billing system, and a Target project management and contract submissions portal called Partners Online.

Fazio Mechanical also would have had access to Target's Property Development Zone portal, the source said.

The source speculated that the digital connections could give a vendor access to Target's corporate network.

Cyberthieves made off with the payment card data of 40 million people who bought merchandise at Target's U.S. stores from Nov. 27 to Dec. 15. The company later said the personal information of 70 million customers was also taken.

The heist is one of the...

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