CryptoLocker Ransomware

Background

In mid-September 2013, the Dell SecureWorks CTU(TM) research team observed a new ransomware malware family called CryptoLocker. Ransomware malware such as Reveton, Urausy, Tobfy, and Kovter has cost consumers considerable time and money over the past several years. Ransomware prevents victims from using their computer normally (e.g., by locking the screen) and uses social engineering to convince victims that failing to follow the malware authors’ instructions will lead to real-world consequences. These consequences, such as owing a fine or facing arrest and prosecution, are presented as being the result of a fabricated indiscretion like pirating music or downloading illegal pornography. Victims of these traditional forms of ransomware could ignore the demands and use security software to unlock the system and remove the offending malware. CryptoLocker changes this dynamic by aggressively encrypting files on the victim’s system and returning control of the files to the victim only after the ransom is paid.

Infection vector

The earliest CryptoLocker samples appear to have been released on the Internet on September 5, 2013. Details about this initial distribution phase are unclear, but it appears the samples were downloaded from a compromised website located in the United States, either by a version of CryptoLocker that has not been analyzed as of this publication, or by a custom downloader created by the same authors.

Early versions of CryptoLocker were distributed through spam emails targeting business professionals (as opposed to home Internet users). The lure was often a “consumer complaint” against the email recipient or their organization. Attached to these emails was a ZIP archive with a random alphabetical filename containing 13 to 17 characters. Only the first character of the filename is capitalized. The archive contained a single executable with the same filename as the ZIP archive but with an EXE extension. Table 1 lists several examples observed by CTU researchers.

COMPRESSED ARCHIVE INCLUDED EXECUTABLE FILE
Jcgnbunudberrr.zip Jcgnbunudberrr.exe
Lmpjxmvheortt.zip Lmpjxmvheortt.exe
Icmcobxksjghdlnnt.zip Icmcobxksjghdlnnt.exe
Gfaiqhgtqakbxlbf.zip Gfaiqhgtqakbxlbf.exe

Table 1. Filenames of email-delivered malware samples.

On October 7, 2013, CTU researchers observed CryptoLocker being distributed by the peer-to-peer (P2P) Gameover Zeus malware in a typical pay-per-installation arrangement. In this case, Gameover Zeus was distributed by the Cutwail spam botnet using lures consistent with previous malware distribution campaigns. Figure 1 shows a phishing email delivered by Cutwail on October 7, 2013. Attached to the message is a ZIP archive containing a small (approximately 20KB) executable using a document extension in the filename and displaying an Adobe Reader icon. This Upatre malware downloads and executes Gameover Zeus, which in turn downloads and installs other malware families including CryptoLocker.

Figure 1. Spam email containing the Upatre downloader. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 1. Spam email containing the Upatre downloader. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

As of this publication, Gameover Zeus remains the primary method of distributing CryptoLocker. In addition to being distributed by Cutwail, Gameover Zeus has also been distributed by the Blackhole and Magnitude exploit kits.

Execution and persistence

CryptoLocker hides its presence from victims until it has successfully contacted a command and control (C2) server and encrypted the files located on connected drives. Prior to these actions, the malware ensures that it remains running on infected systems and that it persists across reboots. When first executed, the malware creates a copy of itself in either %AppData% or %LocalAppData%. CryptoLocker then deletes the original executable file.

CryptoLocker then creates an “autorun” registry key:

HKCU\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run "CryptoLocker":<random>.exe

Some versions of CryptoLocker create an additional registry entry:

HKCU\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\RunOnce "*CryptoLocker":<random>.exe

The asterisk at the beginning of the key name ensures that the malware executes even if the system is restarted in “safe mode.”

Additional configuration data is stored in the following registry key:

HKCU\SOFTWARE\CryptoLocker or HKCU\SOFTWARE\CryptoLocker_0388

The VersionInfo value stored within this key contains configuration data encoded with the XOR key 0x819C33AE. The PublicKey value contains the RSA public key received from the C2 server during the initial network connection.

The executable files in early CryptoLocker samples used a random filename formatted like a GUID:

{71257279-042B-371D-A1D3-FBF8D2FADFFA}.exe

However, the executable files in recent samples use the naming pattern shown in the second column of Table 1.

Network

Several early versions of CryptoLocker, thought to be part of a beta testing phase, included code to connect to 184.164.136.134. This IP address is located in a PhoenixNAP datacenter in Arizona, but it was likely under the administrative control of Jolly Works Hosting. As of this publication, this IP address is no longer active, and CryptoLocker samples released since mid-September no longer reference it.

