Ransomware: Prices, Pressure and Protection

Ransomware: Prices, Pressure and Protection


Ransomware is the simplest way to monetize computer intrusions. Ransomware is thus the single greatest cyber-risk for corporations today. This blog post discusses ransomware prices, the pressure ransomware threat actors put on victims, and how companies can protect their assets.

Ransom amount

To estimate the currently demanded ransom amount, we analyzed ransomware samples available from OSINT sources. These are samples uploaded to various online services, such as online anti-virus scanning or malware analysis sandbox services, and thus shared with the security research community.

We have observed ransom demands spanning from US $100 up to US $10,000,000.

The highest ransom demand we observed was US $10,000,000. The Clop ransomware demanded it.

Clop US $ 10M ransom demand

While preparing this blog post, public reporting of a US $50,000,000 ransom demand has surpassed our observed maximum demand. It is essential to understand why such an enormous range in demanded ransom exists. Therefore, we will discuss ransom amount volatility in the next section.

Ransom amount volatility

Ransom demand is adjusted based on several factors. One factor is victimology, i.e., threat actors demand a higher ransom from large corporations than a private, individual computer user.

As a case study, we can take a look at the first campaign of the Avaddon ransomware. It was spread via malspam sent by the Phorpiex botnet. Hornetsecurity reported on this campaign.1 The Phorpiex botnet usually sends Sextortion spam and other low-quality threats. The demanded ransom by Avaddon at the time was only US $500. The ransomware deployment was fully automatic, i.e., once a victim executed the ransomware from the email attachment, it started to encrypt the victim’s computer. Higher-quality threat actors will specifically target large companies and use the initial infection for reconnaissance first. After they have mapped the company’s network and identified all assets, they start the ransomware on many of the company’s computer systems simultaneously. This way they can demand more ransom because restoring the entire company computer infrastructure from backups is much harder than to restore a single encrypted computer.

During our research we found a recent Avaddon ransomware sample with a ransom demand of US $3,000,000. This is much higher than Avaddon’s previous demand of only US $500.

Avaddon ransomware US $3M ransom demand

The demand above is addressed to a large company—and this is what is driving the difference in ransom demand. The threat actors will adjust the ransom to how much they think they can get. Thus, there are no clear figures when it comes to ransom demands. Sometimes ransomware threat actors will even analyze the financial documents found on a company’s internal network to discover how much ransom they can demand or how much the company’s cyber-insurance coverage for ransomware will pay.


For higher tier, human-operated ransomware, demanded amounts are often simply asking prices and are the basis for negotiation. The ransomware operators know that getting only a fraction of what they asked for is better than getting nothing. Hence, they are willing to negotiate.

Smaller automated ransomware pricing is mostly fixed, and if the ransomware operation offers ” support” at all, it is only provided to assist victims in obtaining the cryptocurrency needed to pay the ransom. The following are chat logs with the “support” of the Adhubllka (named after the .adhubllka extension it adds to encrypted files) ransomware. The ransomware executable was attached to the email within a ZIP file and distributed via the Phorpiex botnet in an unsophisticated but fully automated ransomware attack—in an identical fashion as the first Avaddon ransomware campaign we reported on.1

Adhubllka ransomware offers no negotiation

So while there is human-operated “support” even in low-tier mass delivered automated ransomware operations, this “support” is not entitled to negotiate. We traced the total earnings of their campaign, which were 0 BTC, so giving in to our fake demands for a discount would have potentially made them US $1,000. But as said, low-tier automated ransomware operations usually do not offer negotiations.

Putting pressure on ransomware victims

Some ransomware operators provide additional “services.” These are actions designed to pressure victims into paying the demanded ransom.


Ransomware leaksites are Tor hidden service websites on which ransomware threat actors threaten to publish data stolen from victim computer networks before encrypting them if the victim refuses to pay the ransom. We have reported on this practice.2


Ransomware actors may also, in addition to the already existing issue with encrypted files, DDoS a victim network. One ransomware operation doing so is SunCrypt.

Suncrypt DDOS

Harassing the victim’s customers and/or business partners

Another tactic is to “notify” the victim’s customers and/or business partners of the compromise. This can happen via spam emails—for example, the threat actors behind the Clop ransomware are using this tactic in the following message:

Clop email to victim customers and/or business partners

Spamming journalists and news outlets

Ransomware actors will also “notify” journalists and news outlets of the data breach with instructions on where to download the leaked data. Here is again an example of the Clop ransomware using this tactic.

Clop email to journalists and news outlets

Notifying authorities

Some ransomware operations also threaten to inform the responsible data protection authorities about the breach if the victim does not pay the ransom. They will often cite the EU GDPR and the potential fines that authorities can incur for data leaks.

Prices for ransomware

The cost for a threat actor to acquire ransomware software varies. A threat actor can develop their own ransomware. This will only incur the development time as a cost. However, many criminals are technically unable to develop malware themselves or it is too much additional work. Alternatively, they can buy, rent, subscribe and/or partner with a ransomware developer and/or operator. To this end, the ransomware developer can sell the entire source code of their ransomware software for a one-time payment. However, this is often not attractive given the large ransom payments generated with such ransomware software. But demanding tens or even hundreds of thousands of US $ for the ransomware software may not get the software sold, as a ransom payment is not guaranteed.

To resolve this, ransomware as a service (RaaS) operations established themselves. A threat actor with access or means to access company networks can rent, subscribe and/or partner with a ransomware operation. The threat actor gets the ready-made ransomware software for deployment on victim computer systems. In contrast, the ransomware operator provides the ransomware software and—if available and/or necessary—the backend infrastructure for the ransomware, such as an online ransomware portal to support victims in buying and using the decryption software.

Like the demanded ransom, the price for ransomware varies. The entry price can be as low as hundreds of US $, as can be seen from the following example offers from the Egalyty ransomware.

Egalyty ransomware offering

Profit-sharing affiliate schemes will split the paid ransom between the party supplying the ransomware and the party facilitating the intrusion. Also, here, the split ratio widely varies. While we have seen notices in cybercrime forums offering 90% of the ransom to the intruding party, this is not the norm.

Cheap ransomware affiliate program offering

The usual reported split ratio for well-established ransomware affiliate programs only awards 10% to 30% of the ransom to the intruding party.

