Judge allows suit against AT&T after $24 million cryptocurrency theft

An AT&T store in New Jersey.

Enlarge / An AT&T store in New Jersey. (credit: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

When Michael Terpin's smartphone suddenly stopped working in June 2017, he knew it wasn't a good sign. He called his cellular provider, AT&T, and learned that a hacker had gained control of his phone number.

The stakes were high because Terpin is a wealthy and prominent cryptocurrency investor. Terpin says the hackers gained control of his Skype account and tricked a client into sending a cryptocurrency payment to the hackers instead of to Terpin.

After the attack, Terpin asked AT&T to escalate the security protections on his phone number. According to Terpin, AT&T agreed to set up a six-digit passcode that must be entered before anyone could transfer Terpin's phone number.

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WebCobra Malware Uses Victims’ Computers to Mine Cryptocurrency

The authors thank their colleagues Oliver Devane and Deepak Setty for their help with this analysis.

McAfee Labs researchers have discovered new Russian malware, dubbed WebCobra, which harnesses victims’ computing power to mine for cryptocurrencies.

Coin mining malware is difficult to detect. Once a machine is compromised, a malicious app runs silently in the background with just one sign: performance degradation. As the malware increases power consumption, the machine slows down, leaving the owner with a headache and an unwelcome bill, as the energy it takes to mine a single bitcoin can cost from $531 to $26,170, according to a recent report.

The increase in the value of cryptocurrencies has inspired cybercriminals to employ malware that steals machine resources to mine crypto coins without the victims’ consent.

The following chart shows how the prevalence of miner malware follows changes in the price of Monero cryptocurrency.

Figure 1: The price of cryptocurrency Monero peaked at the beginning of 2018. The total samples of coin miner malware continue to grow. Source: https://coinmarketcap.com/currencies/monero/.

McAfee Labs has previously analyzed the cryptocurrency file infector CoinMiner; and the Cyber Threat Alliance, with major assistance from McAfee, has published a report, “The Illicit Cryptocurrency Mining Threat.” Recently we examined the Russian application WebCobra, which silently drops and installs the Cryptonight miner or Claymore’s Zcash miner, depending on the architecture WebCobra finds. McAfee products detect and protect against this threat.

We believe this threat arrives via rogue PUP installers. We have observed it across the globe, with the highest number of infections in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States.

Figure 2: McAfee Labs heat map of WebCobra infections from September 9–13.

This cryptocurrency mining malware is uncommon in that it drops a different miner depending on the configuration of the machine it infects. We will discuss that detail later in this post.

Behavior

The main dropper is a Microsoft installer that checks the running environment. On x86 systems, it injects Cryptonight miner code into a running process and launches a process monitor. On x64 systems, it checks the GPU configuration and downloads and executes Claymore’s Zcash miner from a remote server.

Figure 3: WebCobra’s installation window.

After launching, the malware drops and unzips a password-protected Cabinet archive file with this command:

Figure 4: The command to unzip the dropped file.

The CAB file contains two files:

  • LOC: A DLL file to decrypt data.bin
  • bin: Contains the encrypted malicious payload

The CAB file uses the following script to execute ERDNT.LOC:

Figure 5: The script to load the DLL file, ERDNT.LOC.

ERDNT.LOC decrypt data.bin and passes the execution flow to it with this routine:

  • [PlainText_Byte] = (([EncryptedData_Byte] + 0x2E) ^ 0x2E) + 0x2E

Figure 6: The decryption routine. 

The program checks the running environment to launch the proper miner, shown in the following diagram:

Figure 7: Launching the proper miner depending on a system’s configuration.

Once data.bin is decrypted and executed, it tries a few anti-debugging, anti-emulation, and anti-sandbox techniques as well as checks of other security products running on the system. These steps allow the malware to remain undetected for a long time.

Most security products hook some APIs to monitor the behavior of malware. To avoid being found by this technique, WebCobra loads ntdll.dll and user32.dll as data files in memory and overwrites the first 8 bytes of those functions, which unhooks the APIs.

List of unhooked ntdll.dll APIs

  • LdrLoadDll
  • ZwWriteVirtualMemory
  • ZwResumeThread
  • ZwQueryInformationProcess
  • ZwOpenSemaphore
  • ZwOpenMutant
  • ZwOpenEvent
  • ZwMapViewOfSection
  • ZwCreateUserProcess
  • ZwCreateSemaphore
  • ZwCreateMutant
  • ZwCreateEvent
  • RtlQueryEnvironmentVariable
  • RtlDecompressBuffer

List of unhooked user32.dll APIs

  • SetWindowsHookExW
  • SetWindowsHookExA

Infecting an x86 system

The malware injects malicious code to svchost.exe and uses an infinite loop to check all open windows and to compare each window’s title bar text with these strings. This is another check by WebCobra to determine if it is running in an isolated environment designed for malware analysis.

