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Detecting Malicious Email Activity & AI Impersonating

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10
Apr 2023
10
Apr 2023
Discover how two different phishing attempts from some known and unknown senders used a payroll diversion and credential sealing box link to harm users.

Social engineering has become widespread in the cyber threat landscape in recent years, and the near-universal use of social media today has allowed attackers to research and target victims more effectively. Social engineering involves manipulating users to carry out actions such as revealing sensitive information like login credentials or credit card details. It can also lead to user account compromises, causing huge disruption to an organization’s digital estate. 

As people use social media platforms not only for personal reasons, but also for business purposes, attackers gain information they can exploit in social engineering attacks. For example, a threat actor may attempt to impersonate a known individual or legitimate service to take advantage of a user’s established trust. This is a highly successful method of social engineering because mimicking known contacts makes it difficult for traditional security tools that rely on deny-lists to detect the attack.

In October 2022, Darktrace identified and responded to two separate malicious email campaigns in which threat actors attempted to impersonate known contacts in an effort to compromise customer devices. As it learns the normal behavior of every user in the email system, Darktrace was able to instantly detect these threats and mitigate them autonomously, preventing significant disruption to the customer networks.

Payroll Diversion Fraud Attempt Impersonating a Former Employee 

While a customer in the Canadian energy sector was trialing Darktrace in October 2022, Darktrace/Email™ identified a suspicious email seemingly sent from an employee within the organization. The email was sent to the Senior Director of Human Resources (HR) with a subject line of “Change in payroll Direct Deposit.” The email requested a change in bank account information for an employee. However, Darktrace recognized that the sender was using a free mail address that contained random letters, indicating it may have been algorithmically generated. Since this incident occurred during a trial, Darktrace/Email was not configured to take action. Otherwise, it would have prevented the email from landing in the inbox. In this case though, the email went through, bypassing all other security tools in place.

Although the email was from an unknown sender, the HR director believed the email could have been legitimate as the employee who appeared to be the sender had left the organization seven days prior and no longer had access to their corporate email account. However, after reviewing it in the Darktrace/Email dashboard, the customer grew suspicious and contacted the former employee directly to verify if the request was legitimate. The former employee validated the suspicions by confirming they had sent no such email.

Further investigation by the customer revealed that the former employee had been vocal about their departure on various social media platforms. This gave threat actors valuable information to believably impersonate the former employee and defraud the organization. 

Such attempts to target organizations’ HR departments and divert payroll are common tactics for cyber-criminals and are often identified by Darktrace/Email across the customer base. Darktrace/Email is able to instantly identify the indicators associated with these spoofing attempts and immediately bring them to the attention of the customer’s security team. 

Using Legitimate File Sharing Service to Share a Phishing Link 

On October 7, 2022, a customer in the Singaporean construction sector was targeted by a phishing campaign attempting to impersonate a law firm known to the organization. Almost 200 employees received an email with the subject line “Accepted: Valuation Agreement.” 

Figure 1: Sample of an UI view of the message held showing anomaly indicators, history, association, and validation.

Four days earlier, Darktrace observed communication between another email address associated with the law firm and an employee of the customer. Darktrace/Email noted that it was the first time this correspondent had sent emails to the customer. 

Figure 2: Metrics showing how well the sender’s domain is known within the digital environment.

The emails contained a highly unusual link to a file sharing service, (hxxps://ssvilvensstokes[.]app[.]box[.]com/notes), hidden behind the text “PREVIEW OR PRINT COPY OF DOCUMENT HERE.” Darktrace analysts investigated this event further and found that around 30 similar URLs had been identified as suspicious using OSINT security tools in October 2022, suggesting the customer was not the only target of this phishing campaign.

Figure 3: Preview of the phishing email’s body.
Figure 4: Darktrace’s evaluation of the link contained in the phishing email.

Additional OSINT work revealed that the link directed to a website which appeared to host a PDF file named “Valuation Agreement.” The recipient would then be prompted to follow another link (hulking-citrine-krypton[.]glitch[.]me), again hidden behind the text “OPEN OR ACCESS DOCUMENT HERE” to view the file. Subsequently, the user would be prompted to enter their Microsoft 365 credentials. 

