'Pay2Key' Could Become Next Big Ransomware Threat

Researchers from Check Point say an Iranian-based threat actor has successfully attacked multiple Israeli companies could soon go global.

3 Min Read

A rapidly proliferating new ransomware strain that over the past two weeks has already impacted multiple large companies in Israel and a few in Europe soon could pose a major threat to organizations all over the world.

Check Point Software Technologies, which published a report today about the new so-called Pay2Key ransomware strain, said it's almost certainly of Iranian origin and capable of encrypting an entire network in an hour or less.

As with many other ransomware tools, the authors of Pay2Key have mainly been exploiting exposed Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) services to infiltrate victim networks and then expand their presence. It's possible they may be using other vectors as well.

Once on a victim network, the attackers have been setting up what Check Point described as a "pivot device" or proxy for all communications between infected systems and Pay2Keys C2 servers. The tactic of using a single device to communicate externally has helped the threat actor evade detection before encryption. The group is using the psexec dot exe utility to move laterally on an infected network and to execute the ransomware on different systems, Check Point said.

In addition to encrypting networks, the Pay2Key attackers have also been stealing sensitive data from victim organizations and threatening to publicly expose the data if the demanded ransom is not paid. Pay2Key threat actors are currently demanding a relatively modest 7- to 9 bitcoins from victims, or between $113,000 and $145,500 at Thursday's rates, according to Check Point.

At least four victims have paid the attackers to get their data back, and at least three others who refused to do so have already had their data released via a Tor website that the attackers have expressly set up for the purpose, Check Point said.

Double Extortion

In each case, the leaked data was uploaded to a dedicated folder on the website and was accompanied with a message that provided detailed information on the victim's network including domain, servers, and backup. In its report, Check Point described one of the victims that had been doxed as a law firm, and another as a gaming company. Interestingly, the attackers released a lot of sensitive information belonging to the law firm immediately upon expiry of the deadline, but gave the gaming company a second chance at making payment before releasing sensitive information.

It remains unclear whether victims who paid the ransom were able to recover their data.

"We at Check Point consider this attack sophisticated and advanced—way above what you can expect from a threat actor who has never been seen before," says Lotem Finkelsteen, head of threat intelligence at Check Point Software Technologies.

The group's ability to synchronize attacks against several companies over a time span of a few days, its ability to encrypt an entire network in less than an hour, and its success extorting money from victims are hallmarks of a sophisticated actor, he notes.

Iran Connection

Researchers focused on bitcoin wallets in the ransom notes sent to companies who actually paid the threat actor: they then were able to track the transaction to an Iranian cryptocurrency exchange called Excoino that appears open only to Iranian citizens, based on the fact that registration requires a national ID card.

For the moment, most observed attacks have targeted Israeli companies though at least one European entity has been impacted as well. "We see no technical limit for the attackers to stay local," Finkelsteen says. "We do see evidence of infection in Europe, so maybe they'll consider going global."

About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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