Conclusion and Countermeasures

These new developments in ransomware tactics make malware infections more dangerous to businesses than ever before. While good backups, preferably using the 3-2-1 backup strategy,3 helped against classic ransomware attacks, they do not provide any protection against private and/or confidential data being intentionally leaked to the public. The broad announcement of the data leak to business partners and customers will cause further damage and loss of reputation to victims, business partners, and customers. Worse still, competitors will also get unfettered access to internal documents, such as contracts, pricing, research, and development results. The media will start contacting the affected company, causing further stress in the ransomware crisis. Additionally, suppose the network is DDoS’d. It would be tough to recover from that situation, as this will likely affect any remaining network infrastructure a company might have to relay information, such as its public website.

Next, do not upload the ransomware that infected you to the Internet. Even though online services such as VirusTotal or other online sandboxes are convenient, they grant registered users access to the sample. The URL of the ransomware note may point at a “support” website that features an online chat for negotiation. These online chats are accessible to anyone with access to the data in the ransom note, thus everyone with access to the ransomware sample. So if you, in addition to all the other problems, do not want media outlets to leak your negotiation chat logs, keep your ransomware samples private. Or follow good practice and do not negotiate but share the ransomware sample with the security research community.

Paying a ransom is not recommended anyway:
1. The data breach remains. Even if a company pays to have the leaked data deleted, it must adhere to its respective breach notification laws.
2. Paying a ransom to a threat actor located in a country on sanction lists can violate trade and/or export sanction laws and cause the victim even more trouble in the long run.
3. There is no guarantee of decryption nor that leaked data is deleted.
Once leaked data has already been downloaded from the leaksite, there is no way to contain the leak.

Hornetsecurity, with its cloud offerings, can help organizations to prepare and prevent ransomware. Hornetsecurity’s Spam and Malware Protection, with the highest detection rates on the market and Hornetsecurity’s Advanced Threat Protection can detect and quarantine email-based malware attacks before they can lead to a ransomware infection. Hornetsecurity’s Email Archiving is a legally compliant, fully automated audit-proof email archiving solution for long-term, unchangeable and secure storage of important company information, data, and files. This way, important communication cannot be destroyed by ransomware.

But even if your company is affected by ransomware, offerings such as Hornetsecurity’s Email Continuity Service will keep your email communication available if ransomware has put your local mail server out of service.


Email Threat Review March 2021

Email Threat Review March 2021


In this first installment of our monthly email threat review, we present an overview of the email-based threats observed in March 2021.

Unwanted emails by category

The following table shows the distribution of unwanted emails by categories.

Email category %
Rejected 78.91
Spam 16.08
Threat 3.99
AdvThreat 0.98
Content 0.03

The following time histogram shows the email volume per category per hour.

Filetypes used in attacks

The spike from 2021-03-20 to 2021-03-23 in rejected emails can be attributed to a large sextortion spam campaign. The emails used the German language.

Sextortion spam wave email example

As of 2021-03-28, the scammers have received three payments for a total of 0.10492057 BTC, equating to 5,267.36 € (around three times the asked extortion fee).


The listed email categories correspond to the email categories listed in the Email Live Tracking of Hornetsecurity’s Control Panel. So our users are already familiar with them. For others, the categories are:

Category Description
Spam These emails are unwanted and are often promotional or fraudulent. The emails are sent simultaneously to a large number of recipients.
Content These emails have an invalid attachment. The administrators define in the Content Control module which attachments are invalid.
Threat These emails contain dangerous content, such as malicious attachments or links, or they are sent to commit crimes, such as phishing.
AdvThreat Advanced Threat Protection has detected a threat in these emails. The emails are used for illegal purposes and involve sophisticated technical means that can only be fended off using advanced dynamic procedures.
Rejected Our email server rejects these emails directly during the SMTP dialog because of external characteristics, such as the identity of the sender, and the emails are not analyzed further.

Filetypes used in attacks

The following table shows the distribution of file types used in attacks.

Filetypes (used in malicous emails) %
Archive 38.3
HTML 16.4
Excel 12.0
PDF 10.6
Executable 7.6
Other 6.7
Disk image files 4.1
Word 3.6
Script file 0.4
Powerpoint 0.3
Email 0.0
LNK file 0.0

The following time histogram shows the email volume per file type used in attack per 7 days.

Filetypes used in attacks

Archives (.zip, .rar, .gzip, .ace, .tar.gz, etc.) are more popular. The most prevalent use for archives in attacks is compressing the malware executable and attaching it directly to the attack email. This is done in hopes that the targeted email system is not able to scan compressed attachments. Low-quality criminal threat actors often use this technique as it does not require any technical expertise. Another use for archives is to compress malicious documents. This is also done to reduce detection.

HTML files (.htm, .html, etc.) are used either for phishing, having the phishing website attached directly to the email1 (thus circumventing URL filters), redirecting victims to websites for malware downloads2 (again to not directly include a clickable URL in the email), or social engineering.

Excel files (.xls, .xlsm, .xlsx, .xslb, etc.) with their XLM macros have gained popularity last year. Unlike VBA macros malware, XLM macro malware is less detected and thus favored by many threat actors.3,4 In fact, many threat actors use the same malicious document generator called “EtterSilent” to generate their XLM macro documents.

PDFs (.pdf) use embedded links or other social engineering lures.4

Attaching executables (.exe) directly to emails is the laziest approach. It is used mainly by low-quality criminal threat actors.

Disk image files (.iso, .img, etc.) are used similarly to archives.5 Windows can automatically mount disk image files similarly to ZIP files.

Industry Email Threat Index

The following table shows our Industry Email Threat Index calculated based on the number of threat emails compared to clean emails received (in median) by each industry.

Industries Share of threat in threat and clean emails
Research industry 6.9
Manufacturing industry 6.5
Healthcare industry 6.1
Education industry 6.0
Media industry 5.9
Mining industry 5.7
Entertainment industry 5.4
Hospitality industry 5.2
Automotive industry 5.1
Retail industry 5.0
Transport industry 4.8
Construction industry 4.6
Utilities 4.6
Agriculture industry 4.4
Information technology industry 4.4
Unknown 4.4
Professional service industry 4.4
Financial industry 3.9
Real estate industry 3.7
Logistics industry 3.1

The following bar chart visualizes the email-based threat posed to each industry.

