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A l'intérieur du SOC

Phishing with QR Codes: How Darktrace Detected and Blocked the Bait

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06
Jul 2023
06
Jul 2023
This blog explores Darktrace’s successful detection of a recent phishing campaign against a tech customer, which employed a relatively novel technique – QR Code exploitation. Thanks to Darktrace/Email the attack was thwarted in the first instance.

What is a QR Code?

Invented by a Japanese company in 1994 to label automobile parts, Quick Response codes, best known as QR codes, are rapidly becoming ubiquitous everywhere in the world. Their design, inspired by the board and black and white pieces of the game of Go, permits the storage of more information than regular barcodes and to access that information more quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to their increased popularity as it conveniently replaced physical media of all types for the purpose of content sharing. It is now common to see them in restaurant menus, plane tickets, advertisements and even in stickers containing minimal to no text pasted on lamp posts and other surfaces, enticing passers-by to scan its content. 

QR Code Phishing Attacks (Quishing)

Recently, threat actors have been identified using QR codes too to embed malicious URLs leading the unsuspecting user to compromised websites containing malware or designed to harvest credentials. In the past month, Darktrace has observed an increase in the number of phishing emails leveraging malicious QR codes for malware distribution and/or credential harvesting, a new form of social engineering attack labelled “Quishing” (i.e., QR code phishing).

Between June 13 and June 22, 2023, Darktrace protected a tech company against one such Quishing attack when five of its senior employees were sent malicious emails impersonating the company’s IT department. The emails contained a QR code that led to a login page designed to harvest the credentials of these senior staff members. Fortunately for the customer, Darktrace/Email thwarted this phishing campaign in the first instance and the emails never reached the employee inboxes. 

Trends in Quishing Attacks

The Darktrace/Email team have noticed a recent and rapid increase in QR code abuse, suggesting that it is a growing tactic used by threat actors to deliver malicious payload links. This trend has also been observed by other security solutions [1] [2] [3] [4]. The Darktrace/Email team has identified malicious emails abusing QR codes in multiple ways. Examples include embedded image links which load a QR code and QR code images being delivered as attachments, such as those explored in this case study. Darktrace/Email is continually refining its detection of malicious QR codes and QR code extraction capabilities so that it can detect and block them regardless of their size and location within the email.   

Quishing Attack Overview

The attack consisted of five emails, each sent from different sender and envelope addresses, displayed common points between them. The emails all conveyed a sense of urgency, either via the use of words such as “urgent”, “now”, “required” or “important” in the subject field or by marking the email as high priority, thus making the recipient believe the message is pressing and requires immediate attention. 

Additionally, the subject of three of the emails directly referred to two factor authentication (2FA) enabling or QR code activation. Another particularity of these emails was that three of them attempted to impersonate the internal IT team of the company by inserting the company domain alongside strings, such as “it-desk” and “IT”, into the personal field of the emails. Email header fields like this are often abused by attackers to trick users by pretending to be an internal department or senior employee, thus avoiding more thorough validation checks. Both instilling a sense of urgency and including a known domain or name in the personal field are techniques that help draw attention to the email and maximize the chances that it is opened and engaged by the recipient. 

However, threat actors also need to make sure that the emails actually reach the intended inboxes, and this can be done in several ways. In this case, several tactics were employed. Two of the five emails were sent from legitimate sender addresses that successfully passed SPF validation, suggesting they were sent from compromised accounts. SPF is a standard email authentication method that tells the receiving email servers whether emails have been sent from authorized servers for a given domain. Without SPF validation, emails are more likely to be categorized as spam and be sent to the junk folder as they do not come from authorized sources.

Another of the malicious emails, which also passed SPF checks, used a health care facility company domain in the header-from address field but was actually sent from a different domain (i.e., envelope domain), which lowers the value of the SPF authentication. However, the envelope domain observed in this instance belonged to a company recently acquired by the tech company targeted by the campaign.

This shows a high level of targeting from the attackers, who likely hoped that this detail would make the email more familiar and less suspicious. In another case, the sender domain (i.e., banes-gn[.]com) had been created just 6 days prior, thus lowering the chances of there being open-source intelligence (OSINT) available on the domain. This reduces the chances of the email being detected by traditional email security solutions relying on signatures and known-bad lists.

