WarmCookie Gives Cyberattackers Tasty New Backdoor for Initial Access

The fresh-baked malware is being widely distributed, but still specifically targets individuals with tailored lures. It's poised to evolve into a bigger threat, researchers warn.

Stack of chocolate chip cookies on a folded up town with two cookies, one crumbled, lying beside it
Source: Weyo via Alamy Stock Photo

A purpose-built Windows backdoor appears to be the new flavor of the month for giving attackers entry into targeted systems; after initial access, they pivot to ransomware delivery and system compromise in a wave of recent attacks.

Dubbed WarmCookie by researchers at Elastic Security Labs, the backdoor has been distributed widely in a spate of phishing emails starting in late April by a campaign called REF6127. It uses recruitment and potential jobs as lures, the researchers revealed in a blog post today.

While the malware itself isn't particularly sophisticated — it's mainly an initial backdoor tool for scouting out victim networks and deploying additional payloads — "it shouldn't be taken lightly as it's actively being used and impacting organizations at a global scale," Daniel Stepanic, Elastic Security principal security research engineer, wrote in the post.

The backdoor's code overlaps with a sample that was previously reported by eSentire, suggesting that WarmCookie may be an update to malware that already was in circulation since 2022. However, the latest version of the backdoor represents a different, more pervasive threat, Stepanic noted.

"While some features are similar, such as the implementation of string obfuscation, WarmCookie contains differing functionality," he wrote. "Our team is seeing this threat distributed daily with the use of recruiting and job themes targeting individuals.

Targeting Specific Appetites

Phishing lures that use job recruitment are a common theme for attackers, which have found success previously in targeting various professionals with fake promises of new employment positions. North Korean APT Lazarus is among attackers that has been particularly active with this tactic.

The emails in the REF6127 campaign put a twist on this with lures that are specific to the individuals that the attackers are targeting, the researchers said. Indeed, the campaign uses info about targets' current employers attempt to lure them with a type of position that might pique their interest, "enticing victims to pursue new job opportunities by clicking a link to an internal system to view a job description," Stepanic wrote.

In terms of the infection routine, one screenshot included in the post shows a message telling the recipient there is an "exciting opportunity" in the form of a new position open with one of the recruiter's clients. The message includes a "View Position Details" link which eventually leads to the process for deploying WarmCookie.

If a target clicks on the link, it goes to a landing page that looks like a legitimate page specifically targeted for the intended victim using his or her name, and that prompts the user to download a document by solving a CAPTCHA challenge. The landing pages used in the campaign resemble previous campaigns discovered by Google Cloud's security team in a campaign used to spread a new variant of the URSNIF malware, Stepanic noted.

Solving the CAPTCHA challenge downloads an obfuscated JavaScript file that runs PowerShell, kicking off the first task to load WarmCookie. The PowerShell script abuses the Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS) to download the malware and run the DLL with the Start export.

To keep defenders on their toes, attackers continuously generate new landing pages rapidly on IP address 45.9.74[.]135, targeting different recruiting firms in combination with keywords related to the job search industry with their malicious activity. Moreover, before hitting each landing page, "the adversary distances itself by using compromised infrastructure to host the initial phishing URL, which redirects the different landing pages," Stepanic noted.

WarmCookie is a two-stage "lightweight backdoor" that ultimately provides "relatively straightforward" functionality — such as retrieving victim info and screenshot recording — for monitoring victims and further deploying more damaging payloads, such as ransomware, according to the post.

In the first stage, which occurs after the PowerShell download of the malware, the backdoor sets itself up to run with System privileges from the Task Scheduler Engine. "A critical part of the infection chain comes from the scheduled task, which is set up at the very beginning of the infection," Stepanic noted. "The task name (RtlUpd) is scheduled to run every 10 minutes every day."

The malware's second stage contains the backdoor's core functionality and is one in which the DLL is combined with the command line (Start /p) to set execution in motion.

Along the way, WarmCookie uses several tactics to avoid detection. One is to protect its strings using a custom string decryption algorithm in which "the first four bytes of each encrypted string in the .rdata section represent the size, the next four-bytes represent the RC4 key, and the remaining bytes represent the string," Stephanic wrote. Developers also made the "interesting" choice not always to rotate the RC4 key between the encrypted strings.

WarmCookie also uses dynamic API loading to prevent static analysis from identifying its core functionality, and includes a few anti-analysis checks commonly used to target sandboxes "based on logic for checking the active number of CPU processors and physical/virtual memory values," he added.

Evolving Recipes for Malware

Elastic is urging organizations to be on the lookout for WarmCookie, which will likely evolve over time as its developers enhance it with advanced functionality.

"Our team believes this malware represents a formidable threat that provides the capability to access target environments and push additional types of malware down to victims," Stepanic wrote.

The post includes a screenshot of YARA rules that organizations use to identify the presence of WarmCookie in an environment. Elastic also specifically addresses various behavior of the backdoor — including its Powershell download and execution and Scheduled Task creation — to provide insight on how to detect this activity on an organization's network.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer, journalist, and therapeutic writing mentor with more than 25 years of professional experience. Her areas of expertise include technology, business, and culture. Elizabeth previously lived and worked as a full-time journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City; she currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, hiking with her dogs, traveling, playing music, yoga, and cooking.

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