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Balada Injector: Darktrace’s Investigation into the Malware Exploiting WordPress Vulnerabilities

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08
Apr 2024
08
Apr 2024
This blog explores Darktrace’s detection of Balada Injector, a malware known to exploit vulnerabilities in WordPress to gain unauthorized access to networks. Darktrace was able to define numerous use-cases within customer environments which followed previously identified patterns of activity spikes across multiple weeks.

Introducción

With millions of users relying on digital platforms in their day-to-day lives, and organizations across the world depending on them for their business operations, they have inevitably also become a prime target for threat actors. The widespread exploitation of popular services, websites and platforms in cyber-attacks highlights the pervasive nature of malicious actors in today’s threat landscape.

A prime illustration can be seen within the content management system WordPress. Its widespread use and extensive plug-in ecosystem make it an attractive target for attackers aiming to breach networks and access sensitive data, thus leading to routine exploitation attempts. In the End of Year Threat Report for 2023, for example, Darktrace reported that a vulnerability in one WordPress plug-in, namely an authentication bypass vulnerability in miniOrange's Social Login and Register. Darktrace observed it as one of the most exploited vulnerabilities observed across its customer base in the latter half of 2023.

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace observed a string of campaign-like activity associated with Balada Injector, a malware strain known to exploit vulnerabilities in popular plug-ins and themes on the WordPress platform in order to inject a backdoor to provide further access to affected devices and networks. Thanks to its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to promptly identify suspicious connections associated with the Balada Injector, ensuring that security teams had full visibility over potential post-compromise activity and allowing them to act against offending devices.

What is Balada Injector?

The earliest signs of the Balada Injector campaign date back to 2017; however, it was not designated the name Balada Injector until December 2022 [1]. The malware utilizes plug-ins and themes in WordPress to inject a backdoor that redirects end users to malicious and fake sites. It then exfiltrates sensitive information, such as database credentials, archive files, access logs and other valuable information which may not be properly secured [1]. Balada Injector compromise activity is also reported to arise in spikes of activity that emerge every couple of weeks [4].

In its most recent attack activity patterns, specifically in September 2023, Balada Injector exploited a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in CVE-2023-3169 associated with the tagDiv composer plug-in. Some of the injection methods observed included HTML injections, database injections, and arbitrary file injections. In late September 2023, a similar pattern of behavior was observed, with the ability to plant a backdoor that could execute PHP code and install a malicious WordPress plug-in, namely ‘wp-zexit’.

According to external security researchers [2], the most recent infection activity spikes for Balada Injector include the following:

Pattern 1: ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’ injections

Pattern 2: Autogenerated malicious WordPress users

Pattern 3: Backdoors in the Newspaper theme’s 404.php file

Pattern 4: Malicious ‘wp-zexit’ plug-in installation

Pattern 5: Three new Balada Injector domains (statisticscripts[.]com, dataofpages[.]com, and listwithstats[.]com)

Pattern 6: Promsmotion[.]com domain

Darktrace’s Coverage of Balada Injector

Darktrace detected devices across multiple customer environments making external connections to the malicious Balada Injector domains, including those associated with aforementioned six infection activity patterns. Across the incidents investigated by Darktrace, much of the activity appeared to be associated with TLS/SSL connectivity, related to Balada Injector endpoints, which correlated with the reported infection patterns of this malware. The observed hostnames were all recently registered and, in most cases, had IP geolocations in either the Netherlands or Ukraine.

In the observed cases of Balada Injector across the Darktrace fleet, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not active on the affected customer environments. If RESPOND had been active and enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of these attacks, it would have been able to quickly block connections to malicious Balada Injector endpoints as soon as they were identified by DETECT, thereby containing the threat.

Looking within the aforementioned activity patterns, Darktrace identified a Balada Injector activity within a customer’s environment on October 16, 2023, when a device was observed making a total of 9 connection attempts to ‘sleep[.]stratosbody[.]com’, a domain that had previously been associated with the malware [2]. Darktrace recognized that the endpoint had never been seen on the network, with no other devices having connected to it previously, thus treated it as suspicious.

Figure 1: The connection details above demonstrate 100% rare external connections were made from the internal device to the ‘sleep[.]stratosbody[.]com’ endpoint.