Figure 5: The page displayed when the phishing link was clicked, viewed in a sandbox environment.
Figure 6: Example of a page shown when recipient clicks the second link, accessing “hulking-citrine-krypton[.]glitch[.]me”. 

This page contained the text “This document has been scanned for viruses by Norton Antivirus Security.” This is another example of threat actors’ employing social engineering techniques by impersonating well-known brands, such as established security vendors, to gain the trust of users and increase their likelihood of success.

It is highly probable that a real employee of the law firm had their account hijacked and that a malicious actor was exploiting it to send out these phishing emails en masse as part of a supply chain attack. In such cases, malicious actors rely on their targets’ trust of known contacts to not question departures from their normal conversations. 

Darktrace was able to instantly detect multiple anomalies in these emails, despite the fact that they were seemingly sent by known correspondents. The activity detected automatically triggered model breaches associated with unexpected and visually prominent links. As a result, Darktrace/Email responded by locking the link, stopping users from being able to click it.

Darktrace subsequently identified additional emails from this sender attempting to target other recipients within the company, triggering the model breaches associated with a surge in email sending indicative of a phishing campaign. In response, Darktrace/Email autonomously acted and filed these emails as junk. As more emails were detected across the customer’s environment, the anomaly score of the sender increased and Darktrace ultimately held back over 160 malicious emails, safeguarding recipients from potential account compromise.           

The following Darktrace/Email models were breached throughout the course of this phishing campaign:

  • Unusual/Sender Surge 
  • Unusual/Undisclosed Recipients 
  • Antigena Anomaly 
  • Association/Unlikely Recipient Association 
  • Link/Low Link Association 
  • Link/Visually Prominent Link 
  • Link/Visually Prominent Link Unexpected For Sender 
  • Unusual/New Sender Wide Distribution
  • Unusual/Undisclosed Recipients + New Address Known Domain

Schlussfolgerung

Social engineering plays a role in many of the major threats challenging current email cyber security, as attackers can use it to manipulate users into transferring money, revealing credentials, clicking malicious links, and more. 

The above threat stories happened before language generating AI became mainstream with the release of ChatGPT in December 2022. Now, it is even easier for malicious actors to generate sophisticated social engineering emails. By using social media posts as input, social engineering emails written by generative AI can be highly targeted and produced at scale. They often avoid the flags users are trained to look for, like poor grammar and spelling mistakes, and can hide payloads or forgo them entirely.

To mitigate the risk of possible social engineering attempts, it is recommended that organizations implement social media policies that advise employees to be cautious of what they post online and enact procedures to verify if fund transfer requests are legitimate.

Yet these policies are not enough on their own. Darktrace/Email can identify suspicious email traits, whether an email is sent from a known correspondent or an unknown sender. With Self-Learning AI, it knows an organization’s users better than any impersonator could. In this way, Darktrace/Email detects anomalies within emails and neutralizes malicious components at machine-speed, stopping attacks at their earliest stages, before employees fall victim. 

Appendices

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

Domain:

hxxps://ssvilvensstokes[.]app[.]box[.]com/notes/*?s=* - 1st external link (seen in email)

hxxps://hulking-citrine-krypton[.]glitch[.]me/flk.html - 2nd external link, masked behind “OPEN OR ACCESS DOCUMENT HERE”

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How to Protect your Organization Against Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks

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21
May 2024

The problem: Microsoft Teams phishing attacks are on the rise

Around 83% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Microsoft Office products and services1, with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft SharePoint in particular emerging as critical platforms to the business operations of the everyday workplace. Researchers across the threat landscape have begun to observe these legitimate services being leveraged more and more by malicious actors as an initial access method.

As Teams becomes a more prominent feature of the workplace many employees rely on it for daily internal and external communication, even surpassing email usage in some organizations. As Microsoft2 states, "Teams changes your relationship with email. When your whole group is working in Teams, it means you'll all get fewer emails. And you'll spend less time in your inbox, because you'll use Teams for more of your conversations."

