Exclusive: Iran-linked hackers pose as journalists in email scam

By Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When Iranian-born German academic Erfan Kasraie received an email from The Wall Street Journal requesting an interview, he sensed something was amiss.

The Nov. 12 note purportedly came from Farnaz Fassihi, a veteran Iranian-American journalist who covers the Middle East. Yet it read more like a fan letter, asking Kasraie to share his “important achievements” to “motivate the youth of our beloved country.”

“This interview is a great honor for me,” the note gushed.

Another red flag: the follow-up email that instructed Kasraie to enter his Google password to see the interview questions.

The phony request was in reality an attempt to break into Kasraie’s email account. The incident is part of a wider effort to impersonate journalists in hacking attempts that three cybersecurity firms said they have tied to the Iranian government, which rejected the claim. The incidents come to light at a time when the U.S. government has warned of Iranian cyber threats in the wake of the U.S. air strike that killed Iran’s second most powerful official, Major-General Qassem Soleimani.

In a report https://blog.certfa.com/posts/fake-interview-the-new-activity-of-charming-kitten published Wednesday, London-based cybersecurity company Certfa tied the impersonation of Fassihi to a hacking group nicknamed Charming Kitten, which has long been associated with Iran. Israeli firm ClearSky Cyber Security provided Reuters with documentation of similar impersonations of two media figures at CNN and Deutsche Welle, a German public broadcaster. ClearSky also linked the hacking attempts to Charming Kitten, describing the individuals targeted as Israeli academics or researchers who study Iran. ClearSky declined to give the specific number of people targeted or to name them, citing client confidentiality.

Iran denies operating or supporting any hacking operation. Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesman for the Islamic Republic’s mission to the United Nations, said that firms claiming otherwise “are merely participants in the disinformation campaign against Iran.”

Reuters uncovered similar hacking attempts on two other targets, which the two cybersecurity firms, along with a third firm, Atlanta-based Secureworks, said also appeared to be the work of Charming Kitten. Azadeh Shafiee, an anchor for London-based satellite broadcaster Iran International, was impersonated by hackers in attempts to break into the accounts of a relative of hers in London and Prague-based Iranian filmmaker Hassan Sarbakhshian.

Sarbakhshian – who fled the Islamic Republic amid a crackdown that saw the arrest of several fellow photojournalists in 2009 – was also targeted with an email that claimed to be from Fassihi. The message asked him to sign a contract to sell some of his pictures to The Wall Street Journal. Sarbakhshian said in an interview that he was suspicious of the message and didn’t respond.

Neither did the ruse fool Kasraie, an academic who frequently appears on television criticizing Iran’s government.

“I understood 100 percent that it was a trap,” he said in an interview.

That’s not surprising given the hackers’ sloppy tactics. For instance, they missed the fact that Fassihi had left the Journal last year for a new job at The New York Times.

The Journal declined to comment. Fassihi referred questions to The Times, which in a statement called the impersonation “a vivid example of the challenges journalists are facing around the globe.”

U.S. officials and cybersecurity experts see Iran as a digital threat. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued alerts about the threat of Iranian cyberattacks following the controversial U.S. attack that killed Soleimani. Microsoft, which tracks attempts to undermine election security, in October accused Charming Kitten of targeting a U.S. presidential campaign; sources told Reuters https://reut.rs/38a9rEM at the time that the campaign was Donald Trump’s.

Homeland Security and FBI spokespeople declined to comment on the recent impersonations identified by Reuters. Certfa, ClearSky, and Secureworks said they could be tied to Charming Kitten through a study of the tactics, targets, and digital infrastructure involved – including servers, link shortening services, and domain registration patterns.

“This activity does align with prior Iranian cyber operations,” said Allison Wikoff, a Secureworks researcher who has tracked Charming Kitten for years.

In early 2019, the United States indicted Behzad Mesri – who ClearSky has linked to Charming Kitten through emails and social media activity – on charges of recruiting a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer to spy on behalf of Iran. Mesri remains at large and could not be reached for comment.

Other impersonated journalists included CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd, whose identity was stolen in August and used in attempts to break into email accounts in Israel, ClearSky said. Another was Michael Hartlep, a Berlin-based videojournalist who has done freelance assignments for Deutsche Welle and Reuters. ClearSky found his name on an email inviting recipients to a bogus Deutsche Welle webinar on Iran’s role in the Middle East. The firm did not find evidence that the Reuters name was used in hacking attempts.