Similarly, on September 21, 2023, Darktrace observed a device on another customer network connecting to an external IP that had never previously been observed on the environment, 111.90.141[.]193. The associated server name was a known malicious endpoint, ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’, known to be utilized by Balada Injector to host malicious scripts used to compromise WordPress sites. Although the ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’ domain was only registered in September 2023, it was reportedly used in the redirect chain of the aforementioned stratosbody[.com] domain [2]. Such scripts can be used to upload backdoors, including malicious plug-ins, and create blog administrators who can perform administrative tasks without having to authenticate [2].

Figure 2: Advance Search results displaying the metadata logs surrounding the unusual connections to ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’. A total of nine HTTP CONNECT requests were observed, with status messages “Proxy Authorization Required” and “Connection established”.

Darktrace observed additional connections within the same customer’s environment on October 10 and October 18, specifically SSL connections from two distinct source devices to the ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’ endpoint. Within these connections, Darktrace observed the normalized JA3 fingerprints, “473f0e7c0b6a0f7b049072f4e683068b” and “aa56c057ad164ec4fdcb7a5a283be9fc”, the latter of which corresponds to GitHub results mentioning a Python client (curl_cffi) that is able to impersonate the TLS signatures of browsers or JA3 fingerprints [8].

Figure 3: Advanced Search query results showcasing Darktrace’s detection of SSL connections to ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com over port 443.

On September 29, 2023, a device on a separate customer’s network was observed connecting to the hostname ‘cdn[.]dataofpages[.]com’, one of the three new Balada Injector domains identified as part of the fifth pattern of activity outlined above, using a new SSL certificate via port 443. Multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors flagged this domain as malicious and associated with Balada Injector malware [9].

Figure 4: The Model Breach Event Log detailing the Balada Injector-related connections observed causing the ‘Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device’ DETECT model to breach.

On October 2, 2023, Darktrace observed the device of another customer connecting to the rare hostname, ‘js.statisticscripts[.]com’ with the IP address 185.39.206[.]161, both of which had only been registered in late September and are known to be associated with the Balada Injector.

Figure 5: Model Breach Event Log detailing connections to the hostname ‘js.statisticscripts[.]com’ over port 137.

On September 13, 2023, Darktrace identified a device on another customer’s network connecting to the Balada Injector endpoint ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’ endpoint, with the destination IP 1.1.1[.]1, using the SSL protocol. This time, however, Darktrace also observed the device making subsequent connections to ‘get.promsmotion[.]com’ a subdomain of the ‘promsmotion[.]com’ domain. This domain is known to be used by Balada Injector actors to host malicious scripts that can be injected into the WordPress Newspaper theme as potential backdoors to be leveraged by attackers.

In a separate case observed on September 14, Darktrace identified a device on another environment connecting to the domain ‘collect[.]getmygateway[.]com’ with the IP 88.151.192[.]254. No other device on the customer’s network had visited this endpoint previously, and the device in question was observed repeatedly connecting to it via port 443 over the course of four days. While this specific hostname had not been linked with a specific activity pattern of Balada Injector, it was reported as previously associated with the malware in September 2023 [2].

Figure 6: Model Breach Event Log displaying a customer device making repeated connections to the endpoint ‘collect[.]getmygateway[.]com’, breaching the DETECT model ‘Repeating Connections Over 4 Days’.

In addition to DETECT’s identification of this suspicious activity, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ also launched its own autonomous investigation into the connections. AI Analyst was able to recognize that these separate connections that took place over several days were, in fact, connected and likely represented command-and-control (C2) beaconing activity that had been taking place on the customer networks.

By analyzing the large number of external connections taking place on a customer’s network at any one time, AI Analyst is able to view seemingly isolated events as components of a wider incident, ensuring that customers maintain full visibility over their environments and any emerging malicious activity.

Figure 7: Cyber AI Analyst investigation detailing the SSL connectivity observed, including endpoint details and overall summary of the beaconing activity.

Conclusion

While Balada Injector’s tendency to interchange C2 infrastructure and utilize newly registered domains may have been able to bypass signature-based security measures, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach enabled it to swiftly identify affected devices across multiple customer environments, without needing to update or retrain its models to keep pace with the evolving iterations of WordPress vulnerabilities.

