The school year has barely begun and things are off to a rocky start for some colleges: Cobalt Dickens, a threat group linked to the Iranian government, has been spotted targeting universities worldwide in a large-scale credential theft campaign.
Researchers in Secureworks' Counter Threat Unit (CTU) uncovered the cyberattacks after initially spotting an URL spoofing a university login page. Further analysis on the IP address hosting the page revealed a massive attack involving 16 domains with more than 300 spoofed websites and login pages for 76 universities across 14 countries.
Attackers targeted schools in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, and Turkey, among others. The largest concentration of affected universities was in the US. Researchers did not disclose which were targeted but are working to alert them, they report.
Victims who entered their credentials on a fake login page were redirected to the school's legitimate website, where they were either logged into a valid browsing session or prompted to enter their username and password a second time. Several domains referred to the target institution's online library systems, a sign of attackers trying to access academic resources.
Most domains in this campaign were tied to the same IP address and DNS name server. One domain, registered in May 2018, contained subdomains designed to spoof university targets and redirect visitors to fake login pages on other domains controlled by the attackers.
Many of the spoofed domains were registered between May and August 2018; the most recent was created on August 19. It seems threat actors were still building infrastructure to support the campaign at the time Secureworks' CTU found it, researchers report in a blog post.
This campaign shared infrastructure with earlier Cobalt Dickens attacks on academic resources, a popular target for the threat group. In a previous campaign, its actors created lookalike domains to phish targets and used stolen credentials to steal intellectual property (IP).
"Cobalt Dickens' motivation is to obtain access to subscriber-only academic resources as well as mailboxes of university staff and students," says Rafe Pilling, information security researcher with the Secureworks CTU, of the August campaign. "Revenue generation is likely a key motivator, but the resulting access could be used for other campaigns like onward phishing and intrusion against targets that might implicitly trust contacts linked to educational institutions." However, he notes, there has so far been no observation of this type of activity.
There are several reasons why universities are hot targets for attackers seeking IP. For starters, they're harder to secure than financial companies, healthcare organizations, and other institutions in more regulated industries. They also attract some of the world's most intelligent researchers and students, making them treasure troves of new ideas and information.
Earlier this year, the US Department of Justice indicted the Mabna Institute and nine Iranians for their involvement with Cobalt Dickens activity conducted between 2013 and 2017.
Many threat groups stick with their tactics despite disclosures like these, and CTU says the August activity could be a sign the group is continuing its campaigns despite its members' indictments.
"This activity aligns with Cobalt Dickens' previous MO," says Pilling of the May-August campaign. "Based on our investigation, they haven't seemed to have modified their tactics significantly when compared to the campaign they've been running over the past few years."
"If it ain't broke … ' as the saying goes," he adds.
Pilling anticipates the activity will continue as the indictments by the DoJ don't appear to have been a strong deterrent. The basic rules of security hygiene apply: phishing awareness is key to defending against this type of activity, he says, and users should be educated on what to look for and to avoid entering their credentials in a site linked within an email.
"Any email that wants you to click a link and enter credentials should be considered suspect," he says.