Ransomware Groups to Watch: Emerging Threats

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A conceptual image representing ransomware, including the emerging ransomware groups covered here: AvosLocker, Hive, HelloKitty and LockBit 2.0.

This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)

Executive Summary

As part of Unit 42’s commitment to stop ransomware attacks, we conduct ransomware hunting operations to ensure our customers are protected against new and evolving ransomware variants. We monitor the activity of existing groups, search for dark web leak sites and fresh onion sites, identify up-and-coming players and study tactics, techniques and procedures. During our operations, we have observed four emerging ransomware groups that are currently affecting organizations and show signs of having the potential to become more prevalent in the future:

  • AvosLocker is ransomware as a service (RaaS) that started operations in late June, using a blue beetle logo to identify itself in communications with victims and “press releases” aimed at recruiting new affiliates. AvosLocker was observed promoting its RaaS program and looking for affiliates on dark web discussion forums and other forums. Like many of its competitors, AvosLocker offers technical support to help victims recover after they’ve been attacked with encryption software that the group claims is “fail-proof,” has low detection rates and is capable of handling large files. This ransomware also has an extortion site, which claims to have impacted six organizations in the following countries: the U.S., the U.K., the U.A.E., Belgium, Spain and Lebanon. We have observed initial ransom demands ranging from $50,000 to $75,000.
  • Hive Ransomware is double-extortion ransomware that started operations in June. Since then, Hive has impacted 28 organizations that are now listed on the group’s extortion site, including a European airline company and three U.S.-based organizations. Hive uses all tools available in the extortion toolset to create pressure on the victim, including the date of initial compromise, countdown, the date the leak was actually disclosed on their site, and even the option to share the disclosed leak on social media.
  • HelloKitty is not a new ransomware group; it can be tracked as early as 2020, mainly targeting Windows systems. However, in July, we observed a Linux variant of HelloKitty targeting VMware’s ESXi hypervisor, which is widely used in cloud and on-premises data centers. We also observed two clusters of activity. Across the observed samples, some threat actors preferred email communications, while others used TOR chats for communication with the victims. The observed variants impacted five organizations in Italy, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. The highest ransom demand observed from this group was $10 million, but at the time of writing, the threat actors have only received three transactions that sum up to about $1.48 million.
  • LockBit 2.0 (previously known as ABCD ransomware) is a three-year-old RaaS operator that has been linked to some high-profile attacks lately following the June launch of a slick marketing campaign to recruit new affiliates. It claims to offer the fastest encryption on the ransomware market. LockBit 2.0 has impacted multiple industries – 52 victims are listed on the group’s leak site. Its victims include organizations in the U.S., Mexico, Belgium, Argentina, Malaysia, Australia, Brazil, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Romania and the U.K.

Here, we share information we've gathered from our observations of the behavior of these ransomware groups to help organizations defend against them.

Palo Alto Networks Next-Generation Firewall customers are protected from these threats with Threat Prevention and WildFire security subscriptions. Customers are also protected with Cortex XDR and can use AutoFocus for tracking related entities.

AvosLocker

AvosLocker is new ransomware that was first observed on July 4, 2021, and follows the RaaS model. The ransomware operator of the same name, avos, advertised their affiliate program on Dread (Figure 1). Dread is a Reddit-like dark web discussion forum featuring news and sub-dreads around darknet markets. The announcement of the program includes information about features of the ransomware and lets affiliates know that AvosLocker operators will take care of negotiation and extortion practices. The user Avos has also been observed trying to recruit individuals on the Russian forum XSS.

The screenshot shows a message posted in Dread, a dark web discussion forum. It announces an affiliate program for AvosLocker, one of the four emerging ransomware groups we identified. The message is titled, "AvosLocker - Ransomware [ACCEPTING AFFILIATES]"
Figure 1. AvosLocker announcement in Dread.
AvosLocker, when executed, first opens a Windows shell showing the progress of the encryption process. After encryption is complete, it then appends the .avos extension to the encrypted files and drops the ransom note GET_YOUR_FILES_BACK.TXT in every encrypted directory (Figure 2). We observed another AvosLocker sample that behaves exactly the same way as the initial observed sample, but also included a string called “Message from the agent” letting the victim know their files were exfiltrated.

AvosLocker ransome note, from the Get_Your_Files_Back.txt file: "Attnetion! Your files have been encrypted using AES-256. We highly suggest not shutting down your computer in case encryption process is not finished, as your files may get corrupted. In order to decrypt your files, you must pay for the decryption key & application." The note goes on from there to explain the process a victim can use to contact the ransomware operators.
Figure 2a. AvosLocker ransom note
Files encrypted by AvosLocker typically use the .avos extension, as shown here.
Figure 2b. Encrypted files.