Darktrace Detects Quishing Attack

Despite its novelty, the domain was detected and assessed as highly suspicious by Darktrace. Darktrace/Email was able to recognize all of the emails as spoofing and impersonation attempts and applied the relevant tags to them, namely “IT Impersonation” and “Fake Account Alert”, depending on the choice of personal field and subject. The senders of the five emails had no prior history or association with the recipient nor the company as no previous correspondence had been observed between the sender and recipient. The tags applied informed on the likely intent and nature of the suspicious indicators present in the email, as shown in Figure 1. 

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: Email log overview page, displaying important information clearly and concisely. 

Quishing Attack Tactics

Minimal Plain Text

Another characteristic shared by these emails was that they had little to no text included in the body of the email and they did not contain a plain text portion, as shown in Figure 2. For most normal emails sent by email clients and most automated programs, an email will contain an HTML component and a text component, in addition to any potential attachments present. All the emails had one image attachment, suggesting the bulk of the message was displayed in the image rather than the email body. This hinders textual analysis and filtering of the email for suspicious keywords and language that could reveal its phishing intent. Additionally, the emails were well-formatted and used the logo of the well-known corporation Microsoft, suggesting some level of technical ability on the part of the attackers. 

Figure 2: Email body properties giving additional insights into the content of the email. 

Attachment and link payloads

The threat actors employed some particularly innovative and novel techniques with regards to the attachments and link payloads within these emails. As previously stated, all emails contained an image attachment and one or two links. Figure 3 shows that Darktrace/Email detected that the malicious links present in these emails were located in the attachments, rather than the body of the email. This is a technique often employed by threat actors to bypass link analysis by security gateways. Darktrace/Email was also able to detect this link as a QR code link, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 3: Further properties and metrics regarding the location of the link within the email. 
Figure 4: Darktrace/Email analyses multiple metrics and properties related to links, some of which are detailed here. 

The majority of the text, as well as the malicious payload, was contained within the image attachment, which for one of the emails looked like this: 

example of quishing email
Figure 5: Redacted screenshot of the image payload contained in one of the emails. 

Convincing Appearance

As shown, the recipient is asked to setup 2FA authentication for their account within two days if they don’t want to be locked out. The visual formatting of the image, which includes a corporate logo and Privacy Statement and Acceptable Use Policy notices, is well balanced and convincing. The payload, in this case the QR code containing a malicious link, is positioned in the centre so as to draw attention and encourage the user to scan and click. This is a type of email employees are increasingly accustomed to receiving in order to log into corporate networks and applications. Therefore, recipients of such malicious emails might assume represents expected business activity and thus engage with the QR code without questioning it, especially if the email is claiming to be from the IT department.  

Malicious Redirection

Two of the Quishing emails contained links to legitimate file storage and sharing solutions Amazon Web Services (AWS) and and InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), whose domains are less likely to be blocked by traditional security solutions. Additionally, the AWS domain link contained a redirect to a different domain that has been flagged as malicious by multiple security vendors [5]. Malicious redirection was observed in four of the five emails, initially from well-known and benign services’ domains such as bing[.]com and login[.]microsoftonline[.]com. This technique allows attackers to hide the real destination of the link from the user and increase the likelihood that the link is clicked. In two of the emails, the redirect domain had only recently been registered, and in one case, the redirect domain observed was hosted on the new .zip top level domain (i.e., docusafe[.]zip). The domain name suggests it is attempting to masquerade as a compressed file containing important documentation. As seen in Figure 6, a new Darktrace/Email feature allows customers to safely view the final destination of the link, which in this case was a seemingly fake Microsoft login page which could be used to harvest corporate credentials.

Figure 6: Safe preview available from the Darktrace/Email Console showing the destination webpage of one of the redirect links observed.

Gathering Account Credentials

Given the nature of the landing page, it is highly likely that this phishing campaign had the objective of stealing the recipients’ credentials, as further indicated by the presence of the recipients’ email addresses in the links. Additionally, these emails were sent to senior employees, likely in an attempt to gather high value credentials to use in future attacks against the company. Had they succeeded, this would have represented a serious security incident, especially considering that 61% of attacks in 2023 involved stolen or hacked credentials according to Verizon’s 2023 data breach investigations report [6]. However, these emails received the highest possible anomaly score (100%) and were held by Darktrace/Email, thus ensuring that their intended recipients were never exposed to them. 

