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PurpleFox in a Henhouse: How Darktrace Hunted Down a Persistent and Dynamic Rootkit

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27
Nov 2023
27
Nov 2023
This blog discusses how Darktrace was able to identify the PurpleFox malware campaign, detecting its new tactics designed to avoid signature-based detection by leveraging mismatched filetypes, Powershell, and service control requests.

Versatile Malware: PurpleFox

As organizations and security teams across the world move to bolster their digital defenses against cyber threats, threats actors, in turn, are forced to adopt more sophisticated tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to circumvent them. Rather than being static and predictable, malware strains are becoming increasingly versatile and therefore elusive to traditional security tools.

One such example is PurpleFox. First observed in 2018, PurpleFox is a combined fileless rootkit and backdoor trojan known to target Windows machines. PurpleFox is known for consistently adapting its functionalities over time, utilizing different infection vectors including known vulnerabilities (CVEs), fake Telegram installers, and phishing. It is also leveraged by other campaigns to deliver ransomware tools, spyware, and cryptocurrency mining malware. It is also widely known for using Microsoft Software Installer (MSI) files masquerading as other file types.

The Evolution of PurpleFox

The Original Strain

First reported in March 2018, PurpleFox was identified to be a trojan that drops itself onto Windows machines using an MSI installation package that alters registry values to replace a legitimate Windows system file [1]. The initial stage of infection relied on the third-party toolkit RIG Exploit Kit (EK). RIG EK is hosted on compromised or malicious websites and is dropped onto the unsuspecting system when they visit browse that site. The built-in Windows installer (MSIEXEC) is leveraged to run the installation package retrieved from the website. This, in turn, drops two files into the Windows directory – namely a malicious dynamic-link library (DLL) that acts as a loader, and the payload of the malware. After infection, PurpleFox is often used to retrieve and deploy other types of malware.  

Subsequent Variants

Since its initial discovery, PurpleFox has also been observed leveraging PowerShell to enable fileless infection and additional privilege escalation vulnerabilities to increase the likelihood of successful infection [2]. The PowerShell script had also been reported to be masquerading as a .jpg image file. PowerSploit modules are utilized to gain elevated privileges if the current user lacks administrator privileges. Once obtained, the script proceeds to retrieve and execute a malicious MSI package, also masquerading as an image file. As of 2020, PurpleFox no longer relied on the RIG EK for its delivery phase, instead spreading via the exploitation of the SMB protocol [3]. The malware would leverage the compromised systems as hosts for the PurpleFox payloads to facilitate its spread to other systems. This mode of infection can occur without any user action, akin to a worm.

The current iteration of PurpleFox reportedly uses brute-forcing of vulnerable services, such as SMB, to facilitate its spread over the network and escalate privileges. By scanning internet-facing Windows computers, PurpleFox exploits weak passwords for Windows user accounts through SMB, including administrative credentials to facilitate further privilege escalation.

Darktrace detection of PurpleFox

In July 2023, Darktrace observed an example of a PurpleFox infection on the network of a customer in the healthcare sector. This observation was a slightly different method of downloading the PurpleFox payload. An affected device was observed initiating a series of service control requests using DCE-RPC, instructing the device to make connections to a host of servers to download a malicious .PNG file, later confirmed to be the PurpleFox rootkit. The device was then observed carrying out worm-like activity to other external internet-facing servers, as well as scanning related subnets.

Darktrace DETECT™ was able to successfully identify and track this compromise across the cyber kill chain and ensure the customer was able to take swift remedial action to prevent the attack from escalating further.

While the customer in question did have Darktrace RESPOND™, it was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any mitigative actions had to be manually applied by the customer’s security team. If RESPOND had been enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack, it would have been able to take swift action against the compromise to contain it at the earliest instance.

Attack Overview

Figure 1: Timeline of PurpleFox malware kill chain.

Initial Scanning over SMB

On July 14, 2023, Darktrace detected the affected device scanning other internal devices on the customer’s network via port 445. The numerous connections were consistent with the aforementioned worm-like activity that has been reported from PurpleFox behavior as it appears to be targeting SMB services looking for open or vulnerable channels to exploit.

This initial scanning activity was detected by Darktrace DETECT, specifically through the model breach ‘Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity’. Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ then launched an autonomous investigation into these internal connections and tied them into one larger-scale network reconnaissance incident, rather than a series of isolated connections.

