World

International cybercops derail botnet used to extort, steal data around the globe for years

European and North American cybercops, including in Canada, have joined forces to disrupt what may be the world's largest network for seeding malware infections.

FBI also announced the arrest of a Canadian on Wednesday in connection to a ransomware attack

Global investigators have disrupted one of the world's largest networks for seeding malware infections that has been used for years to steal data and extort governments, health care and educational institutions. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

European and North American cybercops, including in Canada, have joined forces to disrupt what may be the world's largest network for seeding malware infections, striking a major blow against criminal gangs that have been using it for years to install ransomware in extortion schemes, steal data and engage in financial theft.

At the same time, the FBI separately announced the arrest of a Canadian Wednesday as part of a bid to disrupt a ransomware gang it said had targeted the health care sector, but has also hit municipalities, law enforcement and school districts, mostly in the United States. The FBI said it seized nearly half a million dollars in cryptocurrency.

A door-opener for cybercrime since 2014

In the first case, European Union police and the judicial agencies Europol and Eurojust said Wednesday that investigators took control of the infrastructure behind the botnet known as Emotet.

A botnet is a network of hijacked computers, and this one has effectively served as a primary door-opener for cybercriminals since 2014.

"This is a really big deal. Emotet was one of the largest, if not the largest, botnets delivering a wide variety of malware. Their botnet consisted of hundreds of thousands compromised hosts which were used to send more than 10 million spam and phishing emails a week," said Allan Liska, an analyst with Recorded Future.

The Emotet model of recent years was "a game changer for ransomware gangs who otherwise rely on other access methods," said Jake Williams, president of Rendition Infosec, another cybersecurity firm.

Europol agents worked with North American cybercops to derail the infrastructure behind the Emotet botnet. (Peter Dejong/The Associated Press)

Emotet has allowed ransomware gangs to outsource initial access, and focus their efforts instead on a cybercrime variety that has crippled Western government, healthcare and educational networks by scrambling their data and only providing a decoding software key after they have paid up. Those who don't risk having data exfiltrated by the hackers exposed publicly.

Williams said via text message that although someone will eventually fill the gap "there's no question that this will hurt [ransomware gangs] and help defenders in the short/mid term."

Authorities in the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, the U.K., France, Lithuania, Canada and Ukraine took part in the international operation coordinated by the two Hague-based agencies.

Dutch prosecutors said the malware, run out of eastern Europe by a Russian-speaking organization, was first discovered in 2014 and "evolved into the go-to solution for cybercriminals over the years," responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in losses beginning with financial theft through a banking trojan.

They said two of the main servers for the infrastructure were based in the Netherlands and a third in another undisclosed country.

The Emotet botnet was effectively used to manage infections of victims and provide a distributed bulwark against takedown attempts by authorities.

In the disruption by law enforcement, its command-and-control infrastructure was routed to servers controlled by law enforcement, cutting off criminal tenants of Emotet from quarry they have infected.

Europol said law enforcement agencies' approach was "unique and new."

Man from Quebec arrested

In the FBI case, the agency announced in Washington, D.C., the attempt to disrupt against NetWalker, a relatively new ransomware gang accused of amassing tens of millions of dollars.

Ransomware expert Brett Callow at the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft said its victims include Michigan State University, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in Illinois, the College of Nurses of Ontario and the Medical School of the University of California at San Francisco, which paid a $1.1 million US ransom.

An FBI spokesperson said Sebastien Vachon-Desjardins of Gatineau, Quebec, was arrested in the scheme and the agency said in a statement that cryptocurrency worth $454,000 US in ransomware income was seized.

An indictment unsealed Wednesday said Vachon-Desjardins took part in a scheme to extort an unnamed Tampa, Fla., business.

The U.S. will be seeking Vachon-Desjardin's extradition, according to U.S. Justice Department spokesperson Joshua Stueve.

Takedown should impact other criminal groups

Earlier this week, authorities in Bulgaria took down a dark web site that NetWalker used to communicate with its victims, it said.

Callow said it was too early to say how big of an impact the arrest would have on NetWalker, whose members are Russian speakers. He said he was not aware of the group using Emotet for distribution.

The Emotet and NetWalker operations build on one by Microsoft late last year against a different botnet known as Trickbot — which was pushed out using Emotet and used in ransomware attacks. The U.S. National Security Agency was also reported to have tried to take down Trickbot.

Microsoft last year derailed a different botnet known as Trickbot, which was pushed out using Emotet. (Michel Spingler/The Associated Press)

Costin Raiu, research director at the cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, said the Emotet takedown "should impact other cybercriminal groups' ability to maintain and grow their botnets. It remains to be seen if they will be able to stage a comeback, be it either as Emotet, or perhaps merge with another group and continue from there."

Emotet's "door-opening" malicious software was automatically delivered to computers in infected email attachments containing Word documents.

"A variety of different lures were used to trick unsuspecting users into opening these malicious attachments," Dutch prosecutors said in a statement. Emotet email campaigns have been disguised as invoices, shipping notices and COVID-19 information.

Cryptocurrency has been a great enabler of cybercrime and has led law enforcement to step up efforts to track online transactions of dirty money.

In 2017, police shut down the world's leading "darknet" marketplace — then Dutch police quietly seized a second bazaar to amass intelligence on illicit drug merchants and buyers.

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