A programmer in Palo Alto, California, claims to have been extorted out of a rare, single-letter Twitter handle – after an unknown assailant gained access to his accounts on other online services and held them hostage.
In a blog post detailing the incident, Naoki Hiroshima said he had owned the @N Twitter account since 2007, but was forced to give it up last week after receiving threats that he would lose the internet domains he owned if he did not. (Hiroshima can now be found tweeting from @N_is_stolen.)
This wasn't the first time someone had tried to gain control of his coveted single-letter account. According to Hiroshima, he had been offered as much as $50,000 for it, and attempts to hack it were commonplace.
"Password reset instructions are a regular sight in my email inbox," Hiroshima wrote.
What was different this time was that the attacker had gained control of Hiroshima's account at domain registrar GoDaddy and was threatening to place fraudulent orders that would cause GoDaddy to "repossess" his domains.
Access to Hiroshima's DNS records also gave the culprit the ability to interfere with the operation of his various websites and their corresponding email servers.
"I see you run quite a few nice websites, so I have left those alone for now, all data on the sites has remained intact," the attacker reportedly told Hiroshima in a Mafioso-like email message. "Would you be willing to compromise?"
Hiroshima ultimately capitulated, turning over control of @N to the attacker, after which his access to his GoDaddy account was restored.
Following the transfer, the attacker was even gracious enough to explain how Hiroshima's GoDaddy account had been compromised – which was what prompted Hiroshima to go public with the story.
The attacker told Hiroshima that "some very simple social engineering tricks" had convinced a support rep at PayPal into confirming the last four digits of the credit card associated with Hiroshima's account there over the phone.
The attacker then called GoDaddy, said that the card had been lost, and claimed to only be able to remember the last four digits of the card number. The GoDaddy rep then allegedly allowed the attacker to guess another two digits of the card number and considered that good enough to verify the caller's identity.
The attacker then immediately changed Hiroshima's GoDaddy password, and it was off to the races. The attacker also changed various identifying information associated with the account, so that Hiroshima wouldn't be able to verify any of the information when he called GoDaddy to report the incident.
From there, the attacker used knowledge of Hiroshima's email accounts to access his Facebook account, and Hiroshima reckons his PayPal account probably could have been hacked, too, were it not for two-factor authentication. But the initial, telephone-based social engineering tricks the attacker used to gain his personal information were what bothered Hiroshima the most.
"Sounds like I was dealing with a wannabe Kevin Mitnick – it's as though companies have yet to learn from Mitnick's exploits circa 1995," Hiroshima wrote.
Not so fast, say PayPal and GoDaddy
But PayPal, for its part, disputes Hiroshima's story. According to a statement the payments processor put out on Wednesday, somebody did try to get at Hiroshima's personal data via PayPal, but the attempt didn't succeed:
We have carefully reviewed our records and can confirm that there was a failed attempt made to gain this customer's information by contacting PayPal. PayPal did not divulge any credit card details related to this account. PayPal did not divulge any personal or financial information related to this account.
GoDaddy, on the other hand, admits that the attacker was successfully able to use social engineering to compromise Hiroshima's account there. But in a statement of its own, the registrar said its internal investigation revealed that "the hacker was already in possession of a large portion of the customer information needed to access the account at the time he contacted GoDaddy."
Nonetheless, GoDaddy said it will be updating its employee training to prevent future such incidents. It also said it is "working with industry partners to help restore [Hiroshima's] services from other providers."
The real question, though, is why Twitter hasn't simply restored Hiroshima's access to the @N account. When El Reg emailed the microblogging service to ask just that, a Twitter spokesman told us only: "While we don't comment on individual accounts, we are investigating the report." ®