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst technical details summarizing the initial scanning activity seen with the internal network scan over port 445.

As Darktrace RESPOND was configured in human confirmation mode, it was unable to autonomously block these internal connections. However, it did suggest blocking connections on port 445, which could have been manually applied by the customer’s security team.

Figure 3: The affected device’s Model Breach Event Log showing the initial scanning activity observed by Darktrace DETECT and the corresponding suggested RESPOND action.

Privilege Escalation

The device successfully logged in via NTLM with the credential, ‘administrator’. Darktrace recognized that the endpoint was external to the customer’s environment, indicating that the affected device was now being used to propagate the malware to other networks. Considering the lack of observed brute-force activity up to this point, the credentials for ‘administrator’ had likely been compromised prior to Darktrace’s deployment on the network, or outside of Darktrace’s purview via a phishing attack.

Exploitation

Darktrace then detected a series of service control requests over DCE-RPC using the credential ‘admin’ to make SVCCTL Create Service W Requests. A script was then observed where the controlled device is instructed to launch mshta.exe, a Windows-native binary designed to execute Microsoft HTML Application (HTA) files. This enables the execution of arbitrary script code, VBScript in this case.

Figure 4: PurpleFox remote service control activity captured by a Darktrace DETECT model breach.
Figure 5: The infected device’s Model Breach Event Log showing the anomalous service control activity being picked up by DETECT.

There are a few MSIEXEC flags to note:

  • /i : installs or configures a product
  • /Q : sets the user interface level. In this case, it is set to ‘No UI’, which is used for “quiet” execution, so no user interaction is required

Evidently, this was an attempt to evade detection by endpoint users as it is surreptitiously installed onto the system. This corresponds to the download of the rootkit that has previously been associated with PurpleFox. At this stage, the infected device continues to be leveraged as an attack device and scans SMB services over external endpoints. The device also appeared to attempt brute-forcing over NTLM using the same ‘administrator’ credential to these endpoints. This activity was identified by Darktrace DETECT which, if enabled in autonomous response mode would have instantly blocked similar outbound connections, thus preventing the spread of PurpleFox.

Figure 6: The infected device’s Model Breach Event Log showing the outbound activity corresponding to PurpleFox’s wormlike spread. This was caught by DETECT and the corresponding suggested RESPOND action.

Installation

On August 9, Darktrace observed the device making initial attempts to download a malicious .PNG file. This was a notable change in tactics from previously reported PurpleFox campaigns which had been observed utilizing .MOE files for their payloads [3]. The .MOE payloads are binary files that are more easily detected and blocked by traditional signatured-based security measures as they are not associated with known software. The ubiquity of .PNG files, especially on the web, make identifying and blacklisting the files significantly more difficult.

The first connection was made with the URI ‘/test.png’.  It was noted that the HTTP method here was HEAD, a method similar to GET requests except the server must not return a message-body in the response.

The metainformation contained in the HTTP headers in response to a HEAD request should be identical to the information sent in response to a GET request. This method is often used to test hypertext links for validity and recent modification. This is likely a way of checking if the server hosting the payload is still active. Avoiding connections that could possibly be detected by antivirus solutions can help keep this activity under-the-radar.

Figure 7: Packet Capture from an affected customer device showing the initial HTTP requests to the payload server.
Figure 8: Packet Capture showing the HTTP requests to download the payloads.

The server responds with a status code of 200 before the download begins. The HEAD request could be part of the attacker’s verification that the server is still running, and that the payload is available for download. The ‘/test.png’ HEAD request was sent twice, likely for double confirmation to begin the file transfer.

Figure 9: PCAP from the affected customer device showing the Windows Installer user-agent associated with the .PNG file download.

Subsequent analysis using a Packet Capture (PCAP) tool revealed that this connection used the Windows Installer user agent that has previously been associated with PurpleFox. The device then began to download a payload that was masquerading as a Microsoft Word document. The device was thus able to download the payload twice, from two separate endpoints.

By masquerading as a Microsoft Word file, the threat actor was likely attempting to evade the detection of the endpoint user and traditional security tools by passing off as an innocuous text document. Likewise, using a Windows Installer user agent would enable threat actors to bypass antivirus measures and disguise the malicious installation as legitimate download activity.  

