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Catching CoinLoader: Decrypting the Malware Hijacking Networks for Cryptomining Operations

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08
Feb 2024
08
Feb 2024
This blog explores a series of CoinLoader compromises observed by Darktrace in late 2023. CoinLoader is a loader malware known to carry out cryptocurrency mining on infected devices. Darktrace’s autonomous detection and response capabilities allowed it to identify and shut down compromises in the first instance.

About Loader Malware

Loader malware was a frequent topic of conversation and investigation within the Darktrace Threat Research team throughout 2023, with a wide range of existing and novel variants affecting a significant number of Darktrace customers, as detailed in Darktrace’s inaugural End of Year Threat Report. The multi-phase nature of such compromises poses a significant threat to organizations due to the need to defend against multiple threats at the same time.

CoinLoader, a variant of loader malware first observed in the wild in 2018 [1], is an example of one of the more prominent variant of loaders observed by Darktrace in 2023, with over 65 customers affected by the malware. Darktrace’s Threat Research team conducted a deep dive investigation into the patterns of behavior exhibited by devices infected with CoinLoader in the latter part of 2023, with compromises observed in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Asia-Pacific (APAC) and the Americas.

The autonomous threat detection capabilities of Darktrace DETECT™ allowed for the effective identification of these CoinLoader infections whilst Darktrace RESPOND™, if active, was able to quickly curtail attacker’s efforts and prevent more disruptive, and potentially costly, secondary compromises from occurring.

What is CoinLoader?

Much like other strains of loader, CoinLoader typically serves as a first stage malware that allows threat actors to gain initial access to a network and establish a foothold in the environment before delivering subsequent malicious payloads, including adware, botnets, trojans or pay-per-install campaigns.

CoinLoader is generally propagated through trojanized popular software or game installation archive files, usually in the rar or zip formats. These files tend can be easily obtained via top results displayed in search engines when searching for such keywords as "crack" or "keygen" in conjunction with the name of the software the user wishes to pirate [1,2,3,4]. By disguising the payload as a legitimate programme, CoinLoader is more likely to be unknowingly downloaded by endpoint users, whilst also bypassing traditional security measures that trust the download.

It also has several additional counter-detection methods including using junk code, variable obfuscation, and encryption for shellcode and URL schemes. It relies on dynamic-link library (DLL) search order hijacking to load malicious DLLs to legitimate executable files. The malware is also capable of performing a variety of checks for anti-virus processes and disabling endpoint protection solutions.

In addition to these counter-detection tactics, CoinLoader is also able to prevent the execution of its malicious DLL files in sandboxed environments without the presence of specific DNS cache records, making it extremely difficult for security teams and researchers to analyze.

In 2020 it was reported that CoinLoader compromises were regularly seen alongside cryptomining activity and even used the alias “CoinMiner” in some cases [2]. Darktrace’s investigations into CoinLoader in 2023 largely confirmed this theory, with around 15% of observed CoinLoader connections being related to cryptomining activity.

Cryptomining malware consumes large amounts of a hijacked (or cryptojacked) device's resources to perform complex mathematical calculations and generate income for the attacker all while quietly working in the background. Cryptojacking can lead to high electricity costs, device slow down, loss of functionality, and in the worst case scenario can be a potential fire hazard.

Darktrace Coverage of CoinLoader

In September 2023, Darktrace observed several cases of CoinLoader that served to exemplify the command-and-control (C2) communication and subsequent cryptocurrency mining activities typically observed during CoinLoader compromises. While the initial infection method in these cases was outside of Darktrace’s purview, it likely occurred via socially engineered phishing emails or, as discussed earlier, trojanized software downloads.

Command-and-Control Activity

CoinLoader compromises observed across the Darktrace customer base were typically identified by encrypted C2 connections over port 433 to rare external endpoints using self-signed certificates containing "OU=IT,O=MyCompany LLC,L=San Francisco,ST=California,C=US" in their issue fields.

All observed CoinLoader C2 servers were associated with the ASN of MivoCloud, a Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting service (AS39798 MivoCloud SRL). It had been reported that Russian-state sponsored threat actors had previously abused MivoCloud’s infrastructure in order to bypass geo-blocking measures during phishing attacks against western nations [5].

