Inside the SOC
Darktrace’s Detection of a Large-Scale Account Hijack that Led to a Phishing Attack
As malicious actors across the threat landscape continue to take advantage of the widespread adoption of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platforms and multi-factor authentication (MFA) services to gain unauthorized access to organizations’ networks, it is crucial to have appropriate security tools in place to defend against account compromise at the earliest stage.
One method frequently employed by attackers is account takeover. Account takeovers occur when a threat actor exploits credentials to login to a SaaS account, often from an unusual location where the genuine actor does not usually login from.
Access to these accounts can be caused by harvesting credentials through phishing emails and password spray attacks, or by exploiting insecure cloud safety practices such as not having MFA enabled on user accounts, requiring only user credentials for authentication. Once the integrity of the account is compromised, the threat actor can conduct further activity, such as delivering malware, reading and exfiltrating sensitive data, and sending out phishing emails to harvest further internal and external user credentials, repeating the attack cycle [1,2].
In early 2023, Darktrace detected a large-scale account takeover and phishing attack on the network of a customer in the education sector that affected hundreds of accounts and resulted in thousands of emails being forwarded outside of the network. The exceptional degree of visibility provided by Darktrace DETECT™ allowed for the detection of adversarial activity at every stage of the kill chain, and direct support from the Darktrace Analyst team via the Ask the Expert (ATE) service ensured the customer was fully informed and equipped to implement remedial action.
Details of Attack Chain
Darktrace observed the same pattern of activity on all hijacked accounts on the customer’s network; login from unfamiliar locations, enablement of a mail forwarding rule that forwards all incoming emails to malicious email addresses, and the sending of phishing emails followed by their deletion.
Darktrace DETECT first detected anomalous SaaS activity on the customer environment on January 14, 2023, and then again on February 3, when multiple SaaS accounts were observed logging in from atypical locations with rare IP addresses and geographically impossible travel timings, or logging in whilst the account owner was active elsewhere. Subsequent investigation using open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources revealed one of the IP addressed had recently been associated with brute-force or password spray attempt.
This pattern of unusual login behavior persisted throughout the timeframe of the attack, with more unique accounts generating model breaches each day for similarly anomalous logins. As MFA authentication was not enforced for these user logins, the initial intrusion process was enabled by requiring only credentials for authentication.
The compromised accounts were also seen sending out emails with the subject ‘Email HELP DESK’ to external and internal recipients. This was likely represented a threat actor employing social engineering tactics to gain the trust of the recipient by posing as an internal help desk.
Following the successful logins, compromised accounts began creating email rules to forward mail to external email addresses, some of which were associated with domains that had hits for malicious activity according to OSINT sources .
Forwarding mail is a commonly observed tactic during SaaS compromises to control lines of communication. Malicious actors often attempt to insert themselves into ongoing correspondence for illicit purposes, such as exfiltrating sensitive information, gaining persistent access to the compromised email or redirecting invoice payments.
Shortly after the mail forwarding activity, compromised accounts were detected performing anomalous email deletions en masse. Further investigation revealed that these accounts had previously sent a large volume of phishing emails and this mass deletion likely represented an attempt to conceal these activities by deleting them from their outboxes.
On February 10, the customer applied a mass password reset on all accounts that Darktrace had identified as compromised and provisioned, privileged accounts with MFA. They have indicated that those measures successfully halted the compromise, addressing the initial point of entry.
Using its Self-Learning AI, Darktrace effectively demonstrated its ability to detect unusual SaaS activity that could indicate that an account has been hijacked by malicious actors. Rather than relying on a traditional rules and signature-based approach, Darktrace models develop an understanding of the network itself and can instantly recognize when a compromised deviates from its expected pattern of life.
Initial access was detected by the following models:
- Security Integration / High Severity Integration Detection
- SaaS / Unusual Activity / Activity from Multiple Unusual IPs
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Endpoint While User Is Active
Initial access was also detected by the following Cyber AI Analyst Incidents:
- Possible Hijack of Office365 Account
The model breaches and AI Analyst incidents detected logins from 100% rare external IP addresses in conjunction with a lack of MFA usage, as depicted in Figure 3.
Mail forwarding was detected by the following models:
- SaaS / Admin / Mail Forwarding Enabled
Compromised accounts were largely detected configuring mail forwarding rules to external email addresses, ostensibly to establish persistence on the network and exfiltrate sensitive correspondence.
