Chasing Lazarus: A Hunt for the Infamous Hackers to Prevent Large Bank Robberies

According
to Kaspersky Lab records, from December 2015, malware samples relating
to Lazarus group activity appeared in financial institutions, casinos
software developers for investment companies and crypto-currency
businesses

Kaspersky Lab (www.Kaspersky.co.za)
has published the results of its more-than-year-long investigation into
the activity of Lazarus – a notorious hacking group allegedly
responsible for the theft of 81 million dollars from the Central Bank of
Bangladesh in 2016. During the forensic analysis of artefacts left by
the group in South-East Asian and European banks, Kaspersky Lab has
reached a deep understanding of what malicious tools the group uses and
how it operates while attacking financial institutions, casinos,
software developers for investment companies and crypto-currency
businesses around the world. This knowledge has helped to interrupt at
least two other operations which had one goal – to steal a large amount
of money from financial institutions.

In February 2016, a group
of hackers (unidentified at that time) attempted to steal $851 million
USD, and managed to transfer 81 million USD from the Central Bank of
Bangladesh. This is considered to be one of the largest, most successful
cyber heists ever. Further investigation conducted by researchers from
different IT security companies including Kaspersky Lab revealed a high
chance that the attacks were conducted by Lazarus – a notorious cyber
espionage and sabotage group responsible for a series of regular and
devastating attacks, and known for attacking manufacturing companies,
media and financial institutions in at least 18 countries around the
world since 2009.

Although several months of silence followed the
Bangladesh attack, the Lazarus group was still active. They had been
preparing for a new operation to steal money from other banks and, by
the time they were ready, they already had their foot in a financial
institution in South East Asia. After being interrupted by Kaspersky Lab
products and the following investigation, they were set back for
another few months, and later decided to change their operation by
moving to Europe. But here too, their attempts were interrupted by
Kaspersky Lab’s security software detections, as well as the quick
incident response, forensic analysis, and reverse engineering with
support from company’s top researchers.

Lazarus Formula
Based
on the results of the forensic analysis of these attacks, Kaspersky Lab
researchers were able to reconstruct the modus operandi of the group.

Initial compromise: A
single system inside a bank is breached either with remotely accessible
vulnerable code (i.e. on a webserver) or through a watering hole attack
through an exploit planted on a benign website. Once such a site is
visited, the victim’s (bank employee) computer gets malware, which
brings additional components.

Foothold established: Then
the group migrates to other bank hosts and deploys persistent backdoors
– the malware allows them to come and go whenever they want.

Internal reconnaissance: Subsequently
the group spends days and weeks learning the network, and identifying
valuable resources. One such resource may be a backup server, where
authentication information is stored, a mail server or the whole domain
controller with keys to every “door” in the company, as well as servers
storing or processing records of financial transactions.

Deliver and steal:
Finally, they deploy special malware capable of bypassing the internal
security features of financial software and issuing rogue transactions
on behalf of the bank.

Geography and Attribution
The
attacks investigated by Kaspersky Lab researchers lasted for weeks.
However, the attackers could operate under the radar for months. For
example, during the analysis of the incident in South-East Asia, experts
discovered that hackers were able to compromise the bank network no
less than seven months prior to the day when the bank’s security team
requested incident response. In fact, the group had access to the
network of that bank even before the day of the Bangladesh incident.

According
to Kaspersky Lab records, from December 2015, malware samples relating
to Lazarus group activity appeared in financial institutions, casinos
software developers for investment companies and crypto-currency
businesses in Korea, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Costa Rica,
Malaysia, Poland, Iraq, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uruguay, Gabon,
Thailand and several other countries. The latest samples known to
Kaspersky Lab were detected in March 2017, showing that attackers have
no intention of stopping.

Even though attackers were careful
enough to wipe their traces, at least one server they breached for
another campaign contained a serious mistake with an important artefact
being left behind. In preparation for operation, the server was
configured as the command & control center for the malware. The
first connections made on the day of configuration were coming from a
few VPN/proxy servers indicating a testing period for the C&C
server. However, there was one short connection on that day which was
coming from a very rare IP address range in North Korea.

According to researchers, that could mean several things:

  • The attackers connected from that IP address in North Korea.
  • It was someone else’s carefully planned false flag operation.
  • Someone in North Korea accidentally visited the command and control URL.
The
Lazarus group heavily invests in new variants of their malware. For
months they were trying to create a malicious toolset which would be
invisible to security solutions, but every time they did this, Kaspersky
Lab’s specialists managed to identify unique features in how they
create their code, allowing Kaspersky Lab to keep tracking the new
samples. Now, the attackers have gone relatively quiet, which probably
means that they have paused to rework their arsenal.

“We’re sure
they’ll come back soon. In all, attacks like the ones conducted by
Lazarus group show that a minor misconfiguration may result in a major
security breach, which can potentially cost a targeted business hundreds
of millions of dollars in loss. We hope that chief executives from
banks, casinos and investment companies around the world will become
wary of the name Lazarus,” said Vitaly Kamluk, Head of Global Research
and Analysis Team APAC at Kaspersky Lab.

Kaspersky Lab products
successfully detect and block the malware used by the Lazarus threat
actor with the following specific detection names:

  • HEUR:Trojan-Banker[dot]Win32[dot]Alreay*,
  • Trojan-Banker[dot]Win32[dot]Agent*.
The
company is also releasing crucial Indicators of Compromise (IOC) and
other data to help organisations search for traces of these attack
groups in their corporate networks. For more information go to Securelist.com (https://goo.gl/XzfJXx).

“We
urge all organisations to carefully scan their networks for the
presence of Lazarus malware samples and, if detected, to disinfect their
systems and report the intrusion to law enforcement and incident
response teams”, added Vitaly Kamluk.

To learn more about financial attacks by Lazarus group, read the blog post available at Securelist.com (https://goo.gl/DoyZqE) or watch the video (https://goo.gl/wCYa3S). 

Distributed by APO on behalf of Kaspersky. 


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