However, Teams can be exploited to send targeted phishing messages to individuals either internally or externally, while appearing legitimate and safe. Users might receive an external message request from a Teams account claiming to be an IT support service or otherwise affiliated with the organization. Once a user has accepted, the threat actor can launch a social engineering campaign or deliver a malicious payload. As a primarily internal tool there is naturally less training and security awareness around Teams – due to the nature of the channel it is assumed to be a trusted source, meaning that social engineering is already one step ahead.

Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)
Figure 1: Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)

Microsoft Teams Phishing Examples

Microsoft has identified several major phishing attacks using Teams within the past year.

In July 2023, Microsoft announced that the threat actor known as Midnight Blizzard – identified by the United States as a Russian state-sponsored group – had launched a series of phishing campaigns via Teams with the aim of stealing user credentials. These attacks used previously compromised Microsoft 365 accounts and set up new domain names that impersonated legitimate IT support organizations. The threat actors then used social engineering tactics to trick targeted users into sharing their credentials via Teams, enabling them to access sensitive data.  

At a similar time, threat actor Storm-0324 was observed sending phishing lures via Teams containing links to malicious SharePoint-hosted files. The group targeted organizations that allow Teams users to interact and share files externally. Storm-0324’s goal is to gain initial access to hand over to other threat actors to pursue more dangerous follow-on attacks like ransomware.

For a more in depth look at how Darktrace stops Microsoft Teams phishing read our blog: Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

The market: Existing Microsoft Teams security solutions are insufficient

Microsoft’s native Teams security focuses on payloads, namely links and attachments, as the principal malicious component of any phishing. These payloads are relatively straightforward to detect with their experience in anti-virus, sandboxing, and IOCs. However, this approach is unable to intervene before the stage at which payloads are delivered, before the user even gets the chance to accept or deny an external message request. At the same time, it risks missing more subtle threats that don’t include attachments or links – like early stage phishing, which is pure social engineering – or completely new payloads.

Equally, the market offering for Teams security is limited. Security solutions available on the market are always payload-focused, rather than taking into account the content and context in which a link or attachment is sent. Answering questions like:

  • Does it make sense for these two accounts to speak to each other?
  • Are there any linguistic indicators of inducement?

Furthermore, they do not correlate with email to track threats across multiple communication environments which could signal a wider campaign. Effectively, other market solutions aren’t adding extra value – they are protecting against the same types of threats that Microsoft is already covering by default.

The other aspect of Teams security that native and market solutions fail to address is the account itself. As well as focusing on Teams threats, it’s important to analyze messages to understand the normal mode of communication for a user, and spot when a user’s Teams activity might signal account takeover.

The solution: How Darktrace protects Microsoft Teams against sophisticated threats

With its biggest update to Darktrace/Email ever, Darktrace now offers support for Microsoft Teams. With that, we are bringing the same AI philosophy that protects your email and accounts to your messaging environment.  

Our Self-Learning AI looks at content and context for every communication, whether that’s sent in an email or Teams message. It looks at actual user behavior, including language patterns, relationship history of sender and recipient, tone and payloads, to understand if a message poses a threat. This approach allows Darktrace to detect threats such as social engineering and payloadless attacks using visibility and forensic capabilities that Microsoft security doesn’t currently offer, as well as early symptoms of account compromise.  

Unlike market solutions, Darktrace doesn’t offer a siloed approach to Teams security. Data and signals from Teams are shared across email to inform detection, and also with the wider Darktrace ActiveAI security platform. By correlating information from email and Teams with network and apps security, Darktrace is able to better identify suspicious Teams activity and vice versa.  

Interested in the other ways Darktrace/Email augments threat detection? Read our latest blog on how improving the quality of end-user reporting can decrease the burden on the SOC. To find our more about Darktrace's enduring partnership with Microsoft, click here.