The malware’s network communications use an internal domain generation algorithm (DGA) that produces 1,000 potential C2 domain addresses per day. The domain names contain 12 to 15 alphabetical characters and are within one of seven possible top-level domains (TLDs): com, net, org, info, biz, ru, and co.uk. An error in the algorithm prevents it from using ‘z’ in a generated domain name. The threat actors never registered a domain under the ‘co.uk’ TLD, and Nominet, the official registrar for the ‘uk’ ccTLD, began to sinkhole all potential addresses under this domain on October 18, 2013. As a result, the threat actors cannot use ‘co.uk’ domain names.

The threat actors have also used static C2 servers embedded inside the malware. On October 17, a sample was distributed that first connected to inworkforallthen . com before cycling through the domains created by the DGA. Several days later, another sample was hard-coded to connect to ovenbdjnihhdlb . net prior to attempting other generated domains. Since that time, new samples frequently contain static addresses taken from the pool of domain names created by the DGA.

CryptoLocker cycles indefinitely until it connects to a C2 server via HTTP. After connecting to an attacker-controlled C2 server, CryptoLocker sends a phone-home message encrypted with an RSA public key embedded within the malware (see Figure 2). Only servers with the corresponding RSA private key can decrypt this message and successfully communicate with an infected system.

Figure 2. CryptoLocker's initial phone-home traffic. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 2. CryptoLocker’s initial phone-home traffic. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

Analysis of the IP addresses used by the threat actors reveals several patterns of behavior. The first is that the threat actors use virtual private servers (VPS) located at different ISPs throughout the Russian Federation and in former Eastern bloc countries. The extended use of some of these hosts, such as 93.189.44.187, 81.177.170.166, and 95.211.8.39, suggests that they are located at providers that are indifferent to criminal activity on their networks or are complicit in its execution (such as so-called “bulletproof” hosting providers). The remaining servers appear to be used for several days before disappearing. The threat actors could be strategically using this pattern to remain a moving target, or some ISPs could be terminating their service.

A complete list of network indicators is included in the Threat indicators section.

Encryption

Instead of using a custom cryptographic implementation like many other malware families, CryptoLocker uses strong third-party certified cryptography offered by Microsoft’s CryptoAPI. By using a sound implementation and following best practices, the malware authors have created a robust program that is difficult to circumvent. The malware uses the “Microsoft Enhanced RSA and AES Cryptographic Provider” (MS_ENH_RSA_AES_PROV) to create keys and to encrypt data with the RSA (CALG_RSA_KEYX) and AES (CALG_AES_256) algorithms.

The encryption process begins after CryptoLocker has established its presence on the system and successfully located, connected to, and communicated with an attacker-controlled C2 server. This communication provides the malware with the threat actors’ RSA public key, which is used throughout the encryption process.

The malware begins the encryption process by using the GetLogicalDrives() API call to enumerate the disks on the system that have been assigned a drive letter (e.g., C:). In early CryptoLocker samples, the GetDriveType() API call then determines if the drives are local fixed disks or network drives (DRIVE_FIXED and DRIVE_REMOTE, respectively). Only those two types of drives are selected for file encryption in early samples. Samples since late September also select removable drives (DRIVE_REMOVABLE), which can include USB thumb drives and external hard disks.

After selecting a list of disks to attack, the malware lists all files on those disks that match the 72 file patterns shown in Table 2. Over time, the threat actors adjusted which types of files are selected for encryption; for example, PDF files were not encrypted in very early samples but were added in mid-September. As a result, the list in Table 2 is subject to change.

*.odt *.ods *.odp *.odm *.odb *.doc *.docx *.docm
*.wps *.xls *.xlsx *.xlsm *.xlsb *.xlk *.ppt *.pptx
*.pptm *.mdb *.accdb *.pst *.dwg *.dxf *.dxg *.wpd
*.rtf *.wb2 *.mdf *.dbf *.psd *.pdd *.eps *.ai
*.indd *.cdr ????????.jpg ????????.jpe img_*.jpg *.dng *.3fr *.arw
*.srf *.sr2 *.bay *.crw *.cr2 *.dcr *.kdc *.erf
*.mef *.mrw *.nef *.nrw *.orf *.raf *.raw *.rwl
*.rw2 *.r3d *.ptx *.pef *.srw *.x3f *.der *.cer
*.crt *.pem *.pfx *.p12 *.p7b *.p7c *.pdf *.odc

Table 2. File patterns selected for encryption.

Each file is encrypted with a unique AES key, which in turn is encrypted with the RSA public key received from the C2 server. The encrypted key, a small amount of metadata, and the encrypted file contents are then written back to disk, replacing the original file. Encrypted files can only be recovered by obtaining the RSA private key held exclusively by the threat actors.

