COVID-19 Vaccine Cyberattacks Steal Credentials, Spread Zebrocy Malware

COVID-19 vaccine cyberattack

Cybercriminals are leveraging the recent rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines globally in various cyberattacks – from stealing email passwords to distributing the Zebrocy malware.

Cybercriminals are tapping into the impending rollout of COVID-19 vaccines with everything from simple phishing scams all the way up to sophisticated Zebrocy malware campaigns.

Security researchers with KnowBe4 said that the recent slew of vaccine-related cyberattacks leverage the widespread media attention around the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines – as well as recent reports that manufacturers like Pfizer may not be able to supply additional doses of its vaccine to the U.S. large volumes until sometime in Q2.

These lures continue to play into the high emotions of victims during a pandemic – something seen in various phishing and malware campaigns throughout the last year.

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“Malicious actors had a field day back in March in April as the Coronavirus washed over countries around the world,” said Eric Howes, with KnowBe4, in a Wednesday post. “It was and still is the perfect tool for social engineering scared, confused, and even downright paranoid end users into opening the door to your organization’s network.”

Zebrocy Malware Lures

Researchers with Intezer recently discovered a new Zebrocy malware sample in a campaign that has the hallmarks of a COVID-19 vaccine lure. In November, researchers uncovered a Virtual Hard Drive (VHD) file (VHD is the native file format for virtual hard drives used by Microsoft’s hypervisor, Hyper-V).

This VHD file included a file that suggests cybercriminals behind the attack using a COVID-19 vaccine-related spear-phishing lure. This PDF file consisted of presentation slideshows about Sinopharm International Corporation, which is a China-based pharmaceutical company currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine. Sinopharm International Corporation’s vaccine is currently undergoing phase three clinical trials but it has already been distributed to nearly one million people.

The second VHD file, masquerading as a Microsoft file, was a sample of Zebrocy written in Go. Zebrocy (also known as Sednit, APT28, Fancy Bear, and STRONTIUM), a malware used by the threat group Sofacy, operates as a downloaders and collects data about the infected host that is then uploaded to the command-and-control (C2) server before downloading and executing the next stage. Researchers noted that the C2 infrastructure linked to this campaign appears to be new.

Researchers warn that the attackers behind Zebrocy will likely continue to utilize COVID-19 vaccines as a lure: “Given that many COVID-19 vaccines are about to be approved for clinical use, it’s likely that APTs (Advanced Persistent Threat) and financially motivated threat actors will use this malware in their attacks,” they said in a Wednesday post.

‘Fill Out This Form’ To Get Vaccine

A recent phishing scam spotted by researchers lures victims into “fill out a form” to get their vaccine. In reality, they are targeting email credentials. Eric Howes, principal lab researcher at KnowBe4, told Threatpost that researchers “saw a very small number of emails” connected to the campaign, which all went to .EDU email addresses.

“I doubt this particular email was very targeted, so it’s entirely possible – even likely – that plenty of other organizations received copies of that email,” said Howes. “Just how many, we do not know.”

The emails say, “due to less stock covid-19 vaccine and high increase demand of the covid-19 vaccine distribution within the USA,” they need to fill out a form in order to get on the vaccine distribution list.

covid-19 vaccine phishing

Phishing email sample. Credit: KnowBe4

The email, titled “FILL OUT THE FORM TO GET COVID-19 VACCINE DISTRIBUTE TO YOU,” has plenty of red flags – including grammatical errors and a lack of branding that could make it appear legitimate.

However, Howes said that “desperation, fear, curiosity and anxiety” could cause recipients to ignore these red flags and move forward in clicking the link.

“Given that we’re now nine months into the pandemic in the United States, people are weary and looking for a way out,” he told Threatpost. “Even though this email was not as polished as it could have been, when recipients are highly motivated to learn more about the announced subject of an email, those kinds of obvious red flags can be ignored or not even noticed.”

Should a recipient click on the link provided to what’s purported to be the “PDF form,” they are redirected to a phishing landing page that pretends to be a PDS online cloud document manager. The site (pdf-cloud.square[.]site), which is still active as of article publication, asks users for their email address and password in order to sign in.

This attack piggybacks off recent related COVID-19 vaccine phishing emails from earlier this month, including on that tells recipients to click a link in order to reserve their dose of the COVID-19 vaccine through their “healthcare portal.”

COVID-19 Campaigns

Researchers warn that cybercriminals will continue to leverage the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in various novel ways.

For instance, just this week Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, issued a warning about the rise of vaccine-related Dark Web activity.

Meanwhile, this month a sophisticated, global phishing campaign has been targeting the credentials of organizations associated with the COVID-19 “cold-chain” – companies that ensure the safe preservation of vaccines by making sure they are stored and transported in temperature-controlled environments.

COVID vaccine manufacturer Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories was forced to shut down factories in Brazil, India, the U.K. and U.S. in late October, which were contracted to make the Russian vaccine “Sputnik V.”  And the APT group DarkHotel targeted the World Health Organization last March, in an attempt to steal any information they could find related to tests, vaccines or trial cures.

“With these recent phishing lures, it’s clear that COVID-19 themed attacks are still a threat and we might see more as vaccines become available to the general public,” said Intezer researchers. “It’s important that companies use defense-in-depth strategies to protect against threats. Employers should also ensure employees are trained on detecting and reacting to phishing attempts.”

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