Gov’t warns U.S. retailers about hacking software

WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than 1,000 U.S. retailers could be infected with malicious software lurking in their cash register computers, allowing hackers to steal customer financial data, the Homeland Security Department said Friday.

The government urged businesses of all sizes to scan their point-of-sale systems for software known as "Backoff," discovered last October. It previously explained in detail how the software operates and how retailers could find and remove it.

Earlier this month, United Parcel Service said it found infected computers in 51 stores. UPS said it was not aware of any fraud that resulted from the infection but said hackers may have taken customers’ names, addresses, email addresses and payment card information.

The company apologized to customers and offered free identity protection and credit monitoring services to those who had shopped in those 51 stores.

Backoff was discovered in October, but according to the Homeland Security Department the software wasn’t flagged by antivirus programs until this month.

Jerome Segura, a senior security researcher at cybersecurity software firm Malware Bytes, said that the way that Backoff works is not unique. The program gains access to companies’ computers by finding insufficiently protected remote access points and duping computer users to download malware, tricks that have long been in use and are often automated.


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What has changed, Segura said, is that the hackers deploying it have become increasingly sophisticated about identifying high-value computer systems after they’ve broken into them.

"Once the bad guys realized they were able to penetrate larger networks, they saw the opportunity to develop malware that’s specifically for credit cards and can evade antivirus programs," he said.

By using Backoff selectively, rather than distributing it widely on the Internet, the hackers likely managed to escape detection for longer. Following Homeland Security’s warnings in July, however, companies are much better able to probe their own computers for Backoff.

The battle between retailers and hackers is an ongoing one. Retail giant Target, based in Minneapolis, was targeted by hackers last year and disclosed in December that a data breach compromised 40 million credit and debit card accounts between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15. On Jan. 10, it said hackers stole personal information -- including names, phone numbers and email and mailing addresses -- from as many as 70 million customers.

Target, the third-largest retailer, has been overhauling its security department and systems in the wake of the pre-Christmas data breach, which hurt profits, sales and its reputation among shoppers worried about the security of their personal data. Target is now accelerating its $100 million plan to roll out chip-based credit card technology in all of its nearly 1,800 stores.

So-called chip and pin technology would allow for more secure transactions than the magnetic strip cards that most Americans use now. The technology has already been adopted in Europe and elsewhere.

Though improving card technology and updating malware detection will help retailers defend themselves, Segura said that the recent profusion of computer breaches should make companies think harder about how they use remote access systems for employees and vendors. By limiting what portions of their systems can be accessed remotely, he said, companies can limit the damage that hackers can do.

Survey: U.S. gas prices down 4 cents per gallon

CAMARILLO, Calif. (AP) -- The average U.S. price of gasoline has dipped 4 cents per gallon in the past two weeks, and prices in California have fallen 5 cents in the same time period.

According to the Lundberg Survey released Sunday, the average nationwide price for a gallon of regular is now $3.48 -- 8 cents below what it was a year ago. The average price for midgrade gasoline is $3.69, and premium is $3.84.

Of cities surveyed in the Lower 48 states, the lowest price, $3.11, was in Jackson, Mississippi. San Francisco had the highest price at $3.92.

In California, prices for a gallon of regular dropped 5 cents to $3.81.

The lowest price, $3.66, was in Bakersfield. 

The average U.S. price of gasoline dropped 23 cents during the past nine weeks.

U.S. says American held in Syria for nearly 2 years by al-Qaida-linked group has been freed

WASHINGTON (AP) -- An American journalist kidnapped and held hostage for nearly two years by an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria was released Sunday, less than a week after the horrific execution of American journalist James Foley by Islamic militants.

The freed American is 45-year-old Peter Theo Curtis of Massachusetts, who wrote under the byline Theo Padnos.

White House national security adviser Susan Rice said Curtis is now safe outside of Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry said Curtis was held by Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked militant group fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Curtis was not believed to be among the hostages held by the Islamic State group that executed Foley. Islamic State was formally disavowed by al-Qaida earlier this year after being deemed too brutal.

President Barack Obama, who was wrapping up a vacation in Massachusetts, was briefed Sunday morning on Curtis’ release.

Rebels parade captive Ukrainian soldiers on streets of Donetsk as citizens shout and hurl eggs

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -- To shouts of "Fascists!" and "Hang them from a tree!" captured Ukrainian soldiers were paraded through the streets of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Sunday as bystanders pelted them with eggs, water bottles and tomatoes.

The spectacle of the bruised and filthy soldiers being marched hands bound and surrounded by gun-toting pro-Russian insurgents came as Ukrainians in Kiev celebrated their country’s independence from the Soviet Union -- a stark display of the growing divisions between east and west.

While support and mobilization for Kiev’s campaign against the separatists has grown in many parts of the country, resentments fester in much of the east, where civilian casualties and shelling have become a part of daily life.

Illustrating the divisions, an ostentatious procession of tanks and weaponry rumbled through downtown Kiev to mark Ukraine’s 23rd anniversary of independence from Moscow -- a highly publicized event accompanied by speeches and a vow by President Petro Poroshenko to boost defense spending to defeat the rebels.

