Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Threat Intelligence

9/9/2020
04:55 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail
100%
0%

Meet the Middlemen Who Connect Cybercriminals With Victims

An analysis of initial access brokers explains how they break into vulnerable organizations and sell their access for up to $10,000.

Ransomware operators looking for victims can find them on the Dark Web, where initial access brokers publish listings containing vague descriptions of businesses they've managed to breach.

Initial access brokers, the "middlemen" of ransomware attacks, have noticed demand for their services surge as ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) gains popularity. Their listings have steadily increased over the past two years, with a significant spike in the past six months, according to Digital Shadows researchers who today published an analysis of these threat actors.

Related Content:

Ransomware Red Flags: 7 Signs You're About to Get Hit

Special Report: Computing's New Normal, a Dark Reading Perspective

New on The Edge: Next-Gen Firewalls 101: Not Just a Buzzword

The job of an initial access broker is to handle the initial requirements of an attack and streamline the process so RaaS operators can launch a successful infection. The growing reliance on RaaS has created a market for initial access brokers to flourish, explains threat intelligence team lead Alec Alvarado.

"There is a lot of pressure placed on ransomware affiliates to feed ransomware developers with victims to generate cash flow," he says. "If an affiliate does not meet the developer's needs, they will be booted from the affiliate program, losing money." 

The process starts with identifying vulnerable targets, which brokers often do indiscriminately with open source port scanning tools like Shodan or Masscan. They also may use vulnerability scanning tools to look for their gateway into a target organization, Alvarado adds. 

In most cases, attackers identify victims who have Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) exposed to the Internet. Researchers have also observed access to Citrix gateways and domain controller accesses in initial access listings on the Dark Web. Citrix access can be obtained by brute forcing the Citrix gateway to provide remote access or exploit known vulnerabilities in Citrix products.

Once they find their initial foothold, initial access brokers carefully explore the network. They may attempt to escalate privileges or move laterally to see how much data they can access. With this complete, they organize their access information, package it into a presentable product, and figure out how much money it can earn them on the criminal underground. 

These listings can be found across all criminal forums, such as Russian language forums XSS and Exploit, Alvarado says. Some forums have begun to create dedicated sections for access listings.

The price of each listing can range from $500 to $10,000 USD, researchers report, depending on the level of access obtained and organization compromised. Access to large businesses with higher revenues will drive access price. The higher the revenue, the higher a ransom demand.

"Considerably organized and tailored accesses that require minimal effort to complete an attack will typically go for a higher cost as most of the work has been completed at that point," Alvarado explains. "Additionally, if the access encompasses a large portion of the network with multiple hosts, this will drive the access cost."

The buyers of initial access can do far more than launch a ransomware attack. They may also conduct corporate espionage, move laterally, escalate privileges, or stay on the network long-term to take advantage of living-off-the-land techniques.

How Much Information Is Too Much?
Brokers must strike a delicate balance in writing an access listing. They could detail the value of their access to gain more attention and drive the price tag; however, more information may tip off security researchers, who can identify the victim and remove access before it's exploited.

Some brokers play it safe by limiting the description to vague data found on Zoominfo, a site with business information such as company revenue and employee count. This tells potential buyers how lucrative an attack could be without sharing too much information. Brokers have also included portions of a company's stock ticker symbol or the country where it operates.

The subtle nature of their activity and lack of detail in listings make it difficult to catch an initial access broker. Red flags may include evidence of brute-force attempts against RDP servers, multiple failed authentication attempts, or evidence of privilege escalation attempts or lateral movement, Alvarado says. Overall, these brokers can operate without much risk because they don't launch the final campaign and are likely to see a payout. 

"They do not carry out attacks and are more passive," he notes. "From a risk vs. reward perspective, the reward is likely and the risk is low."

 

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
SarahKatz
50%
50%
SarahKatz,
User Rank: Author
9/10/2020 | 9:28:31 PM
A Little is Worth a Lot
Incredible analysis of how brokers must adopt a passive approach in order to evade security researchers. This just means both blue and red teams will have to increase vigilance! 
NSA Appoints Rob Joyce as Cyber Director
Dark Reading Staff 1/15/2021
Vulnerability Management Has a Data Problem
Tal Morgenstern, Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer, Vulcan Cyber,  1/14/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: This is not what I meant by "I would like to share some desk space"
Current Issue
2020: The Year in Security
Download this Tech Digest for a look at the biggest security stories that - so far - have shaped a very strange and stressful year.
Flash Poll
Assessing Cybersecurity Risk in Today's Enterprises
Assessing Cybersecurity Risk in Today's Enterprises
COVID-19 has created a new IT paradigm in the enterprise -- and a new level of cybersecurity risk. This report offers a look at how enterprises are assessing and managing cyber-risk under the new normal.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-26252
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
OpenMage is a community-driven alternative to Magento CE. In OpenMage before versions 19.4.10 and 20.0.6, there is a vulnerability which enables remote code execution. In affected versions an administrator with permission to update product data to be able to store an executable file on the server ...
CVE-2020-26278
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
Weave Net is open source software which creates a virtual network that connects Docker containers across multiple hosts and enables their automatic discovery. Weave Net before version 2.8.0 has a vulnerability in which can allow an attacker to take over any host in the cluster. Weave Net is suppli...
CVE-2021-1235
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
A vulnerability in the CLI of Cisco SD-WAN vManage Software could allow an authenticated, local attacker to read sensitive database files on an affected system. The vulnerability is due to insufficient user authorization. An attacker could exploit this vulnerability by accessing the vshell of an af...
CVE-2021-1241
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
Multiple vulnerabilities in Cisco SD-WAN products could allow an unauthenticated, remote attacker to execute denial of service (DoS) attacks against an affected device. For more information about these vulnerabilities, see the Details section of this advisory.
CVE-2021-1247
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
Multiple vulnerabilities in certain REST API endpoints of Cisco Data Center Network Manager (DCNM) could allow an authenticated, remote attacker to execute arbitrary SQL commands on an affected device. For more information about these vulnerabilities, see the Details section of this advisory.