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Malware loaders are tricky business for SOC teams. Mitigation for one loader may not work for another, even if it loads the same malware. And they’re one of the most common tools for a cyber-threat actor to secure initial access to a network, then help drop payloads (remote-access software and post-exploitation tools are popular choices).
ReliaQuest has uncovered a load of loaders causing havoc for defenders. The seven that we observed the most in customer environments so far this year are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Top 10 most observed malware loaders, January 1–July 31, 2023, by percentage of all loaders observed
Let’s break down those results:
Bear in mind that just because a malware loader was detected, it doesn’t mean the targeted network was compromised; in the majority of cases we observed, the malware loader was detected and stopped early in the kill chain. But it’s crucial to not look away from the car-crash threat of any loader, especially the three most popular.
Like other versatile and common malware, QakBot was designed as a banking trojan, then upgraded with new capabilities. Other than permitting initial access to targeted networks, QakBot delivers other remote-access payloads, steals sensitive data, and helps lateral movement and remote code execution.
QakBot is most associated with the “Black Basta” ransomware group that splintered off from the “Conti” ransomware syndicate. (Remember our previous reporting on Black Basta about QakBot to facilitating an initial foothold in the targeted environment?)
Now it’s time for QakBot to perform discovery commands and begin command-and-control (C2) communication, to relay system/domain information and drop additional payloads (commonly, the remote-access tools “Atera” or “NetSupport”, along with “Cobalt Strike”) for post-exploitation objectives.
SocGholish has been linked to the notorious “Evil Corp,” presumed to be a Russia-based group waging financially motivated cybercrime since at least 2007. Common SocGholish targets are accommodation and food services, retail trade, and legal services, primarily in the US.
SocGholish is also linked to “Exotic Lily,” an initial access broker (IAB) active since at least September 2021. The IAB conducts highly sophisticated phishing campaigns to gain initial access to organizations and sell it to other threat actors, such as ransomware groups.
Last, but by no means least, is Raspberry Robin, a highly elusive worm-turned-loader that targets Microsoft Windows environments. Its exceptional propagation capabilities kick in after initial infection via malicious USB devices, when cmd.exe runs and executes a LNK file on the infected USB.
The LNK file contains commands triggering native Windows processes, such as msiexec.exe, to initiate an outbound connection to download the Raspberry Robin DLL. Once the Raspberry Robin payload is running, additional processes are spawned using system binaries, such as rundll32.exe, odbcconf.exe, and control.exe, to run malicious code. This code injects itself into system processes (e.g., regsvr32.exe, rundll32.exe, dllhost.exe) to create scheduled tasks for persistence, to initiate C2 communication, and to deliver other payloads.
Raspberry Robin is tied to various highly capable, malicious groups. This includes the aforementioned Evil Corp, plus “Silence” (aka Whisper Spider): a financially motivated threat actor targeting financial institutions in Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Poland, and Kazakhstan.
Raspberry Robin has also been used to deliver multiple ransomware and other malware variants, such as “Clop,” “LockBit,” “TrueBot,” and “Flawed Grace,” in addition to the Cobalt Strike tool. In 2023, Raspberry Robin operators have targeted financial institutions, telecommunications, government, and manufacturing organizations, mainly in Europe, although the US has had its fair share of attacks.
SocGholish’s operators used Raspberry Robin in the first quarter of 2023 when heavily targeting legal and financial services organizations. This shows the increased collaboration between crime syndicates and operators of various types of malware.
Based on recent trends, it’s highly likely that these loaders will continue to pose a threat to organizations in the mid-term future (3–6 months) and beyond. In the remainder of 2023, we can anticipate other developments in these loaders—whether in response to organizational mitigation or through collaboration among threat actors.
For now, there are several steps that you can take to minimize the threat from malware loaders:
At ReliaQuest, we understand the importance of staying one step ahead of the malicious threats that can impact your organization. That’s why our security operations platform, GreyMatter, uses advanced detection rules we’ve specifically designed to identify malware, including the chronic offenders named and shamed in this blog.
GreyMatter automates the high-time, low-brain activities of your security teams, leaving them free to focus on strategic improvements to your security posture that can help you better defend against ransomware.
Get a live demo of our security operations platform, GreyMatter, and learn how you can improve visibility, reduce complexity, and manage risk in your organization.