Mass Email Deletion
Mass email deletion was detected by the following models:
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Mass Email Deletes
- SaaS / Resource / Mass Email Deletes from Rare Location
Darktrace detected accounts performing highly anomalous mass email deletions from rare locations. The actors deleted the email “Email HELP DESK” which was later confirmed as being the primary phishing email used in the attack. Deletions were observed on compromised accounts’ outboxes, presumably to conceal the malicious activity.
Darktrace also detected this linked pattern of activity in sequential models such as:
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login, Sent Mail, Deleted Sent
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Mass Email Deletes
Ask the Expert
The customer used the ATE service to request more technical information and support concerning the attack. Darktrace’s 24/7 team of analysts were able to offer expert assistance and further details to assist in the subsequent investigations and remediation steps.
Further Detection and Response
Unfortunately, the customer did not have Darktrace/Email™ enabled at the time of the attack. Darktrace/Email has visibility over inbound and outbound mail-flow which provides an oversight on potential data loss incidents. In this case, Darktrace DETECT/Email would have been able to provide full visibility over the phishing emails sent by the compromised accounts, as well as the attackers attempts to spoof an internal helpdesk. Further to this, the new Analysis Outlook integration helps employees understand why an email is suspicious and enables them report emails directly to the security team, which helps to continuously build user awareness of phishing attacks.
Darktrace/Email also enhances Darktrace/Network™ detections by triggering ‘Email Nexus’ models within Darktrace/Network, where malicious activity is detected across the digital estate, correlating moving from SaaS compromised logins to mass email spam being sent out by compromised users.
Darktrace RESPOND™ was not enabled on the customer environment at the time of the attack; if it were, Darktrace would have been able to autonomously take action against the SaaS model breaches detecting across multiple of the kill chain. RESPOND would have disabled the hijacked accounts or force them to log out for a period of time, whilst also disabling the inbox rules that had been established by malicious actors. This would have given the customer’s security team valuable time to analyze the incident and mitigate the situation, preventing the attack from escalating any further.
Ultimately, Darktrace demonstrated its unparalleled visibility over customer networks which allowed for the detection of this large-scale targeted SaaS account takeover, and the subsequent phishing attack. It underscores the importance of defense in depth; critically, MFA was not enforced for this environment which likely made the targeted organization far more susceptible to compromise via credential theft. The phishing activity detected by Darktrace following this account compromise also highlights the need for email protection in any security stack.
Darktrace’s visibility meant allowed it to detect the attack at a high degree of granularity, including the account logins, email forwarding rule creations, outbound mail, and the mass deletions of phishing emails. Darktrace’s anomaly-based detection means it does not have to rely on signatures, rules or known indicators of compromise (IoCs) when identifying an emerging threat, instead placing the emphasis on recognizing a user’s deviation from its normal behavior.
However, without the presence of an autonomous response technology able to instantly intervene and stop ongoing attacks, organizations will always be reacting to attacks once the damage is done. Darktrace RESPOND is uniquely placed to take action against suspicious activity as soon as it is detected, preventing attacks from escalating and saving customers from significant disruption to their business.
Credit to: Zoe Tilsiter, Cyber Analyst, Gernice Lee, Cyber Analyst.
SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
SaaS / Admin / Mail Forwarding Enabled
SaaS / Compliance / Microsoft Cloud App Security Alert Detected
SaaS / Compromise / SaaS Anomaly Following Anomalous Login
SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login, Sent Mail, Deleted Sent
SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Mass Email Deletes
SaaS / Resource / Mass Email Deletes from Rare Location
SaaS / Unusual Activity / Multiple Unusual External Sources For SaaS Credential
SaaS / Unusual Activity / Activity from Multiple Unusual IPs
SaaS / Unusual Activity / Multiple Unusual SaaS Activities
Security Integration / Low Severity Integration Detection
Security Integration / High Severity Integration Detection
List of IoCs
brandoza[.]com - domain - probable domain of forwarded email address
breazeim[.]com - domain - probable domain of forwarded email address
bymercy[.]com - domain - probable domain of forwarded email address
chotunai[.]com - domain - probable domain of forwarded email address
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
Tactic: INITIAL ACCESS, PERSISTENCE, PRIVILEGE ESCILATION, DEFENSE EVASION
Technique: T1078.004 – Cloud Accounts
Technique: T1114- Email Collection
Technique: T1114.003- Email Forwarding Rule
Technique: T1485- Data Destruction
Tactic: DEFENSE EVASION
Technique: T1578.003 – Delete Cloud Instance
 Darktrace, 2022, Cloud Application Security_ Protect your SaaS with Self-Learning AI.pdf
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Inside the SOC
How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.