The ransom note includes information and an ID used to identify victims, and instructs the victim to visit the AvosLocker TOR site (Figure 3).

The AvosLocker TOR site, shown here, reads, "Your network and hard drives were encrypted using AES-256 military grade encryption. AvosLocker will aid you in the recovery and restoration of the files affected. Please enter your ID (presented to you in the note) in order to continue. Failure to contact us in due time might incur additional charges and damages. We publish our data leaks in our press release blog."
Figure 3. AvosLocker landing page.

After submitting the ID, the victim will encounter a support chat and the request for ransom. From the available instances observed, we have seen payment requests as low as $50,000 and as high as $75,000 in Monero (XMR). As seen with other ransomware groups, AvosLocker increases the ransom price if the victim doesn’t pay in the designated time period, as shown in Figure 4.

The AvosLocker support page shown features information about the ransomware and the claim that AvosLocker is not involved in attacks but instead acts as an arbitrator. It also features a countdown, a test decryption widget, an opportunity to chat with support staff, and information on how to pay.
Figure 4. AvosLocker support page.

While exploring their site, we discovered that this group has already affected seven organizations: two law firms, one in the U.K. and one in the U.S.; a logistics company in Spain; a real estate agency in Belgium; a holdings company in Turkey; a Syrian transportation organization and a city in the U.S. Some of the leaked data displayed on their site include private organization documents and personal identifiable information.

AvosLocker's first site post, on Jan. 1, 2021, was an announcement that the site was officially online (Figure 5). The user avos also announced they started leaking data on multiple sub-dreads as well. We believe this was done to attract more affiliates and traffic to their site.

AvosLocker's first site post, on January 1, 2021, announces that the "press release" site is officially online.
Figure 5. AvosLocker leak site and multiple advertisements on Dread.

Hive Ransomware

Hive ransomware began operations in June 2021 and has already shown notable disregard for its victims’ welfare, attacking organizations including healthcare providers and mid-size organizations ill-equipped for managing a ransomware attack. Hive published their first victim on their leak site, Hive Leaks, in late June (Figure 6). Since then, 28 victims have been published on the Hive Leaks site, including a European airline company and three U.S.-based organizations, one each in hardware retail, manufacturing and law. The posts include the date and time the victim was affected.

The Hive Leaks site, associated with Hive Ransomware, one of the four emerging ransomware groups we identified, posts information on the date and time that victims were affected, as shown here.
Figure 6. Hive Leaks.

When this ransomware is executed, it drops two batch scripts. The first script, hive.bat, tries to delete itself, and the second script is in charge of deleting the shadow copies of the system (shadow.bat). Hive ransomware adds the [randomized characters].hive extension to the encrypted files and drops a ransom note titled HOW_TO_DECRYPT.txt containing instructions and guidelines to prevent data loss (Figure 7). The ransom note includes a generated login credential for the victim to chat with what the threat actors claim is their “sales” department. The TOR link directs the “customer” to a login page, and after the credentials are submitted, it opens up a chat room for communication between the operators and the victim (Figure 8).

A Hive ransom note reads, "Your network has been breached and all data were downloaded and encrypted. To decrypt all the data or to prevent it from leakage at our website and in mass media you will need to purchase our decryption software." It follows with info on how to purchase the software, as well as "guidelines" to avoid losing data.
Figure 7. Hive ransom note.

We noticed that the login credentials provided by the ransom note were for a specific victim. With this in mind, we then hunted for additional samples and found two more victims that were affected but not yet listed on the leak site at the time of writing. After logging in, the victim will see a chat where they can talk to the operators and get their decryptors (Figure 8).

The screenshot on the left shows a live chat option to interact with operators involved with Hive ransomware. The screenshot on the right shows a login page.
Figure 8. Hive chat (left) and login page (right).

We don’t yet have information on how Hive ransomware is being delivered, but ransomware operators are known for buying access to certain networks, brute-forcing credentials or spear-phishing for initial access.

HelloKitty: Linux Edition

HelloKitty is a ransomware family that first surfaced at the end of 2020, primarily targeting Windows systems. The malware family got its name due to its use of a Mutex with the same name: HelloKittyMutex. The ransomware samples seem to evolve quickly and frequently, with different versions making use of the .crypted or .kitty file extensions for encrypted files. Some newer samples make use of a Golang packer that ensures the final ransomware code is only loaded in memory, most likely to evade detection by security solutions.

