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Countering the Cartel: Darktrace’s Investigation into CyberCartel Attacks Targeting Latin America

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08
Jan 2024
08
Jan 2024
This blog explores Darktrace’s investigation into a series of CyberCartel compromises that were detected across its customer base throughout 2023. CyberCartel is known to target government agencies and taxpaying individuals throughout Latin America.

Introduction

In September 2023, Darktrace published its first Half-Year Threat Report, highlighting Threat Research, Security Operation Center (SOC), model breach, and Cyber AI Analyst analysis and trends across the Darktrace customer fleet. According to Darktrace’s Threat Report, the most observed threat type to affect Darktrace customers during the first half of 2023 was Malware-as-a-Service (Maas). The report highlighted a growing trend where malware strains, specifically in the MaaS ecosystem, “use cross-functional components from other strains as part of their evolution and customization” [1].  

Darktrace’s Threat Research team assessed this ‘Frankenstein’ approach would very likely increase, as shown by the fact that indicators of compromise (IoCs) are becoming “less and less mutually exclusive between malware strains as compromised infrastructure is used by multiple threat actors through access brokers or the “as-a-Service” market” [1].

Darktrace investigated one such threat during the last months of summer 2023, eventually leading to the discovery of CyberCartel-related activity across a significant number of Darktrace customers, especially in Latin America.

CyberCartel Overview and Darktrace Coverage

During a threat hunt, Darktrace’s Threat Research team discovered the download of a binary with a unique Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) pattern. When examining Darktrace’s customer base, it was discovered that binaries with this same URI pattern had been downloaded by a significant number of customer accounts, especially by customers based in Latin America. Although not identical, the targets and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) resembled those mentioned in an article regarding a botnet called Fenix [2], particularly active in Latin America.

During the Threat Research team’s investigation, nearly 40 potentially affected customer accounts were identified. Darktrace’s global Threat Research team investigates pervasive threats across Darktrace’s customer base daily. This cross-fleet research is based on Darktrace’s anomaly-based detection capability, Darktrace DETECT™, and revolves around technical analysis and contextualization of detection information.

Amid the investigation, further open-source intelligence (OSINT) research revealed that most indicators observed during Darktrace’s investigations were associated to a Latin American threat group named CyberCartel, with a small number of IoCs being associated with the Fenix botnet. While CyberCartel seems to have been active since 2012 and relies on MaaS offerings from well-known malware families, Fenix botnet was allegedly created at the end of last year and “specifically targets users accessing government services, particularly tax-paying individuals in Mexico and Chile” [2].

Both groups share similar targets and TTPs, as well as objectives: installing malware with information-stealing capabilities. In the case of Fenix infections, the compromised device will be added to a botnet and execute tasks given by the attacker(s); while in the case of CyberCartel, it can lead to various types of second-stage info-stealing and Man-in-the-Browser capabilities, including retrieving system information from the compromised device, capturing screenshots of the active browsing tab, and redirecting the user to fraudulent websites such as fake banking sites. According to a report by Metabase Q [2], both groups possibly share command and control (C2) infrastructure, making accurate attribution and assessment of the confidence level for which group was affecting the customer base extremely difficult. Indeed, one of the C2 IPs (104.156.149[.]33) observed on nearly 20 customer accounts during the investigation had OSINT evidence linking it to both CyberCartel and Fenix, as well as another group known to target Mexico called Manipulated Caiman [3] [4] [5].

CyberCartel and Fenix both appear to target banking and governmental services’ users based in Latin America, especially individuals from Mexico and Chile. Target institutions purportedly include tax administration services and several banks operating in the region. Malvertising and phishing campaigns direct users to pages imitating the target institutions’ webpages and prompt the download of a compressed file advertised in a pop-up window. This file claims enhance the user’s security and privacy while navigating the webpage but instead redirects the user to a compromised website hosting a zip file, which itself contains a URL file containing instructions for retrieval of the first stage payload from a remote server.

pop-up window with malicious file
Figure 1: Example of a pop-up window asking the user to download a compressed file allegedly needed to continue navigating the portal. Connections to the domain srlxlpdfmxntetflx[.]com were observed in one account investigated by Darktrace

During their investigations, the Threat Research team observed connections to 100% rare domains (e.g., situacionfiscal[.]online, consultar-rfc[.]online, facturmx[.]info), many of them containing strings such as “mx”, “rcf” and “factur” in their domain names, prior to the downloads of files with the unique URI pattern identified during the aforementioned threat hunting session.

