trickbot

Report: U.S. Cyber Command Behind Trickbot Tricks

A week ago, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that someone was attempting to disrupt the Trickbot botnet, a malware crime machine that has infected millions of computers and is often used to spread ransomware. A new report Friday says the coordinated attack was part of an operation carried out by the U.S. military’s Cyber Command.

Image: Shutterstock.

On October 2, KrebsOnSecurity reported that twice in the preceding ten days, an unknown entity that had inside access to the Trickbot botnet sent all infected systems a command telling them to disconnect themselves from the Internet servers the Trickbot overlords used to control compromised Microsoft Windows computers.

On top of that, someone had stuffed millions of bogus records about new victims into the Trickbot database — apparently to confuse or stymie the botnet’s operators.

In a story published Oct. 9, The Washington Post reported that four U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Trickbot disruption was the work of U.S. Cyber Command, a branch of the Department of Defense headed by the director of the National Security Agency (NSA).

The Post report suggested the action was a bid to prevent Trickbot from being used to somehow interfere with the upcoming presidential election, noting that Cyber Command was instrumental in disrupting the Internet access of Russian online troll farms during the 2018 midterm elections.

The Post said U.S. officials recognized their operation would not permanently dismantle Trickbot, describing it rather as “one way to distract them for at least a while as they seek to restore their operations.”

Alex Holden, chief information security officer and president of Milwaukee-based Hold Security, has been monitoring Trickbot activity before and after the 10-day operation. Holden said while the attack on Trickbot appears to have cut its operators off from a large number of victim computers, the bad guys still have passwords, financial data and reams of other sensitive information stolen from more than 2.7 million systems around the world.

Holden said the Trickbot operators have begun rebuilding their botnet, and continue to engage in deploying ransomware at new targets.

“They are running normally and their ransomware operations are pretty much back in full swing,” Holden said. “They are not slowing down because they still have a great deal of stolen data.”

Holden added that since news of the disruption first broke a week ago, the Russian-speaking cybercriminals behind Trickbot have been discussing how to recoup their losses, and have been toying with the idea of massively increasing the amount of money demanded from future ransomware victims.

“There is a conversation happening in the back channels,” Holden said. “Normally, they will ask for [a ransom amount] that is something like 10 percent of the victim company’s annual revenues. Now, some of the guys involved are talking about increasing that to 100 percent or 150 percent.”

Attacks Aimed at Disrupting the Trickbot Botnet

Over the past 10 days, someone has been launching a series of coordinated attacks designed to disrupt Trickbot, an enormous collection of more than two million malware-infected Windows PCs that are constantly being harvested for financial data and are often used as the entry point for deploying ransomware within compromised organizations.

A text snippet from one of the bogus Trickbot configuration updates. Source: Intel 471

On Sept. 22, someone pushed out a new configuration file to Windows computers currently infected with Trickbot. The crooks running the Trickbot botnet typically use these config files to pass new instructions to their fleet of infected PCs, such as the Internet address where hacked systems should download new updates to the malware.

But the new configuration file pushed on Sept. 22 told all systems infected with Trickbot that their new malware control server had the address 127.0.0.1, which is a “localhost” address that is not reachable over the public Internet, according to an analysis by cyber intelligence firm Intel 471.

It’s not known how many Trickbot-infected systems received the phony update, but it seems clear this wasn’t just a mistake by Trickbot’s overlords. Intel 471 found that it happened yet again on Oct. 1, suggesting someone with access to the inner workings of the botnet was trying to disrupt its operations.

“Shortly after the bogus configs were pushed out, all Trickbot controllers stopped responding correctly to bot requests,” Intel 471 wrote in a note to its customers. “This possibly means central Trickbot controller infrastructure was disrupted. The close timing of both events suggested an intentional disruption of Trickbot botnet operations.”

Intel 471 CEO Mark Arena said it’s anyone’s guess at this point who is responsible.

“Obviously, someone is trying to attack Trickbot,” Arena said. “It could be someone in the security research community, a government, a disgruntled insider, or a rival cybercrime group. We just don’t know at this point.

