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One IP to Host Them All: Uncovering a Sprawling Crime Ring

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On Monday May 28, 2018, during routine operations, Cofense Intelligence™ identified traits across several campaigns that indicated they were linked. In fact, this discovery helped to reveal a sprawling criminal enterprise that uses linked infrastructure to host nearly 100 domains, along with corresponding malware campaigns.

At the early stages of the investigation, it was not possible to tell whether the similarities were the fingerprints of a specific actor or group, or if they were simply the artifacts of an email-templating kit, many of which are sold on the Dark Web. Scraping a little dirt away from the surface, the link between the campaigns seemed to be more than the mere residue of an automated toolkit.

Not only did the emails share traits, but the malware being delivered used an interconnected C2 infrastructure. With a combination of OSINT, freely available tools and proprietary infrastructure, Cofense Intelligence was able to pivot from a single indicator of compromise, to uncover a widespread criminal network.

Note: all ‘From’ fields depicted in this blog were spoofed by the attacker.

The Campaigns

Table 1 lists the six campaigns and their respective subject lines.

Threat ID Subject Family
11802 RE: Bank Account Re-Confirmation URGENT!!! Pony
11801 Payment Advise Pony
11800 Ref Pony
11799 Re: Freight Remittance Pony
11797 RE: Problem with intermediary bank Pony

Table 1: Details of the campaigns that began the unmasking of this infrastructure

Despite there being a small amount of narrative overlap, each of these are generic enough to easily be construed as ‘just another Pony campaign’. The filenames used by these campaigns are as generic and distinct as the subject lines, as shown in Table 2.

Threat ID Filename MD5
11802 scan#0043221588FD_pdf.gz 00e3cd63809c75894140842662afa8ba
11802 scan#0043221588FD_pdf.exe e272d7929f073ad5590d39874414b609
11801 doc#00645511089ZQ_pdf.exe a73176f56c65e66c58361333ae90ff53
11801 doc#00645511089ZQ_pdf.gz 279f57837f1b2145bc7b506ed9bb53fc
11800 Final 148272fc803280662178e4241d11abbe
11800 Final invoice.exe dc9582e50bca2540db32cefca5e2d378
11799 scan#0015889820TT_pdf.gz 4706f193903e2b242ffe0f06e13eb755
11799 scan#0015889820TT_pdf.exe 8f8bafc1d733b00ef3a2bf1424b057e7
11798 Swift-Ref MIDLRZ31..exe 85fd5a8cf30be8e3c361dc082d5e3c3c
11798 Swift-Ref MIDLRZ31..arj 63d45d80cd7bfe71bd3252a7db8bc4a9
11797 scan_05a-028_pdf.exe 9fe3ba4abfb1cf6fe37a7658af972a2a
11797 scan_05a-028_pdf.arj f1ab0bc861284dde66a1dc0628ab8e66

Table 2: The files used across the six initial campaigns

A tighter correlation was starting to emerge. Threat IDs 11802, 11801, 11880 11799, and 11797 all had filenames suffixed with a mock double-extension of _pdf.exe, or

Although a pattern can be discerned between about 83% of the campaigns, the omission of the final piece of the puzzle – namely Threat ID 11800 – there is far more to observe and correlate. The headers for these messages provided yet another clue to their origin.

Figures 1 through 6 show example message headers for each of the campaigns.

Cofense Managed PDR service overview diagram

Figure 1: Example message header from Threat ID 11797

Cofense Triage incident response dashboard

Figure 2: Example message header from Threat ID 11798

Cofense Intelligence threat analysis interface

Figure 3: Example message header from Threat ID 11799

Cofense Vision advanced phishing analysis tool

Figure 4: Example message header from Threat ID 117800

Cofense Reporter email phishing reporting button

Figure 5: Example message header from Threat ID 11801

Cofense PhishMe phishing awareness training platform

Figure 6: Example message header from Threat ID 11802 with forged from domains highlighted

What can we glean from these message headers? An incredible amount of data. The first thing that should be noted is these messages all originated from servers running Exim MTA. In March of 2018, a critical vulnerability – 2018-6789 – allowed Remote Code Execution (RCE) on any version of Exim prior to 4.9.1. Although 5 out of 6 MTAs involved in these campaigns report as running version 4.9.1 – the version in which 2018-6789 was fixed – it’s almost certain that these servers were compromised prior to the patch being applied, and that the persistence mechanism injected into the compromised server is still functional.