Hornetsecurity Industry Email Threat Index


Different (sized) organizations receive a different absolute number of emails. Thus, to compare organizations, we calculated the percent share of threat emails from each organization’s threat and clean emails. We then calculate the median of these percent values overall organizations within the same industry to form the industry’s final threat score.

Attack techniques

The following table shows the attack technique used in attacks.

Attack technique %
Phishing 28.0
Other 25.7
URL 23.2
Extortion 12.1
Executable in archive/disk-image 4.9
Advance-fee scam 3.1
Impersonation 2.6
Maldoc 0.4
LNK 0.0

The following time histogram shows the email volume per attack technique used per hour.

Attack techniques

From 2021-03-20 to 2021-03-23 we can see an increase in extortion emails. These are the emails of the sextortion campaign discussed previously that were not already caught by our RBL. This illustrates how Hornetsecurity’s multi-layered filtering system works. Spammers will always acquire IPs that are not blacklisted by RBLs. But these emails will simply be caught by one of our later filter stages. The data of filtered emails is analyzed and the new clean IPs of the spammers are added to the RBL. This way, our systems can also handle large-scale attacks with ease.

Impersonated company brands

The following table shows which company brands our systems detected most in impersonation attacks.

Impersonated brand %
Deutsche Post / DHL 19.7
Amazon 16.4
Facebook 8.8
PayPal 4.6
1&1 3.9
Microsoft 3.7
DocuSign 3.2
O2 2.7
HSBC 1.7
Other Rest

The following time histogram shows the email volume for company brands detected in impersonation attacks per hour.

Impersonated company brands

It’s a constant stream of phishing and other attacks impersonating big brands to entice recipients to open the emails.

Highlighted threat email campaigns

In this section, we want to highlight some malspam campaigns of prominent, well-known threat actors.

The following table shows a list of highlighted threat email campaigns with their email volume share among the highlighted threat email campaigns.

Highlighted threat email campaign %
Dridex (via Cutwail) 47.7
Hancitor (Fake DocuSign email with Google Doc link) 16.1
TrickBot (XLS,XLSB) 14.5
QakBot (XLS in ZIP) 14.1
LemonDuck (XLSM in ZIP) 4.8
IcedID (XLSM in ZIP) 1.4
Ursnif (via Cutwail) 1.1
Lokibot (EXE in RAR) 0.2
Gozi (DOC) 0.0

Please be advised that this does not contain all campaigns. The ranking, as well as volume figures, should therefore not be taken as a global ranking. We strive to expand this section of our reporting in the future.

The following time histogram shows the email volume for highlighted threat email campaigns per hour.

Highlighted threat email campaigns

We can see that the malspam waves of the selected campaigns have well defined start and end points, unlike less sophisticated mass-spam email campaigns, which will send email in a constant stream.

From the data, we can see that volume-wise the Cutwail botnet dominates. It mainly distributed Dridex malware (via various malicious document attachments) and Ursnif. Another large volume campaign was Hancitor malware spread via emails pretending to be from DocuSign using links to malware hosted on Google Docs.


Hornetsecurity observes hundreds and thousands of different threat email campaigns of varying threat actors ranging from very unsophisticated low-effort attacks to highly complex obfuscated attack schemes. Our highlighting includes only major sophisticated threat email campaigns.


Threat actors continue to leak data stolen from ransomware victims in an attempt to pressure them into paying not only for decrypting the files encrypted by the ransomware but also for not make the data stolen before encryption public. We observed the following number of leaks on ransomware leaksites:

Leaksite Number of victim data leaks
Darkside 57
Pysa 38
Conti 36
Avaddon 27
Cl0p 23
REvil 19
Babuk 17
MountLocker 7
Nephilim 7
Doppelpaymer 6
Astro Team 5
Ragnarok 2
RansomEXX 2

The following bar chart visualizes the number of victim data leaks per leaksite.


A new entry to the list is the Astro Team ransomware leaksite.

Astro Team leaksite


We hope you found the first installment of our monthly email threat review informative. Get back next month for more and updated email threat landscape insights.


Zloader email campaign using MHTML to download and decrypt XLS

Zloader email campaign using MHTML to download and decrypt XLS


Zloader1 malware (associated with the kev configuration tag) is spreading via malspam using MIME encapsulation of aggregate HTML documents (MHTML)5 attachments. These MHTML files contain a Word document with VBA macros. The VBA macro code downloads and decrypts a password-protected XLS file, and after that, the XLS file decodes and executes the Zloader malware embedded within it.


In February 2020, campaigns distributing Zloader ramped up usage of XLM (also known as Excel 4.0) macros. Detection of this old spreadsheet-based by design self-modifiable macro code format by anti-virus software is far lower than detection of regular sequential not by design self-modifiable plain-text VBA macro source code. We already highlighted the abuse of XLM macros in previous reports, e.g., XLM macros used to spread QakBot2 or BazarLoader3. However, as detection for XLM macro code has picked up with even Microsoft adding XLM macro support to AMSI4, threat actors continue to evolve.

Starting in January 2021, Hornetsecurity took notice of a new Zloader campaign using MHTML attachments. MIME encapsulation of aggregate HTML documents (MHTML)5 is a web page archive format used to combine multiple files into one. It used base64 encoding and MIME-boundaries similar to multipart MIME encoding in emails. Microsoft Word can open documents stored inside MHTML files.

Technical Analysis

The chain of infection of the Zloader MHTML campaign is as follows:

Zloader kev MHTML campaign chain of infection

We will now outline each step of the attack chain.


The attack starts with emails.

Januar (first wave)

The first emails were designed and built like purchase invoices.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign January email

The wording and pretext changed between emails of this campaign. However, the general “invoicing” theme remained constant.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign January email

Initial email attacks were of low volume, the emails templates above have not been used much.


In February, contract pretexts were added to the mix of invoice pretexts.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign February email

At one point, the numero sign () was used instead of the number sign (#).

Zloader kev MHTML campaign February email

After that, with recent changes to the email template, the campaign’s volume started to increase sharply.


The campaign targets international, Canadian, US, and British companies, mainly English-speaking users.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign by targeted recipient country

However, the time histogram shows that on 2021-02-15, the majority of Zloader MHTML emails were destined for Canadian recipients.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign time histogram

The estimated distribution of recipients by industries would suggest a bias towards the professional services industry, i.e., consultancies, freelancers, funeral homes, law firms, etc.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign time histogram

MHTML documents

The MHTML document’s extension was set to .doc, so Microsoft Word will open the documents directly.

