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Following up on our Conversation: Detecting & Containing a LinkedIn Phishing Attack with Darktrace

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25
Jun 2024
25
Jun 2024
Darktrace/Email detected a phishing attack that had originated from LinkedIn, where the attacker impersonated a well known construction company to conduct a credential harvesting attack on the target. Darktrace’s ActiveAI Security Platform played a critical role in investigating the activity and initiating real-time responses that were outside the physical capability of human security teams.

Note: Real organization, domain and user names have been modified and replaced with fictitious names to maintain anonymity.  

Social media cyber-attacks

Social media is a known breeding ground for cyber criminals to easily connect with a near limitless number of people and leverage the wealth of personal information shared on these platforms to defraud the general public.  Analysis suggests even the most tech savvy ‘digital natives’ are vulnerable to impersonation scams over social media, as criminals weaponize brands and trends, using the promise of greater returns to induce sensitive information sharing or fraudulent payments [1].

LinkedIn phishing

As the usage of a particular social media platform increases, cyber criminals will find ways to exploit the increasing user base, and this trend has been observed with the rise in LinkedIn scams in recent years [2].  LinkedIn is the dominant professional networking site, with a forecasted 84.1million users by 2027 [3].  This platform is data-driven, so users are encouraged to share information publicly, including personal life updates, to boost visibility and increase job prospects [4] [5].  While this helps legitimate recruiters to gain a good understanding of the user, an attacker could also leverage the same personal content to increase the sophistication and success of their social engineering attempts.  

Darktrace detection of LinkedIn phishing

Darktrace detected a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) compromise affecting a construction company, where the attack vector originated from LinkedIn (outside the monitoring of corporate security tools), but then pivoted to corporate email where a credential harvesting payload was delivered, providing the attacker with credentials to access a corporate file storage platform.  

Because LinkedIn accounts are typically linked to an individual’s personal email and are most commonly accessed via the mobile application [6] on personal devices that are not monitored by security teams, it can represent an effective initial access point for attackers looking to establish an initial relationship with their target. Moreover, user behaviors to ignore unsolicited emails from new or unknown contacts are less frequently carried over to platforms like LinkedIn, where interactions with ‘weak ties’ as opposed to ‘strong ties’ are a better predictor of job mobility [7]. Had this attack been allowed to continue, the threat actor could have leveraged access to further information from the compromised business cloud account to compromise other high value accounts, exfiltrate sensitive data, or defraud the organization.

LinkedIn phishing attack details

Reconnaissance

The initial reconnaissance and social engineering occurred on LinkedIn and was thus outside the purview of corporate security tools, Darktrace included.

However, the email domain “hausconstruction[.]com” used by the attacker in subsequent communications appears to be a spoofed domain impersonating a legitimate construction company “haus[.]com”, suggesting the attacker may have also impersonated an employee of this construction company on LinkedIn.  In addition to spoofing the domain, the attacker seemingly went further to register “hausconstruction.com” on a commercial web hosting platform.  This is a technique used frequently not just to increase apparent legitimacy, but also to bypass traditional security tools since newly registered domains will have no prior threat intelligence, making them more likely to evade signature and rules-based detections [8].  In this instance, open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources report that the domain was created several months earlier, suggesting this may have been part of a targeted attack on construction companies.  

Initial Intrusion

It was likely that during the correspondence over LinkedIn, the target user was solicited into following up over email regarding a prospective construction project, using their corporate email account.  In a probable attempt to establish a precedent of bi-directional correspondence so that subsequent malicious emails would not be flagged by traditional security tools, the attacker did not initially include suspicious links, attachments or use solicitous or inducive language within their initial emails.

Example of bi-directional email correspondence between the target and the attacker impersonating a legitimate employee of the construction company haus.com.
Figure 1: Example of bi-directional email correspondence between the target and the attacker impersonating a legitimate employee of the construction company haus.com.
Cyber AI Analyst investigation into one of the initial emails the target received from the attacker.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into one of the initial emails the target received from the attacker.  