There are several other circumstantial pieces of evidence in the header content:

  • The To: field is always set to ‘undisclosed-recipients;’
  • The messages all contain a single hop (one received from Header) or are proxied through a same-origin front end (the messages in campaign 11797 use SquirrelMail as an interface with Exim)
  • Except for 11797, all messages use a RoundCube User Agent
  • Many header fields contain the same random, faked email address or email address-like structure

Although programmatically difficult to describe with any accuracy, the email addresses, X-Sender, and Message ID fields all follow a very distinct pattern: a series of hex characters, an ‘@’ symbol, more hex characters, a dot, then a gTLD or ccTLD. Given the limited sample size, we can loosely describe this pattern with a regular expression: +@+.+

Parsing our example messages, we get a clearer understanding of these structures, as seen in Figure 7.

Cofense CBFree threat intelligence feed interface

Figure 7: Spoofed message headers containing random, hex-based email address and domains

Each individual element that we’ve discussed so far could be dismissed as circumstantial. To that end, we can begin working backwards, from an IoC chosen from Table 3, to a Threat ID, and associated messages.

Threat ID Block Data Type Impact
11802 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 IPv4 Address Minor
11802 hxxp://stauniverseqp[.]com/roks9/gate[.]php URL Major
11802 stauniverseqp[.]com Domain Name Major
11801 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 IPv4 Address Minor
11801 swift-be[.]com Domain Name Moderate
11801 hxxp://swift-be[.]com/roks7/gate[.]php URL Major
11800 swift-be[.]com Domain Name Major
11800 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 IPv4 Address Major
11800 hxxp://swift-be[.]com/roks6/gate[.]php URL Major
11799 hxxp://stauniverseqp[.].com/roks9/gate[.]php URL Major
11799 stauniverseqp[.]com Domain Name Moderate
11799 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 IPv4 Address Minor
11798 viettrust-vn[.]net Domain Name Moderate
11798 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 IPv4 Address Minor
11798 http://viettrust-vn[.]net/adin/gate[.]php URL Major
11797 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 IPv4 Address Minor
11797 http://swift-be[.]com/roks5/gate[.]php URL Major
11797 swift-be[.]com Domain Name Moderate

Table 3: IoCs associate with the six campaigns

Of note are the multiple different overlaps in the data. Threat IDs 11797, 11800, and 11801 share a domain. 11802, 11801, 11800, 11799, and 11797 all adhere to the same URL structure. Unfortunately, neither of these overlaps are conclusive nor ubiquitous throughout our data set. There is, however, a single node that will give us the perfect platform from which to pivot: the resolved IP address for each domain, is the same:


185[.]6[.]242[.]251 is the final stitch that secures the tapestry of these campaigns. Given the ease with which internet resources can be obtained by malicious actors, and the sheer number of candidates available, having the same IP used to house infrastructure across six campaigns removes any doubt about this being a coincidence.

This IP functions as a pivot from which we can invert our previous efforts –  in which we identified a campaign or campaigns and followed the trail until we reached an IoC – such that we can obtain campaign IDs from a single node.

We can now identify 48 distinct campaigns launched between 2018-04-13 12:45:03 and 2018-05-28 10:53:17. These campaigns served either Pony or Loki directly. Table 4 details a small subset of these findings.

Threat ID Block Data IP Family
11780 http://sunnynaturelstone[.]com/bally/five/fre[.]php 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 Loki
11751 http://dunysaki[.]ru/doncha-2/fred[.]php 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 Loki
11741 http://stauniverseqp[.]com/roks9/gate[.]php 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 Pony
11740 http://stauniverseqp[.]com/roks9/gate[.]php 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 Pony
11729 http://swift-be[.]com/roks7/gate[.]php 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 Pony
11696 http://joanread[.]ru/steph/fred[.]php 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 Loki

Table 4: Some additional campaigns identified after pivoting from 185[.]6[.]242[.]251

These campaigns included malicious files as seen in Table 5.

