Woburn, MA – July 28, 2020 – Incident analysis by Kaspersky of two cases in Europe and Asia has uncovered that VHD ransomware – first discussed in public in spring 2020 – is owned and operated by Lazarus, a prominent APT group. The move by Lazarus to create and distribute ransomware signifies a change of strategy and indicates a willingness to engage in big game hunting in pursuit of financial gain, which is highly unusual among state-sponsored APT groups.
In March and April 2020, a few cybersecurity organizations, including Kaspersky, reported on VHD ransomware – a malicious program designed to extort money from its victims, which stood out due to its self-replication method. This malware’s use of a spreading utility, compiled with victim-specific credentials, was reminiscent of APT campaigns. While the actor behind the attacks was not determined, Kaspersky researchers have now linked the VHD ransomware to Lazarus with high confidence, following analysis of an incident where it was used in close conjunction with known Lazarus tools against businesses in France and Asia.
Two separate investigations involving VHD ransomware were conducted between March and May 2020. While the first incident, which occurred in Europe, did not give many hints as to who was behind it, the spreading techniques similar to those used by APT groups kept the investigation team curious. In addition, the attack did not fit the usual modus operandi of known big-game hunting groups. Also, the fact that a very limited number of VHD ransomware samples were available, coupled with very few public references, indicated that this ransomware family might not be traded widely on dark market forums, as would usually be the case.
The second incident involving VHD ransomware provided a complete picture of the infection chain and enabled the researchers to link the ransomware to Lazarus. Among other things –and most importantly – the attackers used a backdoor, which was a part of a multiplatform framework called MATA, which Kaspersky recently reported on in-depth and is linked to the aforementioned threat actor due to a number of code and utility similarities.
The established connection indicated that Lazarus was behind the VHD ransomware campaigns that have been documented so far. This is also the first time it has been established that the Lazarus group has resorted to targeted ransomware attacks for financial gain, having created and solely operated its own ransomware, which is not typical in the cybercrime ecosystem.
“We have known that Lazarus has always been focused on financial gain, however, since WannaCry we had not really seen any engagement with ransomware,” said Ivan Kwiatkowski, senior security researcher at Kaspersky’s GReAT. “While it is obvious that the group cannot match the efficiency of other cybercriminal gangs with this hit-and-run approach to targeted ransomware, the fact that it has turned to such types of attacks is worrisome. The global ransomware threat is big enough as it is, and often has significant financial implications for victim organizations up to the point of rendering them bankrupt. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether these attacks are an isolated experiment or part of a new trend and, consequently, whether private companies have to worry about becoming victims of state-sponsored threat actors. Regardless, organizations need to remember that data protection remains important as never before – creating isolated back-ups of essential data and investing in reactive defenses are absolute must-dos.”
To help businesses stay protected from ransomware, experts also suggest taking the following steps:
Learn more about the described incidents involving VHD ransomware on Securelist.com.
Kaspersky is a global cybersecurity company founded in 1997. Kaspersky’s deep threat intelligence and security expertise is constantly transforming into innovative security solutions and services to protect businesses, critical infrastructure, governments and consumers around the globe. The company’s comprehensive security portfolio includes leading endpoint protection and a number of specialized security solutions and services to fight sophisticated and evolving digital threats. Over 400 million users are protected by Kaspersky technologies and we help 250,000 corporate clients protect what matters most to them. Learn more at usa.kaspersky.com.
Sawyer Van Horn