Ransomware groups have extensively improved their tactics to behave in an increasingly professional and corporate-like manner; this has allowed groups to fine tune their ability to increase revenue. Some of these changes are a significant testament to these groups’ willingness to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen ransomware groups going to extreme lengths in order to support their criminal operations with PR stunts. For example, in November 2020, ransomware group “Ragnar Locker” published fraudulent Facebook ads to turn the screws on the compromised Campari Group and urge them to pay the requested sum (I can’t even begin to think how many Campari Spritz I may have lost because of that attack). Most of you will also remember when the “DarkSide” ransomware groups began operating in August 2020 and revealed their data leak site detailing “moral” principles behind their operation and charitable organizations they intended to fund with part of their revenues. This innovation caught the attention of many security researchers and journalists and definitely put the DarkSide name on the ransomware map.

What happened last week between ransomware group LockBit and cybersecurity company Mandiant, is just the latest example of how innovative and creative these groups can be in order to support their business. Let’s see what happened together and discover why LockBit came up with that idea.

Has Evil Corp been using the LockBit ransomware?

On 02 June 2022, Mandiant published a blog that attributed multiple LockBit ransomware attacks to “UNC2165”, a name used to indicate a financially motivated threat cluster sharing significant overlaps with the threat group publicly known as “Evil Corp.” In this blog, Mandiant stateds that UNC2165 previously used other ransomware variants for their operations but that this threat cluster was now uniquely using LockBit. 

Ransomware variants associated with Evil Corp (source: Mandiant)

To understand the importance of this attribution, it is fundamental to take a step back and answer the obvious question: “Who is Evil Corp?”. Well, Evil Corp is a Russia-based cybercriminal group responsible for multiple financially motivated cyber attacks since at least 2007. The group has been repeatedly linked to high-profile malware and attacks since its inception and is notoriously known for its association with the “Dridex” banking trojan. The development and use of this malware ecosystem eventually led the  U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to sanction Evil Corp in December 2019. 

Ever since this indictment, Evil Corp members have continuously shifted their tactics and names to evade these sanctions and carry out sophisticated cyber attacks. Paying a ransom to a sanctioned entity is against the law and can result in civil penalties which can include fines and criminal prosecution. That’s why, in the past years, Evil Corp rebranded its operations several times and used various ransomware variants to trick victims into thinking they are paying a ransom to a threat group that is not sanctioned. 

LockBit claims to have encrypted Mandiant

On 06 June 2022, during our routine triaging of ransomware data leak websites, we noticed that Mandiant was named on LockBit’s website and that the threat group was claiming to have breached and extracted sensitive files from the cybersecurity company. Soon after, Mandiant assured that it was investigating the claims made by the ransomware group.

Screenshot of LockBit’s data leak website displaying Mandiant’s name

However, the files that were subsequently published on LockBit’s website didn’t appear to contain Mandiant’s data and instead consisted of LockBit’s response to the blog Mandiant released a few days ago. This cheeky PR stunt was likely thought to be necessary by LockBit to distance themselves from Evil Corp and save their ongoing criminal operations.

In their response, LockBit insisted that Mandiant’s observations of overlap between LockBit and Evil Corp infrastructure was incorrect, claiming that some of the tools used by these two groups are available on publicly accessible websites and platforms, such as GitHub, highlighting that the similarity in tools cannot constitute evidence that an attack is conducted by the same group. 

Additionally, LockBit went even further by indicating that Evil Corp member Maksim Yakubets was currently operating his own cybercriminal program for a restricted circle of “high class professionals”. Finally, LockBit refused any associations with Evil Corp, claiming that LockBit is made up of “real underground darknet hackers” and had no links to political or government entities such as Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

What’s next?

The PR stunt was likely orchestrated by LockBit because an association of their activities to Evil Corp could have financially devastating consequences for their operations. Paying ransoms to these cyber threat groups is still not illegal in most countries; however, a formalized association with Evil Corp would render those payments potentially out of the law, with significant civil and criminal implications for the organizations involved in them. Given that LockBit is one of the most prolific ransomware groups in activity at the moment, it is likely that they intend to continue their highly successful and profitable ransomware operations for the following months.

Interested in monitoring ransomware trends and news? You can get a comprehensive look at the data that we used to build this blog and our quarterly ransomware reporting with a free demo request of SearchLight here. You can additionally get a customized demo of SearchLight (now ReliaQuest’s GreyMatter Digital Risk Protection) to gain visibility of your organization’s threats and potential exposures, including access to a finished threat intelligence library with MITRE associations and mitigations from Photon Research.

LockBit’s Threat Intelligence profile in Searchlight

For further info—our previous blog article Tracking Ransomware Within SearchLight shows you how SearchLight (now ReliaQuest’s GreyMatter Digital Risk Protection) tracks emerging variants, enables you to export and block associated malicious indicators in various formats, instantly analyze popular targets, and map to your security controls with ease.