Looking at the indicators of compromise (IoCs) identified in this campaign, it appears that several of the IPs associated with the link payloads have been involved in previous phishing campaigns. Exploring the relations tab for these IPs in Virus Total, some of the communicating files appear to be .eml files and others have generic filenames including strings such as “invoice” “remittance details” “statement” “voice memo”, suggesting they have been involved in other phishing campaigns seemingly related to payment solicitation and other fraud attempts.

Figure 7: Virus Total’s relations tab for the IP 209.94.90[.]1 showing files communicating with the IP. 

Conclusion

Even though the authors of this Quishing campaign used all the tricks in the book to ensure that their emails would arrive unactioned by security tools to the targeted high value recipients’ inboxes, Darktrace/Email was able to immediately recognize the phishing attempts for what they were and block the emails from reaching their destination. 

This campaign used both classic and novel tactics, techniques, and procedures, but ultimately were detected and thwarted by Darktrace/Email. It is yet another example of the increasing attack sophistication mentioned in a previous Darktrace blog [7], wherein the attack landscape is moving from low-sophistication, low-impact, and generic phishing tactics to more targeted, sophisticated and higher impact attacks. Darktrace/Email does not rely on historical data nor known-bad lists and is best positioned to protect organizations from these highly targeted and sophisticated attacks.

References

[1] https://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/opinions/qr-codes-vulnerability-cybercrimes/ 

[2] https://www.helpnetsecurity.com/2023/03/21/qr-scan-scams/ 

[3] https://www.techtarget.com/searchsecurity/feature/Quishing-on-the-rise-How-to-prevent-QR-code-phishing 

[4] https://businessplus.ie/tech/qr-code-phishing-hp/ 

[5] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/fistulacure.com

[6] https://www.verizon.com/business/en-gb/resources/reports/dbir/ ; https://www.verizon.com/business/en-gb/resources/reports/dbir/

