Dismantling a Fileless Campaign: Microsoft Details Astaroth Malware Attack

I was doing a standard review of Windows Defender Antivirus telemetry when I noticed an anomaly from a detection algorithm designed to catch a specific fileless technique. Telemetry showed a sharp increase in the use of the Windows Management Instrumentation Command-line (WMIC) tool to run a script (a technique that MITRE refers to XSL Script Processing), indicating a fileless attack.

After some hunting, I discovered the campaign that aimed to run the Astaroth backdoor directly in memory. Astaroth is a notorious info-stealing malware known for stealing sensitive information like credentials, keystrokes, and other data, which it exfiltrates and sends to a remote attacker. The attacker can then use stolen data to try moving laterally across networks, carry out financial theft, or sell victim information in the cybercriminal underground.

While the behavior may slightly vary in some instances, the attack generally followed these steps: A malicious link in a spear-phishing email leads to an LNK file. When double-clicked, the LNK file causes the execution of the WMIC tool with the “/Format” parameter, which allows the download and execution of a JavaScript code. The JavaScript code in turn downloads payloads by abusing the Bitsadmin tool.

All the payloads are Base64-encoded and decoded using the Certutil tool. Two of them result in plain DLL files (the others remain encrypted). The Regsvr32 tool is then used to load one of the decoded DLLs, which in turn decrypts and loads other files until the final payload, Astaroth, is injected into the Userinit process.

It’s interesting to note that at no point during the attack chain is any file run that’s not a system tool. This technique is called living off the land: using legitimate tools that are already present on the target system to masquerade as regular activity.

The attack chain above shows only the Initial Access and Execution stages. In these stages, the attackers used fileless techniques to attempt to silently install the malware on target devices. Astaroth is a notorious information stealer with many other post-breach capabilities that are not discussed in this blog. Preventing the attack in these stages is critical.

Read more at Microsoft

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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