Anti-Phishing, DMARC , COVID-19 , Cybercrime

Spear-Phishing Campaign Uses COVID-19 to Spread LokiBot

FortiGuard Labs Researchers Find WHO Images Used as Lure Again
Spear-Phishing Campaign Uses COVID-19 to Spread LokiBot
Spear-phishing email using WHO images (Source: FortiGuard Labs)

A recently uncovered spear-phishing campaign is using fears of the COVID-19 pandemic to spread a specific information stealer called LokiBot, according to a report released by FortiGuard Labs, the research arm of security firm Fortinet.

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Once again, researchers find that attackers are using official images and other trademarks of the World Health Organization as a lure to entice victims to open an attached message that contains the malware, according to the report. In a twist, the phishing email pretends to offer details about misinformation concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The body of the email contains multiple points about infection control and other suggestions and recommendations, which is obviously a lure to further compel the recipient to continue reading," the report notes. "And in a twisted fashion, the messaging pretends to address misinformation related to COVID-19/Coronavirus."

The phishing campaign started around March 27, although it's not clear if it's still active. FortiGuard Labs researchers believe that these spear-phishing emails have targeted victims mainly in the U.S., Turkey, Portugal, Germany and Austria.

Phishing Emails

The spear-phishing emails, written in English, contain numerous grammar and spelling mistakes. For example, the researchers' note that the emails contain a reference to the U.S. "Centre for Disease Control," when the American version of the word should be spelled "Centers." The emails also claim the CDC is located in Switzerland, when the actual agency is headquartered in Atlanta.

The spear-phishing emails contain an attached compression file called "COVID_19- WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION CDC_DOC.zip.arj," which can be opened with 7-Zip. ARJ is actually a compression format for creating very efficient compressed files. The attackers appear to have used this format to present the file as legitimate, according to Val Saengphaibul, a FortiGuard Labs researcher who wrote the report.

"The attackers behind this latest attack likely hope that the ARJ format might allay the concerns of an unsuspecting victim about opening an unknown attachment, given that the populace has been trained to not open suspicious file extensions such as .exe," Saengphaibul notes.

If the attachment is opened and decompressed, another file called "DOC.pdf.exe" appears. If opened, this file attempts to plant the LokiBot within the infected device, according to the report.

Once installed, the LokiBot information stealer is able to capture a wide range of data, including FTP credentials, stored email passwords, passwords stored in the browser as well as other credentials. Once collected, the exfiltrated information is sent to a specific URL controlled by the attackers, the report notes.

Versions of LokiBot have been developed over the past several years, and the malware can be bought for as little as $300 on dark net market forums. Nigerian criminal gangs have used this information stealer for a variety of schemes, including business email compromise scams (see: Nigerian BEC Scammers Increase Proficiency: Report).

A March report by Recorded Future noted that nation-state actors are also using phishing emails with a COVID-19 message to plant malware, including LokiBot, on victims' devices (see: Nation-State Hackers Using COVID-19 Fears to Spread Malware).

FBI Warning

The increasing number of phishing emails and other scams using COVID-19 as a lure has also caught the attention of law enforcement around the world. On Wednesday, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center published a warning, noting that the bureau has received more than 1,200 complaints about COVID-19 scams as of March 30.

The FBI warns that cybercriminals are taking advantage of COVID-19 fears as well as more people working from home. The bulletin notes the attackers have started phishing campaigns against first responders, launched distributed denial-of-service attacks against government agencies, deployed ransomware at medical facilities and created fake COVID-19 websites that download malware to devices.

"Based on recent trends, the FBI assesses these same groups will target businesses and individuals working from home via telework software vulnerabilities, education technology platforms and new business email compromise schemes," the agency says.

Cybercriminals have spoofed the WHO, which is part of the United Nations, since the crisis began. In March, for example, IBM X-Force researchers found phishing emails spoofing the WHO and claiming to come directly from Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the organization.


About the Author

Akshaya Asokan

Akshaya Asokan

Senior Correspondent

Asokan is senior correspondent for Information Security Media Group's global news desk. She has previously worked with IDG and other publications where she reported on developments in technology, minority-rights and education.




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