Darktrace observed that the majority of CoinLoader infrastructure utilized IP addresses in the 185.225.0.0/19 range and were associated with servers hosted in Romania, with just one instance of an IP address based in Moldova. The domain names of these servers typically followed the naming pattern ‘*[a-d]{1}[.]info’, with 'ams-updatea[.]info’, ‘ams-updateb[.]info’, ‘ams-updatec[.]info’, and ‘ams-updated[.]info’ routinely identified on affected networks.

Researchers found that CoinLoader typically uses DNS tunnelling in order to covertly exchange information with attacker-controlled infrastructure, including the domains ‘candatamsnsdn[.]info’, ‘mapdatamsnsdn[.]info’, ‘rqmetrixsdn[.]info’ [4].

While Darktrace did not observe these particular domains, it did observer similar DNS lookups to a similar suspicous domain, namely ‘ucmetrixsdn[.]info’, in addition to the aforementioned HTTPS C2 connections.

Cryptomining Activity and Possible Additional Tooling

After establishing communication channels with CoinLoader servers, affected devices were observed carrying out a range of cryptocurrency mining activities. Darktrace detected devices connecting to multiple MivoCloud associated IP addresses using the MinerGate protocol alongside the credential “x”, a MinerGate credential observed by Darktrace in previous cryptojacking compromises, including the Sysrv-hello botnet.

Figure 1: Darktrace DETECT breach log showing an alerted mining activity model breach on an infected device.
Figure 2: Darktrace's Cyber AI Analyst providing details about unusual repeated connections to multiple endpoints related to CoinLoader cryptomining.

In a number of customer environments, Darktrace observed affected devices connected to endpoints associated with other malware such as the Andromeda botnet and the ViperSoftX information stealer. It was, however, not possible to confirm whether CoinLoader had dropped these additional malware variants onto infected devices.

On customer networks where Darktrace RESPOND was enabled in autonomous response mode, Darktrace was able to take swift targeted steps to shut down suspicious connections and contain CoinLoader compromises. In one example, following DETECT’s initial identification of an affected device connecting to multiple MivoCloud endpoints, RESPOND autonomously blocked the device from carrying out such connections, effectively shutting down C2 communication and preventing threat actors carrying out any cryptomining activity, or downloading subsequent malicious payloads. The autonomous response capability of RESPOND provides customer security teams with precious time to remove infected devices from their network and action their remediation strategies.

Figure 3: Darktrace RESPOND autonomously blocking CoinLoader connections on an affected device.

Additionally, customers subscribed to Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service would be alerted about potential CoinLoader activity observed on their network, prompting Darktrace’s Security Operations Center (SOC) to triage and investigate the activity, allowing customers to prioritize incidents that require immediate attention.

Conclusion

By masquerading as free or ‘cracked’ versions of legitimate popular software, loader malware like CoinLoader is able to indiscriminately target a large number of endpoint users without arousing suspicion. What’s more, once a network has been compromised by the loader, it is then left open to a secondary compromise in the form of potentially costly information stealers, ransomware or, in this case, cryptocurrency miners.

While urging employees to think twice before installing seemingly legitimate software unknown or untrusted locations is an essential first step in protecting an organization against threats like CoinLoader, its stealthy tactics mean this may not be enough.

In order to fully safeguard against such increasingly widespread yet evasive threats, organizations must adopt security solutions that are able to identify anomalies and subtle deviations in device behavior that could indicate an emerging compromise. The Darktrace suite of products, including DETECT and RESPOND, are well-placed to identify and contain these threats in the first instance and ensure they cannot escalate to more damaging network compromises.

Credit to: Signe Zaharka, Senior Cyber Security Analyst, Paul Jennings, Principal Analyst Consultant

Appendix

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

  • Anomalous Connection/Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port
  • Anomalous Connection/Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection/Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Anomalous Connection/Repeated Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Anomalous Connection/Suspicious Self-Signed SSL
  • Anomalous Connection/Young or Invalid Certificate SSL Connections to Rare
  • Anomalous Server Activity/Rare External from Server
  • Compromise/Agent Beacon (Long Period)
  • Compromise/Beacon for 4 Days
  • Compromise/Beacon to Young Endpoint
  • Compromise/Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise/High Priority Crypto Currency Mining
  • Compromise/High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise/Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Compromise/New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise/Rare Domain Pointing to Internal IP
  • Compromise/Repeating Connections Over 4 Days
  • Compromise/Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise/SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Compromise/Suspicious File and C2
  • Compromise/Suspicious TLS Beaconing To Rare External
  • Device/ Anomalous Github Download
  • Device/ Suspicious Domain
  • Device/Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert
  • Device/New Failed External Connections