In July 2021, we came across a Linux (ELF) sample with the name funny_linux.elf containing a ransom note with verbiage that directly matched ransom notes seen in later samples of HelloKitty for Windows. This led to the discovery of other samples of this Linux strain of the HelloKitty ransomware, dating as far back as October 2020. However, starting in March, the samples began targeting ESXi, a target of choice for recent Linux ransomware variants.

Oddly enough, the preferred mode of communication shared by attackers in the ransom notes across the different samples is a mix between TOR URLs and victim-specific Protonmail email addresses. This could indicate different campaigns or even entirely different threat actors making use of the same malware codebase. Since the samples we found contained victim-specific ransom notes, we were able to get an idea of the ransomware’s targets. We observed six organizations impacted by Hello Kitty, including Italian and Dutch pharmaceutical organizations, a Germany-based manufacturer, an Australian industrial automation solutions organization, and a medical office and a stock broker in the U.S. One sample, oddly enough, didn’t contain any contact information in its ransom note.

We also observed that the ransom demanded by the operator varies depending on the impacted organization; we saw demands as high as $10 million and as low as $950,000 in Monero (Figure 9). The operators behind HelloKitty are also open to using bitcoin (BTC), but they charge higher for bitcoin transactions due to its associated fees. We were able to look up the BTC wallet address they provided for victims (bc1ql5f3m75qx3ueu2pz5eeveyqsw6pdjs3ufk8r20) and confirm that three transactions were made to that address, summing up to $1,477,872.41.

The screenshots show chats with threat actors involved with HelloKitty, one of the four emerging ransomware groups our researchers identified. The chats include discussion of payment details and examples of the threat actors pressuring the victim to pay.
Figure 9 HelloKitty chats.

The samples found primarily made use of different combinations of the arguments described in Table 1.

Argument Description Value(s)
v Verbose mode 0 or 1
d Run the process as a daemon 0 or 1
e When the flag is set, the ransomware only encrypts files with the extensions .vmdk, .vmx, .vmsd and .vmsn

It is not set by default, which means that all files under the start path that don’t match certain ransomware-specific file extensions will be encrypted

0 or 1
k When this flag is set, the ransomware tries to kill VMs running on the host using the esxcli tool. 

It is not set by default

0 or 1
m Mode 5 (default) or 10 or 20 or 25 or 33 or 50
c (Unsure of purpose)

Table 1. Arguments accepted by the Linux HelloKitty ransomware.

The following esxcli commands are executed to kill running VMs, when the k flag is set:

esxcli vm process list
esxcli vm process kill -t=soft -w=%d %(PID)
esxcli vm process kill -t=force -w=%d %(PID)

The malware samples log their output to a work.log file in their execution path.

Finally, the ransomware makes use of the Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (ECDSA) for encrypting files using functions from the shared library libcrypto.so for encryption. The encrypted file is saved with the extension .crypt. Each encrypted file has a corresponding file with the extension .README_TO_RESTORE containing the ransom note. Additional details can be found in the appendix of this report.

LockBit 2.0

LockBit is another ransomware group that follows the RaaS model. According to their website, this ransomware affiliate program has been active since September 2019. While LockBit has been known for some time, we included this group in this blog because of their recent evolution to LockBit 2.0. In June 2021, the operators behind this ransomware revamped their site and rebranded as LockBit 2.0.

Since June 2021, they have compromised 52 organizations in accounting ,automotive, consulting, engineering, finance, high tech, hospitality, insurance, law enforcement,l egal services, manufacturing, non-profit energy, retail, transportation and logistics industries, utilities in the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Romania, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. All the posts by the threat actors on their leak site include a countdown until confidential information is released to the public, which creates additional pressure on the victim (Figure 10).

The image on the left describes the affiliate program associated with LockBit 2.0, one of the four emerging ransomware groups our researchers identified. It includes promises to limit the work required of the affiliate and advertisements about the feature set of LockBit 2.0. The image on the right is a redacted version of the LockBit leak site.
Figure 10. Affiliation program description (left) and leak site (right).

The threat actors behind this ransomware claim that their current variant is the fastest encryption software in operation. To attract more affiliates, they include a table comparing different ransomware families, including their previous variant (Figure 11).

To advertise itself, the group behind LockBit releases information comparing the encryption speed of LockBit with that of other ransomware.
Figure 11. Encryption speeds comparison released by LockBit.