  • adw
  • emsi
  • avz
  • farbar
  • glax
  • delfix
  • rogue
  • exe
  • asw_av_popup_wndclass
  • snxhk_border_mywnd
  • AvastCefWindow
  • AlertWindow
  • UnHackMe
  • eset
  • hacker
  • AnVir
  • Rogue
  • uVS
  • malware

The open windows will be terminated if any of preceding strings shows in the windows title bar text.

Figure 8: Terminating a process if the windows title bar text contains specific strings.

Once the process monitor executes, it creates an instance of svchost.exe with the miner’s configuration file specified as an argument and injects the Cryptonight miner code.

Figure 9: Creating an instance of svchost.exe and executing the Cryptonight miner.

Finally, the malware resumes the process with the Cryptonight miner running silently and consuming almost all the CPU’s resources.

Figure 10: An x86 machine infected with the Cryptonight miner. 

Infecting an x64 system

The malware terminates the infection if it finds Wireshark running.

Figure 11: Checking for Wireshark.

The malware checks the GPU brand and mode. It runs only if one of the following GPUs is installed:

  • Radeon
  • Nvidia
  • Asus

Figure 12: Checking the GPU mode.

If these checks are successful, the malware creates the following folder with hidden attributes and downloads and executes Claymore’s Zcash miner from a remote server.

  • C:\Users\AppData\Local\WIX Toolset 11.2

Figure 13: Requesting the download of Claymore’s Zcash miner.

Figure 14: Claymore’s miner.

Figure 15: Executing the miner with its configuration file.

Finally, the malware drops a batch file at %temp%\–xxxxx.cMD to delete the main dropper from [WindowsFolder]\{DE03ECBA-2A77-438C-8243-0AF592BDBB20}\*.*.

Figure 16: A batch file deleting the dropper.

The configuration files of the miners follow.

Figure 17: Cryptonight’s configuration file.

This configuration file contains:

  • The mining pool: 5.149.254.170
  • Username: 49YfyE1xWHG1vywX2xTV8XZzbzB1E2QHEF9GtzPhSPRdK5TEkxXGRxVdAq8LwbA2Pz7jNQ9gYBxeFPHcqiiqaGJM2QyW64C
  • Password: soft-net

Figure 18: Claymore’s Zcash miner configuration file.

This configuration file contains:

  • The mining pool: eu.zec.slushpool.com
  • Username: pavelcom.nln
  • Password: zzz

Coin mining malware will continue to evolve as cybercriminals take advantage of this relatively easy path to stealing value. Mining coins on other people’s systems requires less investment and risk than ransomware, and does not depend on a percentage of victims agreeing to send money. Until users learn they are supporting criminal miners, the latter have much to gain.

 

MITRE ATT&CK techniques

  • Exfiltration over command and control channel
  • Command-line interface
  • Hooking
  • Data from local system
  • File and directory discovery
  • Query registry
  • System information discovery
  • Process discovery
  • System time discovery
  • Process injection
  • Data encrypted
  • Data obfuscation
  • Multilayer encryption
  • File deletion

Indicators of compromise

IP addresses
  • 149.249.13:2224
  • 149.254.170:2223
  • 31.92.212
Domains
  • fee.xmrig.com
  • fee.xmrig.com
  • ru
  • zec.slushpool.com

McAfee detections

  • CoinMiner Version 2 in DAT Version 8986; Version 3 in DAT Version 3437
  • l Version 2 in DAT Version 9001; Version 3 in DAT Version 3452
  • RDN/Generic PUP.x Version 2 in DAT Version 8996; Version 3 in DAT Version 3447
  • Trojan-FQBZ, Trojan-FQCB, Trojan-FQCR Versions 2 in DAT Version 9011; Versions 3 in DAT Version 3462

Hashes (SHA-256)

  • 5E14478931E31CF804E08A09E8DFFD091DB9ABD684926792DBEBEA9B827C9F37
  • 2ED8448A833D5BBE72E667A4CB311A88F94143AA77C55FBDBD36EE235E2D9423
  • F4ED5C03766905F8206AA3130C0CDEDEC24B36AF47C2CE212036D6F904569350
  • 1BDFF1F068EB619803ECD65C4ACB2C742718B0EE2F462DF795208EA913F3353B
  • D4003E6978BCFEF44FDA3CB13D618EC89BF93DEBB75C0440C3AC4C1ED2472742
  • 06AD9DDC92869E989C1DF8E991B1BD18FB47BCEB8ECC9806756493BA3A1A17D6
  • 615BFE5A8AE7E0862A03D183E661C40A1D3D447EDDABF164FC5E6D4D183796E0
  • F31285AE705FF60007BF48AEFBC7AC75A3EA507C2E76B01BA5F478076FA5D1B3
  • AA0DBF77D5AA985EEA52DDDA522544CA0169DCA4AB8FB5141ED2BDD2A5EC16CE

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‘McAfee Labs Threats Report’ Highlights Cryptojacking, Blockchain, Mobile Security Issues

As we look over some of the key issues from the newly released McAfee Labs Threats Report, we read terms such as voice assistant, blockchain, billing fraud, and cryptojacking. Although voice assistants fall in a different category, the other three are closely linked and driven by the goal of fast, profitable attacks that result in a quick return on a cybercriminal’s investment.