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC - Hostname C2 Server

ams-updatea[.]info

ams-updateb[.]info

ams-updatec[.]info

ams-updated[.]info

candatamsna[.]info

candatamsnb[.]info

candatamsnc[.]info

candatamsnd[.]info

mapdatamsna[.]info

mapdatamsnb[.]info

mapdatamsnc[.]info

mapdatamsnd[.]info

res-smarta[.]info

res-smartb[.]info

res-smartc[.]info

res-smartd[.]info

rqmetrixa[.]info

rqmetrixb[.]info

rqmetrixc[.]info

rqmetrixd[.]info

ucmetrixa[.]info

ucmetrixb[.]info

ucmetrixc[.]info

ucmetrixd[.]info

any-updatea[.]icu

IoC - IP Address - C2 Server

185.225[.]16.192

185.225[.]16.61

185.225[.]16.62

185.225[.]16.63

185.225[.]16.88

185.225[.]17.108

185.225[.]17.109

185.225[.]17.12

185.225[.]17.13

185.225[.]17.135

185.225[.]17.14

185.225[.]17.145

185.225[.]17.157

185.225[.]17.159

185.225[.]18.141

185.225[.]18.142

185.225[.]18.143

185.225[.]19.218

185.225[.]19.51

194.180[.]157.179

194.180[.]157.185

194.180[.]158.55

194.180[.]158.56

194.180[.]158.62

194.180[.]158.63

5.252.178[.]74

94.158.246[.]124

IoC - IP Address - Cryptocurrency mining related endpoint

185.225.17[.]114

185.225.17[.]118

185.225.17[.]130

185.225.17[.]131

185.225.17[.]132

185.225.17[.]142

IoC - SSL/TLS certificate issuer information - C2 server certificate example

emailAddress=admin@example[.]ltd,CN=example[.]ltd,OU=IT,O=MyCompany LLC,L=San Francisco,ST=California,C=US

emailAddress=admin@'res-smartd[.]info,CN=res-smartd[.]info,OU=IT,O=MyCompany LLC,L=San Francisco,ST=California,C=US

CN=ucmetrixd[.]info,OU=IT,O=MyCompany LLC,L=San Francisco,ST=California,C=US

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

INITIAL ACCESS

Exploit Public-Facing Application - T1190

Spearphishing Link - T1566.002

Drive-by Compromise - T1189

COMMAND AND CONTROL

Non-Application Layer Protocol - T1095

Non-Standard Port - T1571

External Proxy - T1090.002

Encrypted Channel - T1573

Web Protocols - T1071.001

Application Layer Protocol - T1071

DNS - T1071.004

Fallback Channels - T1008

Multi-Stage Channels - T1104

PERSISTENCE

Browser Extensions

T1176

RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT

Web Services - T1583.006

Malware - T1588.001

COLLECTION

Man in the Browser - T1185

IMPACT

Resource Hijacking - T1496

References

1. https://www.avira.com/en/blog/coinloader-a-sophisticated-malware-loader-campaign

2. https://asec.ahnlab.com/en/17909/

3. https://www.cybereason.co.jp/blog/cyberattack/5687/

4. https://research.checkpoint.com/2023/tunnel-warfare-exposing-dns-tunneling-campaigns-using-generative-models-coinloader-case-study/

5. https://securityboulevard.com/2023/02/three-cases-of-cyber-attacks-on-the-security-service-of-ukraine-and-nato-allies-likely-by-russian-state-sponsored-gamaredon/

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.
AUTOR
SOBRE EL AUTOR
Signe Zaharka
Senior Cyber Security Analyst
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Quasar Remote Access Tool: When a Legitimate Admin Tool Falls into the Wrong Hands

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23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

As the “as-a-Service” market continues to grow, indicators of compromise (IoCs) and malicious infrastructure are often interchanged and shared between multiple malware strains and attackers. This presents organizations and their security teams with a new threat: interoperability.

Interoperable threats not only enable malicious actors to achieve their objectives more easily by leveraging existing infrastructure and tools to launch new attacks, but the lack of clear attribution often complicates identification for security teams and incident responders, making it challenging to mitigate and contain the threat.