Unlike traditional measures, Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning AI focusses on behavioral analysis, crucial for identifying emerging threats like those exploiting commonly used platforms such as WordPress. Rather than relying on historical threat intelligence or static indicators of compromise (IoC) lists, Darktrace identifies the subtle deviations in device behavior, such as unusual connections to newly registered domains, that are indicative of network compromise.

Darktrace’s suite of products, including DETECT+RESPOND, is uniquely positioned to proactively identify and contain network compromises from the onset, offering vital protection against disruptive cyber-attacks.

Credit to: Justin Torres, Cyber Analyst, Nahisha Nobregas, Senior Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Coverage

  • Anomalous Server Activity / Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compliance / Possible DNS Over HTTPS/TLS
  • Compliance / External Windows Communications
  • Compromise / Repeating Connections Over 4 Days
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Compromise / Suspicious TLS Beaconing To Rare External
  • Compromise / Large DNS Volume for Suspicious Domain
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server
  • Device / Suspicious Domain

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description + Confidence

collect[.]getmygateway[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

cdn[.]dataofpages[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

stay[.]decentralappps[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

get[.]promsmotion[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

js[.]statisticscripts[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

sleep[.]stratosbody[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

trend[.]stablelightway[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

cdn[.]specialtaskevents[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

88.151.192[.]254 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

185.39.206[.]160 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

111.90.141[.]193 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

185.39.206[.]161 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

2.59.222[.]121 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

80.66.79[.]253 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64; rv:68.0) - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Gecko/20100101 Firefox/68.0 - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64) - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Chrome/117.0.0.0 - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Safari/537.36 - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Edge/117.0.2045.36 - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Technique - Tactic - ID - Sub Technique

Exploit Public-Facing Application

INITIAL ACCESS

T1190

Web Protocols

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1071.001

T1071

Protocol Tunneling

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1572


Default Accounts

DEFENSE EVASION, PERSISTENCE, PRIVILEGE ESCALATION, INITIAL ACCESS

T1078.001

T1078

Domain Accounts

DEFENSE EVASION, PERSISTENCE, PRIVILEGE ESCALATION, INITIAL ACCESS

T1078.002

T1078

External Remote Services

PERSISTENCE, INITIAL ACCESS

T1133

NA

Local Accounts

DEFENSE EVASION, PERSISTENCE, PRIVILEGE ESCALATION, INITIAL ACCESS

T1078.003

T1078

Application Layer Protocol

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1071

NA

Browser Extensions

PERSISTENCE

T1176

NA

Encrypted Channel

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1573

Fallback Channels

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1008

Multi-Stage Channels

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1104

Non-Standard Port

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1571

Supply Chain Compromise

INITIAL ACCESS ICS

T0862

Commonly Used Port

COMMAND AND CONTROL ICS

T0885

References

[1] https://blog.sucuri.net/2023/04/balada-injector-synopsis-of-a-massive-ongoing-wordpress-malware-campaign.html

[2] https://blog.sucuri.net/2023/10/balada-injector-targets-unpatched-tagdiv-plugin-newspaper-theme-wordpress-admins.html

[3] https://securityboulevard.com/2021/05/wordpress-websites-redirecting-to-outlook-phishing-pages-travelinskydream-ga-track-lowerskyactive/

[4] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/over-17000-wordpress-sites-compromised.html

[5] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/over-17-000-wordpress-sites-hacked-in-balada-injector-attacks-last-month/

[6]https://nvd.nist.gov/vuln/detail/CVE-2023-3169

[7] https://www.geoedge.com/balda-injectors-2-0-evading-detection-gaining-persistence/

[8] https[:]//github[.]com/yifeikong/curl_cffi/blob/master/README.md

[9] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/cdn.dataofpages.com

DENTRO DEL SOC
Darktrace son expertos de talla mundial en inteligencia de amenazas, caza de amenazas y respuesta a incidentes, y proporcionan apoyo al SOC las 24 horas del día a miles de clientes de Darktrace en todo el mundo. Inside the SOC está redactado exclusivamente por estos expertos y ofrece un análisis de los ciberincidentes y las tendencias de las amenazas, basado en la experiencia real sobre el terreno.
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Justin Torres
Cyber Analyst
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Email

How to Protect your Organization Against Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks

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21
May 2024

The problem: Microsoft Teams phishing attacks are on the rise

Around 83% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Microsoft Office products and services1, with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft SharePoint in particular emerging as critical platforms to the business operations of the everyday workplace. Researchers across the threat landscape have begun to observe these legitimate services being leveraged more and more by malicious actors as an initial access method.