References

[1] Essential Microsoft Office Statistics in 2024

[2] Microsoft blog, Microsoft Teams and email, living in harmony, 2024

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Carlos Gray
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Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

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20
May 2024

Social Engineering in Phishing Attacks

Faced with increasingly cyber-aware endpoint users and vigilant security teams, more and more threat actors are forced to think psychologically about the individuals they are targeting with their phishing attacks. Social engineering methods like taking advantage of the human emotions of their would-be victims, pressuring them to open emails or follow links or face financial or legal repercussions, and impersonating known and trusted brands or services, have become common place in phishing campaigns in recent years.

Phishing with Microsoft Teams

The malicious use of the popular communications platform Microsoft Teams has become widely observed and discussed across the threat landscape, with many organizations adopting it as their primary means of business communication, and many threat actors using it as an attack vector. As Teams allows users to communicate with people outside of their organization by default [1], it becomes an easy entry point for potential attackers to use as a social engineering vector.

In early 2024, Darktrace/Apps™ identified two separate instances of malicious actors using Microsoft Teams to launch a phishing attack against Darktrace customers in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. Interestingly, in this case the attackers not only used a well-known legitimate service to carry out their phishing campaign, but they were also attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

Despite these attempts to evade endpoint users and traditional security measures, Darktrace’s anomaly detection enabled it to identify the suspicious phishing messages and bring them to the customer’s attention. Additionally, Darktrace’s autonomous response capability, was able to follow-up these detections with targeted actions to contain the suspicious activity in the first instance.

Darktrace Coverage of Microsoft Teams Phishing

Chats Sent by External User and Following Actions by Darktrace

On February 29, 2024, Darktrace detected the presence of a new external user on the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environment of an EMEA customer for the first time. The user, “REDACTED@InternationalHotelChain[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” was only observed on this date and no further activities were detected from this user after February 29.

Later the same day, the unusual external user created its first chat on Microsoft Teams named “New Employee Loyalty Program”. Over the course of around 5 minutes, the user sent 63 messages across 21 different chats to unique internal users on the customer’s SaaS platform. All these chats included the ‘foreign tenant user’ and one of the customer’s internal users, likely in an attempt to remain undetected. Foreign tenant user, in this case, refers to users without access to typical internal software and privileges, indicating the presence of an external user.

Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Figure 1: Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.
Figure 2: Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.

Darktrace identified that the external user had connected from an unusual IP address located in Poland, 195.242.125[.]186. Darktrace understood that this was unexpected behavior for this user who had only previously been observed connecting from the United Kingdom; it further recognized that no other users within the customer’s environment had connected from this external source, thereby deeming it suspicious. Further investigation by Darktrace’s analyst team revealed that the endpoint had been flagged as malicious by several open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors.

External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.
Figure 3: External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.

Following Darktrace’s initial detection of these suspicious Microsoft Teams messages, Darktrace's autonomous response was able to further support the customer by providing suggested mitigative actions that could be applied to stop the external user from sending any additional phishing messages.

Unfortunately, at the time of this attack Darktrace's autonomous response capability was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any autonomous response actions had to be manually actioned by the customer. Had it been enabled in autonomous response mode, it would have been able promptly disrupt the attack, disabling the external user to prevent them from continuing their phishing attempts and securing precious time for the customer’s security team to begin their own remediation procedures.

Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.
Figure 4: Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.

External URL Sent within Teams Chats

Within the 21 Teams chats created by the threat actor, Darktrace identified 21 different external URLs being sent, all of which included the domain "cloud-sharcpoint[.]com”. Many of these URLs had been recently established and had been flagged as malicious by OSINT providers [3]. This was likely an attempt to impersonate “cloud-sharepoint[.]com”, the legitimate domain of Microsoft SharePoint, with the threat actor attempting to ‘typo-squat’ the URL to convince endpoint users to trust the legitimacy of the link. Typo-squatted domains are commonly misspelled URLs registered by opportunistic attackers in the hope of gaining the trust of unsuspecting targets. They are often used for nefarious purposes like dropping malicious files on devices or harvesting credentials.

