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How Darktrace Foiled QR Code Phishing

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06
Jul 2023
06
Jul 2023
Explore Darktrace's successful detection of QR code phishing. Understand the methods used to thwart these sophisticated cyber threats.

What is a QR Code?

Invented by a Japanese company in 1994 to label automobile parts, Quick Response codes, best known as QR codes, are rapidly becoming ubiquitous everywhere in the world. Their design, inspired by the board and black and white pieces of the game of Go, permits the storage of more information than regular barcodes and to access that information more quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to their increased popularity as it conveniently replaced physical media of all types for the purpose of content sharing. It is now common to see them in restaurant menus, plane tickets, advertisements and even in stickers containing minimal to no text pasted on lamp posts and other surfaces, enticing passers-by to scan its content. 

QR Code Phishing Attacks (Quishing)

Recently, threat actors have been identified using QR codes too to embed malicious URLs leading the unsuspecting user to compromised websites containing malware or designed to harvest credentials. In the past month, Darktrace has observed an increase in the number of phishing emails leveraging malicious QR codes for malware distribution and/or credential harvesting, a new form of social engineering attack labelled “Quishing” (i.e., QR code phishing).

Between June 13 and June 22, 2023, Darktrace protected a tech company against one such Quishing attack when five of its senior employees were sent malicious emails impersonating the company’s IT department. The emails contained a QR code that led to a login page designed to harvest the credentials of these senior staff members. Fortunately for the customer, Darktrace/Email thwarted this phishing campaign in the first instance and the emails never reached the employee inboxes. 

Trends in Quishing Attacks

The Darktrace/Email team have noticed a recent and rapid increase in QR code abuse, suggesting that it is a growing tactic used by threat actors to deliver malicious payload links. This trend has also been observed by other security solutions [1] [2] [3] [4]. The Darktrace/Email team has identified malicious emails abusing QR codes in multiple ways. Examples include embedded image links which load a QR code and QR code images being delivered as attachments, such as those explored in this case study. Darktrace/Email is continually refining its detection of malicious QR codes and QR code extraction capabilities so that it can detect and block them regardless of their size and location within the email.   

Quishing Attack Overview

The attack consisted of five emails, each sent from different sender and envelope addresses, displayed common points between them. The emails all conveyed a sense of urgency, either via the use of words such as “urgent”, “now”, “required” or “important” in the subject field or by marking the email as high priority, thus making the recipient believe the message is pressing and requires immediate attention. 

Additionally, the subject of three of the emails directly referred to two factor authentication (2FA) enabling or QR code activation. Another particularity of these emails was that three of them attempted to impersonate the internal IT team of the company by inserting the company domain alongside strings, such as “it-desk” and “IT”, into the personal field of the emails. Email header fields like this are often abused by attackers to trick users by pretending to be an internal department or senior employee, thus avoiding more thorough validation checks. Both instilling a sense of urgency and including a known domain or name in the personal field are techniques that help draw attention to the email and maximize the chances that it is opened and engaged by the recipient. 

However, threat actors also need to make sure that the emails actually reach the intended inboxes, and this can be done in several ways. In this case, several tactics were employed. Two of the five emails were sent from legitimate sender addresses that successfully passed SPF validation, suggesting they were sent from compromised accounts. SPF is a standard email authentication method that tells the receiving email servers whether emails have been sent from authorized servers for a given domain. Without SPF validation, emails are more likely to be categorized as spam and be sent to the junk folder as they do not come from authorized sources.

Another of the malicious emails, which also passed SPF checks, used a health care facility company domain in the header-from address field but was actually sent from a different domain (i.e., envelope domain), which lowers the value of the SPF authentication. However, the envelope domain observed in this instance belonged to a company recently acquired by the tech company targeted by the campaign.

This shows a high level of targeting from the attackers, who likely hoped that this detail would make the email more familiar and less suspicious. In another case, the sender domain (i.e., banes-gn[.]com) had been created just 6 days prior, thus lowering the chances of there being open-source intelligence (OSINT) available on the domain. This reduces the chances of the email being detected by traditional email security solutions relying on signatures and known-bad lists.