Arena said it’s unclear how successful these bogus configuration file updates will be given that the Trickbot authors built a fail-safe recovery system into their malware. Specifically, Trickbot has a backup control mechanism: A domain name registered on EmerDNS, a decentralized domain name system.

“This domain should still be in control of the Trickbot operators and could potentially be used to recover bots,” Intel 471 wrote.

But whoever is screwing with the Trickbot purveyors appears to have adopted a multi-pronged approach: Around the same time as the second bogus configuration file update was pushed on Oct. 1, someone stuffed the control networks that the Trickbot operators use to keep track of data on infected systems with millions of new records.

Alex Holden is chief technology officer and founder of Hold Security, a Milwaukee-based cyber intelligence firm that helps recover stolen data. Holden said at the end of September Trickbot held passwords and financial data stolen from more than 2.7 million Windows PCs.

By October 1, Holden said, that number had magically grown to more than seven million.

“Someone is flooding the Trickbot system with fake data,” Holden said. “Whoever is doing this is generating records that include machine names indicating these are infected systems in a broad range of organizations, including the Department of Defense, U.S. Bank, JP Morgan Chase, PNC and Citigroup, to name a few.”

Holden said the flood of new, apparently bogus, records appears to be an attempt by someone to dilute the Trickbot database and confuse or stymie the Trickbot operators. But so far, Holden said, the impact has been mainly to annoy and aggravate the criminals in charge of Trickbot.

“Our monitoring found at least one statement from one of the ransomware groups that relies on Trickbot saying this pisses them off, and they’re going to double the ransom they’re asking for from a victim,” Holden said. “We haven’t been able to confirm whether they actually followed through with that, but these attacks are definitely interfering with their business.”

Intel 471’s Arena said this could be part of an ongoing campaign to dismantle or wrest control over the Trickbot botnet. Such an effort would hardly be unprecedented. In 2014, for example, U.S. and international law enforcement agencies teamed up with multiple security firms and private researchers to commandeer the Gameover Zeus Botnet, a particularly aggressive and sophisticated malware strain that had enslaved up to 1 million Windows PCs globally.

Trickbot would be an attractive target for such a takeover effort because it is widely viewed as a platform used to find potential ransomware victims. Intel 471 describes Trickbot as “a malware-as-a-service platform that caters to a relatively small number of top-tier cybercriminals.”

One of the top ransomware gangs in operation today — which deploys ransomware strains known variously as “Ryuk” and “Conti,” is known to be closely associated with Trickbot infections. Both ransomware families have been used in some of the most damaging and costly malware incidents to date.

The latest Ryuk victim is Universal Health Services (UHS), a Fortune 500 hospital and healthcare services provider that operates more than 400 facilities in the U.S. and U.K.

On Sunday, Sept. 27, UHS shut down its computer systems at healthcare facilities across the United States in a bid to stop the spread of the malware. The disruption has reportedly caused the affected hospitals to redirect ambulances and relocate patients in need of surgery to other nearby hospitals.

Hacker’s paradise: Louisiana’s ransomware disaster far from over

Building with tower overlooks its own reflection in lake.

Enlarge / Louisiana State Capitol, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at dusk. (credit: Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Louisiana has brought some of its services back as it recovers from a targeted ransomware attack using the Ryuk malware on November 18. The state’s Office of Motor Vehicles re-opened offices on Monday in a limited fashion. But OMV and other agencies affected—including the state’s Department of Health and Department of Public Safety—are facing a number of potential hurdles to restoring all services, according to people familiar with Louisiana’s IT operations.

The ransomware payload was apparently spread across agencies by exploiting Microsoft Windows group policy objects—meaning that the attackers had gained access to administrative privileges across multiple Active Directory domains. This is symptomatic of TrickBot malware attacks, which uses GPOs and PsExec (a Microsoft remote administration tool) to spread its payload.

This is the second major cybersecurity incident this year in Louisiana tied to Ryuk ransomware. In July, Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency and deployed the state’s cyber response team to assist seven parish school districts. There have been many other Ryuk attacks this year that have used TrickBot and, in some cases, the Emotet trojan—an attack referred to by some experts as a “Triple Threat” commodity malware attack. At least two Florida cities and Georgia’s Judicial Counsel and Administrative Office of the Courts were also hit by “Triple Threat” attacks.

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