[7] https://darktrace.com/blog/shifting-email-conversation 

Darktrace Model Detections 

Association models

No Sender or Content Association

New Sender

Unknown Sender

Low Sender Association

Link models

Focused Link to File Storage

Focused Rare Classified Links

New Unknown Hidden Redirect

High Risk Link + Low Sender Association

Watched Link Type

High Classified Link

File Storage From New

Hidden Link To File Storage

New Correspondent Classified Link

New Unknown Redirect

Rare Hidden Classified Link

Rare Hidden Link

Link To File Storage

Link To File Storage and Unknown Sender

Open Redirect

Unknown Sender Isolated Rare Link

Visually Prominent Link

Visually Prominent Link Unexpected For Sender

Low Link Association

Low Link Association and Unknown Sender

Spoof models

Fake Support Style

External Domain Similarities

Basic Known Entity Similarities

Unusual models

Urgent Request Banner

Urgent Request Banner + Basic Suspicious Sender

Very Young Header Domain

Young Header Domain

Unknown User Tracking

Unrelated Personal Name Address

Unrelated Personal Name Address + Freemail

Unusual Header TLD

Unusual Connection From Unknown

Unbroken Personal

Proximity models

Spam + Unknown Sender

Spam

Spam models

Unlikely Freemail Correspondence

Unlikely Freemail Personalization

General Indicators models

Incoming Mail Security Warning Message

Darktrace Model Tags

Credential Harvesting

Internal IT Impersonation

Multistage payload

Lookalike Domain

Phishing Link

Email Account Takeover

Fake Account Alert

Low Mailing History

No Association

Spoofing Indicators

Unknown Correspondent

VIP

Freemail

IoC - Type - Description & Confidence

fistulacure[.]com

domain

C2 Infrastructure

docusafe[.]zip

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

mwmailtec[.]com

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

czeromedia[.]com

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

192.40.165[.]109

IP address

Probable C2 Infrastructure

209.94.90[.]1

IP address

C2 Infrastructure

52.61.107[.]58

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

40.126.32[.]133

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

211.63.158[.]157

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

119.9.27[.]129

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.25.204[.]33

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

40.107.8[.]107

IP address

Probable C2 Infrastructure

40.107.212[.]111

IP address

Possible Infrastructure

27.86.113[.]2

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

192.40.191[.]19

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

157.205.202[.]217

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

a31f1f6063409ecebe8893e36d0048557142cbf13dbaf81af42bf14c43b12a48

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

4c4fb35ab6445bf3749b9d0ab1b04f492f2bc651acb1bbf7af5f0a47502674c9

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

f9c51d270091c34792b17391017a09724d9a7890737e00700dc36babeb97e252

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

9f8ccfd616a8f73c69d25fd348b874d11a036b4d2b3fc7dbb99c1d6fa7413d9a

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

b748894348c32d1dc5702085d70d846c6dd573296e79754df4857921e707c439

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

DANS LE SOC
Darktrace sont des experts de classe mondiale en matière de renseignement sur les menaces, de chasse aux menaces et de réponse aux incidents. Ils fournissent une assistance SOC 24 heures sur 24 et 7 jours sur 7 à des milliers de clients Darktrace dans le monde entier. Inside the SOC est exclusivement rédigé par ces experts et fournit une analyse des cyberincidents et des tendances en matière de menaces, basée sur une expérience réelle sur le terrain.
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Alexandra Sentenac
Cyber Analyst
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Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

Blog

A l'intérieur du SOC

Quasar Remote Access Tool: When a Legitimate Admin Tool Falls into the Wrong Hands

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23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

As the “as-a-Service” market continues to grow, indicators of compromise (IoCs) and malicious infrastructure are often interchanged and shared between multiple malware strains and attackers. This presents organizations and their security teams with a new threat: interoperability.

Interoperable threats not only enable malicious actors to achieve their objectives more easily by leveraging existing infrastructure and tools to launch new attacks, but the lack of clear attribution often complicates identification for security teams and incident responders, making it challenging to mitigate and contain the threat.

One such threat observed across the Darktrace customer base in late 2023 was Quasar, a legitimate remote administration tool that has becoming increasingly popular for opportunistic attackers in recent years. Working in tandem, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT™ and the autonomous response capabilities of Darktrace RESPOND™ ensured that affected customers were promptly made aware of any suspicious activity on the attacks were contained at the earliest possible stage.

What is Quasar?

Quasar is an open-source remote administration tool designed for legitimate use; however, it has evolved to become a popular tool used by threat actors due to its wide array of capabilities.  

How does Quasar work?

For instance, Quasar can perform keylogging, take screenshots, establish a reverse proxy, and download and upload files on a target device [1].  A report released towards the end of 2023 put Quasar back on threat researchers’ radars as it disclosed the new observation of dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading being used by malicious versions of this tool to evade detection [1].  DLL sideloading involves configuring legitimate Windows software to run a malicious file rather than the legitimate file it usually calls on as the software loads.  The evolving techniques employed by threat actors using Quasar highlights defenders’ need for anomaly-based detections that do not rely on pre-existing knowledge of attacker techniques, and can identify and alert for unusual behavior, even if it is performed by a legitimate application.

Although Quasar has been used by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups for global espionage operations [2], Darktrace observed the common usage of default configurations for Quasar, which appeared to use shared malicious infrastructure, and occurred alongside other non-compliant activity such as BitTorrent use and cryptocurrency mining.  

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace detected multiple cases of malicious Quasar activity across several customers, suggesting probable campaign activity.  

Quasar infections can be difficult to detect using traditional network or host-based tools due to the use of stealthy techniques such as DLL side-loading and encrypted SSL connections for command-and control (C2) communication, that traditional security tools may not be able to identify.  The wide array of capabilities Quasar possesses also suggests that attacks using this tool may not necessarily be modelled against a linear kill chain. Despite this, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT allowed it to identify IoCs related to Quasar at multiple stages of the kill chain.

Quasar Initial Infection

During the initial infection stage of a Quasar compromise observed on the network of one customer, Darktrace detected a device downloading several suspicious DLL and executable (.exe) files from multiple rare external sources using the Xmlst user agent, including the executable ‘Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe’.  Analyzing this file using open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests this is a Quasar payload, potentially indicating this represented the initial infection through DLL sideloading [3].

