Check Point Threat Intelligence and research teams recently discovered a high volume Chinese threat operation which has infected over 250 million computers worldwide.
The installed malware, that we named Fireball, takes over target browsers, turning them into zombies. Fireball has two main functionalities: one is the ability of running any code on victim computers and downloading any file or malware, and the other is hijacking and manipulating infected users’ web-traffic to generate ad-revenue. Currently, Fireball installs plug-ins and additional configurations to boost its advertisements, but just as easily it can turn into a prominent distributor for any additional malware.
This operation is run by Rafotech, a large digital marketing agency based in Beijing. Rafotech uses Fireball to manipulate the victims’ browsers and turn their default search engines and home-pages into fake search engines which simply redirect the queries to either yahoo.com or Google.com. The fake search engines include tracking pixels used to collect the users’ private information. Fireball can also spy on victims, perform efficient malware dropping, and execute any malicious code in the infected machines, thus creating a massive security flaw in targeted machines and networks.
· Check Point analysts uncovered a high volume Chinese threat operation which has infected over 250 million computers worldwide, and 20% of corporate networks.
· The malware, called Fireball, acts as a browser-hijacker but and can be turned into a full-functioning malware downloader. Fireball is capable of executing any code on the victim machines, resulting in a wide range of actions ranging from stealing credentials to dropping additional malware.
· Fireball is spread mostly via bundling i.e. installed on victim machines alongside a wanted program, often without the user’s consent.
· The operation is run by Chinese digital marketing agency.
· Top infected countries are India (10.1%) and Brazil (9.6%)
250 MILLIONS MACHINES AND 20% OF CORPORATE NETWORKS WORLDWIDE INFECTED
The scope of the malware distribution is quite alarming. According to our analysis, over 250 million computers worldwide are infected: specifically, there are 25.3 million infections in India (10.1%), 24.1 million in Brazil (9.6%), 16.1 million in Mexico (6.4%), and 13.1 million in Indonesia (5.2%). In the United States we have witnessed 5.5 million infections (2.2%).
Based on Check Point’s global sensors, the percentages of affected corporate networks are even higher: 20% of all corporate networks. Hit rates in the US (10.7%) and China (4.7%) are alarming, and even more so in Indonesia (60%), India (43%) and Brazil (38%).
Another indicator of the incredibly high infection rate is the popularity of Rafotech’s fake search engines. According to Alexa’s web traffic data, 14 of these fake search engines are among the top 10,000 websites, with some of them occasionally reaching the top 1,000.
Ironically, although Rafotech doesn’t admit it produces browser-hijackers and fake search engines, it does (proudly) declare itself a successful marketing agency, reaching 300 million users worldwide – coincidentally similar to our number of estimated infections.
A BACKDOOR TO EVERY INFECTED NETWORK
Fireball and similar browser-hijackers are hybrid creatures, half seemingly legitimate software (see the GOING UNDER THE RADAR section), and half malware. Although Rafotech seemingly uses Fireball only for advertising and initiating traffic to its fake search engines, it actually can perform any action on the victims’ machines, which can have serious consequences. How severe is it? Try to imagine a pesticide armed with a nuclear bomb. Yes, it can do the job, but it can also do much more.
These browser-hijackers are all capable on the browser level. This means that they can drive victims to malicious sites, spy on them and conduct successful malware dropping.
From a technical perspective, Fireball displays great sophistication and quality evasion techniques, including anti-detection capabilities, multi-layer structure and a flexible C&C, it is not inferior to a typical malware. Many threat actors would like to have even a fraction of Rafotech’s power, as Fireball provides a critical backdoor, which can be further exploited.
GOING UNDER THE RADAR
While the distribution of Fireball is both malicious and illegitimate, it actually carries digital certificates imparting them a legitimate appearance. Confused? You should be.
Rafotech carefully walks along the edge of legitimacy, knowing that adware distribution is not considered a crime like malware distribution is. How is that? Many companies provide software or services for free, and make their profits by harvesting data or presenting advertisements. Once a client agrees to the instalment of extra features or software to his/her computer, it is hard to claim malicious intent on behalf of the provider.
This grey zone led to the birth of a new kind of monetizing method – bundling. Bundling is when a wanted program installs another program alongside it, sometimes with a user’s authorization and sometimes without. Rafotech uses bundling in high volume to spread Fireball.
According to our analysis, Rafotech’s distribution methods appear to be illegitimate and don’t follow the criteria which would allow these actions to be considered naïve or legal. The malware and the fake search engines don’t carry indicators connecting them to Rafotech, they cannot be uninstalled by an ordinary user, and they conceal their true nature.
