Attacks/Breaches

Golden Galleon Raids Maritime Shipping Firms

A new Nigerian criminal gang is launching attacks on the maritime industry.

Multi-level attacks are part and parcel of modern cybercrime. Recent dissection of a campaign targeting the maritime shipping industry shows tactics involving Business Email Compromise (BEC) and Business Email Spoofing (BES) fraud, wire-transfer redirection, spear-phishing, and good old-fashioned theft.

Over the course of the time the Secureworks Counter Threat Unit (CTU) has been looking at a new group that they dubbed "Gold Galleon," the loose organization has attempted at least $3.9 million in fraud against a very specific industry — behavior that is unusual in an enterprise that tends to cast a wide net in search of any available target. 

Researchers were studying a group of Nigerian threat actors known as Gold Skyline when they discovered Gold Galleon. Gold Skyline is a more traditional organization of attackers, based in Nigeria and engaged in BES and BEC. According to James Bettke, the CTU analyst who led the research on Golden Galleon, the group didn't make the research particularly difficult. "They keep infecting themselves with their own malware, which gives us some real insight into the activities," Bettke says.

Researchers gave the group the name "Golden Galleon" because of consistent behavior they exhibited. "Their passwords were maritime and referenced the Buccaneers confraternity, which started many years ago as a collegiate fraternity in Nigeria," explains Bettke. Combined with their targeting of maritime industries, the behavior led to CTU internally referring to the group as "pirates", according to Bettke.

Maritime shipping is a particularly rich target for BEC and BES because of the ways in which the widely distributed offices and loosely coupled customers and providers transact business. Global distribution means that email's asynchronous communications are preferred while both tradition and modern business reality sees names and financial relationships frequently change.

Golden Galleon's tactics and technology aren't particularly new or sophisticated — they're simply well targeted. A specific attack will often begin with information scraped from a company's web site and augmented with contact-list contents from any systems breached early in the process.

With email addresses in hand, the group will begin a spear-phishing campaign using readily available malware programs like Predator Pain, PonyStealer, Agent Tesla, and Hawkeye keyloggers as payload.

"Golden Galleon will launch a low-volume spam attack with the malware loader attached," Bettke says. When they have access to data, "…they sift through data looking for shipments about to be billed; intercept the PDF; and change the billing information for funds receipt," Bettke explains. Because they know the schedules for ships and shipments leaving and arriving in port, the group can intercept and alter forms for transit fees, shipment payment, cash to master funds (which provide cash for ship captains in port) and other financial transactions common in the industry.

The group continues to do that, pivoting from inbox to inbox, constantly changing the spoofed sender and targets, as the campaign evolves. As the attack continues, the attackers will use the letterhead they've captured to generate invoices with false instructions for wiring funds and other malicious information. Because of the human intervention required to act on the fraudulent information, Bettke describes the exploit as a "layer 8 man-in-the-middle attack."

While BEC attacks in general are used worldwide, Golden Galleon has, thus far, focused on shipping interests in southern Asia. As for prevention, Bettke has little to recommend beyond the common prescriptions of employee training, strong passwords, encryption, and two-factor authentication.

Golden Galleon is still an active organization. While the Secureworks researchers say they have caused disruption close to a million dollars in criminal activity, the environment remains ripe for new campaigns against unwitting victims.

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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