When LockBit is executed, it starts encrypting files and appends the .lockbit extension. Additionally, the ransomware changes the icon of the encrypted file to the LockBit 2.0 logo (Figure 12.b). After encryption is complete, LockBit then drops the ransom note titled, Restore-My-Files.txt (Figure 12.a).

LockBit 2.0 ransom note: "Your data are stolen and encrypted. The data will b published on TOR website..." The note continues by giving web addresses and offering to decrypt one file for free as a proof.
Figure 12a. Ransom Note.
Files encrypted by LockBit 2.0. The ransomware operators use the extension .lockbit on encrypted files.
Figure 12b. Encrypted files.

Similar to REvil, LockBit 2.0 ransomware modifies the victim’s desktop wallpaper if the encryption process is successful, making the victim aware of their compromise. The wallpaper also includes an advertisement aimed at encouraging insider threats that all organizations could fall prey to. (Figure 13).

When a LockBit attack is successful, the software modifies the victim's desktop wallpaper, as shown here, making the victim aware of the compromise and encouraging insider threats.
Figure 13. Modified LockBit 2.0 wallpaper.

The advertisement states that the threat actors are interested in methods of access, such as RDP, VPN and corporate email credentials. In exchange, they offer a cut of paid ransom.

If the victim wants to communicate with Lockbit operators to get their data back, the operators include a “Decryption ID” and a TOR link (and their clearnet mirror: decoding[.]at) on the ransom note. This information allows the user to log in and start the negotiation process (Figure 14).

The support site login for LockBit 2.0 is shown on the left and the LockBit support chat interface is shown on the right.
Figure 14. Support site login (left) and LockBit Support chat (right).

Conclusion

With major ransomware groups such as REvil and Darkside lying low or rebranding to evade law enforcement heat and media attention, new groups will emerge to replace the ones that are no longer actively targeting victims. Here, we shared information on some of the observed malicious activity of the ransomware groups trying to become the next key players. While LockBit and HelloKitty have been previously active, their recent evolution makes them a good example of how old groups can re-emerge and remain persistent threats. Unit 42 will continue to monitor these ransomware families – and new ones that may emerge in the future.

Palo Alto Networks customers are protected against these ransomware families with Cortex XDR or the Next-Generation Firewall with Threat Prevention and WildFire security subscriptions. Customers can use AutoFocus for tracking related entities using the AvosLocker, Hive, LockBit and HelloKitty tags, respectively. Full visualization of the techniques observed can be seen in the Unit 42 ATOM viewer.

Palo Alto Networks has shared these findings, including file samples and indicators of compromise, with our fellow Cyber Threat Alliance members. CTA members use this intelligence to rapidly deploy protections to their customers and systematically disrupt malicious cyber actors. Visit the Cyber Threat Alliance for more information.

If you think you may have been impacted by any of these ransomware families, please email unit42-investigations@paloaltonetworks.com or call (866) 486-4842 – (866) 4-UNIT42 – for U.S. toll-free; (31-20) 299-3130 in EMEA; or (65) 6983-8730 in JAPAC. The Unit 42 Incident Response team is available 24/7/365. You can also take preventative steps by requesting a Ransomware Readiness Assessment.

Indicators of Compromise

AvosLocker

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01792043e07a0db52664c5878b253531b293754dc6fd6a8426899c1a66ddd61f

Hive Ransomware

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88f7544a29a2ceb175a135d9fa221cbfd3e8c71f32dd6b09399717f85ea9afd1

Hello Kitty (Linux)

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Lockbit 2.0

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5f99cdba09aa3e03e531fc34bc5fcee96f61ec0b83b575911d79573da7109906
cd2287122277237a9c507ce9ba5f114ddd48faa1b3f87b33ed1a8b19f65c8a14
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0906a0b27f59b6db2a2451a0e0aabf292818e32ddd5404d08bf49c601a466744
0d6524b9a1d709ecd9f19f75fa78d94096e039b3d4592d13e8dbddf99867182d

Domains

Decoding[.]at
bigblog[.]at
lockbit-decryptor[.]com
lockbit-decryptor[.]top

Appendix (Hello Kitty)

Extensions that are ignored for encryption:

.crypt
.README_TO_RESTORE
.tmp_
.a
.so
.la

Directories ignored for encryption:

/bin
/boot
/dev
/etc
/lib
/lib32
/lib64
/lost+found
/proc
/run
/sbin
/usr/bin
/usr/include
/usr/lib
/usr/lib32
/usr/lib64
/usr/sbin
/sys
/usr/libexec
/usr/share
/var/lib