Darktrace Detects Quishing Attack

Despite its novelty, the domain was detected and assessed as highly suspicious by Darktrace. Darktrace/Email was able to recognize all of the emails as spoofing and impersonation attempts and applied the relevant tags to them, namely “IT Impersonation” and “Fake Account Alert”, depending on the choice of personal field and subject. The senders of the five emails had no prior history or association with the recipient nor the company as no previous correspondence had been observed between the sender and recipient. The tags applied informed on the likely intent and nature of the suspicious indicators present in the email, as shown in Figure 1. 

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: Email log overview page, displaying important information clearly and concisely. 

Quishing Attack Tactics

Minimal Plain Text

Another characteristic shared by these emails was that they had little to no text included in the body of the email and they did not contain a plain text portion, as shown in Figure 2. For most normal emails sent by email clients and most automated programs, an email will contain an HTML component and a text component, in addition to any potential attachments present. All the emails had one image attachment, suggesting the bulk of the message was displayed in the image rather than the email body. This hinders textual analysis and filtering of the email for suspicious keywords and language that could reveal its phishing intent. Additionally, the emails were well-formatted and used the logo of the well-known corporation Microsoft, suggesting some level of technical ability on the part of the attackers. 

Figure 2: Email body properties giving additional insights into the content of the email. 

Attachment and link payloads

The threat actors employed some particularly innovative and novel techniques with regards to the attachments and link payloads within these emails. As previously stated, all emails contained an image attachment and one or two links. Figure 3 shows that Darktrace/Email detected that the malicious links present in these emails were located in the attachments, rather than the body of the email. This is a technique often employed by threat actors to bypass link analysis by security gateways. Darktrace/Email was also able to detect this link as a QR code link, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 3: Further properties and metrics regarding the location of the link within the email. 
Figure 4: Darktrace/Email analyses multiple metrics and properties related to links, some of which are detailed here. 

The majority of the text, as well as the malicious payload, was contained within the image attachment, which for one of the emails looked like this: 

example of quishing email
Figure 5: Redacted screenshot of the image payload contained in one of the emails. 

Convincing Appearance

As shown, the recipient is asked to setup 2FA authentication for their account within two days if they don’t want to be locked out. The visual formatting of the image, which includes a corporate logo and Privacy Statement and Acceptable Use Policy notices, is well balanced and convincing. The payload, in this case the QR code containing a malicious link, is positioned in the centre so as to draw attention and encourage the user to scan and click. This is a type of email employees are increasingly accustomed to receiving in order to log into corporate networks and applications. Therefore, recipients of such malicious emails might assume represents expected business activity and thus engage with the QR code without questioning it, especially if the email is claiming to be from the IT department.  

Malicious Redirection

Two of the Quishing emails contained links to legitimate file storage and sharing solutions Amazon Web Services (AWS) and and InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), whose domains are less likely to be blocked by traditional security solutions. Additionally, the AWS domain link contained a redirect to a different domain that has been flagged as malicious by multiple security vendors [5]. Malicious redirection was observed in four of the five emails, initially from well-known and benign services’ domains such as bing[.]com and login[.]microsoftonline[.]com. This technique allows attackers to hide the real destination of the link from the user and increase the likelihood that the link is clicked. In two of the emails, the redirect domain had only recently been registered, and in one case, the redirect domain observed was hosted on the new .zip top level domain (i.e., docusafe[.]zip). The domain name suggests it is attempting to masquerade as a compressed file containing important documentation. As seen in Figure 6, a new Darktrace/Email feature allows customers to safely view the final destination of the link, which in this case was a seemingly fake Microsoft login page which could be used to harvest corporate credentials.

Figure 6: Safe preview available from the Darktrace/Email Console showing the destination webpage of one of the redirect links observed.

Gathering Account Credentials

Given the nature of the landing page, it is highly likely that this phishing campaign had the objective of stealing the recipients’ credentials, as further indicated by the presence of the recipients’ email addresses in the links. Additionally, these emails were sent to senior employees, likely in an attempt to gather high value credentials to use in future attacks against the company. Had they succeeded, this would have represented a serious security incident, especially considering that 61% of attacks in 2023 involved stolen or hacked credentials according to Verizon’s 2023 data breach investigations report [6]. However, these emails received the highest possible anomaly score (100%) and were held by Darktrace/Email, thus ensuring that their intended recipients were never exposed to them. 

Looking at the indicators of compromise (IoCs) identified in this campaign, it appears that several of the IPs associated with the link payloads have been involved in previous phishing campaigns. Exploring the relations tab for these IPs in Virus Total, some of the communicating files appear to be .eml files and others have generic filenames including strings such as “invoice” “remittance details” “statement” “voice memo”, suggesting they have been involved in other phishing campaigns seemingly related to payment solicitation and other fraud attempts.

