After a 2-month break, the Emotet botnet is back up and running and has been observed conducting a phishing email campaign that is delivering between 100,000 and 50,0000 messages to inboxes a day.
Emotet first appeared in 2014 and started life as a banking Trojan; however, over the years the malware has evolved. While Emotet remains a banking Trojan, it is now best known as a malware downloader that is used to deliver a range of secondary payloads. The malware payloads it delivers also act as malware downloaders, so infection with Emotet often results in multiple malware infections, with ransomware often delivered as the final payload.
Once Emotet is installed on an endpoint it is added to the Emotet botnet and is used for spam and phishing campaigns. Emotet sends copies of itself via email to the user’s contacts along with other self-propagation mechanisms to infect other computers on the network. Emotet can be difficult to eradicate from the network. Once one computer is cleaned, it is often reinfected by other infected computers on the network.
Emotet often goes dormant for several weeks or even months, but even with long gaps in activity, Emotet is still the biggest malware threat. Emotet went dormant around February 2020, with activity resuming five months later in July. Activity continued until late October when activity stopped once again until Tuesday this week when it returned in time for Christmas. In 2020, Emotet has been observed delivering TrickBot and other payloads such as Qakbot and ZLoader.
During the periods of inactivity, the threat actors behind the malware are not necessarily inactive, they just stop their distribution campaigns. During the breaks they update their malware and returned with a new and improved version that is more effective at evading defenses.
The latest campaign uses similar tactics to past campaigns to maximize the probability of end users opening a malicious Office document. The phishing emails are usually personalized to make them appear more authentic, with Emotet using hijacked message threats with malicious content inserted. Since the emails appear to be responses to past conversations between colleagues and contacts, there is a greater chance that the recipient will open the email attachment or click a malicious hyperlink.
This campaign favors password-protected files, with the password to open the file supplied in the message body of the email. Since email security solutions cannot open these files, it is more likely that they will be delivered to inboxes. The malicious documents delivered in this campaign contain malicious macros. If the macros are enabled – which the user is told is necessary to view the content of the document – Emotet will be downloaded, after which the TrickBot Trojan will be delivered, usually followed by a ransomware variant such as Ryuk.
Previous campaigns have not displayed any additional content when the macros are enabled; however, this campaign displays an error message after the macros have been enabled instructing the user that Word experienced an error opening the file. This is likely to make the user believe the Word document has been corrupted. A variety of themes are used for the emails, with the latest campaign using holiday season and COVID-19 related lures.
An analysis by Cofense identified several changes in the latest campaign, including switching the malware binary from an executable (.exe) file to a Dynamic Link Library (.dll) file, which is executed using rundll32.exe. The command-and-control infrastructure has been changed and now uses binary data rather than plain text, both of which make the malware harder to detect.
Businesses need to be particularly vigilant and should act quickly if infections are detected and should take steps to ensure their networks are protected with anti-virus software, security policies, spam filters, and web filters.