The smaller January campaign and later February campaign MHTML document’s main difference is the image instructing the user to “enable content” and “enable editing”, i.e., activating macro execution.

The January campaign lure image looks as follows:

Zloader kev MHTML campaign January MHTML document

The February campaign lure image looks as follows:

Zloader kev MHTML campaign February MHTML document

The MHTML document is an ASCII document featuring multiple MIME-parts.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign MHTML document in ASCII

One MIME-part contains the lure image.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign MHTML document MIME-parts

The other parts contain an application/vnd.ms-officetheme and an application/x-mso file. Which (in addition to the text/xml files) are used by Microsoft Word to load the embedded Word document.

The document will automatically execute the macro code on closing the document:

Zloader kev MHTML campaign MHTML document VBA macro document close

The VBA code uses UserForm objects for obfuscation.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign MHTML document VBA macro userforms

Within the ComboBox objects’ initialization code in the UserForm objects and various other mechanisms, a download URL and a password are assembled and used within a call to the VBA function CallByName. This calls the Workbook object’s open function with the fileName parameter set to the download URL, the Password parameter set to the assembled password, and the other optional parameters left empty.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign MHTML document VBA macro userforms

The call will cause Word to open Excel and download the encrypted XLS file from the URL https://findinglala[.]com/down/doc.xls?ekyh_vD91041.z4730435.doc. Excel will use the provided password to decrypt the document.

The XLS document will use XLM macros to decode and use rundll32.exe to execute an embedded Zloader payload.


Zloader is a fork of the famous Zeus banking Trojan. It is a loader that allows its operator to load additional malware onto infected devices.

Coarse dynamic analysis

The via rundll32.exe started Zloader process from the XLS document will spawn a suspended msiexec.exe process and inject code into it.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

First, the original DLL running in rundll32.exe starts a msiexec.exe process.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

Then, WriteProcessMemory is used to write code into it.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

Eventually, the Zloader code running in rundll32.exe resumes the thread in the msiexec.exe process via NtResumeThread and the injected code starts running.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

Zloader will then generate a lot of random directories in %APPDATA%\Roaming.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

It then copies the original DLL into one of the folders. To this end, it first reads the original DLL into memory.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

In the next step, data from the DLL is being written back into a new file.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

The other folders remain empty but can be used at later points in time to hold additional data.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

The original DLL is deleted.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis

Eventually, C2 communication initializes.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader dynamic analysis


The Zloader DLL injected into msiexec.exe can be extracted either automatically via the open-source CAPE sandbox, manually dumped by breaking on NtResumeThread in the original rundll32.exe process, then dumping the msiexec.exe process, or semi-automatically by using a tool such as hollows_hunter5 (or PE-Sieve).

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader unpacking

The following analysis was performed on a Zloader DLL dumped from the msiexec.exe process.


The Zloader malware is obfuscated. It makes extensive use of junk code, i.e., adding program instructions that do not contribute to the program logic with the sole purpose of complicating analysis. Further, it often calls complicated functions to perform trivial calculations, making the code appear very complex. For example, the following is a function that performs the binary AND operation on two parameters. The code is littered with such junk code.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader obfuscation

Dynamic library, function and string resolution

Functions are dynamically resolved at runtime via a hash lookup. Instead of calling a function directly, a proxy function returning a pointer to the desired function is called. The following example shows the function with which Zloader deletes its original file. The function we named zl_get_func received two parameters, the first is a library ID (0 is ntdll) and the second is a hash of the function name that should be called.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader get function

This is standard practice in modern malware, so no suspicious imports are present in the binary. It also makes a static analysis more complicated.

Obviously, the hash calculation also uses the previous mentioned junk code obfuscation.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader function hash

However, it can be reimplemented in Python as follows.

def zl_hash(func_name):
    func_name = func_name.lower()
    hash = 0
    for c in func_name:
        a = 0 - (hash << 4)
        hash = 0 - (a - ord(c))
        b = 0x647400ac ^ 0x947400ac
        b = hash & (~(b ^ hash))
        if b != 0:
            d = 0x647400ac ^ 0x6b8bff53
            hash = (b >> 0x18) ^ (d & hash)
    return hash

With this function calls can be de-obfuscated.

Strings are XOR encoded with a static repeating ASCII keystream.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader string decode


The Zloader configuration is RC4 encrypted with a key using only ASCII as keyspace.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader config decode

The data at the location we labeled zl_encrypted_config can be decoded with the ASCII string handed as the second parameter to the function we named zl_decrypt_config. Consequently, the configuration of the Zloader sample will be revealed.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign Zloader configuration

The configuration contains a botnet name the particular sample is associated with, a campaign ID (presumably for the threat actors to keep track of infections per campaign), an RC4 key (used to encrypt and decrypt updated configuration stored in the registry) and last but not least a list of command and control URLs the malware should connect to for commands and updates.

We provide an update to the DC3-MWCP script included with the open-source CAPE sandbox that handles configuration extraction for the analyzed Zloader sample in the appendix. It helps automating the configuration extraction.

Malware objectives

The configurations of downloaded pieces of Zloader malware associates them with the kev botnet. The kev ID has been publicly observed since December 2020.

Zloader has been identified as an access vector for Ryuk and Egregor ransomware deployments. Whether the installments associated with the kev configuration tag are part of this or a different ransomware operation is currently unknown. However, by the direction the current threat landscape is moving, it is highly likely the malware is also used to deploy ransomware.

Conclusion and Countermeasures

Spreading the attack into multiple encoded stages (document in HMTL; payload URL in UserForms; download of password-protected XLS; decoding of Zloader payload from decrypted XLS) shows that much effort was put into evading detection. Even after the campaign ran for several weeks, the initial MHTML documents still only got 7 out of 61 detections when first scanned on VirusTotal.