One such threat observed across the Darktrace customer base in late 2023 was Quasar, a legitimate remote administration tool that has becoming increasingly popular for opportunistic attackers in recent years. Working in tandem, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT™ and the autonomous response capabilities of Darktrace RESPOND™ ensured that affected customers were promptly made aware of any suspicious activity on the attacks were contained at the earliest possible stage.

What is Quasar?

Quasar is an open-source remote administration tool designed for legitimate use; however, it has evolved to become a popular tool used by threat actors due to its wide array of capabilities.  

How does Quasar work?

For instance, Quasar can perform keylogging, take screenshots, establish a reverse proxy, and download and upload files on a target device [1].  A report released towards the end of 2023 put Quasar back on threat researchers’ radars as it disclosed the new observation of dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading being used by malicious versions of this tool to evade detection [1].  DLL sideloading involves configuring legitimate Windows software to run a malicious file rather than the legitimate file it usually calls on as the software loads.  The evolving techniques employed by threat actors using Quasar highlights defenders’ need for anomaly-based detections that do not rely on pre-existing knowledge of attacker techniques, and can identify and alert for unusual behavior, even if it is performed by a legitimate application.

Although Quasar has been used by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups for global espionage operations [2], Darktrace observed the common usage of default configurations for Quasar, which appeared to use shared malicious infrastructure, and occurred alongside other non-compliant activity such as BitTorrent use and cryptocurrency mining.  

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace detected multiple cases of malicious Quasar activity across several customers, suggesting probable campaign activity.  

Quasar infections can be difficult to detect using traditional network or host-based tools due to the use of stealthy techniques such as DLL side-loading and encrypted SSL connections for command-and control (C2) communication, that traditional security tools may not be able to identify.  The wide array of capabilities Quasar possesses also suggests that attacks using this tool may not necessarily be modelled against a linear kill chain. Despite this, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT allowed it to identify IoCs related to Quasar at multiple stages of the kill chain.

Quasar Initial Infection

During the initial infection stage of a Quasar compromise observed on the network of one customer, Darktrace detected a device downloading several suspicious DLL and executable (.exe) files from multiple rare external sources using the Xmlst user agent, including the executable ‘Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe’.  Analyzing this file using open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests this is a Quasar payload, potentially indicating this represented the initial infection through DLL sideloading [3].

Interestingly, the Xmlst user agent used to download the Quasar payload has also been associated with Raccoon Stealer, an information-stealing malware that also acts as a dropper for other malware strains [4][5]. The co-occurrence of different malware components is increasingly common across the threat landscape as MaaS operating models increases in popularity, allowing attackers to employ cross-functional components from different strains.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the multiple different downloads in one related incident, with technical details for the Quasar payload included. The incident event for Suspicious File Download is also linked to Possible HTTP Command and Control, suggesting escalation of activity following the initial infection.  

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

During this phase, devices on multiple customer networks were identified making unusual external connections to the IP 193.142.146[.]212, which was not commonly seen in their networks. Darktrace analyzed the meta-properties of these SSL connections without needing to decrypt the content, to alert the usage of an unusual port not typically associated with the SSL protocol, 4782, and the usage of self-signed certificates.  Self-signed certificates do not provide any trust value and are commonly used in malware communications and ill-reputed web servers.  

Further analysis into these alerts using OSINT indicated that 193.142.146[.]212 is a Quasar C2 server and 4782 is the default port used by Quasar [6][7].  Expanding on the self-signed certificate within the Darktrace UI (see Figure 3) reveals a certificate subject and issuer of “CN=Quasar Server CA”, which is also the default self-signed certificate compiled by Quasar [6].

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the repeated external connections to a rare external IP that was later associated with Quasar.
Figure 3: Device Event Log of the affected device, showing Darktrace’s analysis of the SSL Certificate associated with SSL connections to 193.142.146[.]212.

A number of insights can be drawn from analysis of the Quasar C2 endpoints detected by Darktrace across multiple affected networks, suggesting a level of interoperability in the tooling used by different threat actors. In one instance, Darktrace detected a device beaconing to the endpoint ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’ using the aforementioned “CN=Quasar Server CA” certificate. DuckDNS is a dynamic DNS service that could be abused by attackers to redirect users from their intended endpoint to malicious infrastructure, and may be shared or reused in multiple different attacks.