The reference to “rfc” is likely a reference to the Registro Federal de Contribuyentes, a unique registration number issued by Mexico’s tax collection agency, Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT). These domains were observed as being 100% rare for the environment and were connected to a few minutes prior to connections to CyberCartel endpoints. Most of the endpoints were newly registered, with creation dates starting from only a few months earlier in the first half of 2023. Interestingly, some of these domains were very similar to legitimate government websites, likely a tactic employed by threat actors to convince users to trust the domains and to bypass security measures.

Figure 2: Screenshot from similarweb[.]com showing the degree of affinity between malicious domains situacionfiscal[.]online and facturmx[.]info and the legitimate Mexican government hostname sat[.]gob[.]mx
Figure 3: Screenshot of the likely source infection website facturmx[.]info taken when visited in a sandbox environment

In other customer networks, connections to mail clients were observed, as well as connections to win-rar[.]com, suggesting an interaction with a compressed file. Connections to legitimate government websites were also detected around the same time in some accounts. Shortly after, the infected devices were detected connecting to 100% rare IP addresses over the HTTP protocol using WebDAV user agents such as Microsoft-WebDAV-MiniRedir/10.0.X and DavCInt. Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning, in its full form, is a legitimate extension to the HTTP protocol that allows users to remotely share, copy, move and edit files hosted on a web server. Both CyberCartel and Fenix botnet reportedly abuse this protocol to retrieve the initial payload via a shortcut link. The use (or abuse) of this protocol allows attackers to evade blocklists and streamline payload distribution. In cases investigated by Darktrace, the use of this protocol was not always considered unusual for the breach device, indicating it also was commonly used for its legitimate purposes.

HTTP methods observed included PROPFIND, GET, and OPTIONS, where a higher proportion of PROPFIND requests were observed. PROPFIND is an HTTP method related to the use of WebDAV that retrieves properties in an exactly defined, machine-readable, XML document (GET responses do not have a define format). Properties are pieces of data that describe the state of a resource, i.e., data about data [7]. They are used in distributed authoring environments to provide for efficient discovery and management of resources.  

Figure 4: Device event log showing a connection to facturmx[.]info followed by a WebDAV connection to the 100% rare IP 172.86.68[.]104

In a number of cases, connections to compromised endpoints were followed by the download of one or more executable files with names following the regex pattern /(yes|4496|[A-Za-z]{8})/(((4496|4545)[A-Za-z]{24})|Herramienta_de_Seguridad_SII).(exe|jse), for example 4496UCJlcqwxvkpXKguWNqNWDivM.exe. PROPFIND and GET HTTP requests for dynamic-link library (DLL) files such as urlmon.dll and netutils.dll were also detected. These are legitimate Windows files that are essential to handle network and internet-related tasks in Windows. Irrespective of whether they had malicious or legitimate signatures, Darktrace DETECT was able to recognize that the download of these files was suspicious with rare external endpoints not previously observed on the respective customer networks.

Figure 5: Advanced Search results showing some of the HTTP requests made by the breach device to a CyberCartel endpoint via PROPFIND, GET, or OPTIONS methods for executable and DLL files

Following Darktrace DETECT’s model breaches, these HTTP connections were investigated by Cyber AI Analyst™. AI Analyst provided a summary and further technical details of these connections, as shown in figure 6.

