Cybercrime and Dark Web Research / The Never-ending Ransomware Story

The Never-ending Ransomware Story

The Never-ending Ransomware Story
Kim Bromley
Read More From Kim Bromley
August 31, 2021 | 10 Min Read

In the Never Ending Story, Bastian is drawn away from reality into Fantasia—a mythical land desperately in need of a hero to save it from a dark force. As ransomware continues to rampage, network defenders are, now more than ever, in need of their very own Bastian of hope. Let’s look back at the ransomware landscape and the flurry of rebranding attempts made by ransomware groups this summer.

What’s been happening in ransomware events?

Let’s quickly round up all the significant ransomware events from the last few months, events that made us write yet another blog on ransomware. The intensity of ransomware attacks, and the professionalization of the groups responsible, have continually increased for the last two to three years. We have seen more and more groups erupting onto the ransomware scene, groups evolving their tactics and techniques, and almost all of these groups indulging in a bit of double extortion.

This year, we have witnessed some of the most significant attacks in ransomware history. In early May, things really kicked off when the largest fuel pipeline in the US, Colonial Pipeline, suffered a ransomware attack at the hands of the “DarkSide” group. You can read our blogs on this event here and here

Attacking critical national infrastructure belonging to the US unsurprisingly attracted A LOT of attention from law enforcement, government, the media, and other cybercriminals. Some prominent online criminal forums took this opportunity to ban the topic of ransomware; you can read our blog on how forum life has adapted to the ransomware ban here.

After this, US President Biden signed an executive order to strengthen US cybersecurity defenses and met with Russian President Putin to discuss Russian-speaking ransomware groups. Regardless, it wasn’t long before “REvil” (aka Sodinokibi) took to the stage. In early June, REvil attacked JBS Foods and disrupted its US, Australia, and Canada operations. Less than a month later, the group conducted a ransomware supply-chain attack on software provider Kaseya that affected thousands of end-users. You can read our blogs on the Kaseya ransomware supply-chain attack here and here

This wasn’t the first time the REvil group showed interest in Kaseya—we’ll come back to this later.

How have ransomware groups rebranded?

After the Colonial Pipeline attack, DarkSide disappeared, as did REvil after the Kaseya attack. I think we’ve all read enough about ransomware by now to know that their disappearance doesn’t mean they’ve ridden off into the sunset with a bag of swag. Quite the contrary. The past couple of months has seen many ransomware groups rebranding, returning from a hiatus with a new name and bigger and better ransomware. Ransomware rebrands aren’t novel. As the timeline below shows, ransomware groups have been changing it up since 2018. What’s interesting now is that a lot of groups have rebranded at the same time.  

Evolution of Ransomware groups (Source: Brian Krebs)

In the past, we have only seen one group at a time going through the rebranding effort. This year alone, five new ransomware groups have been reported. They are assessed to be rebrands of existing, sometimes major, ransomware groups. 

Researchers compared and found similarities in malware code, data-leak website characteristics, logos, and branding to make the connection. Researchers found similarities between BlackMatter and Darkside, SynAck and El_Cometa, and Doppelpaymer and Grief, to name a few. Lockbit also upgraded their malware and recently released Lockbit 2.0.

The answer to why so many groups have rebranded could be as simple as there are just more ransomware groups in operation now than there ever used to be. Naturally, more will go through similar processes at the same time. Or perhaps, the notable events I described earlier in the blog didn’t just shake those responsible, but the whole ransomware community. However, ransomware groups typically rebrand after law enforcement activity to distance themselves from the group that has landed in trouble. Or they will rebrand after taking time to develop and improve their malware.

Let’s take a look at the lifecycle of some of these groups in more detail…

DarkSide transforms to BlackMatter

DarkSide rose to prominence in August 2020 as a ransomware-as-a-service offering, recognized for its professionalism. The group practiced the double extortion tactic and consistently added victims to their dark website, also named DarkSide. Despite the constant flurry of ransomware activity, Colonial Pipeline was the most significant attack conducted by DarkSide.

In the immediate aftermath, DarkSide’s operators blamed the Colonial Pipeline attack on one of their affiliates, not winning them any friends in the ransomware underground. As a result, many forum users filed arbitration claims against the group. One associate even released “secrets” about DarkSide’s attack on Colonial Pipeline. This, coupled with all the unwanted attention towards DarkSide that arose from this attack, is the most likely reason for DarkSide’s rebrand.

At this point, DarkSide has a pretty terrible reputation. Many will view them as responsible for the forum ban on ransomware and as the catalyst for US-Russian cybercrime talks. Russian cybercriminal groups typically operate in a permissive environment—purposefully ignored by the Russian government—and the focus of President Putin will not be welcome. Therefore, DarkSide needed a refresh—drop the DarkSide name to also drop the negative sentiment.