Figure 4: A device’s Model Event Log, showing the Quasar Server CA SSL certificate used in connections to 41.233.139[.]145 on port 5, which resolves via passive replication to ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’.  

The sharing of malicious infrastructure among threat actors is also evident as several OSINT sources have also associated the Quasar IP 193.142.146[.]212, detected in this campaign, with different threat types.

While 193.142.146[.]212:4782 is known to be associated with Quasar, 193.142.146[.]212:8808 and 193.142.146[.]212:6606 have been associated with AsyncRAT [11], and the same IP on port 8848 has been associated with RedLineStealer [12].  Aside from the relative ease of using already developed tooling, threat actors may prefer to use open-source malware in order to avoid attribution, making the true identity of the threat actor unclear to incident responders [1][13].  

Quasar Executing Objectives

On multiple customer deployments affected by Quasar, Darktrace detected devices using BitTorrent and performing cryptocurrency mining. While these non-compliant, and potentially malicious, activities are not necessarily specific IoCs for Quasar, they do suggest that affected devices may have had greater attack surfaces than others.

For instance, one affected device was observed initiating connections to 162.19.139[.]184, a known Minergate cryptomining endpoint, and ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, a dynamic DNS endpoint linked to the Quasar Botnet by multiple OSINT vendors [9].

Figure 5: A Darktrace DETECT Event Log showing simultaneous connections to a Quasar endpoint and a cryptomining endpoint 162.19.139[.]184.

Not only does cryptocurrency mining use a significant amount of processing power, potentially disrupting an organization’s business operations and racking up high energy bills, but the software used for this mining is often written to a poor standard, thus increasing the attack surfaces of devices using them. In this instance, Quasar may have been introduced as a secondary payload from a user or attacker-initiated download of cryptocurrency mining malware.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for malicious actors to attach malware to torrented files and there were a number of examples of Darktrace detect identifying non-compliant activity, like BitTorrent connections, overlapping with connections to external locations associated with Quasar. It is therefore important for organizations to establish and enforce technical and policy controls for acceptable use on corporate devices, particularly when remote working introduces new risks.  

Figure 6: A device’s Event Log filtered by Model Breaches, showing a device connecting to BitTorrent shortly before making new or repeated connections to unusual endpoints, which were subsequently associated to Quasar.

In some cases observed by Darktrace, devices affected by Quasar were also being used to perform data exfiltration. Analysis of a period of unusual external connections to the aforementioned Quasar C2 botnet server, ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, revealed a small data upload, which may have represented the exfiltration of some data to attacker infrastructure.

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

On customer networks that had Darktrace RESPOND™ enabled in autonomous response mode, the threat of Quasar was mitigated and contained as soon as it was identified by DETECT. If RESPOND is not configured to respond autonomously, these actions would instead be advisory, pending manual application by the customer’s security team.

For example, following the detection of devices downloading malicious DLL and executable files, Darktrace RESPOND advised the customer to block specific connections to the relevant IP addresses and ports. However, as the device was seen attempting to download further files from other locations, RESPOND also suggested enforced a ‘pattern of life’ on the device, meaning it was only permitted to make connections that were part its normal behavior. By imposing a pattern of life, Darktrace RESPOND ensures that a device cannot perform suspicious behavior, while not disrupting any legitimate business activity.

Had RESPOND been configured to act autonomously, these mitigative actions would have been applied without any input from the customer’s security team and the Quasar compromise would have been contained in the first instance.

Figure 7: The advisory actions Darktrace RESPOND initiated to block specific connections to a malicious IP and to enforce the device’s normal patterns of life in response to the different anomalies detected on the device.

In another case, one customer affected by Quasar did have enabled RESPOND to take autonomous action, whilst also integrating it with a firewall. Here, following the detection of a device connecting to a known Quasar IP address, RESPOND initially blocked it from making connections to the IP via the customer’s firewall. However, as the device continued to perform suspicious activity after this, RESPOND escalated its response by blocking all outgoing connections from the device, effectively preventing any C2 activity or downloads.

Figure 8: RESPOND actions triggered to action via integrated firewall and TCP Resets.

Conclusion

When faced with a threat like Quasar that utilizes the infrastructure and tools of both legitimate services and other malicious malware variants, it is essential for security teams to move beyond relying on existing knowledge of attack techniques when safeguarding their network. It is no longer enough for organizations to rely on past attacks to defend against the attacks of tomorrow.

