Everything you ever wanted to know about Xbox hacking
Cracking gameplay laid bare
Analysis Hacking and phishing threats that PC users have suffered for years are now becoming part and parcel of the online gaming experience for users of Microsoft's Xbox console.
Chris Boyd (AKA PaperGhost) - who recently joined Sunbelt Software as a security researcher and is a long-time dedicated gamer - has studied the growth of tricks designed to allow hackers to take over privileged Xbox accounts via social engineering or launch denial of service attacks against rivals.
He warns the development of serious malware and social engineering threats in the world of online gaming has made the environment as risky as other parts of the net. These threats are not being taken seriously enough by either gamers or the industry itself, Boyd warns.
Industry efforts are focused around combating piracy rather than hacking, the stealthier but arguably larger risk, while the majority of gamers remain ignorant of the hacking perils circulating in the games universe.
Microsoft made a big splash  in November after it banned modders from Xbox Live, its online gaming service. However, little or nothing is heard of the many malicious packages designed to exploit the Xbox or its gamers.
Boyd explained that there are three main areas of exploitation on Xbox Live: phishing and social engineering, hardware hacking and denial of service attacks.
Although gaming logins are still ultimately lost via phishing, this often only happens after prospective marks are groomed for abuse by fraudsters who use the online gaming environment to con victims into trusting them in the first place.
In addition, miscreants often run sophisticated social engineering scams. "Increasingly, manipulation of files on the Xbox hard drive is taking place to make the scams more sophisticated," Boyd explained, adding that the ability to search for users with high gamescores (and therefore the most unlocked bonuses, features, and perks) on Xbox forums is used by gaming grifters to target potential marks, as explained here .
Live and let frag
The first, and most prominent, area of Xbox exploitation is using a combination of phishing and social engineering to obtain user accounts ( Gamertags). These gametags are tied to Windows Live IDs, which are often sold or traded on forums or via auction sites.
Live IDs with high point scores attached to them can retail for 10 times as much as ordinary accounts. "Considering many of the account dumps we see have a few hundred (or thousand) Live IDs in them, hackers can make a lot of money very quickly," Boys explained.
Malware - usually in the form of fake point generators - often comes into play. "Fake points generators that run on your PC promise free Microsoft points in return for your login details," Boyd explained. "Of course, what happens is your data is sent back to base via email should you enter it into the program. Typically, the phishers will also hijack YouTube accounts and place fake 'it works' messages on the videos promoting them [phishing tricks]," he added.
An example of a YouTube video designed to drive traffic to a Xbox phishing site can be found in a blog post by F-Secure here . High points accounts come with privileges and can be cashed-in through sales on the digital underground or even more openly via auction sites.
Hardware tampering forms the second class of hacking activity. Hackers tamper with the data on their hardware via hex editing, rehashing and resigning to obtain digital items and products without payment. The tactic is used to artificially inflate account stats, making manipulated IDs a more valuable as a trading item in the underground economy.
"Because you can hook the Xbox up to your PC, people have created custom built tools to not only view the data on the Xbox hard drive, but alter the data through basic hex editing, rehash it (so the console thinks the files are legit) and resign it (which allows someone to use files that are tied to another profile)," Boyd told El Reg. "Not wanting to risk phishing themselves, some hackers will artificially inflate their Gamerscore and then try to sell the accounts on underground forums and even sites such as eBay."
This type of hardware tampering can also be harnessed in phishing attacks, impersonation, and other malfeasance .
"A recent exploit involved tampering with data on the Xbox hard drive which allowed you to join game sessions with a temporary name. The trick allowed phishers to impersonate game developers (whose gamertags are viewable  on sites that list the gamerscore data) and ask for logins. By all accounts, the phishers did a roaring trade until this was fixed," Boyd explained.
Another (now closed) flaw involved exploiting Microsoft's Marketplace to obtain items for free. After making just one purchase, hackers developed a technique that involved changed just one line of code which allowed them to unlock every other item without paying for it. Microsoft soon put a kibosh on the ruse, but it does illustrates the fertile environment for hacking that the online gaming environment has become.
Lastly, online gaming environment can be beset with malicious disruption, as the result of hacking tools. Distributed denial of service attacks from botnets can kick players out of online game. It's also possible to purchase hardware that allows the unethical to cheat in games.
"Network disruption is a big part of certain areas in console modding and hacking scene," Boyd explained. "As most games are peer to peer with one gamer being the host, anyone can hook their Xbox to their PC via Internet Connection Sharing then use a combination of tools such as Zone Alarm to place IP addresses into trusted zones and network monitors to see the IP addresses in the first place. From there, they fire up a 'host boater' (which is basically a bonnet command program) which targets port 3074 - the port you need open for Xbox Live to work.
"They hit the flood button, and the hosts connection is flooded out by an army of infected PCs. As the attack targets the IP of the gamer directly and not the Xbox live service, it's very hard to do anything about these attacks," he added.
DDoS for hire scams
Botnet for hire services have sprung up on the back of such illicit activities.
"Dedicated Botnet groups will charge a fee for desperate gamers to set up a botnet and booter for them," Boyd told El Reg. "Depending on the game, many will award you the win should the host drop out, or give you a similar advantage. You can also force the game to make you the host via different method, which has other advantages."
Such attacks are explained in greater depth in a blog posting by Boyd here .
Hacking in the world of Xbox Live can also adopt a social networking guise .
"There are friend request spam tools which flood your Xbox dashboard with unending friend requests. After effects can range from crashes, when trying to block these attacks, to general slowdown on your network," Boyd added.
Sunbelt added to this content with guide  to best practice, published on Thursday.
Boyd suggests a number of top tips to avoid getting pwned while playing shoot-em-ups or other online games, that are well worth repeating.
- Never give someone your login details in exchange for anything.
- Avoid game cheats and other items sold on Youtube videos. This is a risk because many cheat sellers are malicious.
- Remove credit card details from accounts registered with gaming companies. Avoid signing up for automatic renewal.
- Use pre-paid cards to pay for accounts, where possible, rather than personal debit or credit cards.
- Try to use aliases - not your real name - when you sign up for online gaming accounts.
Boyd's extensive research doesn't even touch on the growing trade in Trojans designed to steal login credentials for online games such as World of Warcraft and many others. Such strains of malware most often crop in in attacks in the far East but are certainly not restricted to that area and far from limited to WoW. ®