The Hornetsecurity Security Lab has observed a malspam campaign distribution TrickBot [1] that uses the Black Lives Matter movement as a lure to entice victims to open a malicious attachment. The TrickBot downloader document first injects shellcode into the WINWORD.EXE process. From that shellcode, it then spawns a cmd.exe process into which it again injects more of the same shellcode. This cmd.exe process then downloads the TrickBot DLL and executes it via rundll32.exe.


The initial emails claim to be from a State office, Country authority, or Country administration:

TrickBot initial email.

The email tells the recipient they can Vote confidentially about "Black Lives Matter" or Tell your government your opinion, Give your opinion, and Speak out confidentially about "Black Lives Matter".

Attached is a file named e-vote_form_0000.doc, further suggesting the email to be some sort of official means of voting.

However, the document only displays an image announcing a fake Office update and instructions to “Enable Editing” as well as to “Enable Content”:

TrickBot document.

If the instructions are followed, the malicious VBA macro in the document is executed and it downloads the TrickBot malware.

Technical Analysis

The initial portion of the infection chain (until the TrickBot malware is deployed) is depicted in this flow graph:

TrickBot initial infection chain.

In the following analysis we will walk through each stage of this chain.

VBA macro

The VBA macro is protected against viewing in Word:

TrickBot protected macro.

However, this “protection” only prevents Word from showing the VBA macro without a password. The VBA macro code is still accessible.

The first thing the VBA macro does is to display a fake error message:

Private Sub Document_Open()
    MsgBox "Error #80013123"

This results in the following pop-up:

TrickBot fake error message

This is likely an attempt to prompt user interaction in order to bypass sandbox detections. It could also be an attempt to hide the fact that there is no document. A victim may be satisfied by receiving this error and assume the document to be broken.

The macro uses VirtualProtectEx and CreateThread to inject shellcode into the WINWORD.EXE process. To this end, the code assembles one large string:

    uriSubscriber = "i-j-[...]-a-a-a-"
    uriSubscriber = uriSubscriber & "i-l-[...]-a-a-"
    uriSubscriber = uriSubscriber & "g-k-a-a-p-p-h-f-p-i-[...]-o-g-c-c-p-k-h-c-g-j-h-d"

This string contains the encoded shellcode. It is then decoded via the following function:

    Dim f() As Byte
    ReDim f(0 To Len(uriSubscriber) / 2 - 1) As Byte
    Dim sSmart As Long, regOptimize As Long
    For Each destEnd In Split(uriSubscriber, "-")
        If sSmart Mod 2 Then
            regOptimize = sSmart - 1
            regOptimize = regOptimize / 2
            f(regOptimize) = (CByte(Asc(destEnd)) - CByte(Asc("a"))) + f((sSmart - 1) / 2)
            regOptimize = sSmart / 2
            f(regOptimize) = (CByte(Asc(destEnd)) - CByte(Asc("a"))) * 16
        End If
        sSmart = sSmart + 1

Finally, the decoded shellcode is set to PAGE_EXECUTE_READWRITE using VirtualProtectEx, which was previously aliased to extensionsComment, and then a thread is started with the address of the shellcode as its start address using CreateThread, previously aliased to sMail:

    Private Declare Function extensionsComment Lib "kernel32" Alias "VirtualProtectEx" ( _
        iMail As Long, _
        bConsole As Long, _
        regFunction As Long, _
        tablePosition As Long, _
        colMail As Long) As Long
    Private Declare Function sMail Lib "kernel32" Alias "CreateThread" ( _
        textTimer As Long, _
        uriMail As Long, _
        m As Long, _
        dateMembers As Long, _
        textTimer0 As Long, _
        lServer As Long) As Long
    sConsole = destN_ - angleTexture + UBound(f)
    q = extensionsComment(ByVal ipFunction, ByVal angleTexture, ByVal sConsole, ByVal PAGE_EXECUTE_READWRITE, ByVal VarPtr(extensionsComment0))
    adsLogon = sMail(ByVal 0&, ByVal 0&, ByVal destN_, ByVal 2&, ByVal 0, ByVal 0&)
    adsScr 5000

The shellcode can most easily be extracted by breaking on CreateThread in a debugger:

Tickbot shellcode extraction via x64dbg.