Figure 6: Cyber AI Analyst incident showing a summary of the event, as well as technical details. The AI investigation process is also detailed

AI Analyst searched for all HTTP connections made by the breach device and found more than 2,500 requests to more than a hundred endpoints for one given device. It then looked for the user agents responsible for these connections and found 15 possible software agents responsible for the HTTP requests, and from these identified a single suspicious software agent, Microsoft-WebDAV-Min-Redir. As mentioned previously, this is a legitimate software, but its use by the breach device was considered unusual by Darktrace’s machine learning technology. By performing analysis on thousands of connections to hundreds of endpoints at machine speed, AI Analyst is able to perform the heavy lifting on behalf of human security teams and then collate its findings in a single summary pane, giving end-users the information needed to assess a given activity and quickly start remediation as needed. This allows security teams and administrators to save precious time and provides unparalleled visibility over any potentially malicious activity on their network.

Following the successful identification of CyberCartel activity by DETECT, Darktrace RESPOND™ is then able to contain suspicious behavior, such as by restricting outgoing traffic or enforcing normal patterns of life on affected devices. This would allow customer security teams extra time to analyze potentially malicious behavior, while leaving the rest of the network free to perform business critical operations. Unfortunately, in the cases of CyberCartel compromises detected by Darktrace, RESPOND was not enabled in autonomous response mode meaning preventative actions had to be applied manually by the customer’s security team after the fact.

Figure 7. Device event log showing connections to 100% rare CyberCartel endpoint 172.86.68[.]194 and subsequent suggested RESPOND actions.

Conclusion

Threat actors targeting high-value entities such as government offices and banks is unfortunately all too commonplace.  In the case of Cyber Cartel, governmental organizations and entities, as well as multiple newspapers in the Latin America, have cautioned users against these malicious campaigns, which have occurred over the past few years [8] [9]. However, attackers continuously update their toolsets and infrastructure, quickly rendering these warnings and known-bad security precautions obsolete. In the case of CyberCartel, the abuse of the legitimate WebDAV protocol to retrieve the initial payload is just one example of this. This method of distribution has also been leveraged by in Bumblebee malware loader’s latest campaign [10]. The abuse of the legitimate WebDAV protocol to retrieve the initial CyberCartel payload outlined in this case is one example among many of threat actors adopting new distribution methods used by others to further their ends.

As threat actors continue to search for new ways of remaining undetected, notably by incorporating legitimate processes into their attack flow and utilizing non-exclusive compromised infrastructure, it is more important than ever to have an understanding of normal network operation in order to detect anomalies that are indicative of an ongoing compromise. Darktrace’s suite of products, including DETECT+RESPOND, is well placed to do just that, with machine-speed analysis, detection, and response helping security teams and administrators keep their digital environments safe from malicious actors.

Credit to: Nahisha Nobregas, SOC Analyst

References

[1] https://darktrace.com/blog/darktrace-half-year-threat-report

[2] https://www.metabaseq.com/fenix-botnet/

[3] https://perception-point.io/blog/manipulated-caiman-the-sophisticated-snare-of-mexicos-banking-predators-technical-edition/

[4] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/104.156.149.33/community

[5] https://silent4business.com/tendencias/1

[6] https://www.metabaseq.com/cybercartel/

[7] http://www.webdav.org/specs/rfc2518.html#rfc.section.4.1

[8] https://www.csirt.gob.cl/alertas/8ffr23-01415-01/

[9] https://www.gob.mx/sat/acciones-y-programas/sitios-web-falsos

[10] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/bumblebee-malware-returns-in-new-attacks-abusing-webdav-folders/

Appendices  

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

AI Analyst Incidents:

• Possible HTTP Command and Control

• Suspicious File Download

Model Detections:

• Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

• Device / New User Agent and New IP

• Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

• Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations

• Anomalous File / Script from Rare External Location

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description + Confidence

f84bb51de50f19ec803b484311053294fbb3b523 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel Payload IoCs

4eb564b84aac7a5a898af59ee27b1cb00c99a53d - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

8806639a781d0f63549711d3af0f937ffc87585c - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

9d58441d9d31b5c4011b99482afa210b030ecac4 - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

37da048533548c0ad87881e120b8cf2a77528413 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

2415fcefaf86a83f1174fa50444be7ea830bb4d1 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