To accomplish the next stage of their attack, the attacker shared a link, hidden behind the inducing text “VIEW ALL FILES”, to a malicious file using the Hightail cloud storage service. This is also a common method employed by attackers to evade detection, as this method of file sharing does not involve attachments that can be scanned by traditional security tools, and legitimate cloud storage services are less likely to be blocked.

OSINT analysis on the malicious link link shows the file hosted on Hightail was a HTML file with the associated message “Following up on our LinkedIn conversation”.  Further analysis suggests the file contained obfuscated Javascript that, once opened, would automatically redirect the user to a malicious domain impersonating a legitimate Microsoft login page for credential harvesting purposes.  

The malicious HTML file containing obfuscated Javascript, where the highlighted string references the malicious credential harvesting domain.
Figure 3: The malicious HTML file containing obfuscated Javascript, where the highlighted string references the malicious credential harvesting domain.
Screenshot of fraudulent Microsoft Sign In page hosted on the malicous credential harvesting domain.
Figure 4: Screenshot of fraudulent Microsoft Sign In page hosted on the malicious credential harvesting domain.

Although there was prior email correspondence with the attacker, this email was not automatically deemed safe by Darktrace and was further analyzed for unusual properties and unusual communications for the recipient and the recipient’s peer group.  

Darktrace determined that:

  • It was unusual for this file storage solution to be referenced in communications to the user and the wider network
  • Textual properties of the email body suggested a high level of inducement from the sender, with a high level of focus on the phishing link.
  • The full link contained suspicious properties suggesting it is high risk.
Darktrace’s analysis of the phishing email, presenting key information about the unusual characteristics of this email, information on highlighted content, and an overview of actions that were initially applied.
Figure 5: Darktrace’s analysis of the phishing email, presenting key information about the unusual characteristics of this email, information on highlighted content, and an overview of actions that were initially applied.  

Based on these anomalies, Darktrace initially moved the phishing email to the junk folder and locked the link, preventing the user from directly accessing the malicious file hosted on Hightail.  However, the customer’s security team released the email, likely upon end-user request, allowing the target user to access the file and ultimately enter their credentials into that credential harvesting domain.

Darktrace alerts triggered by the malicious phishing email and the corresponding Autonomous Response actions.
Figure 6: Darktrace alerts triggered by the malicious phishing email and the corresponding Autonomous Response actions.

Lateral Movement

Correspondence between the attacker and target continued for two days after the credential harvesting payload was delivered.  Five days later, Darktrace detected an unusual login using multi-factor authentication (MFA) from a rare external IP and ASN that coincided with Darktrace/Email logs showing access to the credential harvesting link.

This attempt to bypass MFA, known as an Office365 Shell WCSS attack, was likely achieved by inducing the target to enter their credentials and legitimate MFA token into the fake Microsoft login page. This was then relayed to Microsoft by the attacker and used to obtain a legitimate session. The attacker then reused the legitimate token to log into Exchange Online from a different IP and registered their own device for MFA.

Screenshot within Darktrace/Email of the phishing email that was released by the security team, showing the recipient clicked the link to file storage where the malicious payload was stored.
Figure 7: Screenshot within Darktrace/Email of the phishing email that was released by the security team, showing the recipient clicked the link to file storage where the malicious payload was stored.
Event Log showing a malicious login and MFA bypass at 17:57:16, shortly after the link was clicked.  Highlighted in green is activity from the legitimate user prior to the malicious login, using Edge.
Figure 8: Event Log showing a malicious login and MFA bypass at 17:57:16, shortly after the link was clicked.  Highlighted in green is activity from the legitimate user prior to the malicious login, using Edge. Highlighted in orange and red is the malicious activity using Chrome.

The IP addresses used by the attacker appear to be part of anonymization infrastructure, but are not associated with any known indicators of compromise (IoCs) that signature-based detections would identify [9] [10].