Interestingly, the Xmlst user agent used to download the Quasar payload has also been associated with Raccoon Stealer, an information-stealing malware that also acts as a dropper for other malware strains [4][5]. The co-occurrence of different malware components is increasingly common across the threat landscape as MaaS operating models increases in popularity, allowing attackers to employ cross-functional components from different strains.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the multiple different downloads in one related incident, with technical details for the Quasar payload included. The incident event for Suspicious File Download is also linked to Possible HTTP Command and Control, suggesting escalation of activity following the initial infection.  

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

During this phase, devices on multiple customer networks were identified making unusual external connections to the IP 193.142.146[.]212, which was not commonly seen in their networks. Darktrace analyzed the meta-properties of these SSL connections without needing to decrypt the content, to alert the usage of an unusual port not typically associated with the SSL protocol, 4782, and the usage of self-signed certificates.  Self-signed certificates do not provide any trust value and are commonly used in malware communications and ill-reputed web servers.  

Further analysis into these alerts using OSINT indicated that 193.142.146[.]212 is a Quasar C2 server and 4782 is the default port used by Quasar [6][7].  Expanding on the self-signed certificate within the Darktrace UI (see Figure 3) reveals a certificate subject and issuer of “CN=Quasar Server CA”, which is also the default self-signed certificate compiled by Quasar [6].

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the repeated external connections to a rare external IP that was later associated with Quasar.
Figure 3: Device Event Log of the affected device, showing Darktrace’s analysis of the SSL Certificate associated with SSL connections to 193.142.146[.]212.

A number of insights can be drawn from analysis of the Quasar C2 endpoints detected by Darktrace across multiple affected networks, suggesting a level of interoperability in the tooling used by different threat actors. In one instance, Darktrace detected a device beaconing to the endpoint ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’ using the aforementioned “CN=Quasar Server CA” certificate. DuckDNS is a dynamic DNS service that could be abused by attackers to redirect users from their intended endpoint to malicious infrastructure, and may be shared or reused in multiple different attacks.

Figure 4: A device’s Model Event Log, showing the Quasar Server CA SSL certificate used in connections to 41.233.139[.]145 on port 5, which resolves via passive replication to ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’.  

The sharing of malicious infrastructure among threat actors is also evident as several OSINT sources have also associated the Quasar IP 193.142.146[.]212, detected in this campaign, with different threat types.

While 193.142.146[.]212:4782 is known to be associated with Quasar, 193.142.146[.]212:8808 and 193.142.146[.]212:6606 have been associated with AsyncRAT [11], and the same IP on port 8848 has been associated with RedLineStealer [12].  Aside from the relative ease of using already developed tooling, threat actors may prefer to use open-source malware in order to avoid attribution, making the true identity of the threat actor unclear to incident responders [1][13].  

Quasar Executing Objectives

On multiple customer deployments affected by Quasar, Darktrace detected devices using BitTorrent and performing cryptocurrency mining. While these non-compliant, and potentially malicious, activities are not necessarily specific IoCs for Quasar, they do suggest that affected devices may have had greater attack surfaces than others.

For instance, one affected device was observed initiating connections to 162.19.139[.]184, a known Minergate cryptomining endpoint, and ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, a dynamic DNS endpoint linked to the Quasar Botnet by multiple OSINT vendors [9].

Figure 5: A Darktrace DETECT Event Log showing simultaneous connections to a Quasar endpoint and a cryptomining endpoint 162.19.139[.]184.

Not only does cryptocurrency mining use a significant amount of processing power, potentially disrupting an organization’s business operations and racking up high energy bills, but the software used for this mining is often written to a poor standard, thus increasing the attack surfaces of devices using them. In this instance, Quasar may have been introduced as a secondary payload from a user or attacker-initiated download of cryptocurrency mining malware.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for malicious actors to attach malware to torrented files and there were a number of examples of Darktrace detect identifying non-compliant activity, like BitTorrent connections, overlapping with connections to external locations associated with Quasar. It is therefore important for organizations to establish and enforce technical and policy controls for acceptable use on corporate devices, particularly when remote working introduces new risks.  

Figure 6: A device’s Event Log filtered by Model Breaches, showing a device connecting to BitTorrent shortly before making new or repeated connections to unusual endpoints, which were subsequently associated to Quasar.