Figure 7: Virus Total’s relations tab for the IP 209.94.90[.]1 showing files communicating with the IP. 

Conclusion

Even though the authors of this Quishing campaign used all the tricks in the book to ensure that their emails would arrive unactioned by security tools to the targeted high value recipients’ inboxes, Darktrace/Email was able to immediately recognize the phishing attempts for what they were and block the emails from reaching their destination. 

This campaign used both classic and novel tactics, techniques, and procedures, but ultimately were detected and thwarted by Darktrace/Email. It is yet another example of the increasing attack sophistication mentioned in a previous Darktrace blog [7], wherein the attack landscape is moving from low-sophistication, low-impact, and generic phishing tactics to more targeted, sophisticated and higher impact attacks. Darktrace/Email does not rely on historical data nor known-bad lists and is best positioned to protect organizations from these highly targeted and sophisticated attacks.

References

[1] https://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/opinions/qr-codes-vulnerability-cybercrimes/ 

[2] https://www.helpnetsecurity.com/2023/03/21/qr-scan-scams/ 

[3] https://www.techtarget.com/searchsecurity/feature/Quishing-on-the-rise-How-to-prevent-QR-code-phishing 

[4] https://businessplus.ie/tech/qr-code-phishing-hp/ 

[5] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/fistulacure.com

[6] https://www.verizon.com/business/en-gb/resources/reports/dbir/ ; https://www.verizon.com/business/en-gb/resources/reports/dbir/

[7] https://darktrace.com/blog/shifting-email-conversation 

Darktrace Model Detections 

Association models

No Sender or Content Association

New Sender

Unknown Sender

Low Sender Association

Link models

Focused Link to File Storage

Focused Rare Classified Links

New Unknown Hidden Redirect

High Risk Link + Low Sender Association

Watched Link Type

High Classified Link

File Storage From New

Hidden Link To File Storage

New Correspondent Classified Link

New Unknown Redirect

Rare Hidden Classified Link

Rare Hidden Link

Link To File Storage

Link To File Storage and Unknown Sender

Open Redirect

Unknown Sender Isolated Rare Link

Visually Prominent Link

Visually Prominent Link Unexpected For Sender

Low Link Association

Low Link Association and Unknown Sender

Spoof models

Fake Support Style

External Domain Similarities

Basic Known Entity Similarities

Unusual models

Urgent Request Banner

Urgent Request Banner + Basic Suspicious Sender

Very Young Header Domain

Young Header Domain

Unknown User Tracking

Unrelated Personal Name Address

Unrelated Personal Name Address + Freemail

Unusual Header TLD

Unusual Connection From Unknown

Unbroken Personal

Proximity models

Spam + Unknown Sender

Spam

Spam models

Unlikely Freemail Correspondence

Unlikely Freemail Personalization

General Indicators models

Incoming Mail Security Warning Message

Darktrace Model Tags

Credential Harvesting

Internal IT Impersonation

Multistage payload

Lookalike Domain

Phishing Link

Email Account Takeover

Fake Account Alert

Low Mailing History

No Association

Spoofing Indicators

Unknown Correspondent

VIP

Freemail

IoC - Type - Description & Confidence

fistulacure[.]com

domain

C2 Infrastructure

docusafe[.]zip

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

mwmailtec[.]com

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

czeromedia[.]com

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

192.40.165[.]109

IP address

Probable C2 Infrastructure

209.94.90[.]1

IP address

C2 Infrastructure

52.61.107[.]58

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

40.126.32[.]133

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

211.63.158[.]157

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

119.9.27[.]129

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.25.204[.]33

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

40.107.8[.]107

IP address

Probable C2 Infrastructure

40.107.212[.]111

IP address

Possible Infrastructure

27.86.113[.]2

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

192.40.191[.]19

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

157.205.202[.]217

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

a31f1f6063409ecebe8893e36d0048557142cbf13dbaf81af42bf14c43b12a48

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

4c4fb35ab6445bf3749b9d0ab1b04f492f2bc651acb1bbf7af5f0a47502674c9

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

f9c51d270091c34792b17391017a09724d9a7890737e00700dc36babeb97e252

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

9f8ccfd616a8f73c69d25fd348b874d11a036b4d2b3fc7dbb99c1d6fa7413d9a

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

b748894348c32d1dc5702085d70d846c6dd573296e79754df4857921e707c439

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
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ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Alexandra Sentenac
Cyber Analyst
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What you need to know about the new SEC Cybersecurity rules

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17
Jul 2024

What is new in 2023 to SEC cybersecurity rules?