As Teams becomes a more prominent feature of the workplace many employees rely on it for daily internal and external communication, even surpassing email usage in some organizations. As Microsoft2 states, "Teams changes your relationship with email. When your whole group is working in Teams, it means you'll all get fewer emails. And you'll spend less time in your inbox, because you'll use Teams for more of your conversations."

However, Teams can be exploited to send targeted phishing messages to individuals either internally or externally, while appearing legitimate and safe. Users might receive an external message request from a Teams account claiming to be an IT support service or otherwise affiliated with the organization. Once a user has accepted, the threat actor can launch a social engineering campaign or deliver a malicious payload. As a primarily internal tool there is naturally less training and security awareness around Teams – due to the nature of the channel it is assumed to be a trusted source, meaning that social engineering is already one step ahead.

Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)
Figure 1: Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)

Microsoft Teams Phishing Examples

Microsoft has identified several major phishing attacks using Teams within the past year.

In July 2023, Microsoft announced that the threat actor known as Midnight Blizzard – identified by the United States as a Russian state-sponsored group – had launched a series of phishing campaigns via Teams with the aim of stealing user credentials. These attacks used previously compromised Microsoft 365 accounts and set up new domain names that impersonated legitimate IT support organizations. The threat actors then used social engineering tactics to trick targeted users into sharing their credentials via Teams, enabling them to access sensitive data.  

At a similar time, threat actor Storm-0324 was observed sending phishing lures via Teams containing links to malicious SharePoint-hosted files. The group targeted organizations that allow Teams users to interact and share files externally. Storm-0324’s goal is to gain initial access to hand over to other threat actors to pursue more dangerous follow-on attacks like ransomware.

For a more in depth look at how Darktrace stops Microsoft Teams phishing read our blog: Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

The market: Existing Microsoft Teams security solutions are insufficient

Microsoft’s native Teams security focuses on payloads, namely links and attachments, as the principal malicious component of any phishing. These payloads are relatively straightforward to detect with their experience in anti-virus, sandboxing, and IOCs. However, this approach is unable to intervene before the stage at which payloads are delivered, before the user even gets the chance to accept or deny an external message request. At the same time, it risks missing more subtle threats that don’t include attachments or links – like early stage phishing, which is pure social engineering – or completely new payloads.

Equally, the market offering for Teams security is limited. Security solutions available on the market are always payload-focused, rather than taking into account the content and context in which a link or attachment is sent. Answering questions like:

  • Does it make sense for these two accounts to speak to each other?
  • Are there any linguistic indicators of inducement?

Furthermore, they do not correlate with email to track threats across multiple communication environments which could signal a wider campaign. Effectively, other market solutions aren’t adding extra value – they are protecting against the same types of threats that Microsoft is already covering by default.

The other aspect of Teams security that native and market solutions fail to address is the account itself. As well as focusing on Teams threats, it’s important to analyze messages to understand the normal mode of communication for a user, and spot when a user’s Teams activity might signal account takeover.

The solution: How Darktrace protects Microsoft Teams against sophisticated threats

With its biggest update to Darktrace/Email ever, Darktrace now offers support for Microsoft Teams. With that, we are bringing the same AI philosophy that protects your email and accounts to your messaging environment.  

Our Self-Learning AI looks at content and context for every communication, whether that’s sent in an email or Teams message. It looks at actual user behavior, including language patterns, relationship history of sender and recipient, tone and payloads, to understand if a message poses a threat. This approach allows Darktrace to detect threats such as social engineering and payloadless attacks using visibility and forensic capabilities that Microsoft security doesn’t currently offer, as well as early symptoms of account compromise.  

Unlike market solutions, Darktrace doesn’t offer a siloed approach to Teams security. Data and signals from Teams are shared across email to inform detection, and also with the wider Darktrace ActiveAI security platform. By correlating information from email and Teams with network and apps security, Darktrace is able to better identify suspicious Teams activity and vice versa.  