Zloader kev MHTML campaign MHTML document VirusTotal scan

The unusual MHTML encoding of the initial Word document can pose problems for security software unfamiliar with this format. Its initial layer must be parsed differently from OLE/CDF/OpenXML-based Office documents and being ASCII plain-text may completely bypass some detections. For network-based protection software, it is impossible to investigate the intermediary downloaded XLS document with the Zloader payload – because it is encrypted. Another struggle is the low level of maliciousness of the initial Word document. While downloads from documents should always be deemed at least suspicious, in this case, only another Excel document was download. Some business workflows may require Word documents to download resources from web. Consequently, the observed behaviour may fly under the radar. Hence, spreading the malicious components (download; dropper; Zloader malware) over multiple stages can bypass detection for some security solutions.

Hornetsecurity’s Spam and Malware Protection detects and quarantines the outlined threat. Hornetsecurity’s Advanced Threat Protection extends this protection by also detecting yet unknown threats.



DC3-MWCP / CAPE configuration parser

The following DC3-MWCP configuration parser is an update to CAPE’s Zloader parser and can be used as a drop in replacement (additionally we opened a pull request with the upstream project):

# Copyright (C) 2020 Kevin O'Reilly (kevoreilly@gmail.com)
# This program is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify
# it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
# the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or
# (at your option) any later version.
# This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful,
# but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of
# GNU General Public License for more details.
# You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License
# along with this program.  If not, see <http://www.gnu.org/licenses/>.

from mwcp.parser import Parser
import struct
import string
import pefile
import yara
import re
from Crypto.Cipher import ARC4
import logging
log = logging.getLogger(__name__)

rule_source = '''
rule Zloader
        author = "kevoreilly"
        description = "Zloader Payload"
        cape_type = "Zloader Payload"
        $rc4_init = {31 [1-3] 66 C7 8? 00 01 00 00 00 00 90 90 [0-5] 8? [5-90] 00 01 00 00 [0-15] (74|75)}
        $decrypt_conf = {e8 ?? ?? ?? ?? e8 ?? ?? ?? ?? e8 ?? ?? ?? ?? e8 ?? ?? ?? ?? 68 ?? ?? ?? ?? 68 ?? ?? ?? ?? e8 ?? ?? ?? ?? 83 c4 08 e8 ?? ?? ?? ??}
        uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and any of them


yara_rules = yara.compile(source=rule_source)

def decrypt_rc4(key, data):
    cipher = ARC4.new(key)
    return cipher.decrypt(data)

def string_from_offset(data, offset):
    string = data[offset : offset + MAX_STRING_SIZE].split(b"\0")[0]
    return string

class Zloader(Parser):

    DESCRIPTION = 'Zloader configuration parser'
    AUTHOR = 'kevoreilly'

    def run(self):
        filebuf = self.file_object.file_data
        pe = pefile.PE(data=filebuf, fast_load=False)
        image_base = pe.OPTIONAL_HEADER.ImageBase
        matches = yara_rules.match(data=filebuf)
        if not matches:
        for match in matches:
            if match.rule != "Zloader":
            for item in match.strings:
                if '$decrypt_conf' in item[1]:
                    decrypt_conf = int(item[0])+21
        va = struct.unpack("I",filebuf[decrypt_conf:decrypt_conf+4])[0]
        key = string_from_offset(filebuf, pe.get_offset_from_rva(va-image_base))
        data_offset = pe.get_offset_from_rva(struct.unpack("I",filebuf[decrypt_conf+5:decrypt_conf+9])[0]-image_base)
        enc_data = filebuf[data_offset:].split(b"\0\0")[0]
        raw = decrypt_rc4(key, enc_data)
        items = list(filter(None, raw.split(b'\x00\x00')))
        self.reporter.add_metadata("other", {"Botnet name": items[1].lstrip(b'\x00')})
        self.reporter.add_metadata("other", {"Campaign ID": items[2]})
        for item in items:
            item = item.lstrip(b'\x00')
            if item.startswith(b'http'):
                self.reporter.add_metadata("address", item)
            elif len(item) == 16:
                self.reporter.add_metadata("other", {"RC4 key": item})

Indicators of Compromise (IOCs)



  • Agreement information#?[0-9]+
  • Agreement info#?[0-9]+
  • Contract info#?[0-9]+
  • Contract information#?[0-9]+
  • Payment data#?[0-9]+
  • Invoicing data#?[0-9]+
  • Contract data#?[0-9]+
  • Invoicing information#?[0-9]+
  • Invoice data#?[0-9]+
  • Invoicing details#?[0-9]+
  • Payment info#?[0-9]+
  • Invoicing info#?[0-9]+
  • Agreement data#?[0-9]+
  • Contract details#?[0-9]+
  • Invoice information#?[0-9]+
  • Invoice details#?[0-9]+
  • Payment information#?[0-9]+
  • Invoice info#?[0-9]+
  • Agreement details#?[0-9]+
  • Payment details#?[0-9]+
  • Important agreement #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential contract No. #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential agreement No. #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important contract No. #?[0-9]+ update
  • Important contract №#?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential agreement Number #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary contract №#?[0-9]+ update
  • Important contract № #?[0-9]+ update
  • Important agreement No. #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important agreement #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary agreement Number #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important contract № #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important contract #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important agreement № #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Essential contract #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential agreement No. #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary agreement Number #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary contract № #?[0-9]+ update
  • Important agreement Number #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential contract No. #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important contract #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential agreement #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary agreement № #?[0-9]+ update
  • Important agreement No. #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary contract Number #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary contract No. #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary agreement #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential contract Number #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Essential contract № #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Essential agreement №#?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary agreement №#?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential contract Number #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary contract No. #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important contract №#?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important agreement № #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential contract №#?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Essential contract #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary contract №#?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary agreement #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important contract Number #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary contract #?[0-9]+ update
  • Important agreement №#?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential contract №#?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential agreement №#?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary contract #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important agreement Number #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Essential agreement № #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary agreement № #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Essential agreement Number #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Essential contract № #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary contract Number #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary agreement No. #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential agreement № #?[0-9]+ update
  • Essential agreement #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important contract No. #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary agreement No. #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important contract Number #?[0-9]+ update
  • Necessary contract № #?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Necessary agreement №#?[0-9]+ documentation
  • Important agreement №#?[0-9]+ documentation


The following regular expressions describe the attachment names used in the campaigns:

  • ([a-z]{4,8}_){1,2}[a-z]{4,8}[0-9]+.doc
  • [A-z0-9][A-z][0-9]+.doc


Hashes of publicly available files:

MD5 Filename Description
6743ca84f7e9929c2179238e20934f57 nG772044.doc Zloader MHTML document
7a888f899a4850f02bad194bf01daaa7 eU107462.doc Zloader MHTML document
35ee0681eb3076674e01efec565f663b L1978883.doc Zloader MHTML document
25e2cffc5621cab99bd0a36d234c234f QG915014.doc Zloader MHTML document
222cb61e1041f3e4dbdc3493572388e6 dY433632.doc Zloader MHTML document


  • https://findinglala[.]com/down/doc.xls?ekyh_vD91041.z4730435.doc


  • findinglala[.]com
  • funkstarnews[.]com
  • heavenlygem[.]com
  • 2tut[.]com
  • khalilmouna[.]com
BazarLoader’s Elaborate Flower Shop Lure

BazarLoader’s Elaborate Flower Shop Lure


Since 2021-01-20 Hornetsecurity observes a new malspam campaign using a fake flower shop in an elaborate social engineering lure to spread the BazarLoader malware. The campaign sends invoices from a fake flower shop in hopes that potential victims will manually find the fake flower shop website and download the BazarLoader malware.

In order to lure the victims into providing manual assistance the campaign setup a fully functional flower shop website and can thus evade automated detection schemes looking for malicious content, as the malicious download will be manually downloaded by the victim following several manual steps of the social engineering trap.


BazarLoader1 is a malware loader attributed to a threat actor with a close relation to the TrickBot malware. The threat actor is tracked under the name Team9 (Cybereason) or UNC1878 (FireEye).

BazarLoader is also aptly named KEGTAP by FireEye, as in a device used to open a beer keg, because it is used to “open” the network of victims for follow up malware in order to move laterally on the network and eventually deploy the Ryuk ransomware.2

We have previously reported on a BazarLoader campaign using an employment termination social engineering lure to spread its malware.3

The observed campaign started on 2021-01-21 and is ongoing.

BazarLoader campaign subject histogram

It uses various subjects referring to an invoice from the Rose World flower shop. Spoiler: The flower shop isn’t real. The attached invoice is an elaborate social engineering scam to trick victims into downloaded the BazarLoader malware.

Technical Analysis

The following analysis outlines each step of BazarLoader’s new elaborate social engineering campaign.


The attack starts with an email.

BazarLoader flower shop email

The email pretends to be an invoice from the Rose World online store, an online flower shop.


Attached to the email is a PDF invoice.

BazarLoader flower shop PDF

The PDF has no clickable links. It however features a domain name under the address of the supposed invoicing party.

BazarLoader flower shop URL in PDF

Fake Flower Shop

When the recipient visits this domain a webshop for flowers is presented.

BazarLoader fake flower shop

Even though this is a fake shop it features

  • an about page

BazarLoader flower shop fake about us page

  • a blog

BazarLoader flower shop fake blog

  • a shop with fully functional checkout cart, wish list, and Twitter and Facebook share buttons

BazarLoader flower shop

However, the checkout fails because allegedly there are no available payment methods.

BazarLoader fake flower shop fake checkout

The checkout is the only thing not working on the fake shop. Thus it is very hard to identify this as a malicious website.

The Lure

Because the shop looks legit a recipient will likely try to contact the shop owner to clear up the invoice they falsely received. To do so, they visit the contact us section of the fake shop.

BazarLoader fake flower shop contact us page

Here is one last indicator that something is not quite right. The Google Maps frame is in Russian language, while the rest of the webshop pretends to be from the United States of America. However, a victim will likely continue to the convenient order number entry field.

BazarLoader social engineering lure

When the victim enters the order number – in fact any input will suffice – they are redirected via a loading screen.

BazarLoader fake loading page

The loading page is also fake, the content is already loaded under the loading page overlay.

Next, the victim is presented instructions on how to download and execute the malware.

BazarLoader flower shop malware download instructions

It includes instructions to bypass the malicious file download warning on Google Chrome.

BazarLoader flower shop malware download instructions

It even includes instructions to bypass Windows security features preventing the file from being executed because it was downloaded from the Internet.

BazarLoader flower shop malware execution instructions

The “Request Form” link will download a malicious document from hxxps[:]//rosedelivery[.]us/.

Malicious Document

The malicious document pretends to be protected by DocuSign and macros need to be allowed to decrypt it.

BazarLoader flower shop malicious document

The XLM macro code will download the BazarLoader executable from hxxps[:]//www.smowengroup[.]com/fer/iertef.php and execute it.

BazarLoader flower shop malicious XLM macro script

The BazarLoader uses the decentralized Emerald DNS system based on the Emercoin blockchain to establish its C2 communication. It will download and install the BazarBackdoor1. This backdoor will be used to move laterally in the victim’s network in order to take over the domain controller. Eventually the intrusion is monetized by deploying the Ryuk2 ransomware.


The campaign is targeted towards US companies. We conclude this from the email, PDF, fake webshop, but also from the recipients, which are US companies and/or international companies with a US presence.

Conclusion and Countermeasures

The new BazarLoader campaign does not feature malicious indicators in its emails, such as macro documents or clickable URLs. It rather relies on an elaborate social engineering lure to lead the victim towards finding and downloading the malware themselves rather then directly handing it over. The amount of manual work required by victims makes this campaign difficult to detect via automated measures. This is why Hornetsecurity is closely tracking malspam operations by threat actors to quickly engage newly emerging threats. Hence Hornetsecurity is already aware of this new elaborate social engineering scheme to distribute the BazarBackdoor and Hornetsecurity’s Spam and Malware Protection, already quarantines the new BazarLoader emails.


Indicators of Compromise (IOCs)



  • Congratulations on the latest purchase you have made!Your order number is KCD[0-9]{8}G.
  • Congratulations on your purchase from our store! Your order number is KCD[0-9]{8}G.
  • Order Confirmed. Your order number KCD[0-9]{8}G will be send to you soon.
  • Purchase confirmation for order number KCD[0-9]{8}G
  • Thanks for your order, your order number KCD[0-9]{8}G.
  • Thank you for using the (Rose Deliver|Rose World) stores service. Your order number is KCD[0-9]{8}G.
  • Thank you for your order from the (Rose Deliver|Rose World) online shop, your order number is KCD[0-9]{8}G.
  • Thank you for your order from the (Rose Deliver|Rose World) online store, your order number is KCD[0-9]{8}G.
  • Thank you for your purchase, your order number is KCD[0-9]{8}G.
  • You have formed an order KCD[0-9]{8}G from (Rose Deliver|Rose World) online store.
  • Your order No. KCD[0-9]{8}G has been completed by (Rose Deliver|Rose World).

