Less than six hours after Donald Trump was named President-Elect of the US, Cozy Bear/APT29/CozyDuke nation-state hackers kicked off waves of spearphishing attacks.
Russia’s cyber-spying machine was in full force within six hours of the final US Presidential election results with at least five different waves of spear-phishing campaigns targeting users associated with US think-tanks and non-governmental organizations.
Researchers with Volexity posted their findings surrounding a jump in spearphishing activity by the so-called Russian hacking group known as Cozy Bear, APT29, and CozyDuke, best known for its recent breach of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). There were five different spearphishing campaigns spotted by Volexity, including attacks posing as emails forwarded from the Clinton Foundation, and two others posing as eFax URLs or documents.
“These e-mails came from a mix of attacker-created Google Gmail accounts and what appears to be compromised e-mail accounts at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). These e-mails were sent in large quantities to different individuals across many organizations and individuals focusing in national security, defense, international affairs, public policy, and European and Asian studies,” said Steven Adair, founder at Volexity, in a post yesterday.
Think-tanks and NGOs have been common targets of the group, also known as The Dukes, since July of 2015.
“The Dukes continue to launch well-crafted and clever attack campaigns. They have had tremendous success evading anti-virus and anti-malware solutions at both the desktop and mail gateway levels,” Adair wrote.
The group employs anti-VM macros and PowerShell scripts that help them bypass sandboxes that could detect them, for instance. “This combined with their use of stenography to hide their backdoor within PNG files that are downloaded remotely and loaded in memory only or via alternate data streams (ADS) is quite novel in its approach,” he said. “Volexity believes that the Dukes are likely working to gain long-term access into think tanks and NGOs and will continue to launch new attacks for the foreseeable future.”
The first spear-phishing attack wave uses a lure of the “The Shocking Truth About Election-Rigging in the United States.” The email is purportedly an electronic fax from Secure Fax Corp., and contains a link to a ZIP file. That file has a Microsoft .LNK file that houses PowerShell commands, which execute anti-virtual machine checks and install a backdoor onto the victim’s machine.
“The PowerDuke backdoor boasts a pretty extensive list of features that allow the Dukes to examine and control a system. Volexity suspects the feature set that has been built into PowerDuke is an extension of their anti-VM capabilities in the initial dropper files,” Adair wrote. “Several commands supported by PowerDuke facilitate getting information about the system.”
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In the second attack wave, the hackers uses a Word document with a malicious macro that checks for anti-VM features, and appears to come from [email protected] The subject line is “Incoming eFax: Elections Outcome Could Be revised [Facts of Elections Fraud].”
The most widespread attack was the third one, which uses an email purportedly from Harvard’s “PDF Mobile Service,” which doesn’t actually exist. (There appears to be a typo in the message as well, calling it “PFD Mobile Service” as well). The subject line: “Why American Elections Are Flawed.” This one uses a ZIP file to mask the malicious executable.
The Clinton Foundation is the lure for the fourth and fifth waves of spearphishing campaigns by the hacking group. The first one uses “Clinton Foundation FYI #1” in its subject line, and deploys a Word document with a malicious embedded macro. The macro checks for anti-VM features. The email purportedly comes from the fictitious Harvard PDF Mobile Service.
Then there’s the “Clinton Foundation FYI #2” email wave from the same “Harvard” email address, which contains a link to a ZIP file with an LNK file embedded. It contains the signature PowerShell commands that look for anti-VM, and installs a backdoor on the victim’s machine.
“Like Attack Wave #3, this e-mail message also purported to be forwarded from Laura Graham at the Clinton Foundation. The message body contained dozens of e-mail addresses to which the message originally claims to have been sent, with organizations similar to Attack Wave #3,” Adair wrote.
Volexity’s post includes screenshots of the emails and code snippets.
Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise … View Full Bio