Interested in the other ways Darktrace/Email augments threat detection? Read our latest blog on how improving the quality of end-user reporting can decrease the burden on the SOC. To find our more about Darktrace's enduring partnership with Microsoft, click here.

References

[1] Essential Microsoft Office Statistics in 2024

[2] Microsoft blog, Microsoft Teams and email, living in harmony, 2024

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

Blog

Dentro del SOC

Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

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20
May 2024

Social Engineering in Phishing Attacks

Faced with increasingly cyber-aware endpoint users and vigilant security teams, more and more threat actors are forced to think psychologically about the individuals they are targeting with their phishing attacks. Social engineering methods like taking advantage of the human emotions of their would-be victims, pressuring them to open emails or follow links or face financial or legal repercussions, and impersonating known and trusted brands or services, have become common place in phishing campaigns in recent years.

Phishing with Microsoft Teams

The malicious use of the popular communications platform Microsoft Teams has become widely observed and discussed across the threat landscape, with many organizations adopting it as their primary means of business communication, and many threat actors using it as an attack vector. As Teams allows users to communicate with people outside of their organization by default [1], it becomes an easy entry point for potential attackers to use as a social engineering vector.

In early 2024, Darktrace/Apps™ identified two separate instances of malicious actors using Microsoft Teams to launch a phishing attack against Darktrace customers in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. Interestingly, in this case the attackers not only used a well-known legitimate service to carry out their phishing campaign, but they were also attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

Despite these attempts to evade endpoint users and traditional security measures, Darktrace’s anomaly detection enabled it to identify the suspicious phishing messages and bring them to the customer’s attention. Additionally, Darktrace’s autonomous response capability, was able to follow-up these detections with targeted actions to contain the suspicious activity in the first instance.

Darktrace Coverage of Microsoft Teams Phishing

Chats Sent by External User and Following Actions by Darktrace

On February 29, 2024, Darktrace detected the presence of a new external user on the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environment of an EMEA customer for the first time. The user, “REDACTED@InternationalHotelChain[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” was only observed on this date and no further activities were detected from this user after February 29.

Later the same day, the unusual external user created its first chat on Microsoft Teams named “New Employee Loyalty Program”. Over the course of around 5 minutes, the user sent 63 messages across 21 different chats to unique internal users on the customer’s SaaS platform. All these chats included the ‘foreign tenant user’ and one of the customer’s internal users, likely in an attempt to remain undetected. Foreign tenant user, in this case, refers to users without access to typical internal software and privileges, indicating the presence of an external user.

Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Figure 1: Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.
Figure 2: Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.

Darktrace identified that the external user had connected from an unusual IP address located in Poland, 195.242.125[.]186. Darktrace understood that this was unexpected behavior for this user who had only previously been observed connecting from the United Kingdom; it further recognized that no other users within the customer’s environment had connected from this external source, thereby deeming it suspicious. Further investigation by Darktrace’s analyst team revealed that the endpoint had been flagged as malicious by several open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors.

External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.
Figure 3: External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.

Following Darktrace’s initial detection of these suspicious Microsoft Teams messages, Darktrace's autonomous response was able to further support the customer by providing suggested mitigative actions that could be applied to stop the external user from sending any additional phishing messages.

Unfortunately, at the time of this attack Darktrace's autonomous response capability was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any autonomous response actions had to be manually actioned by the customer. Had it been enabled in autonomous response mode, it would have been able promptly disrupt the attack, disabling the external user to prevent them from continuing their phishing attempts and securing precious time for the customer’s security team to begin their own remediation procedures.

Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.
Figure 4: Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.

External URL Sent within Teams Chats

Within the 21 Teams chats created by the threat actor, Darktrace identified 21 different external URLs being sent, all of which included the domain "cloud-sharcpoint[.]com”. Many of these URLs had been recently established and had been flagged as malicious by OSINT providers [3]. This was likely an attempt to impersonate “cloud-sharepoint[.]com”, the legitimate domain of Microsoft SharePoint, with the threat actor attempting to ‘typo-squat’ the URL to convince endpoint users to trust the legitimacy of the link. Typo-squatted domains are commonly misspelled URLs registered by opportunistic attackers in the hope of gaining the trust of unsuspecting targets. They are often used for nefarious purposes like dropping malicious files on devices or harvesting credentials.