In addition to  logins being observed within half an hour of each other from multiple geographically impossible locations (San Francisco and Phoenix), the unexpected usage of Chrome browser, compared to Edge browser previously used, provided Darktrace with further evidence that this activity was unlikely to originate from the legitimate user.  Although the user was a salesperson who frequently travelled for their role, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understood that the multiple logins from these locations was highly unusual at the user and group level, and coupled with the subsequent unexpected account modification, was a likely indicator of account compromise.  

Accomplish mission

Although the email had been manually released by the security team, allowing the attack to propagate, additional layers of defense were triggered as Darktrace's Autonomous Response initiated “Disable User” actions upon detection of the multiple unusual logins and the unauthorized registration of security information.  

However, the customer had configured Autonomous Response to require human confirmation, therefore no actions were taken until the security team manually approved them over two hours later. In that time, access to mail items and other SharePoint files from the unusual IP address was detected, suggesting a potential loss of confidentiality to business data.

Advanced Search query showing several FilePreviewed and MailItemsAccessed events from either the IPs used by the attacker, or using the software Chrome.  Note some of the activity originated from Microsoft IPs which may be whitelisted by traditional security tools.
Figure 9: Advanced Search query showing several FilePreviewed and MailItemsAccessed events from either the IPs used by the attacker, or using the software Chrome.  Note some of the activity originated from Microsoft IPs which may be whitelisted by traditional security tools.

However, it appears that the attacker was able to maintain access to the compromised account, as login and mail access events from 199.231.85[.]153 continued to be observed until the afternoon of the next day.  

Conclusion

This incident demonstrates the necessity of AI to security teams, with Darktrace’s ActiveAI Security Platform detecting a sophisticated phishing attack where human judgement fell short and initiated a real-time response when security teams could not physically respond as fast.  

Security teams are very familiar with social engineering and impersonation attempts, but these attacks remain highly prevalent due to the widespread adoption of technologies that enable these techniques to be deployed with great sophistication and ease.  In particular, the popularity of information-rich platforms like LinkedIn that are geared towards connecting with unknown people make it an attractive initial access point for malicious attackers.

In the second half of 2023 alone, over 200 thousand fake profiles were reported by members on LinkedIn [11].  Fake profiles can be highly sophisticated, use professional images, contain compelling descriptions, reference legitimate company listings and present believable credentials.  

It is unrealistic to expect end users to defend themselves against such sophisticated impersonation attempts. Moreover, it is extremely difficult for human defenders to recognize every fraudulent interaction amidst a sea of fake profiles. Instead, defenders should leverage AI, which can conduct autonomous investigations without human biases and limitations. AI-driven security can ensure successful detection of fraudulent or malicious activity by learning what real users and devices look like and identifying deviations from their learned behaviors that may indicate an emerging threat.

Appendices

Darktrace Model Detections

DETECT/ Apps

SaaS / Compromise / SaaS Anomaly Following Anomalous Login

SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Account Update

SaaS / Unusual Activity / Multiple Unusual External Sources For SaaS Credential

SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use

SaaS / Compliance / M365 Security Information Modified

RESPOND/ Apps

Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block

Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Unusual Activity Block

DETECT & RESPOND/ Email

·      Link / High Risk Link + Low Sender Association

·      Link / New Correspondent Classified Link

·      Link / Watched Link Type

·      Antigena Anomaly

·      Association / Unknown Sender

·      History / New Sender

·      Link / Link to File Storage

·      Link / Link to File Storage + Unknown Sender

·      Link / Low Link Association

List of IoCs

·      142.252.106[.]251 - IP            - Possible malicious IP used by attacker during cloud account compromise

·      199.231.85[.]153 – IP - Probable malicious IP used by attacker during cloud account compromise

·      vukoqo.hebakyon[.]com – Endpoint - Credential harvesting endpoint

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

·      Resource Development - T1586 - Compromise Accounts

·      Resource Development - T1598.003 – Spearphishing Link

·      Persistence - T1078.004 - Cloud Accounts

·      Persistence - T1556.006 - Modify Authentication Process: Multi-Factor Authentication