Threat ID Filename MD5
11780 61e85ba9cd0af9af699f5cab6fb65314
11780 SCAN_DOC.exe bc07cee626771b0b7decc39898bb2c10
11751 PO4521.XLS 5e1bbdb9cc30cd12e4727a39adc3250e
11751 msbu.exe c72240663e68b69dfed6650d93f5cadb
11741 doc#00089852205FZ_pdf.exe 218361dd4dce4cca77c2018991074e09
11741 doc#00089852205FZ_pdf.gz 68e7c7a2b3ea97ca7a38b3f12f222d36
11740 doc#00089852205FZ_pdf.gz 68e7c7a2b3ea97ca7a38b3f12f222d36
11740 doc#00089852205FZ_pdf.exe 218361dd4dce4cca77c2018991074e09
11729 invoice#1550013485GZ_pdf.gz 3e0b375e2a7bd99b3d104289d5f15ac5
11729 doc#001500011185GZ_pdf.exe 063888eed4aa7770f850b328a3cc7ab0
11696 511036970.XLS e0b87b8b812d5a4bf2dbb12aff744072
11696 153414.exe edae59ba0c5948e7bd0f45a1545ff585

Table 5: Companion malicious files to Table 4

Figures 8 through 10 provide example message headers for these campaigns.

Cofense Intelligence phishing threat map

Figure 8: Example message header from Threat ID 11729

Cofense Phishing Defense Center services overview

Figure 9: Example message header from Threat ID 11741

Cofense Vision phishing analysis heatmap

Figure 10: Example message header from Threat ID 11780

Messages in Threat IDs 11729 and 11740 show significant similarities with our initial six campaign message sets. Messages in 11780, however, are distinct from the observed consistencies in other campaigns. Despite being linked by the IP address, this campaign clearly bears no similarities with the other campaigns. This is likely because the actors controlling this campaign channel kept their tactics diverse, or the web server being used to host the C2s is shared among threat actors.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite demonstrating impressive correlation between Cofense™-identified campaigns, there is much more we can do to further investigate this infrastructure. Most importantly is to perform a Reverse DNS lookup to find domains hosted on an IP. Using an rDNS on our node, we can see what other sites may be lurking there. Table 6 details just such a lookup.

Domain IP Email Address/Domain Count Date Registered
Stauniverseqp[.]com 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 Grace[.]miller85@mail[.]ru 25 domains 2018-04-04
Theonlygoodman[.]com 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 greejames63@gmail[.]com 2 domains 2017-07-04
Domainsender[.]info 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 ifeanyiblunt@gmail[.]com 15 domains 2017-11-19
tiwana[.]website 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 rizmatseal@gmail[.]com 6 domains 2018-01-18
Sunnynaturelstone[.]com 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 Soft[.]mr@mail[.]ru 79 domains 2018-04-12
Uniqscans[.]com 185[.]6[.]242[.]251 whelas8@yandex[.]com 42 domains 2017-09-03

Table 6: A small subset domains hosted on our node, as found during our rDNS pivot on 185[.]6[.]242[.]251

At the time of writing, there are 24 domains that resolve to 185[.]6[.]242[.]251. Of these, 19 are registered with Freemail addresses; 5 are registered with WhoIs privacy guards. Drilling down into these email addresses reveals 206 additional domains. These domains directly correspond to 28 separate campaigns, as far back as May 22, 2017. This brings the total number of linked campaigns to 96.

Understanding the way threats interact is a key component of responsive, and in many cases, predictive analytics. By discovering a unique feature and pivoting intelligently, it’s possible to uncover a veritable mountain of data from a single, initial node. Adding in recursion can, for all intents and purposes, lead to an infinitely connected series of domains, IPs, URLs, and files. Intelligence deliverables, then, aren’t just about what one directly observes; they’re about inference, judgement, and tenacity.

Here’s a visualization of the data points in this blog:

Cofense Managed PDR services workflow

For a comprehensive analysis of the past year in malware, plus a look ahead, view the 2018 Cofense Malware Review.


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