In some cases observed by Darktrace, devices affected by Quasar were also being used to perform data exfiltration. Analysis of a period of unusual external connections to the aforementioned Quasar C2 botnet server, ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, revealed a small data upload, which may have represented the exfiltration of some data to attacker infrastructure.

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

On customer networks that had Darktrace RESPOND™ enabled in autonomous response mode, the threat of Quasar was mitigated and contained as soon as it was identified by DETECT. If RESPOND is not configured to respond autonomously, these actions would instead be advisory, pending manual application by the customer’s security team.

For example, following the detection of devices downloading malicious DLL and executable files, Darktrace RESPOND advised the customer to block specific connections to the relevant IP addresses and ports. However, as the device was seen attempting to download further files from other locations, RESPOND also suggested enforced a ‘pattern of life’ on the device, meaning it was only permitted to make connections that were part its normal behavior. By imposing a pattern of life, Darktrace RESPOND ensures that a device cannot perform suspicious behavior, while not disrupting any legitimate business activity.

Had RESPOND been configured to act autonomously, these mitigative actions would have been applied without any input from the customer’s security team and the Quasar compromise would have been contained in the first instance.

Figure 7: The advisory actions Darktrace RESPOND initiated to block specific connections to a malicious IP and to enforce the device’s normal patterns of life in response to the different anomalies detected on the device.

In another case, one customer affected by Quasar did have enabled RESPOND to take autonomous action, whilst also integrating it with a firewall. Here, following the detection of a device connecting to a known Quasar IP address, RESPOND initially blocked it from making connections to the IP via the customer’s firewall. However, as the device continued to perform suspicious activity after this, RESPOND escalated its response by blocking all outgoing connections from the device, effectively preventing any C2 activity or downloads.

Figure 8: RESPOND actions triggered to action via integrated firewall and TCP Resets.

Conclusion

When faced with a threat like Quasar that utilizes the infrastructure and tools of both legitimate services and other malicious malware variants, it is essential for security teams to move beyond relying on existing knowledge of attack techniques when safeguarding their network. It is no longer enough for organizations to rely on past attacks to defend against the attacks of tomorrow.

Crucially, Darktrace’s unique approach to threat detection focusses on the anomaly, rather than relying on a static list of IoCs or "known bads” based on outdated threat intelligence. In the case of Quasar, alternative or future strains of the malware that utilize different IoCs and TTPs would still be identified by Darktrace as anomalous and immediately alerted.

By learning the ‘normal’ for devices on a customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT can recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could indicate an ongoing compromise. Darktrace RESPOND is subsequently able to follow this up with swift and targeted actions to contain the attack and prevent it from escalating further.

Credit to Nicole Wong, Cyber Analyst, Vivek Rajan Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

List of IoCs

IP:Port

193.142.146[.]212:4782 -Quasar C2 IP and default port

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org - Quasar C2 Botnet Endpoint

bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org - Possible Quasar C2 endpoint

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

41.233.139[.]145[VR1] [NW2] - Possible Quasar C2 IP

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

[1] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/quasar-rat-leverages-dll-side-loading.html

[2] https://symantec-enterprise-blogs.security.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/cicada-apt10-japan-espionage

[3]https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/bd275a1f97d1691e394d81dd402c11aaa88cc8e723df7a6aaf57791fa6a6cdfa/community

[4] https://twitter.com/g0njxa/status/1691826188581298389

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/posts/grjk83_raccoon-stealer-announce-return-after-hiatus-activity-7097906612580802560-1aj9

[6] https://community.netwitness.com/t5/netwitness-community-blog/using-rsa-netwitness-to-detect-quasarrat/ba-p/518952

[7] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/analysis-reports/ar18-352a

[8]https://any.run/report/6cf1314c130a41c977aafce4585a144762d3fb65f8fe493e836796b989b002cb/7ac94b56-7551-4434-8e4f-c928c57327ff

[9] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/891454/

[10] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/41.233.139.145/relations

[11] https://raw.githubusercontent.com/stamparm/maltrail/master/trails/static/malware/asyncrat.txt

[12] https://sslbl.abuse.ch/ssl-certificates/signature/RedLineStealer/

[13] https://www.botconf.eu/botconf-presentation-or-article/hunting-the-quasar-family-how-to-hunt-a-malware-family/

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About the author
Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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