A Massachusetts businessman allegedly paid members of the computer underground to launch organized, crippling distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against three of his competitors, in what federal officials are calling the first criminal case to arise from a DDoS-for-hire scheme.
Jay Echouafni, 37, is a fugitive from a five-count federal indictment in Los Angeles charging him with aiding and abetting computer intrusion and with conspiracy. As CEO of the online satellite TV retailer Orbit Communication Corp., Echouafni allegedly paid a business associate to recruit members of the computer underground to cripple three online stores, resulting in long periods of downtime and an estimated $2m in losses to the businesses and their service providers.
Paul Ashley, 30, of Powell, Ohio, is named in a separate criminal complaint as Echouafni's go-between in arranging two of the attacks. Ashley was the network administrator of the Web and IRC hosting company CIT/FooNet, run from his home, which was shuttered sometime after being raided by the FBI last February. Three other Americans and one UK citizen are charged with actually carrying out the attacks.
"This is an example of a growing trend: that is, denial of service attacks being used for either extortionate reasons, or to disable or impair the competition," says FBI supervisory special agent Frank Harrill. "It's a growing problem and one that we take very seriously, and one that we think has a very destructive impact and potential."
According to an FBI affidavit filed in the case, Echouafni was a client of CIT/FooNet's hosting services when he made a deal with Ashley, then the owner, in October of last year. Echouafni allegedly paid Ashley $1,000 to snuff out two competing websites that he claimed had stolen some of his content and were staging DDoS attacks against his company.
Ashley in turn used his connections in the underground, and in at least one case the promise of free CIT/FooNet server, to recruit three associates to do the dirty work: Joshua Schichtel, Jonathan Hall, and Lee Walker, known online as "Emp," "Rain," and "sorCe" respectively. Each of the three apparently had sizable "botnets" at their disposal, meaning they could each command thousands of compromised PCs to simultaneously attack a single host -- Walker alone had control of between 5,000 and 10,000 computers through a customized version of the Agobot worm, according to the FBI affidavit. Schichtel's network of 3,000 zombies was more modest, and he quietly subcontracted the job to Richard "Krashed" Roby, who allegedly took the assignment in exchange for a free shell account.
The attacks began on 6 October, with SYN floods slamming into the Los Angeles-based e-commerce site WeaKnees.com, crippling the site, which sells digital video recorders, for 12 hours straight, according to the FBI. The company's hosting provider, Lexiconn, responded by dropping WeaKnees.com as a client, sending the company to more expensive hosting at RackSpace.com.
RackSpace fought back, but the attackers proved determined and adaptive. In mid-October the simple SYN flood attacks were replaced with an HTTP flood, pulling large image files from WeaKnees.com in overwhelming numbers. At its peak the onslaught allegedly kept the company offline for a full two weeks. (The company declined to comment on the case).
RapidSatellite.com, which sells satellite TV receivers, was hit at the same time and with similar results. The company responded by quickly moving their electronic storefront to the distributed content delivery services of Speedera, only to be crippled three days later by an attack on that provider's DNS servers, which for an hour also blocked access to other Speedera-hosted sites, including Amazon.com and the Department of Homeland Security, according to the FBI affidavit. RapidSatellite then moved to Akamai, but were out again within a week when the attackers switched to an HTTP flood attack, running massive numbers of queries through RapidSatellite.com's search engine.
Behind the scenes Ashley was allegedly micromanaging the assault. A chat log recovered from Schichtel's hard drive shows Ashley admonishing his subordinate to stay on top of his portion of the attack: "u gotta keep ane [sic] eye on it...cuz they could null route the ip and change the dns...and it would be back up." When Schichtel asks, "what did they do to you?," Ashley replies with an answer fit for Tony Soprano. "[F]---ing with us...well, a customer."
In December, the alleged DDoS conspirators' informal relationship became more corporate, when Echouafni purchased CIT/FooNet from Ashley, and kept Ashley on as network administrator at $120,000 a year salary. Ashley, in turn, formally hired Hall to perform "security" for the company -- which the FBI suggests was a euphemism for launching more DDoS attacks against Echouafni's enemies.
In Feburary, Echouafni -- now the boss -- phoned Hall directly to order an attack on a new target, according to the government: another satellite T.V. retailer called Expert Satellite. Hall dutifully launched a SYN flood against the new victim, but the results didn't please his CEO; Echouafni contacted Hall repeatedly to inform him that the site had resurfaced, and to express his disappointment. "Echouafni also implied that [Hall] would be fired if he did not launch the attacks," reads the affidavit
By then, law enforcement was making progress on the investigation they code named "Operation Cyberslam."
FBI cyber crime agents had spotted what appeared to be reconnaissance for the HTTP flood attacks in WeaKnees.com's October log files, originating from a shell hosting company called Unixcon. Unixcon traced the activity to an account that had been established with a stolen credit card number, but an FBI source, whose identity is protected in the affidavit, fingered U.K. resident and Unixcon administrator Lee "sorCe" Walker as the culprit.
Walker was already known to the FBI from an investigation earlier in the year, when one of Walker's IRC enemies complained that Walker had DDoSed him. The Bureau even had Walker's home address. An FBI agent traveled to the U.K. in February to accompany London police as they raided Walker, who admitted to the WeaKnees.com and RapidSatellite.com attacks, and fingered Ashley as his handler, according to the affidavit.
The Bureau raided Ashley's home on Valentine's day. Before they hauled away CIT/FooNet's servers -- an act that would briefly cause controversy in the hosting community -- Ashley allegedly admitted to the attacks, and named all three of his cyber button men and Echouafni. Echouafni was arrested in Massachusetts, and released on $750,000 bail secured by his house. "We've alleged in the indictment that Echouafni was the manager, organizer and leader of the group," says assistant U.S. attorney Arif Alikhan, head of the Los Angeles computer crimes section, who's prosecuting the case.
He's also missing. According to court records, last month Echouafni's attorney won a motion to permit Echouafni's wife and children to "travel freely within and outside of the United States of America," and to have their passports returned. That was Echouafni's last action in court: the government says he's disappeared, and officials believe he's likely in Morocco. "He's a native of Morocco, and he was arrested in March as he returned from Morocco into the U.S.," says the FBI's Harrill. Echouafni's attorney did not return a phone call.
The Echouafni investigation was one of a handful of cases specifically cited Thursday by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in announcing what the Justice Department called "Operation Web Snare -- a tallying of over 150 recent and ongoing federal criminal cases relating to computers or identity theft. Ashcroft said the case illustrates "the increased use of the Internet to damage rival businesses and communicate threats for commercial advantage."
"I think it's the first case of its kind involving a DDoS for commercial advantage or for hire," says Alikhan. "There are DDoS attacks all the time organized on IRC, but this is certainly the first case where you have a corporate executive who was using the services of another person to launch attacks against competitors."