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How Phishing Attacks Are Becoming Harder to Identify

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20
Mar 2024
20
Mar 2024
Learn about the cyber risks posed by advanced phishing attacks and how AI can enhance security solutions to defend against them.

The state of email security and phishing attacks

Employees send and receive hundreds of emails a day to keep businesses moving. Unfortunately, it just takes one employee to interact with an undetected phishing email to potentially put an entire organization at risk from cyber disruption. Attackers know this, which is why they continue to develop and improve email phishing attacks.  

Increased attack sophistication makes it harder than ever for traditional cyber security solutions like SEGs, firewalls, and spam filters to detect and mitigate increasingly novel and sophisticated email threats.

When there are tell-tale signs of a threat, these solutions can  identify an incoming message as suspicious. Pointers such as emails from unknown senders, messages which contain an unusual amount of poor spelling and grammar or encourage the receiver to respond to an unexpected but supposedly urgent request.

That is, if the phishing attacks weren’t blocked by security measures before reaching the victim’s inbox. But, this is happening more and more often as phishing campaigns are becoming more advanced. Attackers are showing signs of consistently bypassing traditional protections and getting through to exploit victims.  

Darktrace email threat reporting

In its End of Year Threat Report, Darktrace analyzed over 10 million phishing emails targeting customer environments between September 1 and December 31, 2023.  Our findings signal that attackers are starting to take advantage of advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), including using Generative AI tools such as Large Language Models (LLMs) to create more convincing and sophisticated phishing messages – and at scale.

LLMs and Phishing

With the right AI prompts, attackers can use these LLMs to help write convincing email messages designed to target specific countries, companies or even individuals – all without the suspicious hallmarks which are traditionally associated with standard phishing attacks. The attackers don’t even need to speak the language of the individuals or groups they’re targeting.  LLMs lower language barriers for attackers; using their native tongue, they can simply ask the Generative AI to write a message in the language of their choosing.  

These techniques are designed to build trust and manipulate recipients into giving up sensitive information like user credentials, intellectual property or bank information or coerce them into downloading malicious payloads which can be used to launch further attacks on business infrastructure.  With the appropriate research, attackers can tailor the messages to increase the chances of being successful, like making them look like a legitimate company email or request.

Social engineering phishing attacks

A year ago. Darktrace shared research which found a 135% increase in ‘novel social engineering attacks’ in the first two months of 2023, corresponding with the widespread adoption of ChatGPT. These novel phishing attacks showed a strong linguistic deviation compared to other phishing emails, which suggested to us that Generative AI was already providing an avenue for threat actors to craft sophisticated and targeted attacks at speed and scale

We’ve seen this trend continue. Our End of Year Threat Report found 38% of these emails were identified as utilizing novel social engineering techniques.

Attackers are also deploying another technique to make phishing emails look more convincing – they’re making the emails themselves longer and more sophisticated.  

A potential victim might be suspicious of an ‘urgent’ email which prompts them to take action without an explanation - but if there’s additional context in the text, it adds an aura of legitimacy which is difficult to act against.

And threat actors know this; 28% of phishing emails analyzed by Darktrace over the period were identified as having “significant” amount of text – containing over 1,000 characters, which equates to over 200 words.  

It’s a sign that attackers are innovating and bolstering their efforts to craft sophisticated phishing campaigns, potentially leveraging Generative AI tools to automate social engineering activity by creating longer, more convincing phishing emails.  

QR code phishing

But this is far from the only innovative method which attackers are using to bypass traditional security defences. Among the 10 million plus emails analyzed during the reporting period, Darktrace/Email detected over 639,000 malicious QR codes within the messages.

Malicious QR codes placed within emails have become an increasingly common form of phishing attack, especially as QR codes have become a more common method for sharing links to information or buying links for products in recent years.

Attackers are deploying QR codes because they provide a way of directing unsuspecting victims to malicious websites or download links without needing to use a traditional phishing URL.  

The advantage of implanting QR codes for attackers is that while phishing URLs are something which traditional security solutions are actively looking to identify and mitigate, malicious QR codes are more difficult for them to detect.

Applying AI to email security

Traditional security solutions which rely heavily on previously identified malicious emails and known bad senders are struggling to identify and defend against these novel and increasingly sophisticated email threats.