One of the most significant shifts we see is that cryptojacking is still on the rise, while traditional ransomware attacks—aka “shoot and pray they pay”—are decreasing. Ransomware attacks are becoming more targeted as actors conduct their research to pick likely victims, breach their networks, and launch the malware followed by a high-pressure demand to pay the ransom. Although the total number of ransomware samples has fallen for two quarters, one family continues to spawn new variants. The Scarab ransomware family, which entered the threat landscape in June 2017, developed a dozen new variants in Q2. These variants combined make up more than 50% of the total number of Scarab samples to date.

What spiked the movement, starting in fall 2017, toward cryptojacking? The first reason is the value of cryptocurrency. If attacker can steal Bitcoins, for example, from a victim’s system, that’s enough. If direct theft is not possible, why not mine coins using a large number of hijacked systems. There’s no need to pay for hardware, electricity, or CPU cycles; it’s an easy way for criminals to earn money. We once thought that CPUs in routers and video-recording devices were useless for mining, but default or missing passwords wipe away this view. If an attacker can hijack enough systems, mining in high volume can be profitable. Not only individuals struggle with protecting against these attacks; companies suffer from them as well.

Securing cloud environments can be a challenge. Building applications in the cloud with container technology is effective and fast, but we also need to create the right amount of security controls. We have seen breaches in which bad actors uploaded their own containers and added them to a company’s cloud environment—which started to mine cryptocurrency.

New technologies and improvements to current ones are great, but we need to find the balance of securing them appropriately. Who would guess to use an embedded voice assistant to hack a computer? Who looks for potential attack vectors in new technologies and starts a dialog with the industry? One of those is the McAfee Advanced Threat Research team, which provides most of the analysis behind our threats reports. With a mix of the world’s best researchers in their key areas, they take on the challenge of making the (cyber) world safer. From testing vulnerabilities in new technologies to examining malware and the techniques of nation-state campaigns, we responsibly disclose our research to organizations and the industry. We take what we learn from analyzing attacks to evaluate, adapt, and innovate to improve our technology.

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Cyber Threat Alliance Releases Analysis of Illicit Cryptocurrency Mining

In response to the explosive increase in cryptomining campaigns in Q4 2017, the Cyber Threat Alliance has formed a cryptomining subcommittee to assess the threat. This committee comprises expert researchers from major cybersecurity companies, including McAfee. The committee has now released “The Illicit Cryptocurrency Joint Analysis,” an in-depth report on the current state of unlawful cryptomining. In the report we explain what led to the recent rise in cryptomining-based attacks, their impact, defense recommendations, and predictions for future evolution of the attack. As members of the Cyber Threat Alliance and the cybersecurity community, we hope that individuals and enterprises can use our research to protect themselves from this threat and improve global security.

The Rise of Illicit Cryptocurrency Mining

To understand the cryptomining threat we need to go back only to late 2017 and early 2018 to see the dramatic growth of cryptomining incidents. Since 2017, the combined data of several CTA members shows a 459% increase in detections of mining malware.

(Figure numbers are out of sequence. They are borrowed from the CTA report.)

The increase of mining malware positively correlates with the growth of the value of coins. Specifically, in late 2017 we saw the value of Bitcoin soar to US$20,000 per coin. Anything with a high value attracts cybercriminals, and cryptocurrencies experienced some of the most dramatic volatility ever of any currency. Cybercriminals were early adopters of cryptocurrencies and use them to fuel underground economies. They have increasingly turned to mining to increase their funds by stealing the computer power of their victims. This theft is also referred to as cryptojacking.

Cryptocurrency and Mining 

Cryptocurrencies have become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional electronic money (e-money). E-money is based on a fiat currency such as the U.S. dollar. One of the most common examples is prepaid credit cards, which stand for the backing currency without the need for physical cash. Cryptocurrencies are generally not backed by a fiat currency. In fact, they are considered decentralized—meaning there is no central authority.

Monero has several advantages over Bitcoin in terms of privacy and anonymity; this makes it a favorite among bad actors. Beyond anonymity concerns, resources required to mine Monero are significantly lower, enabling more users to participate and increasing the profitability of botnets.

The act of generating the coin is called mining, which is using system resources to solve a complex mathematical problem. Most major coins employ a “proof of work” that uses CPU resources to solve. Large groups of miners, including botnets, can amass their resources, called pool mining, on a single problem. The mining operations result in a solved mathematical equation that returns newly minted coins to the system and validates new transactions.

