Trump-Themed Malware Dominating Threat Campaigns This Election Season

Users need to be vigilant about the sites they visit and actions they take online, Zscaler warns

Would you click on a news article purporting to show a photo of a deceased Donald Trump laying on a stage after an apparent heart attack? Cybercriminals are betting that a good many of you will.

It’s the reason for a recent ramp-up in the use of election-themed email and other online lures to try and distribute spam and malware.

In an alert this week, security vendor Zscaler urged Internet users to be extra cautious about the sites they visit and the actions they take online to mitigate the threat from heightened election-related criminal campaigns.

“They’re using this drama-filled election season as a backdrop for campaigns of their own,” Zscaler security researcher Sameer Patil warned in the blog.

The campaigns have included ransomware, adware, and hoax articles designed to entice users into actions they normally wouldn’t take, like clicking open attachments or following links to malicious sites.

“The theme may be unique to the election, but the attacks are based on standard techniques for spreading malware,” Patil said.

Election-related malware campaigns are of course not new. Cybercriminals have long shown a proclivity to take advantage of major news events and trends to try and distribute malware and infect user systems. The high level of popular interest in the especially rancorous campaigning this election cycle is proving to be a perfect opportunity for them.

Attackers, for instance, are using election-themed spam emails to deliver ransomware on end-user systems, Zscaler said. One example is an email with a subject line in Spanish touting the latest results of the 2016 presidential primaries.

The email comes with a portable executable file attachment disguised as a PDF document. When a user clicks on the attachment it drops a decoy document on the system, which appears related to the subject of the email, Patil said.

The attached executable downloads a ransomware file on the system, which when executed proceeds to encrypt the victim computer’s local, removable, and network mapped drives and also folders on the system.

Another ransomware tool calling itself “THE DONALD TRUMP RANSOMWARE” has also been seen doing the rounds, Zcaler said in its report.

Written in Visual Studio.Net, the malware has all the trappings of ransomware, including code to encrypt files using AES. Somewhat interestingly though, the malware doesn’t actually encrypt anything on the systems it infects or attempt to extort money from the victims. Instead, it only renames certain files and keeps them in the “Encrypt” folder where the ransomware executable was launched, Patil wrote.

“The files will be renamed, but the content of the file will be intact,” says Deepen Desai, director of security research at Zscaler. “The message box will show the users a list of files that were affected and [an] unlock button,” for renaming them back to the original names.

“This malware appears to be a jokeware, but it may also be a ransomware in development or testing phase,” Desai says in comments to Dark Reading. 

An adware campaign has also been seen circulating executable files named “Make America Great Again,” the slogan of the Trump campaign. When the file is executed, the adware opens a browser on the user’s machine.

It is unclear how the file is being initially propagated, Desai says. “But we have seen the executable file being downloaded with the slogan of [the] Trump campaign and hitting our sandboxes.”

Meanwhile, the hoax article with the fake photo of a deceased Trump is being used as a lure to get people to click on malicious links, Patil noted.

The Zscaler report is the second in recent months to note a relatively high rate of Trump-themed malware campaigns.

In August, Proofpoint released a report showing how in June and July this year email lures with the word “trump” appeared 170 more times than lures with the word “Clinton” in them.

The median number of spam messages that Proofpoint recorded in July was about 37 percent higher than normal. The company attributed the increase to attackers trying to take advantage of the heightened interest in the Democratic and Republican Party conventions.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year … View Full Bio

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