The shellcode running in the WINWORD.EXE process first resolves several library functions. Then uses CreateProcessA to run a cmd.exe with the pause command, causing the cmd.exe to idle:

TrickBot shellcode spawning cmd.exe with pause command

Next, the shellcode uses a classic OpenProcess, VirtualAllocEx, WriteProcessMemory, and CreateRemoteThread sequence to do shellcode injection into the paused cmd.exe process:

TrickBot shellcode injection into cmd.exe process.

The cmd.exe /c pause process is likely used to avoid detection. A common technique used in process injection is to create a suspended (i.e., paused) process by setting the CREATE_SUSPENDED flag during process creation, to then inject code into the created process, and resume it afterwards. In the case of the discussed shellcode, the code is injected as a thread into the paused cmd.exe instead.

The injected shellcode is the same shellcode that was injected into the WINWORD.EXE process. However, the entry point passed to CreateRemoteThread is different, resulting into a different execution flow for the shellcode within the cmd.exe process.

Shellcode cmd.exe

The shellcode in the cmd.exe process also resolves several library functions. Additionally, it decodes the TrickBot download URLs.

Next, the shellcode queries GetSystemMetrics(SM_CXSCREEN) and GetSystemMetrics(SM_CYSCREEN) to get the display resolution. Then, GetCursorPos is queried twice, with a call to Sleep(0x1388) in between causing a 5 second delay.

TrickBot profiling the system.

This is likely done to verify mouse movement and thus avoid sandboxes.

The data is then encoded as a HTTP query string as follows: &scr=1280x1024&cur1=604x250&cur2=622x310

An ID query string &id=00000000 and the above system metrics query string are then appended to a URL to form the final download URL which is then queried via InternetOpenUrlA:

TrickBot using InternetOpenUrlA to download.

In case the download is successful, the downloaded file is written to C:\\Users\\<username>\\AppData\\Local\\system.rre and executed via rundll32.exe %userprofile%/system.rre,Initialize using ShellExecuteA. The system.rre file is the TrickBot DLL.

In case the download is not successful, the downloader sleeps and then a second download URL is tried.

Conclusion and Remediation

The double shellcode injection is likely used to avoid behavioral detection as WINWORD.EXE does not usually download files from the Internet or execute rundll32.exe. Hence, such anomalous behavior is more likely to be detected than cmd.exe spawning the rundll32.exe process. The query for the systems display resolution as well as the double query of the cursor position is also likely done to avoid delivering the TrickBot DLL to sandbox systems.

Hornetsecurity’s Spam and Malware Protection, with the highest detection rates on the market, has already detected and blocked the malicious TrickBot document based on a detection signature.

In case the basic detection signatures would not have blocked the emails, Hornetsecurity’s Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) would not have been impacted by the various anti-sandboxing mechanisms either. The human interaction simulation of the ATP sandbox successfully clicks the fake error message away for a complete execution of the malicious document:

Hornetsecurity Advanced Threat Protection sandbox clicking button

It detects the processes being created by the document, as well as the process injections:

Hornetsecurity Advanced Threat Protection sandbox detecting process injection

The human interaction simulation also results in the two queried cursor positions, sent as cur1 and cur2 to the TrickBot download server, to differ:

Hornetsecurity Advanced Threat Protection sandbox Internet connection

This way, Hornetsecurity’s ATP sandbox is not fooled by the various anti-sandboxing techniques.


Indicators of Compromise (IOCs)


d6a44f6460fab8c74628a3dc160b9b0f1c8b91b7d238b6b4c1f83b3b43a0463de-vote_form_1967.docTrickBot downloader document


  • hxxps[:]//ppid.indramayukab.go[.]id/may.php?omz=1&pic=b&id=[0-9]{8}&scr=[0-9]{3,4}x[0-9]{3,4}&cur1=[0-9]{3,4}x[0-9]{3,4}&cur2=[0-9]{3,4}x[0-9]{3,4}
  • hxxps[:]//www.inspeclabeling[.]com/wp-content/themes/processing/may.php?omz=1&pic=b&id=[0-9]{8}&scr=[0-9]{3,4}x[0-9]{3,4}&cur1=[0-9]{3,4}x[0-9]{3,4}&cur2=[0-9]{3,4}x[0-9]{3,4}