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Stealing payment card data and PINs from POS systems is dead easy

Lucian Constantin | Aug. 4, 2016
Lack of authentication and encryption allow attackers to easily steal payment card data and PIN numbers from point-of-sale systems.

Many of the large payment card breaches that hit retail and hospitality businesses in recent years were the result of attackers infecting point-of-sale systems with memory-scraping malware. But there are easier ways to steal this sort of data, due to a lack of authentication and encryption between card readers and the POS payment applications.

POS systems are specialized computers. They typically run Windows and have peripherals like keyboards, touch screens, barcode scanners and card readers with PIN pads. They also have specialized payment applications installed to handle transactions.

One of the common methods used by attackers to steal payment card data from PoS systems is to infect them with malware, via stolen remote support credentials or other techniques. These malware programs are known as memory or RAM scrapers because they scan the system's memory for credit card data when it's processed by the payment application on the POS system.

But on Tuesday at the BSides conference in Las Vegas, security researchers Nir Valtman and Patrick Watson, from U.S.-based POS and ATM manufacturer NCR, demonstrated a stealthier and more effective attack technique that works against most "payment points of interaction," including card readers with PIN pads and even gas pump payment terminals.

The main issue shared by all of these devices is that they don't use authentication and encryption when sending data back to the POS payment software. This exposes them to man-in-the-middle attacks through external devices that tap the network or serial connection or through "shim software" running the POS system itself.

For their demo, the researchers used a Raspberry Pi device with traffic capture software that taps the data cable between a PIN pad, and a laptop with a payment app simulator. The PIN pad had a custom top cover to hide its make and model; the researchers didn't want to single out a particular vendor since many of them are affected.

While the demo used an external device that could be installed by an insider or a person posing as a technician, attackers can also simply modify a DLL (dynamic-link library) file of the payment app to do the data interception inside the OS itself, if they get remote access to it. A modified DLL that's loaded by the legitimate payment software would be much harder to detect than memory-scraping malware.

point-of-sale POS PIN pad card reader payment

Researchers Patrick Watson and Nir Valtman cause a payment terminal to display a fake re-enter PIN prompt.

The NCR researchers showed that not only can attackers use this attack technique to steal the data encoded on a card's magnetic stripe, which can be used to clone it, but they can also trick cardholders to expose their PIN numbers and even the security codes printed on the back of the cards.

 

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