Ransomware Threat Assessments: A Companion to the 2021 Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report

A conceptual image representing ransomware, such as the families covered in this package of ransomware threat assessments.

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Threat Assessment: Zeppelin Ransomware

Executive Summary

Originally reported by BlackBerry Cylance in 2019, the Zeppelin ransomware family is a variant of the VegaLocker/Buran ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) family – named because the text “ZEPPELIN” is added to the encrypted file code. Zeppelin continues to have a strong presence in the ransomware threat landscape, with new campaigns emerging routinely. Although it is not on the level of Egregor, DoppelPaymer or Ryuk in terms of its sophistication, targeting or attack pattern, Zeppelin has proven itself to be a formidable and robust commodity malware variant in the RaaS realm.

Although the earliest observed Zeppelin samples are from November 2019, the ransomware family is still very much in use by malicious actors. Unit 42 continues to track Zeppelin ransomware campaign activity in both its own telemetry data, and via open-source intelligence (OSINT).

Zeppelin Ransomware Overview

Conceptual image representing Zeppelin ransomware as part of the ransomware threat assessments companion to the 2021 Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report.

Zeppelin is highly configurable, but maintains common methods for distribution and deployment found with many ransomware families today, including:

  • Phishing emails.
  • Microsoft Word document with malicious macros embedded.
  • PowerShell loaders.
  • Open ScreenConnect or VPN connections.
  • Malicious EXE files.
  • Malicious DLL files.
Figure 1. Decoy document containing malicious macros delivering Zeppelin ransomware.
Figure 1. Decoy document containing malicious macros delivering Zeppelin ransomware.

Additionally, Zeppelin is often distributed via compromised websites or temporary command and control (C2) infrastructures that are active only during distribution. Further complicating things, recent Zeppelin variants include a sleep function that lasts for 26 seconds in an attempt to bypass dynamic analysis engines and sandboxes. Zeppelin also notably includes functionality that checks the victim’s country code to make sure it’s not running in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus or Kazakhstan.

Zeppelin has spared few industries in terms of targeting, but some of the hardest-hit industry verticals include real estate, healthcare, manufacturing, finance and high tech. Zeppelin’s ransom notes vary widely from highly generic to specifically crafted notes related to the targeted organizations. In some cases, the actors behind Zeppelin target high-profile organizations within those same industry verticals. Average ransom payment for 2020 was $14,088, paid in Bitcoin. Zeppelin victims spanned several countries, with victims in the U.S., Canada, Bulgaria, Japan, South Korea, France and Taiwan.

More information on Zeppelin victimology can be found in the 2021 Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report.

Figure 2. Ransom note with Personal ID (source: Juniper Threat Labs).
Figure 2. Ransom note with Personal ID (source: Juniper Threat Labs).

Courses of Action

This section documents relevant tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) used with Zeppelin and maps them directly to Palo Alto Networks product(s) and service(s). It also further instructs customers on how to ensure their devices are configured correctly.


Product / Service Course of Action
Initial Access, Defense Evasion, Execution, Discovery, Command and Control, Impact
Spearphishing Attachment [T1566.001], Web Protocols [T1071.001], Obfuscated Files or Information [T1027], Windows Command Shell [T1059.003], Inhibit System Recovery [T1490], Modify Registry [T1112], File and Directory Discovery [T1083], Data Encrypted for Impact [T1486]
NGFW Ensure application security policies exist when allowing traffic from an untrusted zone to a more trusted zone
Ensure 'Service setting of ANY' in a security policy allowing traffic does not exist
Ensure 'Security Policy' denying any/all traffic to/from IP addresses on Trusted Threat Intelligence Sources Exists
Set up File Blocking
WildFire Ensure that WildFire file size upload limits are maximized
Ensure forwarding is enabled for all applications and file types in WildFire file blocking profiles
Ensure a WildFire Analysis profile is enabled for all security policies
Ensure forwarding of decrypted content to WildFire is enabled
Ensure all WildFire session information settings are enabled
Ensure alerts are enabled for malicious files detected by WildFire
Ensure 'WildFire Update Schedule' is set to download and install updates every minute
Threat Prevention Ensure an anti-spyware profile is configured to block on all spyware severity levels, categories and threats
Ensure DNS sinkholing is configured on all anti-spyware profiles in use
Ensure passive DNS monitoring is set to enabled on all anti-spyware profiles in use
Ensure a secure anti-spyware profile is applied to all security policies permitting traffic to the Internet
Set up File Blocking
Ensure that antivirus profiles are set to block on all decoders except 'imap' and 'pop3'
DNS Security Enable DNS Security in Anti-Spyware profile
URL Filtering Ensure that PAN-DB URL Filtering is used
Ensure that URL Filtering uses the action of ‘block’ or ‘override’ on the <enterprise approved value> URL categories
Ensure that access to every URL is logged
Ensure all HTTP Header Logging options are enabled
Ensure secure URL filtering is enabled for all security policies allowing traffic to the internet
Cortex XDR Enable Anti-Exploit Protection
Enable Anti-Malware Protection
Configure Behavioral Threat Protection under the Malware Security Profile
Cortex XSOAR Deploy XSOAR Playbook - Palo Alto Networks Endpoint Malware Investigation
Deploy XSOAR Playbook - Ransomware Manual for incident response

Table 1. Courses of Action for Zeppelin ransomware.
†These capabilities are part of the NGFW security subscriptions service.


Stable in its operation, straightforward to implement and effective in its impact, Zeppelin continues to operate globally. Unit 42 fully expects Zeppelin ransomware activity to continue for the foreseeable future.

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs) associated with Zeppelin are available here, and have been published to the Unit 42 TAXII feed.

Palo Alto Networks detects and prevents Zeppelin in the following ways:

  • WildFire: All known samples are identified as malware.
  • Cortex XDR with:
    • Indicators for Zeppelin.
    • Anti-Ransomware Module to detect Zeppelin encryption behaviors.
    • Local Analysis detection for Zeppelin binaries.
  • Next-Generation Firewalls: DNS Signatures detect the known command and control (C2) domains, which are also categorized as malware in URL Filtering.
  • AutoFocus: Tracking related activity using the Zeppelin tag.

Additionally, campaign-centric Indicators of Compromise (IoCs) observed by Unit 42 associated with Zeppelin were published on the Unit 42 Twitter feed on Dec. 11, 2020 (part one and part two), and Dec. 16, 2020.

Additional Resources

Continue Reading: DoppelPaymer

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