15a94c7e9b356d0ff3bcee0f0ad885b6cf9c1bb7 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

cdc5da48fca92329927d9dccf3ed513dd28956af - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

693b869bc9ba78d4f8d415eb7016c566ead839f3 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

04ce764723eaa75e4ee36b3d5cba77a105383dc5 - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

435834167fd5092905ee084038eee54797f4d23e - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

3341b4f46c2f45b87f95168893a7485e35f825fe - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

f6375a1f954f317e16f24c94507d4b04200c63b9 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

252efff7f54bd19a5c96bbce0bfaeeecadb3752f - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

8080c94e5add2f6ed20e9866a00f67996f0a61ae - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

c5117cedc275c9d403a533617117be7200a2ed77 - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

19dd866abdaf8bc3c518d1c1166fbf279787fc03 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

548287c0350d6e3d0e5144e20d0f0ce28661f514 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

f0478e88c8eefc3fd0a8e01eaeb2704a580f88e6 - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

a9809acef61ca173331e41b28d6abddb64c5f192 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

be96ec94f8f143127962d7bf4131c228474cd6ac - SHA1 hash -Likely CyberCartel payload

44ef336395c41bf0cecae8b43be59170bed6759d - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

facturmx[.]info - Hostname - Likely CyberCartel infection source

consultar-rfc[.]online - Hostname - Possible CyberCartel infection source

srlxlpdfmxntetflx[.]com - Hostname - Likely CyberCartel infection source

facturmx[.]online - Hostname - Possible CyberCartel infection source

rfcconhomoclave[.]mx - Hostname - Possible CyberCartel infection source

situacionfiscal[.]online - Hostname - Likely CyberCartel infection source

descargafactura[.]club - Hostname - Likely CyberCartel infection source

104.156.149[.]33 - IP - Likely CyberCartel C2 endpoint

172.86.68[.]194 - IP - Likely CyberCartel C2 endpoint

139.162.73[.]58 - IP - Likely CyberCartel C2 endpoint

172.105.24[.]190 - IP - Possible CyberCartel C2 endpoint

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic - Technique

Command and Control - Ingress Tool Transfer (T1105)

Command and Control - Web Protocols (T1071.001)

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
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ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Alexandra Sentenac
Cyber Analyst
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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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Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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Inside the SOC

Gootloader Malware: Detecting and Containing Multi-Functional Threats with Darktrace

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15
Feb 2024

What is multi-functional malware?

While traditional malware variants were designed with one specific objective in mind, the emergence of multi-functional malware, such as loader malware, means that organizations are likely to be confronted with multiple malicious tools and strains of malware at once. These threats often have non-linear attack patterns and kill chains that can quickly adapt and progress quicker than human security teams are able to react. Therefore, it is more important than ever for organizations to adopt an anomaly approach to combat increasingly versatile and fast-moving threats.

Example of Multi-functional malware

One example of a multi-functional malware recently observed by Darktrace can be seen in Gootloader, a multi-payload loader variant that has been observed in the wild since 2020. It is known to primarily target Windows-based systems across multiple industries in the US, Canada, France, Germany, and South Korea [1].  

How does Gootloader malware work?

Once installed on a target network, Gootloader can download additional malicious payloads that allow threat actors to carry out a range of harmful activities, such as stealing sensitive information or encrypting files for ransom.

The Gootloader malware is known to infect networks via search engine optimization (SEO) poisoning, directing users searching for legitimate documents to compromised websites hosting a malicious payload masquerading as the desired file.

If the malware remains undetected, it paves the way for a second stage payload known as Gootkit, which functions as a banking trojan and information-stealer, or other malware tools including Cobalt Strike and Osiris [2].

Darktrace detection of Gootloader malware

In late 2023, Darktrace observed one instance of Gootloader affecting a customer in the US. Thanks to its anomaly-focused approach, Darktrace DETECT™ quickly identified the anomalous activity surrounding this emerging attack and brought it to the immediate attention of the customer’s security team. All the while, Darktrace RESPOND™ was in place and able to autonomously intervene, containing the suspicious activity and ensuring the Gootloader compromise could not progress any further.