But by using AI that learns the unique digital environment and patterns of each business, Darktrace/Email can recognize the subtle deviations in expected email activity to determine whether any given email could represent a threat to the business. It is then able to make highly accurate decisions to mitigate and neutralize any email attack it faces helping to keep your organization safe from cyber disruption.

It’s therefore imperative that in the battle against ever-evolving, ever more sophisticated cyber threats, defenders are also embracing AI to keep businesses safe. By effectively applying AI to cyber security challenges, defenders can take a proactive approach to cyber security, staying one step ahead of malicious attackers, with real-time detection and automated response to known and unknown threats looking to disrupt the business via the inbox.  

Darktrace/Email was recently awarded a 2024 AI Excellence Award for Machine Learning by Business Intelligence Group.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings.

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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Safeguarding Distribution Centers in the Digital Age

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12
Jun 2024

Challenges securing distribution centers

For large retail providers, e-commerce organizations, logistics & supply chain organizations, and other companies who rely on the distribution of goods to consumers cybersecurity efforts are often focused on an immense IT infrastructure. However, there's a critical, often overlooked segment of infrastructure that demands vigilant monitoring and robust protection: distribution centers.

Distribution centers play a critical role in the business operations of supply chains, logistics, and the retail industry. They serve as comprehensive logistics hubs, with many organizations operating multiple centers worldwide to meet consumer needs. Depending on their size and hours of operation, even just one hour of downtime at these centers can result in significant financial losses, ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour.

Due to the time-sensitive nature and business criticality of distribution centers, there has been a rise in applying modern technologies now including AI applications to enhance efficiency within these facilities. Today’s distribution centers are increasingly connected to Enterprise IT networks, the cloud and the internet to manage every stage of the supply chain. Additionally, it is common for organizations to allow 3rd party access to the distribution center networks and data for reasons including allowing them to scale their operations effectively.

However, this influx of new technologies and interconnected systems across IT, OT and cloud introduces new risks on the cybersecurity front. Distribution center networks include industrial operational technologies ICS/OT, IoT technologies, enterprise network technology, and cloud systems working in coordination. The convergence of these technologies creates a greater chance that blind spots exist for security practitioners and this increasing presence of networked technology increases the attack surface and potential for vulnerability. Thus, having cybersecurity measures that cover IT, OT or Cloud alone is not enough to secure a complex and dynamic distribution center network infrastructure.  

The OT network encompasses various systems, devices, hardware, and software, such as:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
  • Warehouse Execution System (WES)
  • Warehouse Control System (WCS)
  • Warehouse Management System (WMS)
  • Energy Management Systems (EMS)
  • Building Management Systems (BMS)
  • Distribution Control Systems (DCS)
  • Enterprise IT devices
  • OT and IoT: Engineering workstations, ICS application and management servers, PLCs, HMI, access control, cameras, and printers
  • Cloud applications

Distribution centers: An expanding attack surface

As these distribution centers have become increasingly automated, connected, and technologically advanced, their attack surfaces have inherently increased. Distribution centers now have a vastly different potential for cyber risk which includes:  

  • More networked devices present
  • Increased routable connectivity within industrial systems
  • Externally exposed industrial control systems
  • Increased remote access
  • IT/OT enterprise to industrial convergence
  • Cloud connectivity
  • Contractors, vendors, and consultants on site or remoting in  

Given the variety of connected systems, distribution centers are more exposed to external threats than ever before. Simultaneously, distribution center’s business criticality has positioned them as interesting targets to cyber adversaries seeking to cause disruption with significant financial impact.

Increased connectivity requires a unified security approach

When assessing the unique distribution center attack surface, the variety of interconnected systems and devices requires a cybersecurity approach that can cover the diverse technology environment.  

From a monitoring and visibility perspective, siloed IT, OT or cloud security solutions cannot provide the comprehensive asset management, threat detection, risk management, and response and remediation capabilities across interconnected digital infrastructure that a solution natively covering IT, cloud, OT, and IoT can provide.  

The problem with using siloed cybersecurity solutions to cover a distribution center is the visibility gaps that are inherently created when using multiple solutions to try and cover the totality of the diverse infrastructure. What this means is that for cross domain and multi-stage attacks, depending on the initial access point and where the adversary plans on actioning their objectives, multiple stages of the attack may not be detected or correlated if they security solutions lack visibility into OT, IT, IoT and cloud.