In another case, the hackers appear to have invented a journalist – “Keyarash Navidpour” – to send out a phony invitation on Jan. 4 to an online seminar that it claimed Deutsche Welle would hold about the killing of Soleimani the day before. No such journalist works for Deutsche Welle, said the news organization’s spokesman Christoph Jumpelt.

Vinograd referred questions to CNN, which did not return messages seeking comment. Hartlep told Reuters he worried such stunts might give sources second thoughts about answering a reporter’s queries.

“If this becomes the usual way of tricking people,” he said, “definitely it makes our work very hard.”

(Reporting by Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing in Washington; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York and Parisa Hafezi in London; Editing by Chris Sanders and Brian Thevenot)

Saving the world is on Sue Desmond Hellman’s to do list

FILE PHOTO: Susan Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks at the 2019 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) – If you had $50 billion to try to solve the world’s worst problems, what exactly would you do?

That is the daunting challenge that faces Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann when she walks into her office every morning as president of the Gates Foundation – the largest private foundation in the United States, set up by Bill and Melinda Gates.

For the latest in Reuters’ Life Lessons series, Desmond-Hellmann talked with us about the winding path that took her from the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, through years in Uganda, to the top of the philanthropic world.

Q: When you were a kid growing up in Reno, Nevada, what money lessons did you learn from your parents?

A: Two things made huge impacts on me: One was that my mom and dad were both children of the Depression, and the first in their families to go to college, so they really knew the value of education. I was one of seven kids, and every night at dinner we talked about nothing but homework and school and books.

The other thing was the importance of values and faith. All the way through 12th grade, my life totally revolved around church and Catholic school.

Q: What was it like to begin your medical career in San Francisco in the 1980s?

A: I started at UCSF as an intern in 1982, and if you look at the history books, the first descriptions of HIV started appearing at that time. So I was literally becoming a doctor in the epicenter of the epidemic. In fact, my specialty was Kaposi’s sarcoma, which you see in a lot of AIDS patients.

Q: After that, you treated AIDS patients in Uganda. What lessons did you take away from that experience?

A: We were approached by the Rockefeller Foundation to study heterosexual HIV transmission in Africa, so my husband Nick and I sold our Honda Civics, sublet our apartment, and hopped on a plane.

We were extremely isolated. When we came back from Uganda, we never complained about anything ever again.

Q: How long did you and your husband grapple with student loans?

A: We were paying those off for the longest time. I still remember the coupons you had to rip off, and send in with your check. We had a lot of debt we had to get rid of, so we were very conservative with our money. It wasn’t until around 2000 where we were financially secure enough to start giving some away to charity.

Q: You have billions to work with, how do you decide where to direct that money?

A: We are in the equity business, the idea that all lives have equal value. So we believe in education as something that drives equity and that no matter your zip code or background or family wealth, you can get a good public education.

We complement that work with a focus on global health, which began after Bill and Melinda took a trip to Africa and saw children dying of diseases that could have been prevented with vaccines. The big drug companies tend to invest in health conditions that affect the rich world, so we focus on what affects the poor: things like TB, malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia.

Q: What is the best life advice you got from Bill and Melinda Gates?

A: The thing I admire about Bill and Melinda is that they are pretty even-keeled about setbacks. Most people tend to beat themselves up when they hit an obstacle, but they don’t get frustrated. They understand that most people overestimate what they accomplish in one year, but underestimate what they can accomplish in 10 years.

Q: What life lessons do you try to pass on to the next generation?

A: I have lots of nieces and nephews, and a couple of things have been North Stars for me. One is being generous: That can be through money, but it can also be through volunteering, or just how you interact and treat people.

The next thing is that when you have a setback, see it as an opportunity. I have had times in my life where I tried to go left, and the door was closed. So turn right and open another door, because there may be something great behind it. Setbacks are only temporary, so keep moving and don’t get stuck.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Jonathan Oatis)

JBS Special News Report: Naghmeh Abedini Rallies World Leaders For Husband

Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of wrongfully imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini, has been traveling the world meeting with leaders asking them to pressure the Iranian government for her husband’s release with the help of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

JBS News writer, Jason Wert, recently had the honor of interviewing Tiffany Barrans of the ACLJ. Barrans has been at Naghmeh’s side since 30 hours after Saeed was imprisoned by the Iranians and has traveled with Naghmeh around the world.

