Hackers for Hire – The case of Dark Basin

Mad kudos to Toronto based Citizen Labs for this excellent work!

Citizen Labs just published (about 13 hours ago) an expose of an Indian company, dubbed as ‘Dark Basin’ which is responsible for hacking thousands of individuals over six continents. The victim list isn’t just random joes, but public figures, rich and the affluent, NGOs including Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

I wasn’t really surprised when an Indian company was coined for this. India is known as tech factory, producing software development and technology talents which went all over the world. And this included the dark side of technology.

Not too long ago, I was involved in forensic investigation of a high level intrusion, affecting Board of Directors and Senior Management of European  region telecommunications provider. Working closely with the law enforcement agencies, we were able to trace and eventually find out that the perpretrators were from India and had vast infrastructure for such clandestine operations. The Norman Hangover report was published, detailing the bits and bytes of the attack.

Back to the recent expose; the company used a variety of methods to target their victims. Primary mode of attack is through phishing. Their effective rates were high, simply because they were extremely persistent. They would do intelligence gathering of the clients, and attempt multiple times from different angles until the clients fall prey to the attack. On the background, a server is set up to masquerade as valid login pages, such as Google, or Facebook. Once a victim enters their password, their credentials are exposed to the attackers and its used for whatever other purposes deemed fit. In some attacks, these attackers were seen using these illegally obtained credentials to send out phishing email to other related entities, making them also fall prey to the attack.

These series of attack is attributed with high confidence towards Belltrox InfoTech Services. The attribution is made based on a few factors. The domain previously used by Belltrox – belltrox.org was registered by the email address from Yahoo, which was also used to register other phishing sites. Eventually this email address was changed. Operating hours of which the phishing emails were sent correspond to IST – GMT+0530. References to Indian festivals were made on their URL shortener (powered by phurl). Incidentally the same URL shortener was used by the attackers to link back to their CV. The founder of the company – Sumit Gupta (named as Sumit Vishnoi in DOJ documents) were previously indicted on hacking-for-hire scheme. In short, they were identified due to severe lack of opsec (I think the staffs didn’t know that they were suppose to keep it hush hush).

LinkedIn provides wealth of information about Belltrox and its circle. Based on the recommendations received by Belltrox and its staff, its clear that Belltrox has been working with private investigatiors and government agencies. This includes Canadian government officials, local law and state enforcement agencies and former intelligence agency staffs who are most likely gone professional.

Victimology indicates a large pool of diverse targets, which shows that the nature of business is not specific, but demand driven. This includes NGO that goes after large corporations, such as the #Exxonknew campaign. Interesting targets to note including friends and family members of those involved in the campaign, including the legal counsel.

At this point, it is certain that Belltrox is the source of the phishing campaigns. Who hired them still remains unknown. Sumit Gupta, when contacted, denied of any wrongdoing and stated that his firm assists his clients to retrieve emails for private investigators based on the credentials provided. (Yup…. eyes rolling here).

Belltrox has a wide range of industries where their target resides. This includes short sellers, hedge funds, financial journalist, global financial services, legal services, Eastern and Central Europe, Russia, government agencies and even individuals involved in private dispute.

Tools Techniques and Procedures – aka Tradecraft

Key modus operandi of Belltrox is phishing. They deploy a number of phishing kits (which they even leave it open/available). To power these phishing kits, a URL shortener is used. The URL shortener is based on a package called phurl, which creates a sequential numbered shortened URL, which makes it easy for the good guys ™ enumerate and identify what are the actual long URLs. Through this, the list of domains used for phishing is identified.

While phishing isn’t really new, this revelation strengthens the idea that phishing is very much relevant and effective. Login pages of commonly used services such as Google/Facebook is hosted, creating the opportunity for the attacker to capture credentials.

Hacking-as-a-Service (HaaS) – Global issue

HaaS is becoming a global thorn in the cyber realm. Emergence of such players, including reports on the based on Dark Matter highlights a lucrative market for such services, and that while the service remains clandestine, demand and need for such services continues to thrive. Legal frameworks are still developing over the need to handle and dismantle such services.

HaaS also presents an issue for attribution of attack. In this case, Belltrox was coined as the attacker, but the actual puppet master remains hidden. This can apply for nation state sponsored attacks, completely washing their hands away which engaging a contractor to do the dirty work for them.

Protecting Yourself

These attacks highlight a key need for 2 factor authentication. Worthy to note that any security control put into place makes it harder, but not impossible for attackers to get through.  The Dark Basin attacks runs on the premise that the victims did not secure their Google account with 2FA, making it easy for the attacker to use their ill gotten credentials to gain access.


  1. Norman Hangover Report – https://paper.seebug.org/papers/APT/APT_CyberCriminal_Campagin/2013/Norman_HangOver%20report_Executive%20Summary_042513.pdf
  2. Citizen Labs – Dark Basin – https://citizenlab.ca/2020/06/dark-basin-uncovering-a-massive-hack-for-hire-operation/
  3. EFF phishing attempts – https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/09/phish-future