The State of Illicit Cryptocurrency Mining

Current incidents of illicit cryptomining occur through compiled executables. This practice is called binary-based mining. In the context of the browser, the practice is called browser-based mining. Binary-based cryptomining malware is delivered as a payload, often using spam or exploit kits. Open-source tools often facilitate mining. XMRig is a legitimate tool for mining Monero, yet is also frequently used by malicious actors for illicit cryptomining.

The most common browser-based miner is Coinhive. Used legitimately, it offers an alternative to ad revenue by monetizing system resources. However, it has been widely used without informing users. On occasion the owner of the service is unaware of the mining code; this was the case with a recent attack against both Facebook Messenger and Starbucks Wi-Fi. As of July 2, PublicWWW yielded at least 23,000 websites hosting Coinhive code.

An example of Coinhive script embedded within a website.

Beyond using browsers to gather system resources, malware authors have become increasingly sophisticated in other ways. They have taken advantage of widespread vulnerabilities such as EternalBlue to propagate, or have implemented other techniques for evasion. The Smominru attack was a very profitable campaign leveraging this approach. It used “living off the land” techniques to evade detection and increase its ability to mine Monero.

Impacts of Illicit Cryptocurrency Mining

Cryptomining may have an impact on both the short- and long-term security of an organization or user. Three primary impact areas include:

  • Potential security flaws that can lead to additional attacks
  • Physical damage
  • Impacts to business operations and productivity

If a device is used in an unauthorized way, there is evidence of a potential security flaw that needs to be addressed. In late 2017, misconfigured devices using FTP led to hundreds of thousands of Monero miners on consumer-grade devices. Bad actors can and have used these same flaws for additional attacks against the systems.

Physical damage is also a concern. The CPU-intensive operation of mining will produce excess heat and power consumption. For small devices the immediate concern is battery life. However, for large systems, especially data centers, the activity can increase the failure rate of components; this can have a major effect on the system. Ultimately this may lead to costly repairs or increased hardware requirements to support the expanded load.

Organizations may also see a hit to business operations. Mass-computing projects present a similar concern, albeit for more altruistic purposes. [email protected], a medical research project aimed at understanding proteins, can be installed to use computer resources to help the research. However, business operations may be impacted by a loss of productivity or additional costs. Many businesses prohibit installing these types of computing projects to protect against unexpected costs and disruptions.

Recommended Best Practices

Fortunately, the defense against cryptomining is very similar to that against other threats. Cryptomining malware uses the same tools and methods; thus maintaining good security practices goes a long way. These include analysis of non-typical network traffic, and properly configuring and patching systems. A few additional steps specific to cryptomining:

  • Monitor abnormal power consumption and CPU activity
  • Search logs for related mining strings such as Crypto, Coinhive, XMR, Monero, and cpuminer
  • Block mining pool communications
  • Use browser extensions to protect against browser-based cryptocurrency mining

For a more comprehensive list, including recommended Snort rules, see the Recommended Best Practices section of the report.

The Evolution of Illicit Mining

Illicit cryptocurrency mining appears to have a positive correlation with Bitcoin value. As long as cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have value, we expect bad actors will continue to mine for profits. Although public cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin may be closely tied to monetary value, private or custom blockchains are also at risk and also need to prepare against future attacks.

Private blockchains, including non-currency-related ones, may carry unique risks. Large blockchains such as Bitcoin are considered immutable due to the difficulty of changing historical ledger data. Private blockchains inherently lack the same scale of adoption and thus may be more susceptible to attacks. The 51% attack is a well-known threat that can take advantage of a smaller network and have a severe impact on the blockchain’s integrity.

With some nation-states already turning to cryptocurrencies to solve economic issues, it is likely that some nation-states will use illicit mining to gain revenue. State-sponsored actors have already been implicated in the theft of cryptocurrencies, as McAfee has reported. Legitimately mined cryptocurrency has been implicated in obfuscating state-sponsored cyber operations, hiding purchases of VPN accounts, servers, and domain registrations.

Conclusion

“The Illicit Cryptocurrency Joint Analysis” represents the first joint industry initiative to educate enterprises and consumers about the growing threat of cryptocurrency mining. By improving security postures and adhering to proper security practices, we can increase the difficulty of these attacks succeeding, thus disrupting malicious behavior. Illicit cryptocurrency mining is not a fad. This problem will likely grow in relation to the value of cryptocurrencies. Current infection methods will give way to new techniques and exploits. The attraction of stealing cryptocurrencies may lead actors to develop targeted attacks against private implementations of blockchain as they become more prevalent. For more on illicit cryptomining threats, read the introductory blog, key findings summary, and the full report to learn about this important research.

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