The Underground Economist: Volume 4, Issue 11

The Underground Economist: Volume 4, Issue 11
12 minute read

New One-Time Purchase Ransomware Announced in Dark Web Forum

On May 26, 2024, well-regarded actor “phant0m” announced a new ransomware tool named “SpiderX” on the English-speaking dark web forum “OnniForums.” The software, which quickly gained traction amongst other forum users, is available for a one-time purchase of USD 150. This is almost certainly perceived as inexpensive, particularly in comparison to more premium RaaS offerings. 

  • SpiderX is almost certainly an upgraded version of the “Diablo” ransomware, which was released by phant0m in OmniForums in early 2023.
  • While SpiderX lacks many of the features expected from ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) models, it does encompass features likely attractive to threat actors. These include a rarely seen feature that allows attackers to spread the tool via infected USB drives in the initial attack.

The announcement of SpiderX contributes to a broader upward trajectory in the number of English-speaking ransomware offerings observed in deep and dark web (DDW) marketplaces. This trend is very likely facilitating English-speaking actors who are unable to negotiate with larger, mostly Russian-speaking RaaS groups.

  • So far in 2024, ZeroFox has observed the announcements of several new English-speaking ransomware offerings, including Diablo, “Nevermore,” “Wing,” and the prominent “RansomHub.”
  • Whilst some actors desire to work alone, some English-speaking actors are not able to negotiate with larger Russian-speaking RaaS groups. This is very likely due in part to low levels of trust amongst threat actors, as well as a perception of inferiority and incompetency.

As well as English-speaking ransomware offerings, one-time purchase models are also very likely on an upward trajectory in both English and Russian-speaking DDW forums. Due to the lower price, these options are very likely attractive to a higher number of would-be threat actors. However, compared to larger RaaS offerings, one-time ransomware purchases have significantly fewer capabilities and features. This very likely hinders many less technically competent actors from engaging in ransomware and digital extortion (R&DE) activity.

  • The majority of prominent RaaS offerings contain customer-service features such as a support programme and instructions for use. Additionally, they offer more advanced software features, primarily surrounding secure encryption and exfiltration, and defense evasion measures.
  • While the gap between subscription and one-time purchases remains significant, it is very likely to continue reducing as more options become available, and garner more interest, enabling further development. Furthermore, threat actors may be attracted to their low-profile approach, particularly in the wake of numerous 2024 law enforcement (LE) disruptions.

The proliferation of low-cost, one-time purchase ransomware models will very likely offer increased accessibility for English-speaking actors who wish to engage in R&DE activity outside of a large threat collective and away from the prominent Russian-speaking forums. This is very likely to contribute to the increasingly diverse R&DE threat landscape, the techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) being observed, as well as a growing number of total ransomware incidents.

However, while threat actors leveraging this ransomware almost certainly pose a threat to organizations across regions and industries, they are almost certainly unable to conduct attacks at the frequency or scale of larger RaaS groups.

NATO Data Leak Shared on Deep Web Forum

On May 19, 2024, threat actor “Sumo” announced a data leak pertaining to a NATO school’s e-learning platform on the Russian-speaking deep web forum “Cronos”. The data is available to all Cronos forum members who have paid for account privileges and could very likely be leveraged in various types of malicious social engineering activity.

  • Sumo is a well-regarded, prolific distributor of data leaks in DDW forums, posting information stolen from both Western and Russian victims.
  • The stolen data is primarily personally identifiable information (PII) such as names, titles, military ranks, institutions, countries, and contact information, likely pertaining to both military and civilian staff and e-learning students.

Cronos was created in 2022 and is focused on data breaches and hosting unique leaks, as well as republishing those from other forums. There is a roughly even chance that Cronos will increase its traffic and popularity following the recent closure of BreachForums.

  • On May 15, 2024, the English-language DDW forum BreachForums was seized in an operation coordinated by multiple international LE agencies.
  • Since mid-2023, BreachForums has been one of the most popular DDW marketplaces, hosting discussions surrounding the trading of illicitly-obtained goods.

It is likely that the data breach originated from an SQL injection vulnerability that was privately advertised for sale on Telegram in January 2024. The vulnerability allegedly implicated an unknown NATO entity.

  • An SQL injection is a code injection technique used to attack data-driven applications that use SQL databases. It exploits security vulnerabilities in web applications that construct SQL statements from user input without properly sanitizing or validating that input.

It is very likely that the intended use of this data is social engineering and other fraudulent activity, with a likely chance it has already been leveraged in attacks by financially-motivated threat actors. There is also a smaller possibility that the information can be leveraged in geopolitically or ideologically-motivated espionage activity by state-associated actors.

First Potential BreachForums Successor Announced

On May 16, 2024, threat actor “USDoD” announced on X their intent to launch a new, open-source data breach forum named “Breach Nation”. USDoD claimed that Breach Nation would use two separate domains, breachnation[.]io and databreached[.]io, with a planned launch date of July 4, 2024.

  • USDoD has previously been referred to as “NetSec” in malicious forums and has allegedly been responsible for data breaches targeting numerous, primarily Western organizations.
  • The actor had previously announced their retirement from cybercriminal activities in an April 21, 2024, DDW post.

USDoD stated their intent for Breach Nation to serve as a successor to “BreachForums”, where USDoD was almost certainly a prominent figure—despite denying any affiliation with BreachForum moderators.

  • BreachForums was a popular forum consisting of open source and DDW domains, as well as an instant messaging platform. It was severely disrupted on May 15, 2024, by a LE operation that seized the forum’s [.]st domain, a [.]onion domain, and a Telegram channel.
  • ZeroFox observed unconfirmed reports that the platform’s moderator, known as “Bapohmet,” was arrested.