In Donetsk, thousands gathered in the main square as the insurgents staged their own spectacle mocking the national army. To jeers and catcalls, dozens of captive soldiers, some wearing tattered Ukrainian military uniforms and some in torn and dirty civilian clothing, were forced to march past as nationalistic Russian songs blared from loudspeakers. They were flanked by rebels pointing bayoneted rifles.

Egypt’s top Islamic authority, revered worldwide, says extremist group not an ‘Islamic State’

CAIRO (AP) -- The top Islamic authority in Egypt, revered by many Muslims worldwide, launched an Internet-based campaign Sunday challenging an extremist group in Syria and Iraq by saying it should not be called an "Islamic State."

The campaign by the Dar el-Ifta, the top authority that advises Muslims on spiritual and life issues, adds to the war of words by Muslim leaders across the world targeting the Islamic State group, which controls wide swaths of Iraq and Syria. Its violent attacks, including mass shootings, destroying Shiite shrines, targeting minorities and beheadings including American journalist James Foley, have shocked Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam, previously said the extremists violate all Islamic principles and laws and described the group as a danger to Islam as a whole. Now, the Dar el-Ifta he oversees will suggest foreign media drop using "Islamic State" in favor of the "al-Qaida Separatists in Iraq and Syria," or the acronym "QSIS," said Ibrahim Negm, an adviser to the mufti.

This is part of a campaign that "aims to correct the image of Islam that has been tarnished in the West because of these criminal acts, and to exonerate humanity from such crimes that defy natural instincts and spreads hate between people," Negm said according to Egypt’s state news agency MENA. "We also want to reaffirm that all Muslims are against these practices which violate the tolerant principles of Islam."

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also weighed in. On Sunday, speaking to editors of Egyptian newspapers, he said the extremist group is part of a plot aiming to "undermine Islam as a belief."

Palestinian president prepares new UN statehood appeal for after Gaza war

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Aides to the Palestinian president said Sunday that he will soon appeal to the international community to set a deadline for Israel to end its occupation of lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war and make way for an independent Palestinian state.

President Mahmoud Abbas was expected to unveil his proposal as part of a "day after" plan following the current war in the Gaza Strip, likely at a meeting of the Palestinian leadership on Tuesday, said the aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been made public.

Abbas is plotting his move even as the fighting continues to rage. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned Sunday that the 7-week-old military campaign in Gaza would stretch into September -- despite growing anger among residents in southern Israel over the military’s inability to halt rocket and mortar fire out of the Palestinian territory following the death of a 4-year-old Israeli boy over the weekend.

In new fighting Sunday, the Israeli air force flattened a seven-floor office building and severely damaged a shopping center in southern Gaza, signaling a new escalation.

Palestinian officials said 13 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes, bringing the death toll to more than 2,100 Palestinians since fighting erupted on July 8. Sixty-eight Israelis have also died, all but four of them soldiers.

Hundreds attend St. Louis event promoting peace, which has new resonance after Brown shooting

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Hundreds of people gathered Sunday in St. Louis’ largest park for a festival encouraging peace over violence -- an event that took on new resonance after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer.

Peace Fest 2014 was already in the works before Michael Brown was killed in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. But the shooting and the nightly protests it touched off have put a larger spotlight on the event.

"I think this is divine," said James Clark, vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life Inc., the nonprofit that organizes the festival each year. "The whole world is watching Peace Fest today."

Tracy Martin, the father of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin, was scheduled to speak at the event at Forest Park, a move that was also set prior to the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown. Organizers said a representative of Brown’s family would join Tracy Martin.

Trayvon Martin, 17, was also unarmed when he was shot and killed in 2012. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he shot Martin in self-defense, was acquitted.

At Mass for slain U.S. journalist James Foley, a New Hampshire bishop says: He opened our eyes

ROCHESTER, N.H. (AP) -- Slain U.S. journalist James Foley was living his faith by bringing images to the world of people suffering from war and oppressive regimes, a Roman Catholic bishop said Sunday at a Mass in his honor.

Bishop Peter Libasci said even after Foley was captured for the first time in Libya in 2011, he "went back again that we might open our eyes."

The Mass was attended by Foley’s parents, John and Diane Foley, and hundreds of others in their hometown of Rochester, New Hampshire. Afterward, Libasci read aloud a letter from the Vatican extending the condolences of Pope Francis.

"Thank you for loving Jim," Diane Foley told the crowd after the Mass.

The crowd filled every pew and people stood three deep at the back of the church and along both sides of it. Gov. Maggie Hassan, along with U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, attended the Mass.

Citrus in crisis: Florida fights back against bug that threatens economy, identity

LAKE WALES, Fla. (AP) -- The tourists stream to Florida in their cars, intent on a week at Disney or a sugar-sand seashore or a nonstop party on South Beach. Road weary and thirsty, they pull over at one of the state’s five official welcome centers. They walk inside, and then they look up.

"The best start under the sun," reads a big sign. "FLORIDA ORANGE JUICE."

Behind a counter, a woman sits with a stack of paper cups. "Welcome to Florida," she says with a big smile. "Orange or grapefruit?"

The juice is cold and sweet. It tastes like the Sunshine State.

Once, emerald green trees bursting with citrus carpeted more than half of the state, from the northern reaches of Jacksonville and the parks of Orlando to the Miami coastline. Oranges, especially, have long been synonymous with the magic of Florida.