Cybercriminal Sharpshooters: Nigerian Scammers Use HawkEye to Attack Small Businesses
It doesn’t take an advanced malware to disrupt a business operation. In fact, even a simple backdoor is enough to do it.
Earlier this year the Trend Micro Forward-Looking Threat Research Team closely monitored the operations of two Nigerian cybercriminals — identified through aliases Uche and Okiki — who attacked small businesses from developing countries to steal information and intercept transactions with their targets’ partners. All this was done through HawkEye, a simple backdoor that costs around $35.
While the malware used is simple, the cybercriminal operation itself is not. The operations run by Uche and Okiki, the cybercriminals we investigated on, move away from what we normally see in one-man operations where stolen information is simply sold off to others. Uche and Okiki made use of the information they captured in looking for more opportunities to steal from their victims.
Taking their Time
Unlike in typically-seen operations where cybercriminals prefer the “smash and grab” technique — where they send out spam emails with a malware attachment and bank on the chance that the victim runs it — Uche and Okiki took their sweet time engaging with their victims. Specifically targeting company mailboxes meant to receive inquiries from external parties, the cybercriminals sent emails to their targets that didn’t come with any malicious attachment or agenda, and actively communicated with them.
Once they have gained their targets’ trust, they then used the context of their communication to send HawkEye, ensuring infection and system compromise.
Instead of aiming to steal information like online banking or social networking credentials, Uche’s and Okiki’s schemes had a different target: the company webmail account. This difference in strategy created more opportunities for these cybercriminals, as getting access to the target’s company email gave them visibility of correspondences between the target and their partners and customers, their transactions and all other information.
With access to their victims’ transactions, Uche and Okiki used this visibility to launch more schemes which varied from targeting the victims’ affiliates, performing lateral movement to their targets’ bigger offices, to conducting “change of supplier” fraud.
The “change of supplier” fraud scheme is one that we think brought bigger payouts for Uche and Okiki, since it involves intercepting communications between a supplier and their customers in terms of payment details. What the cybercriminals do is send an email to the customer using the victim’s account (in this case, the supplier) to wrongly inform them that the account details to where they can send in their payment has changed. What is then provided is not an account owned by the supplier, but by the cybercriminal himself. “Change of supplier” schemes ran using Predator Pain and Limitless in the past netted attackers up to $75 million US dollars.
Big Threat to Small Businesses
Our findings on these operations show how clever cybercriminals can get in using the tools and information they have in order to steal as much as they can from their targets. This level of focus from cybercriminals, combined with the challenges small businesses face in building a solid security strategy for their network, make up a scenario that is strongly in favor of the bad guys.
Our full documentation of Uche’s and Okiki’s operations and technical analysis of HawkEye are all in our research paper, Piercing the HawkEye: Nigerian Cybercriminals Use a Simple Keylogger to Prey on SMBs Worldwide.