Enter BlackMatter. A relatively short timeframe for the DarkSide group to conduct a rebrand, but clearly necessary to avoid the more severe kind of law enforcement action experienced by another infamous group.

Bitpaymer into Doppelpaymer into Grief

The operators of Bitpaymer, Evil Corp, are undoubtedly the most well-known cybercriminal group. Who can forget their leader’s Lamborghini Hurcan? (I’ve included a picture here below)

Bitpaymer’s leader’s Lamborghini (Source: UK National Crime Agency)

In December 2019, US authorities released an indictment against Maksim and the rest of Evil Corp. That indictment specifically mentioned the ransomware used by the group as part of their attacks—Bitpaymer. At the same time, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued sanctions against Evil Corp, making them the first-ever cybercriminal group to be subject to financial sanctions. What a way to make history guys.

Bitpaymer was successful ransomware, but there is always room for improvement, more money, and more Lamborghinis. Bitpaymer’s successor was Doppelpaymer which first emerged in April 2019. This rebrand was more likely about advancing the malware’s capabilities since the group thought they were untouchable at the time of its release. Improve it did. The FBI issued a warning about the malware in December 2020, after it launched attacks against critical industries in 2019 and affected its victims’ operations throughout 2020.

The sanctions issued against Evil Corp didn’t just have implications for the group, it also affected their victims. Making a financial payment to the sanctioned entity is a criminal offense. Therefore, if a victim of a Bitpaymer ransomware attack were to pay the ransom to get their files back, they would be breaking the law. Despite the prominence of Doppelpaymer attacks, the number of ransom payments received by the group likely dwindled as news of their sanctions spread.

Therefore, it is realistically possible that the rebrand from Doppelpaymer to Grief was an attempt by Evil Corp to operate ransomware that was not linked to a sanctioned entity, increasing their chances of receiving more ransom payments from its victims. Now that Grief has been connected to Doppelpaymer, and therefore Evil Corp, we might see another rebrand from this group soon in another attempt to confuse researchers. Watch this space!

Cerber into Gandcrab to finally, REvil

After their attack on Kaseya, the REvil ransomware group disappeared. I’m sensing a theme here. As is the trend, it’s unlikely that REvil is gone forever, but what comes next for the group remains to be seen. We completed an analysis of competing hypotheses exercise in July to work through the possible options. Still, a rebrand wouldn’t be out of the question for REvil—they’ve gone through two already. 

Cerber was first discovered in late February 2016, the name having been assigned by its developers rather than security researchers. After its discovery, Cerber went through many upgrades in a short period, with its 5th version being released in November 2016. This latest version only encrypted files larger than 2,560 bytes (1,024 bytes previously) and targeted bitcoin wallets on compromised machines. Because of its systematic development, Cerber became one of the most prominent ransomwares; however, by late 2017, Cerber infection rates ceased, as did updates and new version releases. At the time, the reason for this was not known.

As it turned out, Cerber’s developers were likely preparing for the release of Gandcrab in January 2018 all along. Again, this ransomware went through multiple upgrades in its first year of life. In February 2019, Gandcrab was delivered via a Kaseya VSA plugin vulnerability (sound familiar?) and was one of the first ransomware types to start the practice of big game hunting. In May 2019, Gandcrab’s operators announced that they were shutting down operations. A few months later, the FBI released the decryption keys for Gandcrab. At around the same time, new ransomware, named REvil, came to fill the gap that Gandcrab left.

Gandcrab and REvil used similar processes for generating random URLs to infect systems; however, REvil had been developed with a specific focus on avoiding detection through living-off-the-land tactics. These tactics indicate that the group was learning from their previous mistakes that allowed law enforcement to access their decryption keys. 

Since its inception, the REvil group has focused on advancing the capabilities of its malware, and this goal has been the impetus behind previous rebranding efforts. Therefore, their disappearance may be influenced by their Kaseya attack but may well have been a planned upgrade all along.

Final thoughts

What do all of these rebrands have in common? Eventually, researchers link them back to their predecessors. The new malware, and the accompanying operation, are never seemingly a complete departure from the original. Clues are left for researchers to connect the dots. Many of these groups can hide such clues if they really wanted to, so why do they leave them in plain sight? A small part of them probably still wants to rely on their old reputation, particularly when the malware they had was proven successful. Still, they were driven into the darkness by too much unwanted attention.

One thing is for sure, the tactic of disappearing during periods of increased pressure, only to reappear in a new form as pressure dissipates, seems to be cemented as a ransomware group trend. The recently rebranded groups identified in this blog will continue with their operations. They may even increase their activity to establish the new brand. The ransomware threat certainly won’t decrease.
As always, Digital Shadows will continue to monitor the ransomware threat landscape and provide updates as the scene develops. In the meantime, you can read about how to track ransomware within SearchLight. If that piques your interest, you can access most of our intelligence on ransomware actors and variants in Test Drive, which is free to try for seven days.

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