Upon clicking this malicious link, users were directed to a similarly typo-squatted domain, “InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpoInte-docs[.]com”. This domain was likely made to appear like the SharePoint URL used by the international hotel chain being impersonated.

Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.
Figure 5: Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

This fake SharePoint page used the branding of the international hotel chain and contained a document named “New Employee Loyalty Program”; the same name given to the phishing messages sent by the attacker on Microsoft Teams. Upon accessing this file, users would be directed to a credential harvester, masquerading as a Microsoft login page, and prompted to enter their credentials. If successful, this would allow the attacker to gain unauthorized access to a user’s SaaS account, thereby compromising the account and enabling further escalation in the customer’s environment.

Figure 6: A fake Microsoft login page that popped-up when attempting to open the ’New Employee Loyalty Program’ document.

This is a clear example of an attacker attempting to leverage social engineering tactics to gain the trust of their targets and convince them to inadvertently compromise their account. Many corporate organizations partner with other companies and well-known brands to offer their employees loyalty programs as part of their employment benefits and perks. As such, it would not necessarily be unexpected for employees to receive such an offer from an international hotel chain. By impersonating an international hotel chain, threat actors would increase the probability of convincing their targets to trust and click their malicious messages and links, and unintentionally compromising their accounts.

In spite of the attacker’s attempts to impersonate reputable brands, platforms, Darktrace/Apps was able to successfully recognize the malicious intent behind this phishing campaign and suggest steps to contain the attack. Darktrace recognized that the user in question had deviated from its ‘learned’ pattern of behavior by connecting to the customer’s SaaS environment from an unusual external location, before proceeding to send an unusually large volume of messages via Teams, indicating that the SaaS account had been compromised.

A Wider Campaign?

Around a month later, in March 2024, Darktrace observed a similar incident of a malicious actor impersonating the same international hotel chain in a phishing attacking using Microsoft Teams, suggesting that this was part of a wider phishing campaign. Like the previous example, this customer was also based in the EMEA region.  

The attack tactics identified in this instance were very similar to the previously example, with a new external user identified within the network proceeding to create a series of Teams messages named “New Employee Loyalty Program” containing a typo-squatted external links.

There were a few differences with this second incident, however, with the attacker using the domain “@InternationalHotelChainExpeditions[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” to send their malicious Teams messages and using differently typo-squatted URLs to imitate Microsoft SharePoint.

As both customers targeted by this phishing campaign were subscribed to Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, this suspicious SaaS activity was promptly escalated to the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) for immediate triage and investigation. Following their investigation, the SOC team sent an alert to the customers informing them of the compromise and advising urgent follow-up.

Conclusion

While there are clear similarities between these Microsoft Teams-based phishing attacks, the attackers here have seemingly sought ways to refine their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), leveraging new connection locations and creating new malicious URLs in an effort to outmaneuver human security teams and conventional security tools.

As cyber threats grow increasingly sophisticated and evasive, it is crucial for organizations to employ intelligent security solutions that can see through social engineering techniques and pinpoint suspicious activity early.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understands customer environments and is able to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavioral pattern, enabling it to effectively identify suspicious activity even when attackers adapt their strategies. In this instance, this allowed Darktrace to detect the phishing messages, and the malicious links contained within them, despite the seemingly trustworthy source and use of a reputable platform like Microsoft Teams.

Credit to Min Kim, Cyber Security Analyst, Raymond Norbert, Cyber Security Analyst and Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendix

Darktrace Model Detections

SaaS Model

Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

SaaS / Unusual Activity / Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type - Description

https://cloud-sharcpoint[.]com/[a-zA-Z0-9]{15} - Example hostname - Malicious phishing redirection link

InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpolnte-docs[.]com – Hostname – Redirected Link

195.242.125[.]186 - External Source IP Address – Malicious Endpoint

MITRE Tactics

Tactic – Technique

Phishing – Initial Access (T1566)

References

[1] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/trusted-organizations-external-meetings-chat?tabs=organization-settings

[2] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/195.242.125.186/detection

[3] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/cloud-sharcpoint.com

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About the author
Min Kim
Cyber Security Analyst
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