Comprehensive security under one solution

Darktrace leverages Self-Learning AI, which takes a new approach to cybersecurity. Instead of relying on rules and signatures, this AI trains on the specific business to learn a ‘pattern of life’ that models normal activity for every device, user, and connection. It can be applied anywhere an organization has data, and so can natively cover IT, OT, IoT, and cloud.  

With these models, Darktrace /OT provides improved visibility, threat detection and response, and risk management for proactive hardening recommendations.  

Visibility: Darktrace is the only OT security solution that natively covers IT, IoT and OT in unison. AI augmented workflows ensure OT cybersecurity analysts and operation engineers can manage IT and OT environments, leveraging a live asset inventory and tailored dashboards to optimize security workflows and minimize operator workload.

Threat detection, investigation, and response: The AI facilitates anomaly detection capable of detecting known, unknown, and insider threats and precise response for OT environments that contains threats at their earliest stages before they can jeopardize control systems. Darktrace immediately understands, identifies, and investigates all anomalous activity in OT networks, whether human or machine driven and uses Explainable AI to generate investigation reports via Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst.

Proactive risk identification: Risk management capabilities like attack path modeling can prioritize remediation and mitigation that will most effectively reduce derived risk scores. Rather than relying on knowledge of past attacks and CVE lists and scores, Darktrace AI learns what is ‘normal’ for its environment, discovering previously unknown threats and risks by detecting subtle shifts in behavior and connectivity. Through the application of Darktrace AI for OT environments, security teams can investigate novel attacks, discover blind spots, get live-time visibility across all their physical and digital assets, and reduce the time to detect, respond to, and triage security events.

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About the author
Daniel Simonds
Director of Operational Technology

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Inside the SOC

Medusa Ransomware: Looking Cyber Threats in the Eye with Darktrace

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10
Jun 2024

What is Living off the Land attack?

In the face of increasingly vigilant security teams and adept defense tools, attackers are continually looking for new ways to circumvent network security and gain access to their target environments. One common tactic is the leveraging of readily available utilities and services within a target organization’s environment in order to move through the kill chain; a popular method known as living off the land (LotL). Rather than having to leverage known malicious tools or write their own malware, attackers are able to easily exploit the existing infrastructure of their targets.

The Medusa ransomware group in particular are known to extensively employ LotL tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) in their attacks, as one Darktrace customer in the US discovered in early 2024.

What is Medusa Ransomware?

Medusa ransomware (not to be confused with MedusaLocker) was first observed in the wild towards the end of 2022 and has been a popular ransomware strain amongst threat actors since 2023 [1]. Medusa functions as a Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) platform, providing would-be attackers, also know as affiliates, with malicious software and infrastructure required to carry out disruptive ransomware attacks. The ransomware is known to target organizations across many different industries and countries around the world, including healthcare, education, manufacturing and retail, with a particular focus on the US [2].

How does medusa ransomware work?

Medusa affiliates are known to employ a number of TTPs to propagate their malware, most prodominantly gaining initial access by exploiting vulnerable internet-facing assets and targeting valid local and domain accounts that are used for system administration.

The ransomware is typically delivered via phishing and spear phishing campaigns containing malicious attachments [3] [4], but it has also been observed using initial access brokers to access target networks [5]. In terms of the LotL strategies employed in Medusa compromises, affiliates are often observed leveraging legitimate services like the ConnectWise remote monitoring and management (RMM) software and PDQ Deploy, in order to evade the detection of security teams who may be unable to distinguish the activity from normal or expected network traffic [2].

According to researchers, Medusa has a public Telegram channel that is used by threat actors to post any data that may have been stolen, likely in an attempt to extort organizations and demand payment [2].  

Darktrace’s Coverage of Medusa Ransomware

Established Foothold and C2 activity

In March 2024, Darktrace /NETWORK identified over 80 devices, including an internet facing domain controller, on a customer network performing an unusual number of activities that were indicative of an emerging ransomware attack. The suspicious behavior started when devices were observed making HTTP connections to the two unusual endpoints, “wizarr.manate[.]ch” and “go-sw6-02.adventos[.]de”, with the PowerShell and JWrapperDownloader user agents.

Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ launched an autonomous investigation into the connections and was able to connect the seemingly separate events into one wider incident spanning multiple different devices. This allowed the customer to visualize the activity in chronological order and gain a better understanding of the scope of the attack.

At this point, given the nature and rarity of the observed activity, Darktrace /NETWORK's autonomous response would have been expected to take autonomous action against affected devices, blocking them from making external connections to suspicious locations. However, autonomous response was not configured to take autonomous action at the time of the attack, meaning any mitigative actions had to be manually approved by the customer’s security team.

Internal Reconnaissance

Following these extensive HTTP connections, between March 1 and 7, Darktrace detected two devices making internal connection attempts to other devices, suggesting network scanning activity. Furthermore, Darktrace identified one of the devices making a connection with the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of the Nmap vulnerability scanning tool. While Nmap is primarily used legitimately by security teams to perform security audits and discover vulnerabilities that require addressing, it can also be leveraged by attackers who seek to exploit this information.

Darktrace / NETWORK model alert showing the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of Nmap.
Figure 1: Darktrace /NETWORK model alert showing the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of Nmap.

Darktrace observed actors using multiple credentials, including “svc-ndscans”, which was also seen alongside DCE-RPC activity that took place on March 1. Affected devices were also observed making ExecQuery and ExecMethod requests for IWbemServices. ExecQuery is commonly utilized to execute WMI Query Language (WQL) queries that allow the retrieval of information from WI, including system information or hardware details, while ExecMethod can be used by attackers to gather detailed information about a targeted system and its running processes, as well as a tool for lateral movement.

Lateral Movement

A few hours after the first observed scanning activity on March 1, Darktrace identified a chain of administrative connections between multiple devices, including the aforementioned internet-facing server.

Cyber AI Analyst was able to connect these administrative connections and separate them into three distinct ‘hops’, i.e. the number of administrative connections made from device A to device B, including any devices leveraged in between. The AI Analyst investigation was also able to link the previously detailed scanning activity to these administrative connections, identifying that the same device was involved in both cases.

Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the chain of lateral movement activity.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the chain of lateral movement activity.

On March 7, the internet exposed server was observed transferring suspicious files over SMB to multiple internal devices. This activity was identified as unusual by Darktrace compared to the device's normal SMB activity, with an unusual number of executable (.exe) and srvsvc files transferred targeting the ADMIN$ and IPC$ shares.

Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the suspicious SMB write activity.
Figure 3: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the suspicious SMB write activity.
Graph highlighting the number of successful SMB writes and the associated model alerts.
Figure 4: Graph highlighting the number of successful SMB writes and the associated model alerts.

The threat actor was also seen writing SQLite3*.dll files over SMB using a another credential this time. These files likely contained the malicious payload that resulted in the customer’s files being encrypted with the extension “.s3db”.

Darktrace’s visibility over an affected device performing successful SMB writes.
Figure 5: Darktrace’s visibility over an affected device performing successful SMB writes.

Encryption of Files

Finally, Darktrace observed the malicious actor beginning to encrypt and delete files on the customer’s environment. More specifically, the actor was observed using credentials previously seen on the network to encrypt files with the aforementioned “.s3db” extension.

Darktrace’s visibility over the encrypted files.
Figure 6: Darktrace’s visibility over the encrypted files.


After that, Darktrace observed the attacker encrypting  files and appending them with the extension “.MEDUSA” while also dropping a ransom note with the file name “!!!Read_me_Medusa!!!.txt”

Darktrace’s detection of threat actors deleting files with the extension “.MEDUSA”.
Figure 7: Darktrace’s detection of threat actors deleting files with the extension “.MEDUSA”.
Darktrace’s detection of the Medusa ransom note.
Figure 8: Darktrace’s detection of the Medusa ransom note.

At the same time as these events, Darktrace observed the attacker utilizing a number of LotL techniques including SSL connections to “services.pdq[.]tools”, “teamviewer[.]com” and “anydesk[.]com”. While the use of these legitimate services may have bypassed traditional security tools, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach enabled it to detect the activity and distinguish it from ‘normal’’ network activity. It is highly likely that these SSL connections represented the attacker attempting to exfiltrate sensitive data from the customer’s network, with a view to using it to extort the customer.

Cyber AI Analyst’s detection of “services.pdq[.]tools” usage.
Figure 9: Cyber AI Analyst’s detection of “services.pdq[.]tools” usage.

