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COVID-19 related cyber-attacks slow down but still present tremendous threat

At Sentinel Labs, we have been closely tracking adversarial behavior as it pertains to COVID-19/Coronavirus. To date, we have observed a significant number of malware campaigns, spam campaigns, and outright scams that are preying on the fears and uncertainties of the global population.

Over the last few months, we have seen aggressive use of COVID-19/Coronavirus as a lure all over the spectrum of sophistication. Campaigns range from run-of-the mill scams to non-targeted spam campaigns (primarily for credential harvesting). We have even observed enterprising criminals selling COVID-19-specific malware/phishing ‘kits’. Nothing is sacred, either: not even the tragic death of NBA star Kobe Bryant, whose image was used to lure fans into downloading malicious desktop backgrounds.

Cybercriminals are continuing to utilize COVID/Coronavirus as a lure to spread their malware campaigns. Victims are enticed to follow a malicious link to receive “more or updated information” on COVID-19 in their region or other misinformation. The malicious links lead to a malicious installer which downloads additional malware and establishes persistent communications with cybercriminals.

From the onset of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s spread, opportunistic cyber-criminals have taken to proactively registering relevant domain names for malicious use. According to data from Recorded Future, “Beginning on January 12, the number of domain registrations started to increase, with an additional large spike on February 12”.

While domain registration alone is not proof of ill-intent, it is a reminder that we need to be extra cautious when interacting with “COVID” and “Coronavirus” related domains.

Some of those domains claim to offer medical supplies at exorbitant prices; would-be buyers pay up-front and take their chances as to whether they will ever see a delivery.

In early March 2020, the APT group Mustang Panda (China) utilized multiple spam campaigns to deliver implants. Spam messages made use of multiple COVID-19-themed lures. Malicious documents were used to execute additional scripts, and leverage subsequent LOTL tactics to retrieve and launch payloads.

In mid-March 2020, we observed multiple websites hosting fake versions of WiseCleaner utilities. These sites were used to distribute the Kpot Infostealer trojan, along with a new ransomware family dubbed “CoronaVirus”. From the fake WiseCleaner-themed sites, a malicious version of “WSHSetup.exe” was used to download both the CoronaVirus ransomware along with Kpot Infostealer. Once infected, a customized ransom message is displayed at boot, prior to the loading of Windows. Victims are instructed to email attackers, as opposed to interacting with them via a payment portal site.

In mid-March 2020, a new family of Android ransomware, CovidLock, began targeting users via malicious app (APK) downloads. The malicious apps were hosted on sites masquerading as hosts for valid real-time information tracking apps. Upon infection, the ransomware tricks users into providing full device control via misleading permissions request dialogs. The malware sets itself to load upon device startup and leads to a lock-screen style ransom request. This specific family utilizes Pastebin to aid in the construction of the displayed ransom notes.

Multiple dark web (.onion) sites claim to sell COVID-19/Coronavirus supplies (masks, sanitization and cleaning supplies) directly for BTC (bitcoin). These are outright scams, which just collect BTC and deliver nothing to their victims. To add insult to injury, we have also seen sites reporting to sell non-existent vaccines, charging $5000.

Covid themed campaigns have started to slow this week, while criminals were quick to capitalize on the news heavy topic of ‘Covid-19’ for their campaigns we suspect this slowdown will continue due in part to the current situation where many countries, cities, and provinces have started to order “stay at home” or “shelter in place” orders. These orders could impact local governments and businesses in a way that will slow down a criminal’s ability to move money. We are still following to see what the effect will be on the underground economy as the global economy becomes more turbulent.

The psychology of fear, uncertainty, and doubt is a powerful weapon. Criminals have become more advanced in their understanding of manipulating human emotion to achieve a targeted action. Social engineering is based on the premise that I can get a victim to take action the victim believes to be trusted, but which is actually malicious, using manipulation, influence, and deceit. It can also be based on downright intimidation, authority, and extortion. The net result is a victim taking actions they otherwise never would have in the absence of social engineering.

Nation-state actors have long relied upon social engineering to achieve targeted goals for espionage, system compromise, election influence, and social media manipulation.

While this is still very much a ‘living’ situation, Sentinel Labs has already observed the ability for enterprising cybercriminals to capitalize on the fear and uncertainty of the general public. As is the case with any large and newsworthy event, our adversaries have no scruples when it comes to social engineering and malware distribution. Nothing is out of bounds, and the main difference with the current climate is that the stakes are much higher. It is enough of a challenge to get accurate data and information from known-and-reputable sources. The criminal element further muddies the water and makes our attempts to protect our loved ones (and selves) that much more of a challenge.

This is a concerning time for our industry and the public at large. We are in the midst of a global health crisis. In such times, we all need to be working together and ensuring that everyone has the most accurate and reliable data. We all want assurance that we can trust the resources available to us. Anything counter to that is destructive and potentially harmful to society. However, we all know that cybercriminals and sophisticated adversaries seize opportunities like this to further their own cause. This not only leads to the usual barrage of complications inherent to any cyber-attack or event, but in this case it can translate to real harm to those we love and protect.

By Tamer Oden, Regional Director at SentinelOne Middle East