·      Reconnaissance - T1593.001 – Social Media

·      Reconnaissance - T1598 – Phishing for Information

·      Reconnaissance - T1589.001 – Credentials

·      Reconnaissance - T1591.002 – Business Relationships

·      Collection - T1111 – Multifactor Authentication Interception

·      Collection - T1539 – Steal Web Session Cookie

·      Lateral Movement - T1021.007 – Cloud Services

·      Lateral Movement - T1213.002 - Sharepoint

References

[1] Jessica Barker, Hacked: The secrets behind cyber attacks, (London: Kogan Page, 2024), p. 130-146.

[2] https://www.bitdefender.co.uk/blog/hotforsecurity/5-linkedin-scams-and-how-to-avoid-them/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2023/08/31/linkedin-personal-posts/

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2012/05/21/facebook-vs-linkedin-whats-the-difference/

[5] https://thelinkedblog.com/2022/3-reasons-why-you-should-make-your-profile-public-1248/

[6] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/50-linkedin-statistics-every-professional-should-ti9ue

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/24/business/linkedin-social-experiments.html

[8] https://darktrace.com/blog/the-domain-game-how-email-attackers-are-buying-their-way-into-inboxes

[9] https://spur.us/context/142.252.106[.]251

[10] https://spur.us/context/199.231.85[.]153

[11]https://www.statista.com/statistics/1328849/linkedin-number-of-fake-accounts-detected-and-removed

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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Hashing out TA577: Darktrace’s Detection of NTLM Hash Theft

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09
Jul 2024

What is credential theft and how does it work?

What began as a method to achieve unauthorized access to an account, often driven by the curiosity of individual attackers, credentials theft become a key tactic for malicious actors and groups, as stolen login credentials can be abused to gain unauthorized access to accounts and systems. This access can be leveraged to carry out malicious activities such as data exfiltration, fraud, espionage and malware deployment.

It is therefore no surprise that the number of dark web marketplaces selling privileged credentials has increased in recent years, making it easier for malicious actors to monetize stolen credentials [1]. This, in turn, has created new opportunities for threat actors to use increasingly sophisticated tactics such as phishing, social engineering and credential stuffing in their attacks, targeting individuals, organizations and government entities alike [1].

Credential theft example

TA577 Threat Actor

TA577 is a threat actor known to leverage stolen credentials, also known as Hive0118 [2], an initial access broker (IAB) group that was previously known for delivering malicious payloads [2]. On March 4, 2024, Proofpoint reported evidence of TA577 using a new attack chain with a different aim in mind: stealing NT LAN Manager (NTLM) hashes that can be used to authenticate to systems without needing to know plaintext passwords [3].

How does TA577 steal credentials?

Proofpoint reported that this new attack chain, which was first observed on February 26 and 27, was made up of two distinct campaigns. The first campaign consisted of a phishing attack featuring tens of thousands of emails targeting hundreds of organizations globally [3]. These phishing emails often appeared as replies to previous messages (thread hijacking) and contained zipped HTML attachments that each contained a unique file hash, customized for each recipient [3]. These attached files also contained a HTTP Meta refresh function, which triggered an automatic connection to a text file hosted on external IP addresses running as SMB servers [3].

When attempting to access the text file, the server requires an SMB session authentication via NTLM. This session is initiated when a client sends an ‘SMB_COM_NEGOTIATE’ request to the server, which answers with a ‘SMB_COM_NEGOTIATE’ response.

The client then proceeds to send a ‘SMB_COM_SESSION_SETUP_ANDX’ request to start the SMB session setup process, which includes initiating the NTLM authentication process. The server responds with an ‘SMB_COM_SESSION_SETUP_ANDX’ response, which includes an NTLM challenge message [6].