Tiffany spoke with USA Headline News about their travels and the reception of world leaders, including a trip last week to the European Parliament, Germany and then yesterday in front of the U.S. Congress.

Q: What kind of reception did you receive from European Leaders?

Barrans: We had an incredible reception both at the European Parliament and with every member of the German government that we met.  Individuals at the Foreign Ministry, the top leaders, the people in the party who were second in command to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It is always amazing to me how in touch Europe is with the issues of religious freedom in particular and more broadly with human rights.  And they look for ways to make sure their actions match their words.  Something I hope we can improve upon here in the United States!  We truly had a great reception from everybody.

Q: Given that America and Europe do not have the best relationship right now, have you found some countries do not want to become involved because Saeed is an American?

Barrans: It’s always a touchy subject, obviously.  There are some countries that hesitate to get involved because he is an American.  Sometimes it’s related to their relationship with the American government and sometimes it’s because they’re concerned he may have been a spy!

Luckily for us, the Iranian government came out very quickly in their state controlled media and said that [Saeed] was not being considered a spy so we can quickly nip that one and move on.

Germany in particular, the Netherlands has been great as well, has a real heart for those who have been persecuted for their faith and have been active in this field.

Q:  This may seem out of left field, but do you think perhaps the legacy of the Holocaust is what contributes to Germany’s passion for religious freedom?

Barrans: I don’t think that’s out of left field, I think that’s right on!  A lot of them would even admit that themselves.  There are so many in current generations that centuries of trying to right that wrong are necessary and even then, you can’t.  So they’re very sensitive to those who are persecuted, on religious grounds in particular.  It’s also in many businesses whose equipment was used for medical experiments.  So that’s why you see Germany taking a lead on religious freedom issues.

Q:  How is Naghmeh holding up?

Barrans:  I’ve been with Naghmeh since 30 hours after her husband was taken the summer of 2012.  So I’ve walked with her very closely through this process.  It never ceases to amaze me the strength that the Lord gives her.  It truly is a divine thing for her to walk in peace.

I see those moments when we travel together, when we’re tired, when something bad happens when I get that 3:30 in the morning call when she’s broken because she’s human just like the rest of us.  But her faith has always encouraged me and strengthened my faith, to be honest.

It’s hard for me to watch her to have to console her two young children who fear when she leaves to advocate for Saeed and to bring their daddy home that they’re concerned that she won’t come home.  That like their daddy she will go to do good and not come home.

But her faith always encouraged me.

Q:  We spoke with Naghmeh after she met with the President in Idaho about her husband’s situation and how the President told her son that he would try to bring him home by his birthday.

Barrans:  Naghmeh tells the story of six-year-old Jacob, her son,  at his birthday in March.  When he met the President at the end of January he said “Mister President, will you bring my daddy home for my birthday?”  And the President looked him in the eye and said “Well son, when’s your birthday?” and Jacob said “March 17th!”  You know, a very strong little boy.  And the President said “oh, that’s very soon but I will try, I will try.”

In the heart and the mind of a little boy, if I can speak with the President of the United States then of course my daddy is coming home.  And he woke up on March 17th on his birthday and he ran around the house looking for his daddy and his hopes were just crushed when he wasn’t there.

You think of it through the experience of a child that age and realize that he’s lived almost half of his life without his father.  It’s very difficult and then imagine being the mom who is missing her husband and trying to insure that her children are still living a life that is whole and complete when something so large is missing.

Q:  Naghmeh spoke before a Congressional committee on Tuesday.  What kind of reception did she receive from the committee?

Barrans: I have never seen a Congress so unified on something to be quite honest.  Religious liberty is something that they should be, to be quite honest.  But as you had the family members of the four held captive in Iran and the pain they experience there was such an incredible reaction from Congress.

You saw Democrats, in some cases for the first time, asking how they can consent to the nuclear deal and trust Iran with something as important as a nuclear deal when they’re violating their own law and international law very publicly by holding these Americans?

That’s incredible in that we haven’t necessarily heard that before loudly from the party but it was great to see the Dems taking that position as well as the Republicans at the hearing.