In September 2023, Darktrace identified an instance of the Gootloader malware attempting to propagate within the network of a customer in the US. Darktrace identified the first indications of the compromise when it detected a device beaconing to an unusual external location and performing network scanning. Following this, the device was observed making additional command-and-control (C2) connections, before finally downloading an executable (.exe) file which likely represented the download of a further malicious payload.

As this customer had subscribed to the Proactive Notification Service (PTN), the suspicious activity was escalated to the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) for further investigation by Darktrace’s expert analysts. The SOC team were able to promptly triage the incident and advise urgent follow-up actions.

Gootloader Attack Overview

Figure 1: Timeline of Anomalous Activities seen on the breach device.

Initial Beaconing and Scanning Activity

On September 21, 2023, Darktrace observed the first indications of compromise on the network when a device began to make regular connections to an external endpoint that was considered extremely rare for the network, namely ‘analyzetest[.]ir’.

Although the endpoint did not overtly seem malicious in nature (it appeared to be related to laboratory testing), Darktrace recognized that it had never previously been seen on the customer’s network and therefore should be treated with caution.  This initial beaconing activity was just the beginning of the malicious C2 communications, with several additional instances of beaconing detected to numerous suspicious endpoints, including funadhoo.gov[.]mv, tdgroup[.]ru’ and ‘army.mil[.]ng.

Figure 2: Initial beaconing activity detected on the breach device.

Soon thereafter, Darktrace detected the device performing internal reconnaissance, with an unusually large number of connections to other internal locations observed. This scanning activity appeared to primarily be targeting the SMB protocol by scanning port 445.

Within seconds of DETECT’s detection of this suspicious SMB scanning activity, Darktrace RESPOND moved to contain the compromise by blocking the device from connecting to port 445 and enforcing its ‘pattern of life’. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI enables it to learn a device’s normal behavior and recognize if it deviates from this; by enforcing a pattern of life on an affected device, malicious activity is inhibited but the device is allowed to continue its expected activity, minimizing disruption to business operations.

Figure 3: The breach device Model Breach Event Log showing Darktrace DETECT identifying suspicious SMB scanning activity and the corresponding RESPOND actions.

Following the initial detection of this anomalous activity, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst launched an autonomous investigation into the beaconing and scanning activity and was able to connect these seemingly separate events into one incident. AI Analyst analyzes thousands of connections to hundreds of different endpoints at machine speed and then summarizes its findings in a single pane of glass, giving customers the necessary information to assess the threat and begin remediation if necessary. This significantly lessens the burden for human security teams, saving them previous time and resources, while ensuring they maintain full visibility over any suspicious activity on their network.

Figure 4: Cyber AI Analyst incident log summarizing the technical details of the device’s beaconing and scanning behavior.

Beaconing Continues

Darktrace continued to observe the device carrying out beaconing activity over the next few days, likely representing threat actors attempting to establish communication with their malicious infrastructure and setting up a foothold within the customer’s environment. In one such example, the device was seen connecting to the suspicious endpoint ‘fysiotherapie-panken[.]nl’. Multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors reported this endpoint to be a known malware delivery host [3].

Once again, Darktrace RESPOND was in place to quickly intervene in response to these suspicious external connection attempts. Over the course of several days, RESPOND blocked the offending device from connecting to suspicious endpoints via port 443 and enforced its pattern of life. These autonomous actions by RESPOND effectively mitigated and contained the attack, preventing it from escalating further along the kill chain and providing the customer’s security team crucial time to take act and employ their own remediation.

Figure 5: A sample of the autonomous RESPOND actions that was applied on the affected device.

Possible Payload Retrieval

A few days later, on September 26, 2023, Darktrace observed the affected device attempting to download a Windows Portable Executable via file transfer protocol (FTP) from the external location ‘ftp2[.]sim-networks[.]com’, which had never previously been seen on the network. This download likely represented the next step in the Gootloader infection, wherein additional malicious tooling is downloaded to further cement the malicious actors’ control over the device. In response, Darktrace RESPOND immediately blocked the device from making any external connections, ensuring it could not download any suspicious files that may have rapidly escalated the attackers’ efforts.