The client can then use the challenge message and its own credentials to generate a response by hashing its password using an NTLM hash algorithm. The response is sent to the server in an ‘SMB_COM_SESSION_SETUP_ANDX’ request. The server validates the response and, if the authentication is successful, the server answers with a final ‘SMB_COM_SESSION_SETUP_ANDX’ response, which completes the session setup process and allows the client to access the file listed on the server [6].

What is the goal of threat actor TA577?

As no malware delivery was detected during these sessions, researchers have suggested that the aim of TA577 was not to deliver malware, but rather to take advantage of the NTLMV2 challenge/response to steal NTLM authentication hashes [3] [4]. Hashes stolen by attackers can be exploited in pass-the-hash attacks to authenticate to a remote server or service [4]. They can also be used for offline password cracking which, if successful, could be utilized to escalate privileges or perform lateral movement through a target network [4]. Under certain circumstances, these hashes could also permit malicious actors to hijack accounts, access sensitive information and evade security products [4].

The open-source toolkit Impacket, which includes modules for password cracking [5] and which can be identified by the default NTLM server challenge “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”[3], was observed during the SMB sessions. This indicates that TA577 actor aim to use stolen credentials for password cracking and pass-the-hash attacks.

TA577 has previously been associated with Black Basta ransomware infections and Qbot, and has been observed delivering various payloads including IcedID, SystemBC, SmokeLoader, Ursnif, and Cobalt Strike [2].This change in tactic to follow the current trend of credential theft may indicate that not only are TA577 actors aware of which methods are most effective in the current threat landscape, but they also have monetary and time resources needed to create new methods to bypass existing detection tools [3].  

Darktrace’s Coverage of TA577 Activity

On February 26 and 26, coinciding with the campaign activity reported by Proofpoint, Darktrace/Email™ observed a surge of inbound emails from numerous suspicious domains targeting multiple customer environments. These emails consistently included zip files with seemingly randomly generated names, containing HTLM content and links to an unusual external IP address [3].

A summary of anomaly indicators seen for a campaign email sent by TA577, as detected by Darktrace/Email.
Figure 1: A summary of anomaly indicators seen for a campaign email sent by TA577, as detected by Darktrace/Email.
Details of the name and size of the .zip file attached to a campaign email, along with the Darktrace/Email model alerts triggered by the email.
Figure 2: Details of the name and size of the .zip file attached to a campaign email, along with the Darktrace/Email model alerts triggered by the email.

The URL of these links contained an unusually named .txt file, which corresponds with Proofpoint reports of the automatic connection to a text file hosted on an external SMB server made when the attachment is opened [3].

A link to a rare external IP address seen within a campaign email, containing an unusually named .txt file.
Figure 3: A link to a rare external IP address seen within a campaign email, containing an unusually named .txt file.

Darktrace identified devices on multiple customer networks connecting to external SMB servers via the SMB protocol. It understood this activity was suspicious as the SMB protocol is typically reserved for internal connections and the endpoint in question had never previously been observed on the network.

The Event Log of a ‘Compliance / External Windows Communication’ model alert showing a connection to an external SMB server on destination port 445.
Figure 4: The Event Log of a ‘Compliance / External Windows Communication’ model alert showing a connection to an external SMB server on destination port 445.
External Sites Summary highlighting the rarity of the external SMB server.
Figure 5: External Sites Summary highlighting the rarity of the external SMB server.
External Sites Summary highlightin that the SMB server is geolocated in Moldova.
Figure 6: External Sites Summary highlightin that the SMB server is geolocated in Moldova.

During these connections, Darktrace observed multiple devices establishing an SMB session to this server via a NTLM challenge/response, representing the potential theft of the credentials used in this session. During this session, some devices also attempted to access an unusually named .txt file, further indicating that the affected devices were trying to access the .txt file hosted on external SMB servers [3].