As a form of bookkeeping, the malware stores the location of every encrypted file in the Files subkey of the HKCU\SOFTWARE\CryptoLocker (or CryptoLocker_0388) registry key (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. List of encrypted files stored by CryptoLocker. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 3. List of encrypted files stored by CryptoLocker. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

After finishing the file encryption process, CryptoLocker periodically rescans the system for new drives and files to encrypt.

The malware does not reveal its presence to the victim until all targeted files have been encrypted. The victim is presented with a splash screen containing instructions and an ominous countdown timer (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Splashscreen presented to victims. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 4. Splashscreen presented to victims. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

Payment

The ransom amount varied in very early samples (see Table 3), but settled at $300 USD or 2 BTC (Bitcoins) within the few weeks after CryptoLocker’s introduction. Dramatic Bitcoin price inflation in the latter months of 2013 prompted the threat actors to reduce the ransom to 1 BTC, 0.5 BTC, and then again to 0.3 BTC, where it remains as of this publication.

AMOUNT CURRENCY (ABBREVIATION)
100 U.S. Dollar (USD)
100 Euro (EUR)
100 Australian Dollar (AUD)
200 Brazilian Real (BRL)
100 Canadian Dollar (CAD)
2000 Czech Koruna (CZK)
1000 Danish Krone (DKK)
100 British Pound Sterling (GBP)
1000 Mexican Peso (MXN)
1500 Norwegian Krone (NOK)
200 New Zealand Dollar (NZD)
500 Polish Zloty (PLN)
200 Romanian Leu (RON)
1500 Swedish Krona (SEK)

Table 3. Original ransom amounts in various denominations. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The threat actors have offered various payment methods to victims since the inception of CryptoLocker. The methods are all anonymous or pseudo-anonymous, making it difficult to track the origin and final destination of payments.

cashU

Figure 5. Payment options using the cashU service. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 5. Payment options using the cashU service. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The description of cashU shown in Figure 5 is taken directly from the Wikipedia entryabout the method:

cashU is a prepaid online and mobile payment method available in the Middle East and North Africa, a region with a large and young population with very limited access to credit cards. Because of this, cashU has become one of the most popular alternative payment option for young Arabic online gamers and e-commerce buyers.

Ukash

Figure 6. Payment options using the Ukash service. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 6. Payment options using the Ukash service. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The description of Ukash shown in Figure 6 is largely taken from a Facebook post about the product:

Ukash is electronic cash and e-commerce brand. Based on a prepaid system, Ukash allows users to purchase and then spend money online.

Money can be purchased from one of the reported 420,000 participating retail locations worldwide, or by using the company’s website. This electronic money can then be used to pay online, or loaded on to a prepaid card or eWallet.

You can combine multiple values of your Ukash into a single amount and have your new Ukash Code and value emailed to you if you want. You will need to register at Ukash.com, login and then go to the Manage Ukash area to use the Combine tool.

Paysafecard

A screenshot of the Paysafecard dialog was not immediately available for this publication, but the description states:

Paysafecard is an electronic payment method for predominantly online shopping and is based on a pre-pay system. Paying with paysafecard does not require sharing sensitive bank account or credit card details. Using paysafecard is comparable to paying with cash in a shop and it is currently available in over 30 countries.

Paysafecard works by purchasing a PIN code printed on a card, and entering this code at webshops.

Paysafecard is available from many supermarkets, petrol stations, tobacconists and newsagents.

Bitcoin

Figure 7. Payment options using the Bitcoin service. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 7. Payment options using the Bitcoin service. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The description of Bitcoin shown in Figure 7 is copied almost verbatim from several online resources:

Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency where the creation and transfer of bitcoins is based on an open-source cryptographic protocol that is independent of any central authority. Bitcoins can be transferred through a computer or smartphone without an intermediate financial institution.

Green Dot MoneyPak

Figure 8. Payment options using the MoneyPak service. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 8. Payment options using the MoneyPak service. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The description of MoneyPak shown in Figure 8 is copied directly from the MoneyPak website:

MoneyPak is an easy and convenient way to send money to where you need it. The MoneyPak works as a ‘cash top-up card’.

Where can I purchase a MoneyPak?

MoneyPak can be purchased at thousands of stores nationwide, including major retailers such as Walmart, Walgreens, CVS/pharmacy, Rite Aid, Kmart and Kroger. Click here to find a store near you.

How do I buy a MoneyPak at the store?

Pick up a MoneyPak from the Prepaid Product Section or Green Dot display and take it to the register. The cashier will collect your cash and load it onto the MoneyPak.