Form 8-K Item 1.05: Requiring the timely disclosure of material cybersecurity incidents.

Regulation S-K item 106: requiring registrants’ annual reports on Form 10-K to address cybersecurity risk management, strategy, and governance processes.

Comparable disclosures are required for reporting foreign private issuers on Forms 6-K and 20-F respectively.

What is Form 8-K Item 1.05 SEC cybersecurity rules?

Form 8-K Item 1.05 requires the following to be reported within four business days from when an incident is determined to be “material” (1), unless extensions are granted by the SEC under certain qualifying conditions:

“If the registrant experiences a cybersecurity incident that is determined by the registrant to be material, describe the material aspects of the nature, scope, and timing of the incident, and the material impact or reasonably likely material impact on the registrant, including its financial condition and results of operations.” (2, 3)

How does the SEC define cybersecurity incident?

Cybersecurity incident defined by the SEC means an unauthorized occurrence, or a series of related unauthorized occurrences, on or conducted through a registrant’s information systems that jeopardizes the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of a registrant’s information systems or any information residing therein. (4)

How can Darktrace assist in the process of disclosing incidents to the SEC?

Accelerate reporting

Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst generates automated reports that synthesize discrete data points potentially indicative of cybersecurity threats, forming reports that provide an overview of the evolution and impact of a threat.

Thus, when a potential threat is identified by Darktrace, AI Analyst can quickly compile information that organizations might include in their disclosure of an occurrence they determined to be material, including the following: incident timelines, incident events, incident summary, related model breaches, investigation process (i.e., how Darktrace’s AI conducted the investigation), linked incident events, and incident details. The figure below illustrates how Darktrace compiles and presents incident information and insights in the UI.

Overview of information provided in an ‘AI Analyst Report’ that could be relevant to registrants reporting a material cybersecurity incident to the SEC
Figure 1: Overview of information provided in an ‘AI Analyst Report’ that could be relevant to registrants reporting a material cybersecurity incident to the SEC

It should be noted that Instruction 4 to the new Form 8-K Item 1.05 specifies the “registrant need not disclose specific or technical information about its planned response to the incident or its cybersecurity systems, related networks and devices, or potential system vulnerabilities in such detail as would impede the registrant’s response or remediation of the incident” (5).

As such, the incident report generated by Darktrace may provide more information, including technical details, than is needed for the 8-K disclosure. In general, users should take appropriate measures to ensure that the information they provide in SEC reports meets the requirements outlined by the relevant regulations. Darktrace cannot recommend that an incident should be reported, nor report an incident itself.

Determine if a cybersecurity incident is material

Item 1.05 requires registrants to determine for themselves whether cybersecurity incidents qualify as ‘material’. This involves considerations such as ‘the nature scope and timing of the incident, and the material impact or reasonably likely material impact on the registrant, including its financial condition and results of operations.’

While it is up to the registrant to determine, consistent with existing legal standards, the materiality of an incident, Darktrace’s solution can provide relevant information which might aid in this evaluation. Darktrace’s Threat Visualizer user interface provides a 3-D visualization of an organization’s digital environment, allowing users to assess the likely degree to which an attack may have spread throughout their digital environment. Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst identifies connections among discrete occurrences of threatening activity, which can help registrants quickly assess the ‘scope and timing of an incident'.

Furthermore, in order to establish materiality it would be useful to understand how an attack might extend across recipients and environments. In the image below, Darktrace/Email identifies how a user was impacted across different platforms. In this example, Darktrace/Email identified an attacker that deployed a dual channel social engineering attack via both email and a SaaS platform in an effort to acquire login credentials. In this case, the attacker useding a legitimate SharePoint link that only reveals itself to be malicious upon click. Once the attacker gained the credentials, it proceeded to change email rules to obfuscate its activity.

Darktrace/Email presents this information in one location, making such investigations easier for the end user.

Darktrace/Email indicating a threat across SaaS and email
Figure 2: Darktrace/Email indicating a threat across SaaS and email

What is regulation S-K item 106 of the SEC cybersecurity rules?

