Potent Emotet Variant Spreads Via Stolen Email Credentials

The dangerous malware appears to be well and truly back in action, sporting new variants and security-dodging behaviors in a wave of recent phishing campaigns.

Emotet’s resurgence in April seems to be the signal of a full comeback for what was once dubbed “the most dangerous malware in the world,” with researchers spotting various new malicious phishing campaigns using hijacked emails to spread new variants of the malware.

The “new and improved” version of Emotet is exhibiting a “troubling” behavior of effectively collecting and using stolen credentials, “which are then being weaponized to further distribute the Emotet binaries,” Charles Everette from Deep Instinct revealed in a blog post this week.

“[Emotet] still utilizes many of the same attack vectors it has exploited in the past,” he wrote. “The issue is that these attacks are getting more sophisticated and are bypassing today’s standard security tools for detecting and filtering out these types of attacks.”

In April, Emotet malware attacks returned after a 10-month “spring break” with targeted phishing attacks linked to the threat actor known as TA542, which since 2014 has leveraged the Emotet malware with great success, according to a report by Proofpoint.

These attacks—which were being leveraged to deliver ransomware—came on the back of attacks in February and March hitting victims in Japan using hijacked email threads and then “using those accounts as a launch point to trick victims into enabling macros of attached malicious office documents,” Deep Instinct’s Everette wrote.

“Looking at the new threats coming from Emotet in 2022 we can see that there has been an almost 900 percent increase in the use of Microsoft Excel macros compared to what we observed in Q4 2021,” he wrote.

Emotet Rides Again

The attacks that followed in April targeted new regions beyond Japan and also demonstrated other characteristics signaling a ramp-up in activity and rise in sophistication of Emotet, Deep Instinct noted.

Emotet, like other threat groups, continues to leverage a more than 20-year-old Office bug that was patched in 2017, CVE-2017-11882, with nearly 20 percent of the samples that researchers observed exploiting this flaw. The Microsoft Office Memory corruption vulnerability allows an attacker to perform arbitrary code execution.

Nine percent of the new Emotet threats observed were never seen before, and 14 percent of the recent emails spreading the malware bypassed at least one email gateway security scanner before it was captured, according to Deep Instinct.

Emotet still primarily uses phishing campaigns with malicious attachments as its transportation of choice, with 45 percent of the malware detect using some type of Office attachment, according to Deep Instinct. Of these attachments, 33 percent were spreadsheets, 29 percent were executables and scripts, 22 percent were archives and 11 percent were documents.

Other notable changes to Emotet’s latest incarnation is its use of  64-bit shell code, as well as more advanced PowerShell and active scripts in attacks, according to Deep Instinct.

History of a Pervasive Threat

Emotet started its nefarious activity as a banking trojan in 2014, with its operators having the dubious honor of being one of the first criminal groups to provide malware-as-a-service (MaaS), Deep Instinct noted.

The trojan evolved over time to become a full-service threat-delivery mechanism, with the ability to install a collection of malware on victim machines, including information stealers, email harvesters, self-propagation mechanisms and ransomware. Indeed, Trickbot and the Ryuk and Conti ransomware groups have been habitual partners of Emotet, with the latter using the malware to gain initial entry onto targeted systems.

Emotet appeared to be put out of commission by an international law-enforcement collaborative takedown of a network of hundreds of botnet servers supporting the system in January 2021. But as often happens with cybercriminal groups, its operators have since regrouped and seem to be working once again at full power, researchers said.

In fact, in November 2021 when Emotet emerged again nearly a year after it went dark, it was on the back of its collaborator Trickbot. A team of researchers from Cryptolaemus, G DATA and AdvIntel separately observed the trojan launching a new loader for Emotet, signaling its return to the threat landscape.

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