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Thanks to Bill Kearney of Sophos Rapid Response for his work on this article.

If you’ve read the recent Sophos 2021 Threat Report, you’ll know that we deliberately included a section about all the malware out there that isn’t ransomware.

Sure, ransomware understandably hogs the media headlines these days, but cybercriminality goes way beyond ransomware attacks.

Indeed, as we’ve noted before, many ransomware incidents happen due to other malware that infiltrated your network first and brought in the ransomware later on.

A decade and a half ago, one of our first business clients hired us to manage their office network of 10 computers and a single printer. 15 years later, we’re still managing their network, but it now consists of over 370 computers across seven locations - we’re more than proud to say that we’ve been a part of their success every step along the way.

The card inside should have VISA on the front with the issuing bank, MetaBank, N.A., on the back. Details of how to activate the card are included in the envelope. If you've seen Docter's prior Pixar flicks (specifically Wall-E, Up, Inside Out), you won't be shocked to learn that Soul is a treatise on appreciating the little details of life and the little.

In fact, many network intrusions don’t involve malware at all, because cybercriminals have plenty of other ways of bleeding money out of your users, your company, or both.

Here’s an example that the Sophos Rapid Response team came across recently – a opportunistic network intrusion that was much less sophisticated than a typical ransomware or data stealing attack, but dangerous and disconcerting nevertheless.

Worse still for the employees of the business, these crooks weren’t specifically after the company as a whole, but seemed to attack the network simply because it represented a convenient way of hacking away at lots of individuals at the same time.

Very simply put, the crooks were after as many accounts as they could access to buy as many gift cards as they could as quickly as possible.

As you probably know, gift cards that you purchase online are typically delivered by email to a recipient of your choosing as a secret code and a registration link.

So, receiving a gift card code is a bit like getting hold of the number, expiry date and security code from a prepaid credit card – loosely speaking, whoever has the code can spend it.

Although gift cards are meant to be used by the intended recipient only – they’re not supposed to be transferable – there’s not much to stop the recipient allowing someone else to use them if they choose, and that means they can be sold on the cybercrime underweb.

And for all that a $200 gift voucher, sold illegally online for, say, half its face value, doesn’t sound like much…

…crooks with access to a whole company’s worth of users – in this story, the company’s VPN supported about 200 people – can try to acquire not just one but potentially hundreds of pre-paid gift cards in short order.

The criminals in this case didn’t care whether the victims left out of pocket were the individual employees, the company itself, or both.

Rumbled and repelled

The good news here is that the crooks only got as far as spending $800 of other people’s money before the Rapid Response team were able to kick them out of the network, and as far as we know, the fraudulent purchases were detected and reversed in time so that no one ended up out of pocket.

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As you’ll see, the main reason that the crooks were rumbled and repelled early was because a sysadmin at the affected company acted as soon as they spotted that something was wrong.

If you watched last week’s Naked Security Live video, entitled “Beat the Threat“, you’ll know that in our tips at the end of the video, we said:

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Any tipoff you can get that suggests a crook might be in your network is a tip worth looking at. [… Just] because you are looking at something that […] you can’t quite justify, but that you saw before and it was OK last time – don’t assume it’s OK this time. […] That’s a bit like hearing your smoke alarm going off in the kitchen and thinking, ‘You know what, last time it was steam from the kettle that triggered it by mistake, so I’m just going to assume that’s what’s happening [again].’ This time, it could be something on the stovetop that’s already set on fire.

For all that we’re proud that the Sophos Rapid Response team was able to react quickly and deal with the attack, the vital part was that the victim triggered a proper response quickly in the first place.

How it happened

These crooks didn’t have time to clean up after themselves – or perhaps they weren’t intending to anyway – but as far as we can tell, the attack unfolded simply and quickly.

We can’t be sure exactly how the crooks got in to start with, but what we do know is:

  • The victim’s VPN server hadn’t been patched for several months. This alone might have been enough to let the crooks break in – a exploit existed for the old version that could, in theory, have allowed the crooks to sneak into network.
  • The VPN server had not been set up to require 2FA. This means that a successful password phished from a single user might have been enough to give them their beachhead. (Despite the unpatched vulnerability, we suspect this is how the attackers broke in this time.)
  • Once “inside” the VPN, the crooks were able to use RDP internally to jump from computer to computer. This meant they could open up web browsers on user’s computers and see which online accounts they’d not logged out of, including their personal email accounts (e.g. Gmail and Outlook.com). Make sure you secure RDP as sturdily from inside your network as from outside.
  • The crooks used individual email accounts to do a raft of password resets. On computers where the crooks could access email accounts due to cached credentials, but couldn’t get into other interesting accounts because the user was logged out of those, they did password resets via the email account. The accounts that the crooks went after included Best Buy, Facebook, Google Pay, PayPal, Venmo and Walmart.

