Federal Indictments in SamSam Ransomware Campaign

Two Iranian nationals have been indicted on multiple counts by a federal grand jury in connection with the SamSam ransomware attacks that struck government, critical infrastructure, and healthcare organizations.

Two men — Faramarz Shahi Savandi, 34, and Mohammad Mehdi Shah Mansouri, 27, both of Iran — have been indicted in a criminal conspiracy around the creation and distribution of the SamSam ransomware campaign. The indictment, unsealed today, was handed down by a federal grand jury in New Jersey.

According to the six-count indictment, Savandi and Mansouri hit more than 200 victims, mostly in the government, critical infrastructure, and healthcare sectors. The victims included the City of Atlanta; the City of Newark, N.J.; the Port of San Diego; the Colorado Department of Transportation; the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta; and six health care-related entities: Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles; Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita, Kan.; LabCorp; MedStar Health, headquartered in Columbia, Md; OrthoNebraska Hospital, in Omaha, Neb.; and Allscripts Healthcare Solutions, headquartered in Chicago.

The indictment alleges that Savandi and Mansouri have collected over $6 million dollars in ransom payments to date, and caused over $30 million dollars in losses to victims. In a statement at the indictments' announcement, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said, "The defendants chose to focus their scheme on public entities, hospitals, and municipalities. They knew that shutting down those computer systems could cause significant harm to innocent victims."

That point was farther driven home by Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski at the same event when he said, "The defendants did not just indiscriminately 'cross their fingers' and hope their ransomware randomly compromised just any computer system. Rather, they deliberately engaged in an extreme form of 21st-century digital blackmail, attacking and extorting vulnerable victims like hospitals and schools, victims they knew would be willing and able to pay."

Professional attacks

Researchers and law enforcement officials point to a number of characteristics that distinguished the SamSam attacks. "One of the starkest deviations between SamSam operations and traditional ransomware is the departure from more traditional infection vectors," said Kimberly Goody, manager of cyber crime analysis at FireEye, in a statement given to Dark Reading. She pointed out that the threat actors first compromised the victims' systems and only later delivered the attack payload. "Deploying ransomware post-compromise allows attackers the ability to better understand victim environments and to both deploy ransomware payloads more broadly and to identified high value systems -– putting additional pressure on organizations to pay," she said.

Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist at Sophos, explained in a statement, "Cybercriminals target weak entry points and brute-force Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) passwords. Once in, they move laterally, working one step at a time to steal domain admin credentials, manipulate internal controls, disable back-ups and more to hand-deliver the ransomware." Those hand-delivered ransomware payloads, he said, "…strategically happened when victims were asleep, indicating that the attacker carries out reconnaissance on victims and carefully plans who, what, where and when attacks will happen."

Continuing fallout

While the indictments mean that Savandi and Mansouri are now fugitives, it is believed that they are operating in Iran, which makes it unlikely that they'll be turned over to U.S. authorities unless they travel internationally. And SamSam may not be their only criminal enterprise.

FireEye's Goody explained, "It is important to note that while the actors named in the indictment are associated with the SamSam ransomware, this may just be their most lucrative operation. We have some evidence to suggest that they were investigating the possibility of stealing card payment data, and we have also seen the deployment of cryptocurrency miners in victim environments."

In order to guard against future attacks, Benczkowski turned his attention to US organizations. "We want to get the word out that every sector of our economy is a potential target of malicious cyber activity," he said. "The events described in this indictment highlight the need for businesses, healthcare institutions, universities, and other entities to emphasize cyber security, increase threat awareness, and harden their computer networks."

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About the Author(s)

Curtis Franklin, Principal Analyst, Omdia

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Principal Analyst at Omdia, focusing on enterprise security management. Previously, he was senior editor of Dark Reading, editor of Light Reading's Security Now, and executive editor, technology, at InformationWeek, where he was also executive producer of InformationWeek's online radio and podcast episodes

Curtis has been writing about technologies and products in computing and networking since the early 1980s. He has been on staff and contributed to technology-industry publications including BYTE, ComputerWorld, CEO, Enterprise Efficiency, ChannelWeb, Network Computing, InfoWorld, PCWorld, Dark Reading, and ITWorld.com on subjects ranging from mobile enterprise computing to enterprise security and wireless networking.

Curtis is the author of thousands of articles, the co-author of five books, and has been a frequent speaker at computer and networking industry conferences across North America and Europe. His most recent books, Cloud Computing: Technologies and Strategies of the Ubiquitous Data Center, and Securing the Cloud: Security Strategies for the Ubiquitous Data Center, with co-author Brian Chee, are published by Taylor and Francis.

When he's not writing, Curtis is a painter, photographer, cook, and multi-instrumentalist musician. He is active in running, amateur radio (KG4GWA), the MakerFX maker space in Orlando, FL, and is a certified Florida Master Naturalist.

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