Upon clicking this malicious link, users were directed to a similarly typo-squatted domain, “InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpoInte-docs[.]com”. This domain was likely made to appear like the SharePoint URL used by the international hotel chain being impersonated.

Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.
Figure 5: Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

This fake SharePoint page used the branding of the international hotel chain and contained a document named “New Employee Loyalty Program”; the same name given to the phishing messages sent by the attacker on Microsoft Teams. Upon accessing this file, users would be directed to a credential harvester, masquerading as a Microsoft login page, and prompted to enter their credentials. If successful, this would allow the attacker to gain unauthorized access to a user’s SaaS account, thereby compromising the account and enabling further escalation in the customer’s environment.

Figure 6: A fake Microsoft login page that popped-up when attempting to open the ’New Employee Loyalty Program’ document.

This is a clear example of an attacker attempting to leverage social engineering tactics to gain the trust of their targets and convince them to inadvertently compromise their account. Many corporate organizations partner with other companies and well-known brands to offer their employees loyalty programs as part of their employment benefits and perks. As such, it would not necessarily be unexpected for employees to receive such an offer from an international hotel chain. By impersonating an international hotel chain, threat actors would increase the probability of convincing their targets to trust and click their malicious messages and links, and unintentionally compromising their accounts.

In spite of the attacker’s attempts to impersonate reputable brands, platforms, Darktrace/Apps was able to successfully recognize the malicious intent behind this phishing campaign and suggest steps to contain the attack. Darktrace recognized that the user in question had deviated from its ‘learned’ pattern of behavior by connecting to the customer’s SaaS environment from an unusual external location, before proceeding to send an unusually large volume of messages via Teams, indicating that the SaaS account had been compromised.

A Wider Campaign?

Around a month later, in March 2024, Darktrace observed a similar incident of a malicious actor impersonating the same international hotel chain in a phishing attacking using Microsoft Teams, suggesting that this was part of a wider phishing campaign. Like the previous example, this customer was also based in the EMEA region.  

The attack tactics identified in this instance were very similar to the previously example, with a new external user identified within the network proceeding to create a series of Teams messages named “New Employee Loyalty Program” containing a typo-squatted external links.

There were a few differences with this second incident, however, with the attacker using the domain “@InternationalHotelChainExpeditions[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” to send their malicious Teams messages and using differently typo-squatted URLs to imitate Microsoft SharePoint.

As both customers targeted by this phishing campaign were subscribed to Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, this suspicious SaaS activity was promptly escalated to the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) for immediate triage and investigation. Following their investigation, the SOC team sent an alert to the customers informing them of the compromise and advising urgent follow-up.

Schlussfolgerung

While there are clear similarities between these Microsoft Teams-based phishing attacks, the attackers here have seemingly sought ways to refine their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), leveraging new connection locations and creating new malicious URLs in an effort to outmaneuver human security teams and conventional security tools.

As cyber threats grow increasingly sophisticated and evasive, it is crucial for organizations to employ intelligent security solutions that can see through social engineering techniques and pinpoint suspicious activity early.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understands customer environments and is able to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavioral pattern, enabling it to effectively identify suspicious activity even when attackers adapt their strategies. In this instance, this allowed Darktrace to detect the phishing messages, and the malicious links contained within them, despite the seemingly trustworthy source and use of a reputable platform like Microsoft Teams.

Credit to Min Kim, Cyber Security Analyst, Raymond Norbert, Cyber Security Analyst and Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Anhang

Darktrace Model Detections

SaaS Model

Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

SaaS / Unusual Activity / Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type - Description

https://cloud-sharcpoint[.]com/[a-zA-Z0-9]{15} - Example hostname - Malicious phishing redirection link

InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpolnte-docs[.]com – Hostname – Redirected Link

195.242.125[.]186 - External Source IP Address – Malicious Endpoint

MITRE Tactics

Tactic – Technique

Phishing – Initial Access (T1566)

References

[1] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/trusted-organizations-external-meetings-chat?tabs=organization-settings

[2] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/195.242.125.186/detection

[3] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/cloud-sharcpoint.com

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About the author
Min Kim
Cyber Security Analyst
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