Figure 6: DETECT’s identification of the offending device downloading a suspicious executable file via FTP.

The observed combination of beaconing activity and a suspicious file download triggered an Enhanced Monitoring breach, a high-fidelity DETECT model designed to detect activities that are more likely to be indicative of compromise. These models are monitored by the Darktrace SOC round the clock and investigated by Darktrace’s expert team of analysts as soon as suspicious activity emerges.

In this case, Darktrace’s SOC triaged the emerging activity and sent an additional notice directly to the customer’s security team, informing them of the compromise and advising on next steps. As this customer had subscribed to Darktrace’s Ask the Expert (ATE) service, they also had a team of expert analysts available to them at any time to aid their investigations.

Figure 7: Enhanced Monitoring Model investigated by the Darktrace SOC.

Conclusion

Loader malware variants such as Gootloader often lay the groundwork for further, potentially more severe threats to be deployed within compromised networks. As such, it is crucial for organizations and their security teams to identify these threats as soon as they emerge and ensure they are effectively contained before additional payloads, like information-stealing malware or ransomware, can be downloaded.

In this instance, Darktrace demonstrated its value when faced with a multi-payload threat by detecting Gootloader at the earliest stage and responding to it with swift targeted actions, halting any suspicious connections and preventing the download of any additional malicious tooling.

Darktrace DETECT recognized that the beaconing and scanning activity performed by the affected device represented a deviation from its expected behavior and was indicative of a potential network compromise. Meanwhile, Darktrace RESPOND ensured that any suspicious activity was promptly shut down, buying crucial time for the customer’s security team to work with Darktrace’s SOC to investigate the threat and quarantine the compromised device.

Credit to: Ashiq Shafee, Cyber Security Analyst, Qing Hong Kwa, Senior Cyber Analyst and Deputy Analyst Team Lead, Singapore

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Anomalous Connection / Young or Invalid Certificate SSL Connections to Rare

Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

Compromise / Beacon for 4 Days

Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Expired SSL

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint

Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

Anomalous File / FTP Executable from Rare External Location

Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

RESPOND Models

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Significant Anomaly from Client Block

Antigena / Network/Insider Threat/Antigena Network Scan Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Client Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

Type

Hostname

IoCs + Description

explorer[.]ee - C2 Endpoint

fysiotherapie-panken[.]nl- C2 Endpoint

devcxp2019.theclearingexperience[.]com- C2 Endpoint

campsite.bplaced[.]net- C2 Endpoint

coup2pompes[.]fr- C2 Endpoint

analyzetest[.]ir- Possible C2 Endpoint

tdgroup[.]ru- C2 Endpoint

ciedespuys[.]com- C2 Endpoint

fi.sexydate[.]world- C2 Endpoint

funadhoo.gov[.]mv- C2 Endpoint

geying.qiwufeng[.]com- C2 Endpoint

goodcomix[.]fun- C2 Endpoint

ftp2[.]sim-networks[.]com- Possible Payload Download Host

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic – Technique

Reconnaissance - Scanning IP blocks (T1595.001, T1595)

Command and Control - Web Protocols , Application Layer Protocol, One-Way Communication, External Proxy, Non-Application Layer Protocol, Non-Standard Port (T1071.001/T1071, T1071, T1102.003/T1102, T1090.002/T1090, T1095, T1571)

Collection – Man in the Browser (T1185)

Resource Development - Web Services, Malware (T1583.006/T1583, T1588.001/T1588)

Persistence - Browser Extensions (T1176)

References

1.     https://www.blackberry.com/us/en/solutions/endpoint-security/ransomware-protection/gootloader

2.     https://redcanary.com/threat-detection-report/threats/gootloader/

3.     https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/fysiotherapie-panken.nl

Continue reading
About the author
Ashiq Shafee
Cyber Security Analyst

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