Darktrace DETECT identified that these were masqueraded file downloads by correctly identifying the mismatch between the file extension and the true file type. Subsequently, AI Analyst was able to correctly identify the file type and deduced that this download was indicative of the device having been compromised.

In this case, the device attempted to download the payload from several different endpoints, many of which had low antivirus detection rates or open-source intelligence (OSINT) flags, highlighting the need to move beyond traditional signature-base detections.

Figure 10: Cyber AI Analyst technical details summarizing the downloads of the PurpleFox payload.
Figure 11 (a): The Model Breach generated by the masqueraded file transfer associated with the PurpleFox payload.
Figure 11 (b): The Model Breach generated by the masqueraded file transfer associated with the PurpleFox payload.

If Darktrace RESPOND was enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack it would have acted by blocking connections to these suspicious endpoints, thus preventing the download of malicious files. However, as RESPOND was in human confirmation mode, RESPOND actions required manual application by the customer’s security team which unfortunately did not happen, as such the device was able to download the payloads.

Conclusion

The PurpleFox malware is a particularly dynamic strain known to continually evolve over time, utilizing a blend of old and new approaches to achieve its goals which is likely to muddy expectations on its behavior. By frequently employing new methods of attack, malicious actors are able to bypass traditional security tools that rely on signature-based detections and static lists of indicators of compromise (IoCs), necessitating a more sophisticated approach to threat detection.  

Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning AI enables it to confront adaptable and elusive threats like PurpleFox. By learning and understanding customer networks, it is able to discern normal network behavior and patterns of life, distinguishing expected activity from potential deviations. This anomaly-based approach to threat detection allows Darktrace to detect cyber threats as soon as they emerge.  

By combining DETECT with the autonomous response capabilities of RESPOND, Darktrace customers are able to effectively safeguard their digital environments and ensure that emerging threats can be identified and shut down at the earliest stage of the kill chain, regardless of the tactics employed by would-be attackers.

Credit to Piramol Krishnan, Cyber Analyst, Qing Hong Kwa, Senior Cyber Analyst & Deputy Team Lead, Singapore

Appendices

Darktrace Model Detections

  • Device / Increased External Connectivity
  • Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints
  • Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)
  • Compliance / External Windows Communications
  • Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control
  • Compromise / Unusual SVCCTL Activity
  • Compromise / Rare Domain Pointing to Internal IP
  • Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer

RESPOND Models

  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block
  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Significant Anomaly from Client Block
  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Client Block
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description

/C558B828.Png - URI - URI for Purple Fox Rootkit [4]

5b1de649f2bc4eb08f1d83f7ea052de5b8fe141f - File Hash - SHA1 hash of C558B828.Png file (Malware payload)

190.4.210[.]242 - IP - Purple Fox C2 Servers

218.4.170[.]236 - IP - IP for download of .PNG file (Malware payload)

180.169.1[.]220 - IP - IP for download of .PNG file (Malware payload)

103.94.108[.]114:10837 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

221.199.171[.]174:16543 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

61.222.155[.]49:14098 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

178.128.103[.]246:17880 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

222.134.99[.]132:12539 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

164.90.152[.]252:18075 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

198.199.80[.]121:11490 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic - Technique

Reconnaissance - Active Scanning T1595, Active Scanning: Scanning IP Blocks T1595.001, Active Scanning: Vulnerability Scanning T1595.002

Resource Development - Obtain Capabilities: Malware T1588.001

Initial Access, Defense Evasion, Persistence, Privilege Escalation - Valid Accounts: Default Accounts T1078.001

Initial Access - Drive-by Compromise T1189

Defense Evasion - Masquerading T1036

Credential Access - Brute Force T1110

Discovery - Network Service Discovery T1046

Command and Control - Proxy: External Proxy T1090.002

References

  1. https://blog.360totalsecurity.com/en/purple-fox-trojan-burst-out-globally-and-infected-more-than-30000-users/
  2. https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/19/i/purple-fox-fileless-malware-with-rookit-component-delivered-by-rig-exploit-kit-now-abuses-powershell.html
  3. https://www.akamai.com/blog/security/purple-fox-rootkit-now-propagates-as-a-worm
  4. https://www.foregenix.com/blog/an-overview-on-purple-fox
  5. https://www.trendmicro.com/en_sg/research/21/j/purplefox-adds-new-backdoor-that-uses-websockets.html
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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Piramol Krishnan
Cyber Security Analyst
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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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