Packet captures (PCAPs) of these sessions show the default NTLM server challenge, indicating the use of Impacket, suggesting that the captured NTLM hashes were to be used for password cracking or pass-the-hash-attacks [3]

PCAP analysis showing usage of the default NTLM server challenge associated with Impacket.
Figure 7: PCAP analysis showing usage of the default NTLM server challenge associated with Impacket.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Darktrace’s suite of products effectively detected and alerted for multiple aspects of the TA577 attack chain and NTLM hash data theft activity across its customer base. Darktrace/Email was able to uncover the inbound phishing emails that served as the initial access vector for TA577 actors, while Darktrace DETECT identified the subsequent external connections to unusual external locations and suspicious SMB sessions.

Furthermore, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach enabled it to detect suspicious TA577 activity across the customer base on February 26 and 27, prior to Proofpoint’s report on their new attack chain. This showcases Darktrace’s ability to identify emerging threats based on the subtle deviations in a compromised device’s behavior, rather than relying on a static list of indicators of compromise (IoCs) or ‘known bads’.

This approach allows Darktrace to remain one step ahead of increasingly adaptive threat actors, providing organizations and their security teams with a robust AI-driven solution able to safeguard their networks in an ever-evolving threat landscape.

Credit to Charlotte Thompson, Cyber Analyst, Anna Gilbertson, Cyber Analyst.

References

1)    https://www.sentinelone.com/cybersecurity-101/what-is-credential-theft/

2)    https://malpedia.caad.fkie.fraunhofer.de/actor/ta577

3)    https://www.proofpoint.com/us/blog/threat-insight/ta577s-unusual-attack-chain-leads-ntlm-data-theft

4)    https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/hackers-steal-windows-ntlm-authentication-hashes-in-phishing-attacks/

5)    https://pawanjswal.medium.com/the-power-of-impacket-a-comprehensive-guide-with-examples-1288f3a4c674

6)    https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/openspecs/windows_protocols/ms-nlmp/c083583f-1a8f-4afe-a742-6ee08ffeb8cf

7)    https://www.hivepro.com/threat-advisory/ta577-targeting-windows-ntlm-hashes-in-global-campaigns/

Darktrace Model Detections

Darktrace/Email

·       Attachment / Unsolicited Archive File

·       Attachment / Unsolicited Attachment

·       Link / New Correspondent Classified Link

·       Link / New Correspondent Rare Link

·       Spoof / Internal User Similarities

Darktrace DETECT

·       Compliance / External Windows Communications

Darktrace RESPOND

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

IoCs

IoC - Type - Description

176.123.2[.]146 - IP address -Likely malicious SMB Server

89.117.2[.]33 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

89.117.1[.]161 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

104.129.20[.]167 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

89.117.1[.]160 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

85.239.33[.]149 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

89.117.2[.]34 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

146.19.213[.]36 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

66.63.188[.]19 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

103.124.104[.]76 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

103.124.106[.]224 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

\5aohv\9mn.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\hvwsuw\udrh.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\zkf2rj4\VmD.txt = SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\naams\p3aV.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\epxq\A.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\dbna\H.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

MAGNAMSB.zip – Filename - Phishing Attachment

e751f9dddd24f7656459e1e3a13307bd03ae4e67 - SHA1 Hash - Phishing Attachment

OMNIS2C.zip  - Filename - Phishing Attachment

db982783b97555232e28d5a333525118f10942e1 - SHA1 Hash - Phishing Attachment

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa - NTLM Server Challenge -Impacket Default NTLM Challenge

MITRE ATT&CK Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs)

Tactic - Technique

TA0001            Initial Access

TA0002            Execution

TA0008            Lateral Movement

TA0003            Persistence

TA0005            Defense Evasion

TA0006            Credential Access

T1021.002       SMB/Windows Admin Shares

T1021  Remote Services

T1566.001       Spearfishing Attachment

T1566  Phishing

T1204.002       Malicious File

T1204  User Execution

T1021.002       SMB/Windows Admin Shares

T1574  Hijack Execution Flow

T1021  Remote Services

T1555.004       Windows Credential Manager

T1555  Credentials from Password Stores

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Charlotte Thompson
Cyber Analyst

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Credential Phishing: Common attack methods and defense strategies 

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08
Jul 2024

Credential theft remains a top cybersecurity threat

Adversaries have many options in their arsenal to gain access into an organization.  

