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A Look Into Continuous Efforts By Chinese Hackers to Target Foreign Governments

By Alex Nimoy Oct. 2, 2019, 10:11 a.m.

Phishing is still one of the widely used strategies by cybercriminals and espionage groups to gain an initial foothold on the targeted systems.

Though hacking someone with phishing attacks was easy a decade ago, the evolution of threat detection technologies and cyber awareness among people has slowed down the success of phishing and social engineering attacks over the years.

Since phishing is more sort of a one-time opportunity for hackers before their victims suspect it and likely won't fall for the same trick again, sophisticated hacking groups have started putting a lot of effort, time and research to design well-crafted phishing campaigns.

In one such latest campaign discovered by cybersecurity researchers at Check Point, a Chinese hacking group, known as Rancor, has been found conducting very targeted and extensive attacks against Southeast Asian government entities from December 2018 to June 2019.

What's interesting about this ongoing 7-month long campaign is that over this period, the Rancor group has continuously updated tactics, tools, and procedures (TTP) based on its targets in an effort to come up with phishing email contents and lure documents appear being as convincing as possible.
"The observed attacks started with emails sent on behalf of employees from different government departments, embassies, or government-related entities in a Southeast Asian country," reads a report published by CheckPoint and privately shared with The Hacker News prior to its release.

"The attackers appeared determined to reach certain targets, as tens of emails were sent to employees under the same ministries. Furthermore, the emails' origin was likely spoofed to make them seem more reliable."

Continuously Evolving Tactics, Tools, and Procedures

Researchers discovered different combinations of TTP based on their timeline, delivery, persistence, and payloads, and then combined them into 8 major variants, as listed below in this article.

Each attack variant started with a classic spear-phishing email containing a malicious document designed to run macros and exploit known vulnerabilities to install a backdoor on the victims' machines and gain full access to the systems.

Most of the delivery documents in this campaign contained legitimate government-related topics, like instructions for governmental employees, official letters, press releases, surveys, and more, appeared to be sent from other government officials.

Interestingly, as part of the infection chain, in most campaigns, attackers also bring their own legitimate, signed and trusted executables of major antivirus products to side-load malicious DLLs (dynamic link library) files to evade detection, especially from behavioral monitoring products.

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