Representation was condensed by using the following regex patterns: KCD[0-9]{8}G, (Rose Deliver|Rose World)

Attachment Filenames

  • invoice_KCD[0-9]{8}G.pdf

Representation was condensed by using the following regex patterns: KCD[0-9]{8}G


MD5 Filename Description
c3347d329bda013282d32ee298c8dc45 invoice_KCD86786085G.pdf Lure PDF
e8b0cc2767cc0195570af56e9e7750fe request_form_1611584809.xlsm Downloaded Maldoc


  • hxxps[:]//roseworld[.]shop
  • hxxps[:]//rosedelivery[.]us/


  • roseworld[.]shop
  • rosedelivery[.]us
Emotet Botnet Takedown

Emotet Botnet Takedown


On 2021-01-27 it was announced by Europol that an international worldwide coordinated law enforcement and judicial action has disrupted the Emotet botnet and investigators have taken control of Emotet’s infrastructure. If successful this could mean the end of Emotet, its botnet, malspam, and malware loader operation. While the situation is still developing, we can confirm that the Emotet botnet infrastructure is disrupted. Victims will be notified by responsible country CERTs and should take appropriate actions to clean their Emotet malware and secondary malware infections to prevent still active malware that was downloaded by Emotet to deploy ransomware.


Emotet (also known as Heodo) was first observed in 2014. It was a banking trojan stealing banking details and banking login credentials from victims. But it pivoted to a malware-as-a-service (MaaS) operation providing malware distribution services to other cybercriminals. Today, Emotet is probably the most prolific malware distribution operation. To this end, it steals the emails of its victims and replies to the victim’s previous conversations. This is known as email conversation thread hijacking5. Hornetsecurity has written numerous blogposts about Emotet2,3,4,5.

What happened?

An international worldwide law enforcement and judicial effort, coordinated by Europol and Eurojust, has disrupted the Emotet botnet. The following authorities took part in this operation:

  • Netherlands: National Police (Politie), National Public Prosecution Office (Landelijk Parket)
  • Germany: Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt), General Public Prosecutor’s Office Frankfurt/Main (Generalstaatsanwaltschaft)
  • France: National Police (Police Nationale), Judicial Court of Paris (Tribunal Judiciaire de Paris)
  • Lithuania: Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau (Lietuvos kriminalinės policijos biuras), Prosecutor’s General’s Office of Lithuania
  • Canada: Royal Canadian Mounted Police
  • United States: Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina
  • United Kingdom: National Crime Agency, Crown Prosecution Service
  • Ukraine: National Police of Ukraine (Національна поліція України), of the Prosecutor General’s Office (Офіс Генерального прокурора).

The investigators obtained control over the infrastructure from one suspect located in Ukraine. Emotet’s C2 communication has been sinkholed and information of connecting victims has been given to the responsible country CERTs, which will notify the victims so they can clean up the infection.

The Dutch National Police has also obtained a database containing e-mail addresses, usernames and passwords stolen by Emotet over the years. They provide a website to check whether an email address has been compromised at http://www.politie.nl/emocheck.

Emotet “uninstaller”

Additionally, German Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt (BKA)) is distributing a Emotet remover program from within the Emotet botnet that will uninstall Emotet on 2021-04-25 at 12:00.

The program will create a timestamp for 2021-04-25 12:00 (note tm_month goes from 0 to 11, while tm_day goes from 1 to 31).

Emotet uninstaller timestamp

The program will spawn a thread that in a loop will sleep for 1000 minutes (16.6 hours) until the time to uninstall Emotet is reached.

Emotet uninstaller thread

Once the time to uninstall Emotet is reached Emotet’s registry key and its service are removed. The Emotet binary is moved to a temporary file path presumably to quarantine it for possible DFIR investigations on the infected system.

Emotet unistallation

The likely reason why Emotet isn’t removed immediately is to allow affected parties to run DFIR investigations to discover potentially secondary malware that was deployed via Emotet.

From our understanding the sinkholing and “uninstallation” actions are performed under the auspices of the German Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt (BKA)), hence, the sinkhole IP addresses are owned by German ISP Deutsche Telekom.

What will happen next?

While our mail filters are still detecting sporadic emails containing malicious Emotet documents, these are likely emails that had still been lurking in queues either of the Emotet spambots or email systems and are just now being delivered even though the Emotet botnet infrastructure has been disrupted.

Emotet malspam histogram

We expect that these last drips of Emotet malspam dripping out of the dying Emotet botnet to dry out over the next days and weeks and if the takedown is successful stop entirely.

While there is always a chance that a botnet can regroup after a disruption (see TrickBot), this, however, seems unlikely in this case as not just the Tier 1 C2 proxy servers have been disrupted (as was the case with the disruption of the TrickBot botnet), but – from our information – also the Tier 2 C2 server, i.e., the real C2 server, to which the Tier 1 C2 proxy servers only relayed the traffic to, have been disruption as well.

Who will fill the void?

Emotet constituted around 20% of the malicious email traffic processed by Hornetsecurity. It distributed malware by other threat actors. While a successful takedown will mean no more Emotet malspam, it likely won’t mean a decrease in malspam, as other threat actors will try to fill the void and take over the existing customer base of Emotet’s malware-as-a-service (MaaS) operation.

One strong contender to fill the void generated by Emotet’s disruption is QakBot10. Last year QakBot added email conversation thread hijacking5 to its arsenal, i.e., like Emotet it steals emails from victims and crafts no tailored malspam by replying to existing email conversation threads. QakBot has also been observed loading other malware, such as ZLoader.8 In addition to that, QakBot’s XLM macro based malicious documents7 often have a lower detection rate then Emotet’s VBA macro base malicious documents. Thus, fulfilling all requirements a criminal would have towards an Emotet replacement.

Conclusion and Countermeasures

We congratulate all participating parties and hope for a successful longterm takedown of Emotet.