Exploitable vulnerabilities: This can provide access into a system’s processes and allow activity within the context of the service account.  

Weak or misconfigured systems: These can provide direct avenues of access into exposed systems.  

However, the more desirable option is to obtain user or API credentials permitting the adversary to authenticate and operate as one of the organization’s authorized entities.

While 2023 noted a marked increase in vulnerability exploits as the chosen vector of attack, the use of credentials by adversaries still ranked #1 at 24% in the latest Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report. Mandiant’s M-Trends report noted 14% of their investigations involved stolen credentials as the attack vector, and Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report revealed that Credential Access was one of the most observed MITRE ATT&CK tactics.

Credential phishing methods

There are many ways an adversary can obtain a user’s credentials. Some require gaining access to the target system or exploiting an application while others target the end-user directly. 

Joshua (WarGames) | Villains Wiki | Fandom

Social Engineering: Many users have a habit of incorporating things in their life into their passwords. Family members, important dates, hobbies, movies, and music favorites have all been used. Adversaries know this and will scour social media to gain knowledge about their intended target. This method was beautifully demonstrated in the 1983 movie, Wargames, where Matthew Broderick’s character scours articles, papers, and video about Dr. Stephen Falken, finally guessing that the password into the WOPR (War Operations Plan Response) computer is that of his deceased child, Joshua.  

Credential Cracking / Dumping: If the adversary has gained access to a targeted system, they may employ a password cracking, or credential dumping, program. For Unix-based solutions, obtaining the /etc/passwd and /etc/shadow files provides the users, groups, and encrypted passwords. Adversaries can exfiltrate these files and then utilize password crackers such as John the Ripper, Crack, or codebreaker003. Mimikatz(see more below) can also pass cache information for Mac / Unix and Linux systems.

Windows-based solutions: Adversaries have successfully utilized programs such as Mimikatz to dump credentials and hashes. Mimikatz can pass the hash string to the Local Security Authority Subsystem Service (LSASS) to authorize user actions, as well as perform “kerberoasting”. Kerberos is how Windows systems authorize users utilizing a 3-entity authentication method and symmetric key cryptography to create “tickets” that authorize requested actions. Mimikatz can use Kerberos tickets to gain non-expiring domain administration credentials (Golden Tickets) or tickets to login as a service on the network (Silver Tickets).

Steve Carell Banana - Imgflip

Post-It Notes: As organizations and applications started requiring stronger passwords that met complexity requirements, users did what you would expect to ensure they didn’t forget them. They wrote them down (this was also demonstrated in Wargames). The modern-day equivalent is to create a text file with all your passwords (or API credentials) in it – something adversaries are delighted to find.

One of the funniest, yet totally on-point, comic routines I’ve seen on this topic is Michael McIntyre’s You Should Probably Change Your Password skit at the London Palladium.

Phishing Alert: Pay attention to NC State login pages and Duo prompts –  Office of Information Technology

Phishing / Smishing: Forged messages requesting users to reset their passwords or directing them to enter their credentials used to be easier to spot. However, the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is allowing adversaries to create very realistic messages and web pages that mimic an organization’s authentication pages. These attempts are not just limited to email, adversaries are utilizing SMS messages and other collaborative communication solutions like Microsoft Teams to transmit fake messages to unsuspecting users. Also, security teams are seeing increased use of Quick Response (QR) codes in scam messages. QR codes are appearing in all aspects of everyday life (I’m finding it hard to go into a restaurant without having to scan a QR code to read the menu) and there is a false sense of security people have in thinking that QR codes are safe to scan.

Vulnerability Exploits: Gaining access to the credential cache or password file is not the only way adversaries can obtain user credentials. Some applications will store the user credentials in process memory (decrypted). If the application is vulnerable to a remote exploit, it can be possible for the adversary to dump the memory of the application process and locate these stored credentials. This was clearly illustrated in the Heartbleed exploit disclosed to the public in 2014.