Current payment options

Although early versions of CryptoLocker included numerous payment options, the threat actors now only accept MoneyPak and Bitcoin. The Bitcoin option was originally marketed as the “most cheap option” [sic] for ransom payment based on the difference between the $300 USD ransom and the market rate of Bitcoins. From August to December 2013, the Bitcoin market experienced major volatility and dramatically increased in price, negating any monetary benefits for victims to choose this payment method.

The variety of payment options and currency choices in early CryptoLocker versions suggests the threat actors originally anticipated a global infection pattern. For reasons unknown to CTU researchers, the threat actors elected to focus exclusively on English-speaking countries and removed the payment options less popular in these countries.

Anecdotal reports from victims who elected to pay the ransom indicate that the CryptoLocker threat actors honor payments by instructing infected computers to decrypt files and uninstall the malware. Victims who submit payments are presented with the payment activation screen shown in Figure 9 until the threat actors validate the payment. During this payment validation phase, the malware connects to the C2 server every fifteen minutes to determine if the payment has been accepted. According to reports from victims, payments may be accepted within minutes or may take several weeks to process.

Figure 9. Payment activation screen. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 9. Payment activation screen. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

Late payment

In early November 2013, the threat actors introduced the “CryptoLocker Decryption Service” (see Figure 10). This service gives victims who failed to pay the ransom before the timer expired a way to retrieve the encrypted files from their infected system.

Figure 10. The 'CryptoLocker Decryption Service' landing page. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 10. The “CryptoLocker Decryption Service” landing page. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The service uploads the first kilobyte of an encrypted file, which contains the header prepended by the malware. The threat actors use that data to query their database for the RSA private key that matches the RSA public key used during file encryption. If the private key is located, the threat actors present the victim with the page shown in Figure 11. The victim is given the option of sending payment to a randomly generated Bitcoin wallet. Early versions of this service charged 10 BTC, but the price was quickly reduced to 2 BTC. After receiving the payment, the threat actors redirect victims to a page that includes instructions on how to decrypt files.

Figure 11. Page displayed when the private key is successfully located. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 11. Page displayed when the private key is successfully located. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

Collected ransoms

In December 2013, Michele Spagnuolo published a thesis discussing a Bitcoin forensics framework called BitIodine. He discusses identifying Bitcoin addresses controlled by the CryptoLocker threat actors and tracing potential ransom payments made to those addresses. Figure 12 graphs the total number of ransoms paid per day (in gray) along with the total value of those payments in U.S. dollars on the day they were received (in blue).

Figure 12. Ransoms paid through Bitcoin. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 12. Ransoms paid through Bitcoin. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

Using the daily weighted BTC price, if the threat actors had sold the 1,216 total BTC collected over the period shown in Figure 12 immediately upon receiving them, they would have earned nearly $380,000. If they elected to hold these ransoms, they would be worth nearly $980,000 as of this publication based on the current weighted price of $804/BTC.

These figures represent a conservative estimate of the number of ransoms collected by the CryptoLocker gang. Based on conversations with U.S.-based victims, the ease of payment with MoneyPak and the numerous technical barriers to obtaining Bitcoins led to most payments being made through the former method. CTU researchers suspect that a significant portion of Bitcoin payments are being made by individuals outside of the U.S., where MoneyPak is not available and Bitcoin is the only option. Based on this information and measurements of infection rates, CTU researchers estimate a minimum of 0.4%, and very likely many times that, of CryptoLocker victims are electing to pay the ransom.

Victims

Based on its design, deployment method, and empirical observations of its distribution, CryptoLocker appears to target English-speakers, specifically those located in the United States. Malware authors from Russia and Eastern Europe, where the CryptoLocker authors are thought to originate, commonly target victims in North America and Western Europe. Law enforcement cooperation between these regions is complicated by numerous factors, which often results in threat actors believing that they can operate with impunity.

CTU researchers observed early infections occurring disproportionately at financial institutions, but anecdotal reports suggest that early victims were in verticals as diverse as hospitality and public utilities. As of this publication, there is no evidence the actors are targeting specific industries. The threat actors have also broadened their attacks to include home Internet users in addition to professionals.

CTU researchers began actively monitoring the CryptoLocker botnet on September 18, 2013 and analyzed various data sources, including DNS requests, sinkhole data, and client telemetry, to build the approximate daily infection rates shown in Figure 13. Spikes coinciding with Cutwail spam campaigns that resulted in increased CryptoLocker infections are clearly indicated, including the period of high activity from October through mid-November. Likewise, periodic lulls in activity have occurred frequently, including a span from late November through mid-December.