Crucially, Darktrace’s unique approach to threat detection focusses on the anomaly, rather than relying on a static list of IoCs or "known bads” based on outdated threat intelligence. In the case of Quasar, alternative or future strains of the malware that utilize different IoCs and TTPs would still be identified by Darktrace as anomalous and immediately alerted.

By learning the ‘normal’ for devices on a customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT can recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could indicate an ongoing compromise. Darktrace RESPOND is subsequently able to follow this up with swift and targeted actions to contain the attack and prevent it from escalating further.

Credit to Nicole Wong, Cyber Analyst, Vivek Rajan Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

List of IoCs

IP:Port

193.142.146[.]212:4782 -Quasar C2 IP and default port

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org - Quasar C2 Botnet Endpoint

bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org - Possible Quasar C2 endpoint

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

41.233.139[.]145[VR1] [NW2] - Possible Quasar C2 IP

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

[1] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/quasar-rat-leverages-dll-side-loading.html

[2] https://symantec-enterprise-blogs.security.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/cicada-apt10-japan-espionage

[3]https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/bd275a1f97d1691e394d81dd402c11aaa88cc8e723df7a6aaf57791fa6a6cdfa/community

[4] https://twitter.com/g0njxa/status/1691826188581298389

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/posts/grjk83_raccoon-stealer-announce-return-after-hiatus-activity-7097906612580802560-1aj9

[6] https://community.netwitness.com/t5/netwitness-community-blog/using-rsa-netwitness-to-detect-quasarrat/ba-p/518952

[7] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/analysis-reports/ar18-352a

[8]https://any.run/report/6cf1314c130a41c977aafce4585a144762d3fb65f8fe493e836796b989b002cb/7ac94b56-7551-4434-8e4f-c928c57327ff

[9] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/891454/

[10] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/41.233.139.145/relations

[11] https://raw.githubusercontent.com/stamparm/maltrail/master/trails/static/malware/asyncrat.txt

[12] https://sslbl.abuse.ch/ssl-certificates/signature/RedLineStealer/

[13] https://www.botconf.eu/botconf-presentation-or-article/hunting-the-quasar-family-how-to-hunt-a-malware-family/

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Nicole Wong
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Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

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22
Feb 2024

What is VIP impersonation?

VIP impersonation involves a threat actor impersonating a trusted, prominent figure at an organization in an attempt to solicit sensitive information from an employee.

VIP impersonation is a high-priority issue for security teams, but it can be difficult to assess the exact risks, and whether those are more critical than other types of compromise. Looking across a range of Darktrace/Email™ customer deployments, this blog explores the patterns of individuals targeted for impersonation and evaluates if these target priorities correspond with security teams' focus on protecting attack pathways to critical assets.

How do security teams stop VIP Impersonation?

Protecting VIP entities within an organization has long been a traditional focus for security teams. The assumption is that VIPs, due to their prominence, possess the greatest access to critical assets, making them prime targets for cyber threats.  

Email remains the predominant vector for attacks, with over 90% of breaches originating from malicious emails. However, the dynamics of email-based attacks are shifting, as the widespread use of generative AI is lowering the barrier to entry by allowing adversaries to create hyper-realistic emails with minimal errors.

Given these developments, it's worth asking the question – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are most targeted by threat actors via email? And, more importantly – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are more valuable if they are successfully compromised?

There are two types of VIPs:  

1. When referring to emails and phishing, VIPs are the users in an organization who are well known publicly.  

2. When referring to attack paths, VIPs are users in an organization that are known publicly and have access to highly privileged assets.  

Not every prominent user has access to critical assets, and not every user that has access to critical assets is prominent.  

Darktrace analysis of VIP impersonation

We analyzed patterns of attack pathways and phishing attempts across 20 customer deployments from a large, randomized pool encompassing a diverse range of organizations.  

Understanding Attack Pathways

Our observations revealed that 57% of low-difficulty attack paths originated from VIP entities, while 43% of observed low-difficulty attack paths towards critical assets or entities began through non-VIP users. This means that targeting VIPs is not the only way attackers can reach critical assets, and that non-VIP users must be considered as well.  

While the sample size prevents us from establishing statistical significance across all customers, the randomized selection lends credence to the generalizability of these findings to other environments.

