We often write here on these blog pages about how browser extensions can be very dangerous. To illustrate this fact, we decided to dedicate an article to it. In this post, we’ll look at the most interesting, unusual, widespread, and dangerous cases involving malicious extensions in 2023. We’ll also discuss what these extensions were capable of — and, of course, how to protect yourself from them.
Roblox extensions with a backdoor
To set the tone and also highlight one of the biggest concerns associated with dangerous extensions, let’s start with a story that began last year. In November 2022, two malicious extensions with the same name — SearchBlox — were discovered in the Chrome Web Store, the official store for Google Chrome browser extensions. One of these extensions had over 200,000 downloads.
The declared purpose of the extensions was to search for a specific player on the Roblox servers. However, their actual purpose was to hijack Roblox players’ accounts and steal their in-game assets. After information about these malicious extensions was published on BleepingComputer, they were removed from the Chrome Web Store, and automatically deleted from the devices of users who’d installed them.
However, the Roblox story doesn’t end there. In August 2023, two more malicious extensions of a similar nature — RoFinder and RoTracker — were discovered in the Chrome Web Store. Just like SearchBlox, these plugins offered users the ability to search for other players on the Roblox servers, but in reality had a backdoor built into them. The Roblox user community eventually managed to get these extensions removed from the store as well.
This suggests that the quality of moderation at the world’s most official platform for downloading Google Chrome extensions leaves much to be desired, and it’s easy enough for creators of malicious extensions to push their creations in there. To get moderators to spot dangerous extensions and remove them from the store, reviews from affected users are rarely sufficient — it often requires efforts from the media, security researchers, and/or a large online community.
Fake ChatGPT extensions hijacking Facebook accounts
In March 2023, two malicious extensions were discovered in the Google Chrome Web Store within a few days of each other — both taking advantage of the hype surrounding the ChatGPT AI service. One of these was an infected copy of the legitimate “ChatGPT for Google” extension, offering integration of ChatGPT’s responses into search engine results.
The infected “ChatGPT for Google” extension was uploaded to the Chrome Web Store on February 14, 2023. Its creators waited for some time and only started actively spreading it precisely a month later, on March 14, 2023, using Google Search ads. The criminals managed to attract around a thousand new users per day, resulting in over 9000 downloads by the time the threat was discovered.
The trojanized copy of “ChatGPT for Google” functioned just like the real one, but with extra malicious functionality: the infected version included additional code designed to steal Facebook session cookies stored by the browser. Using these files, the attackers were able to hijack the Facebook accounts of users who’d installed the infected extension.
The compromised accounts could then be used for illegal purposes. As an example, the researchers mentioned a Facebook account belonging to an RV seller, which started promoting ISIS content after being hijacked.
In the other case, fraudsters created a completely original extension called “Quick access to Chat GPT”. In fact, the extension actually did what it promised, acting as an intermediary between users and ChatGPT using the AI service’s official API. However, its real purpose was again to steal Facebook session cookies, allowing the extension’s creators to hijack Facebook business accounts.
Most interestingly, to promote this malicious extension, the perpetrators used Facebook ads, paid for by — you guessed it — the business accounts they’d already hijacked! This cunning scheme allowed the creators of “Quick access to Chat GPT” to attract a couple of thousand new users per day. In the end, both malicious extensions were removed from the store.
ChromeLoader: pirated content containing malicious extensions
Often, creators of malicious extensions don’t place them in the Google Chrome Web Store, and distribute them in other ways. For example, earlier this year researchers noticed a new malicious campaign related to the ChromeLoader malware, already well-known in the cybersecurity field. The primary purpose of this Trojan is to install a malicious extension in the victim’s browser.
This extension, in turn, displays intrusive advertisements in the browser and spoofs search results with links leading to fake prize giveaways, surveys, dating sites, adult games, unwanted software, and so on.
This year, attackers have been using a variety of pirated content as bait to make victims install ChromeLoader. For example, in February 2023, researchers reported the spread of ChromeLoader through VHD files (a disk image format) disguised as hacked games or game “cracks”. Among the games used by the distributors were Elden Ring, ROBLOX, Dark Souls 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, Need for Speed, Call of Duty, Portal 2, Minecraft, Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, Mario Kart, Animal Crossing, and more. As you might guess, all these VHD files contained the malicious extension installer.
