Storm-0978 attacks reveal financial and espionage motives

Microsoft has identified a phishing campaign conducted by the threat actor tracked as Storm-0978 targeting defense and government entities in Europe and North America. The campaign involved the abuse of CVE-2023-36884, which included a remote code execution vulnerability exploited before disclosure to Microsoft via Word documents, using lures related to the Ukrainian World Congress.

Storm-0978 (DEV-0978; also referred to as RomCom, the name of their backdoor, by other vendors) is a cybercriminal group based out of Russia, known to conduct opportunistic ransomware and extortion-only operations, as well as targeted credential-gathering campaigns likely in support of intelligence operations. Storm-0978 operates, develops, and distributes the RomCom backdoor. The actor also deploys the Underground ransomware, which is closely related to the Industrial Spy ransomware first observed in the wild in May 2022. The actor's latest campaign detected in June 2023 involved abuse of CVE-2023-36884 to deliver a backdoor with similarities to RomCom.

Storm-0978 is known to target organizations with trojanized versions of popular legitimate software, leading to the installation of RomCom. Storm-0978's targeted operations have impacted government and military organizations primarily in Ukraine, as well as organizations in Europe and North America potentially involved in Ukrainian affairs. Identified ransomware attacks have impacted the telecommunications and finance industries, among others.

Microsoft 365 Defender detects multiple stages of Storm-0978 activity. Customers who use Microsoft Defender for Office 365 are protected from attachments that attempt to exploit CVE-2023-36884. In addition, customers who use Microsoft 365 Apps (Versions 2302 and later) are protected from exploitation of the vulnerability via Office. Organizations who cannot take advantage of these protections can set the FEATURE_BLOCK_CROSS_PROTOCOL_FILE_NAVIGATION registry key to avoid exploitation. More mitigation recommendations are outlined in this blog.

Targeting

Storm-0978 has conducted phishing operations with lures related to Ukrainian political affairs and targeting military and government bodies primarily in Europe. Based on the post-compromise activity identified by Microsoft, Storm-0978 distributes backdoors to target organizations and may steal credentials to be used in later targeted operations.

The actor's ransomware activity, in contrast, has been largely opportunistic in nature and entirely separate from espionage-focused targets. Identified attacks have impacted the telecommunications and finance industries.

Tools and TTPs

Tools

Storm-0978 uses trojanized versions of popular, legitimate software, leading to the installation of RomCom, which Microsoft assesses is developed by Storm-0978. Observed examples of trojanized software include Adobe products, Advanced IP Scanner, Solarwinds Performance Monitor, Solarwinds Orion, KeePass, and Signal. To host the trojanized installers for delivery, Storm-0978 typically registers malicious domains mimicking the legitimate software (for example, the malicious domain advanced-ip-scaner[.]com).

In financially motivated attacks involving ransomware, Storm-0978 uses the Industrial Spy ransomware, a ransomware strain first observed in the wild in May 2022, and the Underground ransomware. The actor has also used the Trigona ransomware in at least one identified attack.

Additionally, based on attributed phishing activity, Storm-0978 has acquired exploits targeting zero-day vulnerabilities. Identified exploit activity includes abuse of CVE-2023-36884, including a remote code execution vulnerability exploited via Microsoft Word documents in June 2023, as well as abuse of vulnerabilities contributing to a security feature bypass.

Ransomware activity

In known ransomware intrusions, Storm-0978 has accessed credentials by dumping password hashes from the Security Account Manager (SAM) using the Windows registry. To access SAM, attackers must acquire SYSTEM-level privileges. Microsoft Defender for Endpoint detects this type of activity with alerts such as Export of SAM registry hive.

Storm-0978 has then used the Impacket framework's SMBExec and WMIExec functionalities for lateral movement.

Microsoft has linked Storm-0978 to previous management of the Industrial Spy ransomware market and crypter. However, since as early as July 2023, Storm-0978 began to use a ransomware variant called Underground, which contains significant code overlaps with the Industrial Spy ransomware.

Figure 1. Storm-0978 ransom note references the “Underground team” and contains target-specific details of exfiltrated information

The code similarity between the two ransomware variants, as well as Storm-0978's previous involvement in Industrial Spy operations, may indicate that Underground is a rebranding of the Industrial Spy ransomware.

Figure 2. Underground ransomware .onion site

Espionage activity

Since late 2022, Microsoft has identified the following campaigns attributable to Storm-0978. Based on the post-compromise activity and the nature of the targets, these operations were likely driven by espionage-related motivations:

June 2023 – Storm-0978 conducted a phishing campaign containing a fake OneDrive loader to deliver a backdoor with similarities to RomCom. The phishing emails were directed to defense and government entities in Europe and North America, with lures related to the Ukrainian World Congress. These emails led to exploitation via the CVE-2023-36884 vulnerability.
Microsoft Defender for Office 365 detected Storm-0978's initial use of the exploit targeting CVE-2023-36884 in this phishing activity. Additional recommendations specific to this vulnerability are detailed below.

Figure 3. Storm-0978 email uses Ukrainian World Congress and NATO themes
Figure 4. Storm-0978 lure document with Ukrainian World Congress and NATO content

Notably, during this campaign, Microsoft identified concurrent, separate Storm-0978 ransomware activity against an unrelated target using the same initial payloads. The subsequent ransomware activity against a different victim profile further emphasizes the distinct motivations observed in Storm-0978 attacks.

December 2022 – According to CERT-UA, Storm-0978 compromised a Ukrainian Ministry of Defense email account to send phishing emails. Identified lure PDFs attached to emails contained links to a threat actor-controlled website hosting information-stealing malware.

October 2022 – Storm-0978 created fake installer websites mimicking legitimate software and used them in phishing campaigns. The actor targeted users at Ukrainian government and military organizations to deliver RomCom and likely to obtain credentials of high-value targets.

Recommendations

Microsoft recommends the following mitigations to reduce the impact of activity associated with Storm-0978's operations.

CVE-2023-36884 specific recommendations

  • Customers who use Microsoft Defender for Office 365 are protected from attachments that attempt to exploit CVE-2023-36884.
  • In current attack chains, the use of the Block all Office applications from creating child processes reduction rule prevents the vulnerability from being exploited
  • Organizations who cannot take advantage of these protections can set the FEATURE_BLOCK_CROSS_PROTOCOL_FILE_NAVIGATION registry key to avoid exploitation.  Please note that while these registry settings would mitigate exploitation of this issue, it could affect regular functionality for certain use cases related to these applications.
Figure 5. Screenshot of settings for the FEATURE_BLOCK_CROSS_PROTOCOL_FILE_NAVIGATION key to prevent exploitation of CVE-2023-36884

Detection details

Microsoft Defender for Office 365

Microsoft Defender for Office 365 customers are protected from attachments that attempt to exploit CVE-2023-36884.

Microsoft Defender Antivirus

Microsoft Defender Antivirus detects post-compromise components of this threat as the following malware:

Microsoft Defender for Endpoint

Alerts with the following titles in the security center can indicate threat activity on your :

  • Emerging threat activity group Storm-0978 detected

Microsoft Sentinel

Microsoft Sentinel also has detection and threat hunting content that customers can use to detect the post exploitation activity detailed in this blog in addition to Microsoft 365 Defender detections list above.

The following content can be used to identify activity described in this blog post:

References

Further reading

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This article was originally published by Microsoft's Core Infrastructure and Security Blog. You can find the original article here.