Phishing Attempts  

On average, 1.35% of total emails sent to these customers exhibited significantly malicious properties associated with phishing or some form of impersonation. Strikingly, nearly half of these malicious emails (49.6%) were directed towards VIPs, while the rest were sent to non-VIPs. This near-equal split is worth noting, as attack paths show that non-VIPs also serve as potential entry points for targeting critical assets.  

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: A phishing email actioned by Darktrace, sent to multiple VIP and non-VIP entities

For example, a recent phishing campaign targeted multiple customers across deployments, with five out of 13 emails specifically aimed at VIP users. Darktrace/Email actioned the malicious emails by double locking the links, holding the messages, and stripping the attachments.

Given that non-VIP users receive nearly half of the phishing or impersonation emails, it underscores the critical importance for security teams to recognize their blind spots in protecting critical assets. Overlooking the potential threat originating from non-VIP entities could lead to severe consequences. For instance, if a non-VIP user falls victim to a phishing attack or gets compromised, their credentials could be exploited to move laterally within the organization, potentially reaching critical assets.

This highlights the necessity for a sophisticated security tool that can identify targeted users, without the need for extensive customization and regardless of VIP status. By deploying a solution capable of promptly responding to email threats – including solicitation, phishing attempts, and impersonation – regardless of the status of the targeted user, security teams can significantly enhance their defense postures.

Darktrace vs Traditional Email Detection Methods

Traditional rules and signatures-based detection mechanisms fall short in identifying the evolving threats we’ve observed, due to their reliance on knowledge of past attacks to categorize emails.

Secure Email Gateway (SEG) or Integrated Cloud Email Security (ICES) tools categorize emails based on previous or known attacks, operating on a known-good or known-bad model. Even if tools use AI to automate this process, the approach is still fundamentally looking to the past and therefore vulnerable to unknown and zero-day threats.  

Darktrace uses AI to understand each unique organization and how its email environment interoperates with each user and device on the network. Consequently, it is able to identify the subtle deviations from normal behavior that qualify as suspicious. This approach goes beyond simplistic categorizations, considering factors such as the sender’s history and recipient’s exposure score.  

This nuanced analysis enables Darktrace to differentiate between genuine communications and malicious impersonation attempts. It automatically understands who is a VIP, without the need for manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails  based on a user’s status.

Email does determine who is a VIP, without a need of manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails.

Darktrace/Email also feeds into Darktrace’s preventative security tools, giving the interconnected AI engines further context for assessing the high-value targets and pathways to vital internal systems and assets that start via the inbox.

Leveraging AI for Enhanced Protection Across the Enterprise  

The efficacy of AI-driven security solutions lies in their ability to make informed decisions and recommendations based on real-time business data. By leveraging this data, AI driven solutions can identify exploitable attack pathways and an organizations most critical assets. Darktrace uniquely uses several forms of AI to equip security teams with the insights needed to make informed decisions about which pathways to secure, reducing human bias around the importance of protecting VIPs.

With the emergence of tools like AutoGPT, identifying potential targets for phishing attacks has become increasingly simplified. However, the real challenge lies in gaining a comprehensive understanding of all possible and low-difficulty attack paths leading to critical assets and identities within the organization.

At the same time, organizations need email tools that can leverage the understanding of users to prevent email threats from succeeding in the first instance. For every email and user, Darktrace/Email takes into consideration changes in behavior from the sender, recipient, content, and language, and many other factors.

Integrating Darktrace/Email with Darktrace’s attack path modeling capabilities enables comprehensive threat contextualization and facilitates a deeper understanding of attack pathways. This holistic approach ensures that all potential vulnerabilities, irrespective of the user's status, are addressed, strengthening the overall security posture.  

Conclusion

Contrary to conventional wisdom, our analysis suggests that the distinction between VIPs and non-VIPs in terms of susceptibility to impersonation and low-difficulty attack paths is not as pronounced as presumed. Therefore, security teams must adopt a proactive stance in safeguarding all pathways, rather than solely focusing on VIPs.  

Attack path modeling enhances Darktrace/Email's capabilities by providing crucial metrics on potential impact, damage, exposure, and weakness, enabling more targeted and effective threat mitigation strategies. For example, stronger email actions can be enforced for users who are known to have a high potential impact in case of compromise. 

In an era where cyber threats continue to evolve in complexity, an adaptive and non-siloed approach to securing inboxes, high-priority individuals, and critical assets is indispensable.  

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About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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