While Emotet itself may be inoperable, other threats Emotet has previously loaded such as TrickBot6, QakBot7, or Zloader8 remain active and could still deploy ransomware such as Ryuk and Egregor. If the authorities inform you of an Emotet infection you must also clean up these possible secondary infects to mitigate the complete threat.

In case the Emotet botnet can recover, Hornetsecurity’s Spam and Malware Protection, with the highest detection rates on the market, will again, as before the disruption, detect and quarantine malicious Emotet documents.


Indicators of Compromise (IOCs)


These are the IPs used by the German Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt (BKA)) to sinkhole Emotet.



This is the hash of the program distributed by the German Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt (BKA)) to remove Emotet on 2021-04-25 at 12:00.

MD5 Description
9a062ead5b2d55af0a5a4b39c5b5eadc Emotet “uninstaller”
SolarWinds SUNBURST backdoor assessment

SolarWinds SUNBURST backdoor assessment

Executive Summary

  • FireEye discovered a global supply chain attack trojanizing the SolarWinds Orion Platform with a backdoor that FireEye named SUNBURST.
  • Affected versions: SolarWinds Orion Platform versions 2019.4 HF 5, 2020.2 (with no hotfix installed), 2020.2 HF 1
  • Fixed version: SolarWinds Orion Platform version 2020.2.1 HF 2
  • While the trojanized SolarWinds Orion Platform versions have been spread widely to public and private organizations around the world, current information indicates that the SUNBURST backdoor was used for espionage by a nation state and only used to infiltrate a select set of victims. Other victims that installed the trojanized SolarWinds Orion Platform versions are collateral damage.
  • To figure out if you are affected (beyond checking installed SolarWinds Orion Platform versions) check DNS logs for queries to avsvmcloud[.]com or .digitalcollege[.]org (including subdomains!).
  • Hornetsecurity is not affected. Hornetsecurity does not use SolarWinds products.
  • Because this is an ongoing global incident check the linked resources for up-to-date IoCs and information.


On 2020-12-13 FireEye disclosed a backdoor in updates of the SolarWinds Orion Platform. Affected organizations should update to the fixed version immediately.

The backdoor is part of a global espionage operation and used to access government and high profile private company networks.

Hornetsecurity assessed its own situation and is not affected.


The SolarWinds Orion Platform is the market leader for network monitoring platforms with SolarWinds having over 275.000 customers in 190 countries and providing network monitoring for 400 of the Fortune 500, the US government and other high profile organizations.

On 2020-12-13 FireEye disclosed that the SolarWinds Orion Platform updates between 2020-03-01 and 2020-06-01 have been trojanized with what they called the SUNBURST backdoor.3 Previously on 2020-12-08 FireEye disclosed a breach of its own organization,2 for which it later identified the trojanized SolarWinds Orion Platform update as the intrusion vector.

FireEye attributes this intrusion to an yet unknown threat actor they are tracking as UNC2452. While many media outlets report this intrusion as attributed to APT29, we believe this to be incorrect as APT29 is threat actor designator by FireEye themselves but yet they have not attributed it directly to APT29, yet.

On 2020-12-14 SolarWinds has published a security advisory1 regarding the matter.

Technical Analysis

The backdoor is in SolarWinds.Orion.Core.BusinessLayer.dll of the SolarWinds Orion Platform software installation. After installation the backdoor waits a randomly selected amount between 12 to 14 days before executing its malicious code. It tries to establish C2 communication using a domain name generation algorithm (DGA) to <ENCODED VICTIM HOSTNAME>.appsync-api.{eu,us}-{west,east}-{1,2}.avsvmcloud[.]com. The <ENCODED VICTIM HOSTNAME> subdomain part contains the victims encoded hostname. It can be decoded using a tool provided by RedDrip7.7

Subdomain records corresponding to victim hostnames targeted by the intrusion received a CNAME DNS response redirecting them to one of the C2 domains. Victims not targeted did not receive a dedicated CNAME.6 Even though this is a large scale supply chain attack, current information indicates that the purpose behind the intrusion is espionage conducted by a nation state. This means that while (according to SEC filings by SolarWinds8) around 18,000 victims installed the compromised updates, only a very small fraction was actually the target of this attack, the rest is collateral damage.

On targeted organizations, the backdoor is used as a beach head into the organization’s network, by installing the TEARDROP and BEACON (from Cobalt Strike framework) malware to further infiltrate the network.

Conclusion and Countermeasures

Unlike the supply chain attack against the Ukrainian tax accounting package M.E.Doc, which resulted in the 2017 global NotPetya incident, this intrusion’s goal was espionage. Hence only networks of selected targets were intruded via the SUNBURST backdoor planted through the compromised SolarWinds Orion Platform software.

Organisations that have installed an affected SolarWinds Orion Platform version should treat all hosts monitored by the SolarWinds Orion Platform as compromised, identify all threat actor-controlled accounts and infrastructure within the organization and remove them, and only then rebuild the SolarWinds Orion Platform installation. Organizations with elevated protection requirements can follow the guidance in the DHS Emergency Directive 21-014 (obviously without reporting to CISA, unless the organization is part of the US government).

A good starting point to identify threat actor activity is searching for the IoCs provided by FireEye3,5 in DNS logs. In case DNS queries to one of the <ENCODED VICTIM HOSTNAME>.appsync-api.{eu,us}-{west,east}-{1,2}.avsvmcloud[.]com subdomains are found, you can use the SunBurst DGA Decoder provided by RedDrip77 to figure out which hostname in your network ran the SUNBURST backdoor code. In case you find CNAME replies to these DNS queries, this means in addition to running the backdoor code, the threat actors are/were interested in the host and elevated the connection to a full C2 connection. In the later case, we recommend contacting a competent incident response provider immediately.

We applaud our colleagues from FireEye for their thorough investigations.



Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

For a full list of IoCs and detection signatures, please see the countermeasures published by FireEye: https://github.com/fireeye/sunburst_countermeasures


  • .avsvmcloud[.]com
  • .appsync-api.eu-west-1[.]avsvmcloud[.]com
  • .appsync-api.us-west-2[.]avsvmcloud[.]com
  • .appsync-api.us-east-1[.]avsvmcloud[.]com
  • .appsync-api.us-east-2[.]avsvmcloud[.]com
  • .digitalcollege[.]org

Known indicators as of 2020-12-16 only! Please, check linked resources for up-to-date information.