USDoD claims to be working alone on the production of the new forum, stating that they are not currently seeking to recruit moderators or other staff due to “a limited circle of trust.” This is very likely a reflection of uncertainty amongst DDW communities stemming from recent LE activity, as well as USDoD’s likely limited trusted network.

Further detail surrounding the structure, intent, and use of Breach Nation was provided in a second post on May 20, 2024. USDoD detailed two changes that they deemed significant. The post claimed that regular updates as to the forum’s status will be provided in subsequent X posts.

  • Unlike BreachForums, Breach Nation will not include a pornography section.
  • To ensure the “best quality” content, “combos, logs, and similar content” will not be allowed—only databases and “leads.” The data breach/leak section will be broken down into two sub-categories: one for high-quality leaks associated with first-world victims and one for all other victims.
  • A market section will also be available once an escrow system is established, as well as a threat intelligence section that will reportedly use XenForo software.

USDoD stated that the first 200,000 individuals to become members will receive an upgraded member rank. It is not clear what privileges this will enable. Once the site has a “good amount” of users, the community will transition to an invite-only model. The criteria for granting a member this privilege is unclear at the time of writing. 

There is a roughly even chance that Breach Nation will become a popular tool for threat actors seeking to discuss TTPs related to data breach attacks, publicize results, and sell stolen information. It is likely that, in the coming months, other BreachForums members, moderators, and staff will seek to capitalize upon its disruption by creating and advertising new forums.

GhostSec Announces Return to Hacktivism

On May 15, 2024, “GhostSec” announced on its official Telegram channel its intention to abandon financially motivated cybercrime and resume hacktivism activities. According to the statement, the group's current “services” and Telegram channel will be closed, as it has “obtained enough funding” to enable future hacktivism operations.

  • GhostSec first came to prominence in 2015 as an offshoot of the “Anonymous” collective, with an initial aim of combating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

GhostSec has almost certainly been focused primarily on politically and ideologically motivated hacktivism activity since 2015.  

  • Since approximately Q3 2023, GhostSec has been conducting financially motivated cybercrime activities leveraging GhostLocker malware. This temporary shift in focus and tactics was almost certainly undertaken to amass enough funding to enable the group to eventually shift back to focusing on politically-motivated activity and resume targeting of its ideological opposition.
  • In the statement, GhostSec alluded to its intention to provide an educational hacking course to forum members but appeared undecided on the content.

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, GhostSec has been vocal in its support for Palestine, targeting Israeli critical national infrastructure and organizations. 

  • GhostSec conducted its first attack intended to harm Israel back in May 2022. Attacks have continued since then to the present.
  • GhostSec has also conducted attacks against nations such as Russia, Iran, and France. The array of nations GhostSec has targeted shows no geopolitical trend, and it is very unlikely the group has any wider allegiance.

GhostSec is a member of the “Five Families,” a collective of hacking groups that have conducted financially, ideologically, and politically motivated attacks against industries across the globe. Aside from GhostSec, the Five Families collective consists of the hacktivist groups “ThreatSec” and “SiegedSec” and the ransomware group “Stormous,” as well as  “Blackforums,” a DDW forum used for illicit discussion and trading. In December 2023, SiegedSec was allegedly removed from the Five Families following the post of a statement appearing to promote pedophilia.

  • The Five Families has conducted attacks against a diverse array of organizations across regions and industries. Despite their collaboration, the individual collectives are unlikely to be geopolitically or ideologically aligned.

In the statement, GhostSec alleged that the “GhostLocker” malware, along with all associated affiliates, will be taken over by fellow Five Families member Stormous. According to GhostSec, this approach will ensure a “clean exit” with no exit scam activity.

  • GhostLocker is a RaaS operation that came to prominence in late 2023 and is reportedly available for USD 269.99 per month. GhostLocker versions 2.0 and 3.0 have almost certainly been leveraged by the Stormous ransomware collective in past digital extortion attacks.

GhostSec's resumed focus on hacktivism is very likely enabled by its financial success in leveraging GhostLocker in R&DE activity. In the short to medium term, GhostSec is likely to attempt disruptive and undermining attacks against the Israeli government, as well as other state institutions that are politically and ideologically misaligned with the group.

ZeroFox Intelligence Recommendations

  • Adopt a Zero-Trust cybersecurity architecture based upon a principle of least privilege.
  • Implement network segmentation to separate resources by sensitivity and/or function.
  • Implement secure password policies with phishing-resistant multi-factor authentication (MFA), complex passwords, and unique credentials.
  • Leverage cyber threat intelligence to inform the detection of relevant cyber threats and associated TTPs.
  • Ensure critical, proprietary, or sensitive data is always backed up to secure, off-site, or cloud servers at least once per year—and ideally more frequently.
  • Develop a comprehensive incident response strategy.
  • Configure email servers to block emails with malicious indicators and deploy authentication protocols to prevent spoofed emails.
  • Deploy a holistic patch management process and ensure all IT assets are updated with the latest software updates as quickly as possible.
  • Proactively monitor for compromised accounts being brokered in DDW forums.
  • Configure ongoing monitoring for Compromised Account Credentials.

Appendix A: Traffic Light Protocol for Information Dissemination

Appendix B: ZeroFox Intelligence Probability Scale

All ZeroFox intelligence products leverage probabilistic assessment language in analytic judgments. Qualitative statements used in these judgments refer to associated probability ranges, which state the likelihood of occurrence of an event or development. Ranges are used to avoid a false impression of accuracy. This scale is a standard that aligns with how readers should interpret such terms.

Tags: CybersecurityDark OpsDeep & Dark WebRansomware

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