Fortunately, it seems that only a few of the users attacked in this way had saved their credit card details for automatic re-use when making purchases, which is probably why the crooks only managed a few hundred dollars of gift card purchases before being spotted.

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Apparently, numerous users who needed to re-reset their altered passwords to get back into their accounts noticed that there were gift cards queued up for purchase in their online shopping carts, but that the crooks had not been able to finalise those purchases.

(We can’t tell whether the crooks left the unsuccessful purchases behind because they were caught before they could clean up, because they hoped that they’d be overlooked and purchased by mistake by the legitimate account holder later on, or because they were focused on speed and didn’t care what happened afterwards.)

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But there’s more

As with many attacks, this one didn’t have just a single purpose, although getting hold of “money for sale” seems to have been the primary motivator here.

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The crooks also downloaded and installed a popular free file search tool to help them look for interesting files across the network.

This tool left behind a logfile that reveals that the criminals were actively hunting for personal and confidential data relating to both the company and to its staff.

We don’t know how much the criminals were able to acquire from the files they were hunting for, if anything, but we do know what they were interested in, which included:

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  • Bank statements relating to individuals and the business.
  • Merchant agreements for accepting credit card payments.
  • Credit card applications.
  • Roster details for company drivers.

Download l-1 identity driver. As far as we can tell, the file searching seems to have been a secondary interest to these criminals, who were but determined and persistent in their attempts to make fraudulent purchases against as many users of the network as they could.

Nevertheless, secondary interest or not, the crooks weren’t after gift cards only.

After all, personal and corporate data that’s supposed to be private also has value on the cybercrime underground – not just for resale to other criminals, but as a vehicle for helping further criminal activity.

Rapid reaction pays off

Fortunately, these crooks seem to have got bogged down early on in their attack.

Presumably frustrated because they couldn’t get into as many user’s email accounts as they wanted, they reset passwords on various company-related accounts to extend their access.

That had the side-effect of locking users, including one of the sysadmins, out of various company systems…

…and the sysadmin didn’t just remedy the immediate problem in order to fix the what , but also triggered a response to find out the why.

That reaction very quickly led to the crooks getting kicked out of the network.

As we said above, any tipoff is a good tipoff!

What to do?

The speed and determination of these crooks, speculatively logging into email account after email account, is an excellent reminder of why defence in depth is important.

All of these tips would have helped here:

  • Patch early, patch often. The vulnerable VPN mentioned in this article probably wasn’t the way the crooks got access in this case, but it was a possible inward path anyway. Why be behind the crooks when you could be ahead instead?
  • Use 2FA wherever you can. A second factor of authentication for both the external VPN and the internal RDP servers might have been enough on its own to keep these crooks out.
  • Log out from accounts when you aren’t using them. Yes, it’s a hassle to log back into accounts every time you need to use them, but combined with 2FA it makes it much harder for crooks to take advantage of you if they get access to your browser.
  • Rethink which websites you allow to keep payment card data online for next time. Companies that hold payment card details only for specific purchases, such as paying a utility bill, are a much lower risk than online services via which your card can be used to pay for almost anything, especially for items than are “delivered” immediately via email.
  • Don’t block malware alone with your threat protection product. Block potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) and hacking tools too. Cybercriminals are increasingly turning to legitimate cybersecurity and network management software that you already have on your system, instead of using malware – a technique that’s called “living off the land” – in the hope of looking like sysadmins themselves. Catch them out if you can.
  • Have somewhere for users to report security problems. If you’re locked out of your own account unexpectedly, make sure your reaction is not simply “I need to get back online” but also “I need to find the underlying cause.” An easily remembered email address or company phone number for cybersecurity reports can help you make your whole company into eyes and ears for the IT security team.
  • Keep your users alert to the latest trends in phishing. Consider an anti-phish training product such as Sophos Phish Threat. We can’t yet be sure, but it looks as though a single phished password might have been how the crooks got started in this attacks.
  • Don’t get sidetracked by specific threats such as ransomware. Ransomware-specific tools are useful as part of a defence in depth approach, but wouldn’t have stopped this attack on their own. However, a holistic approach that would have blocked these crooks would very likely have stopped the majority of ransomware attacks, too.