Air Cracking: Air Cracking is specific to Wi-Fi networks and involves cracking programs that analyze wireless encrypted packets and extracting WEP or WPA/WPA2 PSK passwords (giving the adversary access to the Wi-Fi network).

Dark Web Purchase: Threat groups know how to monetize compromised credentials. Selling compromised credentials on the Dark Web occurs on a regular basis. Sites such as HaveIBeenPwned.com can assist users in determining if a particular password has been found to be compromised. Note: Users should ensure that the sites they are checking to see if their password has been compromised are actual legitimate sites and not a credential harvesting site!

You need a strong, unique password for EVERY account : r/memes

What is credential stuffing and why is it so effective?

Credential Stuffing is so successful because users tend to utilize the same, or very similar, passwords across all the systems and applications they access. This includes both personal and business accounts. Once an adversary harvests credentials from one site, they will try that password on other sites, and if that fails, they can utilize generative AI to predict potential variations of the password.

How to reduce the risk of credential stuffing?

Users can help reduce exposure of their credentials by creating passwords that meet complexity requirements but are also easy to remember. A good approach is to take a phrase and apply a substitution rule. For example, let’s take the start of Charles Dicken’s book A Tale of Two Cities and create a substitution rule for it:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times  

Let’s shorten that to: Best of times Worst of times

Apply the following substitution rule: o = 0, i = 1, e = 3, spaces = @

Now my phrase becomes: B3st@0f@t1m3s@W0rst@0f@t1m3s

New Password - Imgflip

You now have a 28-character password that contains letters, a capital letter, number, and special character. Nobody is cracking that, and the phrase and substitution rule makes it much easier to remember (PS: 12-character passwords are also fine, taking ~34,000 years to crack using current technology).

Organizations can reduce exposure through implementation of two-factor authentication (2FA), so even if the passwords are compromised through the methods described above, another authentication layer stands in the way of the adversary.

Additionally, preventing phishing messages from landing in user’s inboxes (Email or collaborative solutions such as Microsoft Teams) is critical not only for reducing the potential exposure of user credentials, but also user’s opening malicious attachments or links. Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT have resulted in over an 135% increase in novel social engineering attacks.

How Darktrace protects against sophisticated credential phishing attempts

Malicious actors can exploit these leaked credentials to drastically lower the barrier to entry associated with brute-forcing access to their target networks. While implementing well-configured MFA and enforcing regular password changes can help protect organizations, these measures alone may not be enough to fully negate the advantage attackers gain with stolen credentials. 

In early 2024, one Darktrace customer was compromised by a malicious actor after their internal credentials had been leaked on the dark web. Subsequent attack phases were detected by Darktrace/Network and the customer was alerted to the suspicious activity via the Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, following an investigation by Darktrace’s Security Operation Center (SOC). 

Darktrace detected a device on the network of a customer in the US carrying out a string of anomalous activity indicative of network compromise. The device was observed using a new service account to authenticate to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) server, before proceeding to perform a range of suspicious activity including internal reconnaissance and lateral movement. 

Unfortunately for the customer in this case, Darktrace’s autonomous response was not enabled on the network at the time of the attack. Had it been active, it would have been able to autonomously act against the malicious activity by disabling users, strategically blocking suspicious connections and limiting devices to their expected patterns of activity. 

For the full in depth story with a step-by-step walk through of the attack visit our Inside the SOC blog post.

Conclusion

Head of security, and your password is "password"? | Scattered Quotes |  Funny marvel memes, Marvel funny, Marvel jokes

Adversaries have various methods available to compromise user and API credentials. There is no single silver bullet that will protect users and organizations, but rather, a layered approach that incorporates education, security controls such as 2FA, unsupervised AI to detect novel and sophisticated spear-phishing messages, as well as protection against exploits that give adversaries access to systems.  

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About the author
John Bradshaw
Sr. Director, Technical Marketing
Our ai. Your data.

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