A few months later, in June 2023, another group of researchers released a detailed report on the activities of the same ChromeLoader, detailing its spread through a network of sites offering pirated music, movies, and once again, computer games. In this campaign, instead of genuine content, VBScript files were downloaded onto victims’ computers, which then loaded and installed the malicious browser extension.
Although the altered search results quickly alert victims to the presence of the dangerous extension in their browser, getting rid of it isn’t so easy. ChromeLoader not only installs the malicious extension but also adds scripts and Windows Task Scheduler tasks to the system that reinstall the extension every time the system reboots.
Hackers reading Gmail correspondence using a spy extension
In March 2023, the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the South Korean National Intelligence Agency issued a joint report on the activities of the Kimsuky cybercriminal group. This group uses an infected extension for Chromium-based browsers — Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, as well as the South Korean browser Naver Whale — to read the Gmail correspondence of their victims.
The attack begins with the perpetrators sending emails to specific individuals of interest. The email contains a link to a malicious extension called AF, along with some text convincing the victim to install the extension. The extension starts working when the victim opens Gmail in the browser where it’s installed. AF then automatically sends the victim’s correspondence to the hackers’ C2 server.
Thus, Kimsuky manages to gain access to the contents of the victim’s mailbox. What’s more, they don’t need to resort to any tricks to hack into this mailbox; they simply bypass the two-factor authentication. As a bonus, this method allows them to do everything in a highly discreet manner — in particular, preventing Google from sending alerts to the victim about account access from a new device or suspicious location, as would be the case if the password were stolen.
Rilide: malicious extension stealing cryptocurrency and bypassing two-factor authentication
Criminals also often use malicious extensions to target cryptocurrency wallets. In particular, the creators of the Rilide extension, first discovered in April 2023, use it to track cryptocurrency-related browser activity of infected users. When the victim visits sites from a specified list, the malicious extension steals cryptocurrency wallet info, email logins, and passwords.
In addition, this extension collects and sends browser history to the C2 server and lets the attackers take screenshots. But Rilide’s most interesting feature is its ability to bypass two-factor authentication.
When the extension detects that a user is about to make a cryptocurrency transaction on one of the online services, it injects a script into the page that replaces the confirmation code input dialog, and then steals that code. The payment recipient’s wallet is replaced with one belonging to the attackers, and then, finally, the extension confirms the transaction using the stolen code.
Rilide attacks users of Chromium-based browsers — Chrome, Edge, Brave, and Opera — by imitating a legitimate Google Drive extension to avoid suspicion. Rilide appears to be freely sold on the black market, so it’s used by criminals unrelated to one another. For this reason, various distribution methods have been discovered — from malicious websites and emails to infected blockchain game installers promoted on Twitter X.
One of the particularly interesting Rilide distribution methods was through a misleading PowerPoint presentation. This presentation posed as a security guide for Zendesk employees, but was actually a step-by-step guide for installing the malicious extension.
Dozens of malicious extensions in the Chrome Web Store — with 87 million downloads combined
And, of course, one cannot forget the story of the summer when researchers discovered several dozen malicious extensions in the Google Chrome Web Store, which collectively had more than 87 million downloads from the store. These were various kinds of browser plugins — from tools for converting PDF files and ad blockers to translators and VPNs.
The extensions were added to the Chrome Web Store as far back as 2022 and 2021, so by the time they were discovered they’d already been there for several months, a year, or even longer. Among reviews of the extensions, there were some complaints from vigilant users who reported that the extensions were spoofing search results with advertisements. Unfortunately, the Chrome Web Store moderators ignored these complaints. The malicious extensions were only removed from the store after two groups of security researchers brought the issue to Google’s attention.
How to protect yourself from malicious extensions
As you can see, dangerous browser extensions can end up on your computer from various sources —including the official Google Chrome Web Store. And attackers can use them for a wide range of purposes — from hijacking accounts and altering search results to reading correspondence and stealing cryptocurrencies. Accordingly, it’s important to take precautions:
- Try to avoid installing unnecessary browser extensions. The fewer extensions you have in your browser, the better.
- If you do install an extension, it’s better to install it from an official store rather than from an unknown website. Sure, this doesn’t eliminate the risk of encountering dangerous extensions completely, but at least the Google Chrome Web Store does take its security seriously.
- Before installing, read reviews of an extension. If there’s something wrong with it, someone might have already noticed it and informed other users.
- Periodically review the list of extensions installed in your browsers. Remove any you don’t use — especially ones you don’t remember installing.
- And be sure to use reliable protection on all your devices.