Inside the SOC
Social Engineering: Detecting Malicious Email Activity from Both Known and Unknown Senders
Social engineering has become widespread in the cyber threat landscape in recent years, and the near-universal use of social media today has allowed attackers to research and target victims more effectively. Social engineering involves manipulating users to carry out actions such as revealing sensitive information like login credentials or credit card details. It can also lead to user account compromises, causing huge disruption to an organization’s digital estate.
As people use social media platforms not only for personal reasons, but also for business purposes, attackers gain information they can exploit in social engineering attacks. For example, a threat actor may attempt to impersonate a known individual or legitimate service to take advantage of a user’s established trust. This is a highly successful method of social engineering because mimicking known contacts makes it difficult for traditional security tools that rely on deny-lists to detect the attack.
In October 2022, Darktrace identified and responded to two separate malicious email campaigns in which threat actors attempted to impersonate known contacts in an effort to compromise customer devices. As it learns the normal behavior of every user in the email system, Darktrace was able to instantly detect these threats and mitigate them autonomously, preventing significant disruption to the customer networks.
Payroll Diversion Fraud Attempt Impersonating a Former Employee
While a customer in the Canadian energy sector was trialing Darktrace in October 2022, Darktrace/Email™ identified a suspicious email seemingly sent from an employee within the organization. The email was sent to the Senior Director of Human Resources (HR) with a subject line of “Change in payroll Direct Deposit.” The email requested a change in bank account information for an employee. However, Darktrace recognized that the sender was using a free mail address that contained random letters, indicating it may have been algorithmically generated. Since this incident occurred during a trial, Darktrace/Email was not configured to take action. Otherwise, it would have prevented the email from landing in the inbox. In this case though, the email went through, bypassing all other security tools in place.
Although the email was from an unknown sender, the HR director believed the email could have been legitimate as the employee who appeared to be the sender had left the organization seven days prior and no longer had access to their corporate email account. However, after reviewing it in the Darktrace/Email dashboard, the customer grew suspicious and contacted the former employee directly to verify if the request was legitimate. The former employee validated the suspicions by confirming they had sent no such email.
Further investigation by the customer revealed that the former employee had been vocal about their departure on various social media platforms. This gave threat actors valuable information to believably impersonate the former employee and defraud the organization.
Such attempts to target organizations’ HR departments and divert payroll are common tactics for cyber-criminals and are often identified by Darktrace/Email across the customer base. Darktrace/Email is able to instantly identify the indicators associated with these spoofing attempts and immediately bring them to the attention of the customer’s security team.
Using Legitimate File Sharing Service to Share a Phishing Link
On October 7, 2022, a customer in the Singaporean construction sector was targeted by a phishing campaign attempting to impersonate a law firm known to the organization. Almost 200 employees received an email with the subject line “Accepted: Valuation Agreement.”
Four days earlier, Darktrace observed communication between another email address associated with the law firm and an employee of the customer. Darktrace/Email noted that it was the first time this correspondent had sent emails to the customer.
The emails contained a highly unusual link to a file sharing service, (hxxps://ssvilvensstokes[.]app[.]box[.]com/notes), hidden behind the text “PREVIEW OR PRINT COPY OF DOCUMENT HERE.” Darktrace analysts investigated this event further and found that around 30 similar URLs had been identified as suspicious using OSINT security tools in October 2022, suggesting the customer was not the only target of this phishing campaign.
Additional OSINT work revealed that the link directed to a website which appeared to host a PDF file named “Valuation Agreement.” The recipient would then be prompted to follow another link (hulking-citrine-krypton[.]glitch[.]me), again hidden behind the text “OPEN OR ACCESS DOCUMENT HERE” to view the file. Subsequently, the user would be prompted to enter their Microsoft 365 credentials.
This page contained the text “This document has been scanned for viruses by Norton Antivirus Security.” This is another example of threat actors’ employing social engineering techniques by impersonating well-known brands, such as established security vendors, to gain the trust of users and increase their likelihood of success.
It is highly probable that a real employee of the law firm had their account hijacked and that a malicious actor was exploiting it to send out these phishing emails en masse as part of a supply chain attack. In such cases, malicious actors rely on their targets’ trust of known contacts to not question departures from their normal conversations.
Darktrace was able to instantly detect multiple anomalies in these emails, despite the fact that they were seemingly sent by known correspondents. The activity detected automatically triggered model breaches associated with unexpected and visually prominent links. As a result, Darktrace/Email responded by locking the link, stopping users from being able to click it.
Darktrace subsequently identified additional emails from this sender attempting to target other recipients within the company, triggering the model breaches associated with a surge in email sending indicative of a phishing campaign. In response, Darktrace/Email autonomously acted and filed these emails as junk. As more emails were detected across the customer’s environment, the anomaly score of the sender increased and Darktrace ultimately held back over 160 malicious emails, safeguarding recipients from potential account compromise.
The following Darktrace/Email models were breached throughout the course of this phishing campaign:
- Unusual/Sender Surge
- Unusual/Undisclosed Recipients
- Antigena Anomaly
- Association/Unlikely Recipient Association
- Link/Low Link Association
- Link/Visually Prominent Link
- Link/Visually Prominent Link Unexpected For Sender
- Unusual/New Sender Wide Distribution
- Unusual/Undisclosed Recipients + New Address Known Domain
Social engineering plays a role in many of the major threats challenging current email cyber security, as attackers can use it to manipulate users into transferring money, revealing credentials, clicking malicious links, and more.
The above threat stories happened before language generating AI became mainstream with the release of ChatGPT in December 2022. Now, it is even easier for malicious actors to generate sophisticated social engineering emails. By using social media posts as input, social engineering emails written by generative AI can be highly targeted and produced at scale. They often avoid the flags users are trained to look for, like poor grammar and spelling mistakes, and can hide payloads or forgo them entirely.
To mitigate the risk of possible social engineering attempts, it is recommended that organizations implement social media policies that advise employees to be cautious of what they post online and enact procedures to verify if fund transfer requests are legitimate.
Yet these policies are not enough on their own. Darktrace/Email can identify suspicious email traits, whether an email is sent from a known correspondent or an unknown sender. With Self-Learning AI, it knows an organization’s users better than any impersonator could. In this way, Darktrace/Email detects anomalies within emails and neutralizes malicious components at machine-speed, stopping attacks at their earliest stages, before employees fall victim.
List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)
hxxps://ssvilvensstokes[.]app[.]box[.]com/notes/*?s=* - 1st external link (seen in email)
hxxps://hulking-citrine-krypton[.]glitch[.]me/flk.html - 2nd external link, masked behind “OPEN OR ACCESS DOCUMENT HERE”
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Inside the SOC
How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.