If this customer had been subscribed to Darktrace's Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service at the time of the attack, they would have been promptly notified of these suspicious activities by the Darktrace Security Operation Center (SOC). In this way they could have been aware of the suspicious activities taking place in their infrastructure before the escalation of the compromise. Despite this, they were able to receive assistance through the Ask the Expert service (ATE) whereby Darktrace’s expert analyst team was on hand to assist the customer by triaging and investigating the incident further, ensuring the customer was well equipped to remediate.  

As Darktrace /NETWORK's autonomous response was not enabled in autonomous response mode, this ransomware attack was able to progress to the point of encryption and data exfiltration. Had autonomous response been properly configured to take autonomous action, Darktrace would have blocked all connections by affected devices to both internal and external endpoints, as well as enforcing a previously established “pattern of life” on the device to stop it from deviating from its expected behavior.

Conclusion

The threat actors in this Medusa ransomware attack attempted to utilize LotL techniques in order to bypass human security teams and traditional security tools. By exploiting trusted systems and tools, like Nmap and PDQ Deploy, attackers are able to carry out malicious activity under the guise of legitimate network traffic.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, however, allows it to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that tend to be indicative of compromise, regardless of whether it appears legitimate or benign on the surface.

Further to the detection of the individual events that made up this ransomware attack, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to correlate the activity and collate it under one wider incident. This allowed the customer to track the compromise and its attack phases from start to finish, ensuring they could obtain a holistic view of their digital environment and remediate effectively.

Credit to Maria Geronikolou, Cyber Analyst, Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration

Device / Anomalous SMB Followed By Multiple Model Alerts

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Device / Attack and Recon Tools

Device / Suspicious File Writes to Multiple Hidden SMB Share

Compromise / Ransomware / Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB

Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert

Device / Network Scan

Anomalous Connection / Powershell to Rare External

Device / New PowerShell User Agent

Possible HTTP Command and Control

Extensive Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity

Possible SSL Command and Control to Multiple Endpoints

Suspicious Remote WMI Activity

Scanning of Multiple Devices

Possible Ransom Note Accessed over SMB

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type – Description + Confidence

207.188.6[.]17      -     IP address   -      C2 Endpoint

172.64.154[.]227 - IP address -        C2 Endpoint

wizarr.manate[.]ch  - Hostname -       C2 Endpoint

go-sw6-02.adventos[.]de.  Hostname  - C2 Endpoint

.MEDUSA             -        File extension     - Extension to encrypted files

.s3db               -             File extension    -  Created file extension

SQLite3-64.dll    -        File           -               Used tool

!!!Read_me_Medusa!!!.txt - File -   Ransom note

Svc-ndscans         -         Credential     -     Possible compromised credential

Svc-NinjaRMM      -       Credential      -     Possible compromised credential

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Discovery  - File and Directory Discovery - T1083

Reconnaissance    -  Scanning IP            -          T1595.001

Reconnaissance -  Vulnerability Scanning -  T1595.002

Lateral Movement -Exploitation of Remote Service -  T1210

Lateral Movement - Exploitation of Remote Service -   T1210

Lateral Movement  -  SMB/Windows Admin Shares     -    T1021.002

Lateral Movement   -  Taint Shared Content          -            T1080

Execution   - PowerShell     - T1059.001

Execution  -   Service Execution   -    T1059.002

Impact   -    Data Encrypted for Impact  -  T1486

References

[1] https://unit42.paloaltonetworks.com/medusa-ransomware-escalation-new-leak-site/

[2] https://thehackernews.com/2024/01/medusa-ransomware-on-rise-from-data.html

[3] https://www.trustwave.com/en-us/resources/blogs/trustwave-blog/unveiling-the-latest-ransomware-threats-targeting-the-casino-and-entertainment-industry/

[4] https://www.sangfor.com/farsight-labs-threat-intelligence/cybersecurity/security-advisory-for-medusa-ransomware

[5] https://thehackernews.com/2024/01/medusa-ransomware-on-rise-from-data.html

[6]https://any.run/report/8be3304fec9d41d44012213ddbb28980d2570edeef3523b909af2f97768a8d85/e4c54c9d-12fd-477f-8cbb-a20f8fb98912

Continue reading
About the author
Maria Geronikolou
Cyber Analyst
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