The new rules add Item 106 to Regulation S-K requiring registrants to disclose certain information regarding their risk management, strategy, and governance relating to cybersecurity in their annual reports on Form 10-K. The new rules add Item 16K to Form 20-F to require comparable disclosure by [foreign private issuers] in their annual reports on Form 20-F. (6)

SEC cybersecurity rules: Risk management

Specifically, with respect to risk management, Item 106(b) and Item 16K(b) require registrants to describe their processes, if any, for assessing, identifying, and managing material risks from cybersecurity threats, as well as whether any risks from cybersecurity threats, including as a result of any previous cybersecurity incidents, have materially affected or are reasonably likely to materially affect them. The new rules include a non-exclusive list of disclosure items registrants should provide based on their facts and circumstances. (6)

SEC cybersecurity rules: Governance

With respect to governance, Item 106 and Item 16K require registrants to describe the board of directors’ oversight of risks from cybersecurity threats (including identifying any board committee or subcommittee responsible for such oversight) and management’s role in assessing and managing material risks from cybersecurity threats. (6)

How can Darktrace solutions aid in disclosing their risk management, strategy, and governance related to cybersecurity?

Impact scores

Darktrace End-to-End (E2E) leverages AI to understand the complex relationships across users and devices to model possible attack paths, giving security teams a contextual understanding of risk across their digital environments beyond isolated CVEs or CVSS scores. Additionally, teams can prioritize risk management actions to increase their cyber resilience through the E2E Advisory dashboard.

Attack paths consider:

  • Potential damages: Both the potential consequences if a given device was compromised and its immediate implications on other devices.
  • Exposure: Devices' level of interactivity and accessibility. For example, how many emails does a user get via mailing lists and from what kind of sources?
  • Impact: Where a user or asset sits in terms of the IT or business hierarchy and how they communicate with each other. Darktrace can simulate a range of possible outcomes for an uncertain event.
  • Weakness: A device’s patch latency and difficulty, a composite metric that looks at attacker MITRE methods and our own scores to determine how hard each stage of compromise is to achieve.

Because the SEC cybersecurity rules require “oversight of risks from cybersecurity threats” and “management’s role in assessing and managing material risks from cybersecurity threats” (6), the scores generated by Darktrace E2E can aid end-user’s ability to identify risks facing their organization and assign responsibilities to address those risks.

E2E attack paths leverage a deep understanding of a customer’ digital environment and highlight potential attack routes that an attacker could leverage to reach critical assets or entities. Difficulty scores (see Figure 5) allow security teams to measure potential damage, exposure, and impact of an attack on a specific asset or entity.

An example of an attack path in a digital environment
Figure 3: An example of an attack path in a digital environment

Automatic executive threat reports

Darktrace’s solution automatically produces Executive Threat Reports that present a simple visual overview of model breaches (i.e., indicators of unusual and threatening behaviors) and activity in the network environment. Reports can be customized to include extra details or restricted to high level information.

These reports can be generated on a weekly, quarterly, and yearly basis, and can be documented by registrants in relation to Item 106(b) to document parts of their efforts toward assessing, identifying, and managing material risks from cybersecurity threats.

Moreover, Cyber AI Analyst incident reports (described above) can be leveraged to document key details concerning significant previous incidents identified by the Darktrace solution that the registrant determined to be ‘material’.

While the disclosures required by Item 106(c) relate to the governance processes by which the board of directors, the management, and other responsible bodies within an organization oversee risks resulting from cybersecurity threats, the information provided by Darktrace’s Executive Threat Reports and Cyber AI Analyst incident reports can also help relevant stakeholders communicate more effectively regarding the threat landscape and previous incidents.

DISCLAIMER

The material above is provided for informational purposes only. This summary does not constitute legal or compliance advice, recommendations, or guidance. Darktrace encourages you to verify the contents of this summary with your own advisors.

References

  1. Note that the rule does not set forth any specific timeline between the incident and the materiality determination, but the materiality determination should be made without unreasonable delay.
  2. https://www.sec.gov/files/form8-k.pdf
  3. https://www.sec.gov/news/press-release/2023-139
  4. https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-17/chapter-II/part-229
  5. https://www.sec.gov/files/form8-k.pdf
  6. https://www.sec.gov/corpfin/secg-cybersecurity
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About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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Inside the SOC

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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About the author
Charlotte Thompson
Cyber Analyst
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