A new form of crime has been rapidly increasing. Botnets, banking malware, legitimate malware (adware) and other bunches of malicious code that aim only for one – profit. The most profitable of those however remains to be the new form of extortion, known as ransomware. The reason such type of threats work and generate profits to crooks is that they do not have to do much to motivate users into paying, just notify that their files have been damaged temporary and will be reversed to working state if they pay a hefty ransom fee via the untraceable online currency BitCoin. But the ransomware infection is not as simple as it is effective. In fact, it is a very complicated operation in some cases, especially when organized crime is involved with it’s infection and distribution. We have decided to uncover a hypothetical cyber-crime operation, by compiling research on massive ransomware threats such as Cerber and Locky ransomware which have generated hundreds of millions the past few months.
To explain this better we have divided this informative article into several stages of preparing to create a hypothetical ransomware virus. We have separated the stages into the actual tools needed, the strategy of how the virus operates and the marketing and handling of payments and profits generated by the ransomware virus. Just like a legitimate organization, the ones behind ransomware are also structured and have different individuals responsible for different activities and this is what differentiates successful ransomware viruses from unsuccessful.
What Tools Do You Need
There are several very important tools that are required to create a ransomware virus. They may not always be the same tools, but we have decided to separate them into key components required:
Command and Control Server
It can be a local server connected to the web or a web server available from any device that is concealed, for example, hosted on Tor network. The command and control server also needs to have it’s platform or at least a mechanism or software working in good symbiosis with the ransomware virus. Many advanced threats have active tracking, live payment amount updating the malware from distance and others.
The payload’s source code may be downloaded for free online, like the situation with the HiddenTear ransomware. Then, anyone with coding experience in in several required programming languages like C# or C++ can create a ransomware infection payload.
Furthermore, based on the coding skills of the operator or the payload of the ransomware, it can be quite interesting. Many new ransomware viruses have introduced new “features” besides the simple “infect and notify” tricks. They have improved communication with the victims via services such as BitMessage, added payment tracking, a simplified decryption operation, defensive tools, like CBC-mode and others. Cerber ransowmare, for example, had the unique feature of displaying a .vbs voice message that directly tells victims what had happened to their files.
This is the key component when it comes to a successful infection. The distribution of the ransomware infection can be done via:
- Spamming software that may spam e-mails containing malicious links and attachments or spam such on other websites.
- Exploit kits.
- Joined files which are obfuscated with malware obfuscators.
- Other malware that may have already infected the computer, like Trojan.Downloaders or Worms.
Botnets are also a quite astonishing and genius method of spreading ransomware, but for them, one has to know their way around the deep web and the cyber-criminal society, more importantly, know the botnet operators. If a botnet virus spreads a downloader that can additionally download malware on the infected computer, it can simultaneously infect thousands, if not millions of computers at the same time without any notices.
What Do The Big Guys do?
Distribution and logistics have become the bottleneck of ransomware operations, and the “big guys” know that. This is what drove these organized groups to expand and change the ransomware landscape forever, adding a paradigm known as RaaS (ransomware as a service) and other third-party and affiliate schemes.
Such schemes allow for users to skip all of the headaches of manually having to create ransomware viruses for themselves, but instead purchase a ransomware virus online. Here is an online advertisement for the first variant of Cerber ransomware which was later decrypted:
Similar to previously uncovered organized ransom operations in which cyber-criminals had individuals responsible for different operations such as managing the command and control center, spreading the malware, laundering the money, extracting the money from BitCoin and others, nowadays the scenery has become global, and the profits have gone through the roof.
Take Cerber ransomware, for instance. The creator of the ransomware who offers it as a service takes care partially of only some key ransomware operations, such as maintaining the malicious payload and the distribution malware that is used to cause a successful infection and also maintaining untraceable payments. To do this, it is required to think proactively. This is why CheckPoint researchers report that the clever cyber-criminals use a so-called BitCoin Mixing Services as defensive measure when it comes to untraceable payments.
Let me explain how it works. Since law enforcement is gaining on cyber-crime all the time and despite that BitCoin payments are untraceable, BitCoin wallets’ activity can be monitored. And what law enforcement officials take advantage of is exactly that – they monitor BitCoin wallets that are extremely active when it comes to the rate of their transactions and the amounts of funds going through them. With some additional tools and assistance, law enforcement officials can even track down the owners of the wallets if they are careless. This is why clever cyber-criminals use Mixing Services for BitCoin wallets. This is custom software that uses algorithms that completely randomize (and revolutionize) the way untraceable payments are handled by displaying a different BitCoin address for different infections. One address can be tracked, but what if there are 100 addresses and the payment goes via a different address on a random basis every time when a computer is infected?
Ransomware Marketing and Victim Service
This I what many tech journalists and malware researchers consider to be the key when it comes to ransomware infections. If you know how to display the ransom note in a serious manner and use instructions simple enough for anyone to understand, your profit Is hypothetically guaranteed. This is why many ransomware developers use scary statements such as:
- “Data recovery software or experts will not help you recover your files.”
- “In case you attempt to restore your files, they will be permanently corrupted, and you will no longer have access to them”.
- “We will double the payment amount in 24 hours and destroy the decryption key in 48 h.”
- “There is a unique decryption key for every file, and only we have those.”
- “We will give half the money to charity and poor children.”
- “We are going to decrypt one(or more) files for free to show you that this works.”
One particular ransomware, called Comrade Circle even offers to it’s victims not to pay for anything and begin to make money by becoming a victim to partner of the cyber-criminals, promising great profits. Here is the unique proposition in it’s ransom note:
This is very interesting, but what there are also other approaches which can hypothetically increase payment rate. Many cyber-criminals have focused on lowering the price as a form of a strategy making it not worth it to wait for researchers to develop free decryptor. Because face it, paying 50$ seems logically the right choice than waiting for a decryptor that may or may not be released at some point. But this is also a wrong move, and it means that you support the cyber-criminals, this is why malware researchers advise paying nothing to them because it is identical to cooperating with the crooks.
Some cyber-criminal organizations directly skip the complications and risk of affiliate schemes and use another strategy to cause damage and generate profits – infect organizations. This is because of a hospital, for example, is way more lucrative target for massive ransomware infection, because, for example, one ransom payment of $10,200 is better that 17 payments of 600$ that may or may not be done. Not only this, but it is better regarding security because the BitCoin addresses and other information may be used only once and then disposed of. This significantly simplifies it for the cyber-criminals. The complication of this for the crooks is that they will have to prepare a targeted attack which can happen in hundreds of different ways, like using someone who has access, hacking one computer to insert a worm, leaving a flash drive in the parking lot and others.
When it comes to laundering the profits each cyber-criminal has his ways, but lately there has been a tendency to use online gaming currencies to launder money online.
Related Article: Money Laundering Scheme Using Gaming Currencies Revealed
What Is the Real-Life Impact
The real life impact of ransomware operations is well, quite frankly, devastating. It has cost over 209 million dollars of damages on places all over the world according to FBI reports. The truth is that this threat can be prevented by simply managing the data better. In case you or your organization has been hit by ransomware and lost all of the key files, you should know how to safely store your files in the future and prevent such devastation from occurring again. We have conducted a research and as a result of it came up with several methods that are crucial for securing your data.
Whether it seems tempting to participate in ransomware or not, it is still illegal, and there are real after effects if one gets caught. These negative consequences have become even more serious than some other real world offenses so we as users should fight together against ransomware and cyber-crime in general and develop new methods to protect ourselves because in the technological times of the 21st century everything is saved online and this is what cyber-crooks rely upon.