Figure 13. Approximated infection rates. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 13. Approximated infection rates. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The CTU research team registered multiple domains from the pool used by CryptoLocker to construct a sinkhole infrastructure and assess the malware’s global impact. Between October 22 and November 1, 2013, 31,866 unique IP addresses contacted CTU sinkhole servers. Figure 14 shows the geographic distribution of these IP addresses.

Figure 14. Global distribution of CryptoLocker infections between October 22 and November 1, 2013. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 14. Global distribution of CryptoLocker infections between October 22 and November 1, 2013. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The United States was disproportionately represented among countries with measurable infection rates. Table 4 lists countries with the top ten infection rates.

COUNTRY NUMBER OF INFECTED SYSTEMS PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL
United States 22,360 70.2%
Great Britain 1,767 5.5%
India 818 2.6%
Thailand 691 2.2%
Peru 688 2.2%
Canada 658 2.1%
Philippines 645 2.0%
Indonesia 427 1.3%
Iran 333 1.0%
Ecuador 264 0.8%

Table 4. Geographic breakdown of infection counts. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

The CTU research team implemented a similar sinkhole infrastructure between December 9 and December 16, which was during a period of limited malware activity. Additionally, recent samples use hard-coded C2 domains, which limits the conclusions that can be drawn from information gathered from sinkhole domains. During this observation period, 6,459 unique IP addresses contacted the CTU sinkhole servers. Figure 15 shows the geographic distribution of these IP addresses.

Figure 15. Global distribution of CryptoLocker infections between December 9 and December 16, 2013. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)
Figure 15. Global distribution of CryptoLocker infections between December 9 and December 16, 2013. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

In the samples gathered by the December sinkhole, the United Kingdom and Australia approached the absolute infection numbers of the U.S, despite having much smaller populations. CTU researchers are unsure whether this change is an anomaly or represents a change in the threat actors’ strategy.

Table 5 lists countries with the top ten infection rates.

COUNTRY NUMBER OF INFECTED SYSTEMS PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL
United States 1,540 23.8%
Great Britain 1,228 19.0%
Australia 836 12.9%
France 372 5.8%
Brazil 309 4.8%
Italy 204 3.2%
Turkey 182 2.8%
Spain 145 2.2%
China 138 2.1%
Canada 135 2.1%

Table 5. Geographic breakdown of infection counts. (Source: Dell SecureWorks)

Based on the presented evidence, CTU researchers estimate that 200,000 to 250,000 systems were infected globally in the first 100 days of the CryptoLocker threat.

Mitigation

By incorporating the following components in a defense-in-depth strategy, organizations may be able to mitigate the CryptoLocker threat:

  • Block executable files and compressed archives containing executable files before they reach a victim’s inbox. Email remains a top infection vector for malware in general and this threat in particular.
  • Consider aggressively blocking known indicators (see Table 6) from communicating with your network to temporarily neuter the malware until it can be discovered and removed. CryptoLocker does not encrypt files until it has successfully contacted an active C2 server.
  • Reevaluate permissions on shared network drives to prevent unprivileged users from modifying files.
  • Regularly back up data with so-called “cold,” offline backup media. Backups to locally connected, network-attached, or cloud-based storage are not sufficient because CryptoLocker encrypts these files in the same manner as those found on the system drive.
  • Implement Software Restriction Policies (SRPs) to prevent programs like CryptoLocker from executing in common directories such as %AppData% or%LocalAppData%.
  • Use Group Policy Objects (GPOs) to create and restrict permissions on registry keys used by CryptoLocker, such as HKCU\SOFTWARE\CryptoLocker (and variants). If the malware cannot open and write to these keys, it terminates before encrypting any files.

Conclusion

CryptoLocker is neither the first ransomware nor the first destructive malware to wreak havoc on infected systems. However, the malware authors appear to have made sound design decisions that complicate efforts to mitigate this threat and have demonstrated a capable distribution system based on the Cutwail and Gameover Zeus botnets. Evidence collected by CTU researchers confirms the threat actors have previous experience in malware development and distribution, especially of ransomware. Based on the duration and scale of attacks, they also appear to have the established and substantial “real world” infrastructure necessary to “cash out” ransoms and launder the proceeds.

 

Threat indicators

To mitigate exposure to the CryptoLocker malware, CTU researchers recommend that clients use available controls to restrict access using the indicators in Table 6. The domains listed in the indicators table may contain malicious content, so consider the risks before opening them in a browser. CTU researchers have attempted to remove IP addresses and domain names operated by security vendors and private researchers, but some non-malicious infrastructure may be included. Date gaps in domain name information represent periods when the threat actors elected not to register malicious domains or when CTU researchers had insufficient data to determine those domain names.

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