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Small-to-Midsized Businesses Targeted In More Invasive Cyberattacks

How notorious remote access tools Predator Pain and Limitless have evolved into bargain-basement tools accessible to masses of cybercriminals.

For just $40, a criminal can now buy a keylogger that not only captures keystrokes and credentials, but also geo-locates, intercepts emails and instant messages, and even reconfigures the compromised email account to send the criminal the victim's emails directly -- all while automatically encrypting the back-channel communications.

"Before, you were buying a knife with a corkscrew, and now you're buying a full Swiss Army knife," says Tom Kellermann, chief cyber security officer at Trend Micro, which today published a report on how two pervasive keylogger programs have evolved into inexpensive cyberspying tools being used to hit small and midsized businesses (SMBs) worldwide.

The so-called Predator Pain and Limitless malware kits are now more accessible to the masses and theoretically to lower-level criminals, Kellermann says. The new modules also offer attackers more "omniscience" into their victim's machines -- and lives.

"Back in the day, you had to build it [the malware] or be a trusted member to buy it for a high price," he says. "Now, for as much as it takes to fill up a tank of gas, you can read minds."

Another interesting twist, according to Trend's research, is that the bad guys behind the Predator Pain and Limitless malware still retain administrative rights to the malware when they sell a copy; they get access to the victims that the buyers infect, as well. "What they're doing is commercializing crime kits… that's fully automated and functional for the masses," Kellermann says. "This begins a crimewave."

Predator Pain and Limitless were the centerpiece of NightHunter, a credentials-stealing campaign detailed by Cyphort researchers. "NightHunter is one the more unique campaigns we have researched at Cyphort due to the footprint and complex data collection models it exhibits, furthermore the use of low-signal evasion it is leveraging such as webmail for data exfiltration points to much larger end-goal," Cyphort's McEnroe Navara wrote in a July blog post. "This points to the shifting 'Tradecraft' being adopted by actors leveraging BigData models to mine more interesting and strategically suitable data, whether it being for direct and targeted attacks or providing highly actionable content to other actors for economic benefits."

The typical attack with these tools begins with a business-themed phishing email sent to publicly listed email addresses and rigged with Predator Pain or Limitless. When a victim falls for the message and downloads an attachment with the email, the attacker -- via email, file transfer protocol, or Web PHP panel -- gets all of the victim's system information, keystrokes, cached credentials, and desktop screenshots.

The attackers employ a type of 419/Nigerian scam via high-volume phishing email runs, including phony corporate emails that dupe victims into depositing payments, for example.

"The attack victims... were not ordinary home users nor employees of Fortune 500 companies or government institutions. The cybercriminals instead went after SMBs [small and midsized businesses], which led us to realize how vulnerable they are" to these threats, the report says. "SMBs may not be involved in multimilliondollar deals but they do conduct transactions worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even worse, their employees may not even be aware of general IT security best practices."

According to Trend's findings, the attacks go well beyond the usual keylogging exfiltration.

    Cybercriminals are able to invade their victims' privacy wholesale; they can determine where victims live, where they work, what they do for a living, what their marital statuses are, and so much more.

    419 scams are easy-to-deploy, high-volume attacks that can be carried out without the use of Predator Pain or Limitless keyloggers. The 419 scammers in this instance, however, must have realized that infiltrating SMBs and conducting protracted, low-volume corporate espionage to commit fraud yields a much higher return on investment (ROI) in the long run.

The breached SMBs can often provide a stepping-stone to a larger and more lucrative business partner, for instance, which makes the Predator Pain and Limitless attacks against smaller, easier targets even more valuable.

"If you can get inside the SMB marketplace and go after their larger partners, it's just that easy," Kellermann says.

The full report from Trend, "From Cybercrime to Cyberspying: Using Limitless Keylogger and Predator Pain," is available here.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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Kelly Jackson Higgins
Kelly Jackson Higgins,
User Rank: Strategist
11/13/2014 | 3:43:35 PM
Re: Commercializing Crime?
Well, as we have seen, there is no honor among thieves. While many malware peddlers now offer customer support and other services, there's also always a lot of risk that goes with teaming up with the underground.
User Rank: Strategist
11/13/2014 | 11:46:57 AM
Scaling the Economics of Attack
This is interseting because it enables the attackers to scale the economics in two ways: Not only are the creators monetizing the sale of the key loggers, but by using this "franchise model" and retaining administrative access to victims' machines, they scale their reach across SMB's. 

Even without the idea of leveraging a foothold from and SMB to a larger partner, this unlocks a level of theft that is surely profitable. When you combine the fact that most SMB's lack the resources to detect and respond to active breaches, this is (unfortunately) very compelling.

Clearly organizations of smaller size will require better tools (i.e., much more automation) to detect such active attacks and remediate. I'm afraid we've come to the point where blaming the victim (don't click on that email) and relying on 100% effectiveness from prevention (AV, firewall, etc.) technologies is clearly ineffective.
User Rank: Ninja
11/12/2014 | 8:36:51 AM
Re: Commercializing Crime?
Interesting idea. My guess is that they just want access to the machines their buyers infect so they can run other malware scams on them as well and increase their profitability. Smart for them, bad for everyone else. 
Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
11/12/2014 | 7:53:33 AM
Re: Commercializing Crime?
Good point, Ryan. I like that karma. It would be nice to have these cybercriminals caught in their own trap. Probably too good to be true. Sadly....
User Rank: Ninja
11/12/2014 | 7:50:04 AM
Re: Commercializing Crime?
Wow, that is astonishing! I wonder what the occurence is of the creators behind Predator and Pain extorting their buyers. I would imagine that administrative access to the buyers victims could be correlated back to administrative access of the buyers. Now that would be something of a karmic wheel.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/11/2014 | 7:33:26 PM
On UNIX/Linux, most keyloggers are freely available for download
I don't think that's right: ethical developers should not make those kind of working result freely available and also not give to people who could use it for malicious purpose.

WZIS Software developed a TTY keylogger for testing and understanding purpose, it's installed on a demo machine with permission of 111, so people can test it on that machine, but not copy it.
Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
11/11/2014 | 4:07:23 PM
Commercializing Crime?
I find this to be most astonishing: 

Another interesting twist, according to Trend's research, is that the bad guys behind the Predator Pain and Limitless malware still retain administrative rights to the malware when they sell a copy; they get access to the victims that the buyers infect, as well. 

Does TrendMicro provide any prescriptive advice for SMBs to avoid getting caught in this kind of attack?

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