So how do they carry digital certificates? One possibility is that issuers make their living from providing certificates, and small issuers with flexible ethics can enjoy the lack of clarity in the adware world’s legality to approve software such as Rafotech’s browser-hijackers.
THE INFECTION MODEL
As with other types of malware, there are many ways for Fireball to spread. We suspect that two popular vectors are bundling the malware to other Rafotech products – Deal Wifi and Mustang Browser – as well as bundling via other freeware distributors: products such as “Soso Desktop”, “FVP Imageviewer” and others.
It’s important to remember that when a user installs freeware, additional malware isn’t necessarily dropped at the same time. If you download a suspicious freeware and nothing happens on the spot, it doesn’t necessarily mean that something isn’t happening behind the scenes.
Furthermore, it is likely that Rafotech is using additional distribution methods, such as spreading freeware under fake names, spam, or even buying installs from threat actors.
As with everything in the internet, remember that there are no free lunches. When you download freeware, or use cost-free services (streaming and downloads, for example), the service provider is making profit somehow. If it’s not from you or from advertisements, it will come from somewhere else.
HOW CAN I KNOW IF I AM INFECTED?
To check if you’re infected, first open your web browser. Was your home-page set by you? Are you able to modify it? Are you familiar with your default search engine and can modify that as well? Do you remember installing all of your browser extensions?
If the answer to any of these questions is “NO”, this is a sign that you’re infected with adware. You can also use a recommended adware scanner, just to be extra cautious.
THE RED BUTTON IN THE WRONG HANDS
It doesn’t take much to imagine a scenario in which Rafotech decides to harvest sensitive information from all of its infected machines, and sell this data to threat groups or business rivals. Banking and credit card credentials, medical files, patents and business plans can all be widely exposed and abused by threat actors for various purposes. Based on our estimated infection rate, in such a scenario, one out of five corporations worldwide will be susceptible to a major breach. Severe damage can be caused to key organizations, from major service providers to critical infrastructure operators to medical institutions. The potential loss is indescribable, and repairing the damage caused by such massive data leakage (if even possible) could take years.
Rafotech holds the power to initiate a global catastrophe and it is not alone. During our research we’ve tracked down additional browser-hijackers that, to our understanding, were developed by other companies. One such company is ELEX Technology, an Internet Services company also based in Beijing that produces products similar to those of Rafotech. Several findings lead us to suspect that the two companies are related, and may be collaborating in the distribution of browser-hijackers or in trading customers’ traffic. For example, an adware developed by ELEX, named YAC (“Yet Another Cleaner”) is suspected to be connected to Rafotech’s operation, dropping its browser-hijackers.
In this research we’ve described Rafotech’s browser-hijackers operation – possibly the largest infection operation in history. We believe that although this is not a typical malware attack campaign, it has the potential to cause irreversible damage to its victims as well as worldwide internet users, and therefore it must be blocked by security companies.
The full distribution of Fireball is not yet known, but it is clear that it presents a great threat to the global cyber ecosystem. With a quarter billion infected machines and a grip in one of every five corporate networks, Rafotech’s activities make it an immense threat.
HOW DO I REMOVE THE MALWARE, ONCE INFECTED?
To remove almost any adware, follow these simple steps:
1. Uninstall the adware by removing the application from the Programs and Features list in the Windows Control Panel.
For Mac OS users:
a. Use the Finder to locate the Applications folder.
b. Drag the suspicious file to the Trash.
c. Empty the Trash.
Note – A usable program is not always installed on the machine and therefore may not be found on the program list.
2. Scan and clean your machine, using:
· Anti-Malware software
· Adware cleaner software
3. Remove malicious Add-ons, extensions or plug-ins from your browser:
Data journalism takes top prize in revamped awards
The entries to the 2018 Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards were extraordinarily varied and of an excellent standard, with new categories introduced which are based on content as opposed to platforms. This year, the judges decided that two entries were equally worthy of the coveted Vodacom Journalist of the Year Award.
The first co-winning entry, in the new Data Journalism category, is a set of stories by Alastair Otter and Laura Grant of Media Hack which showed how Data Journalism is shaping the future. The second co-winning entrant is Bongani Fuzile of the Daily Dispatch for his articles in the investigative category on how migrant workers were being ripped off by pension deductions (full citations below).
Convenor of the judging panel Ryland Fisher says: “This year we modernised the 12 categories that journalists could enter their work in and the change was embraced by entrants. In a turbulent time for media, the 2018 entries once again proved that there are excellent South African journalists delivering praiseworthy work, and we commend them for finding new and innovative ways to cover the news.”
Takalani Netshitenzhe, Chief Officer for Corporate Affairs at the Vodacom Group, says: “Vodacom is proud of its 17-year association with these prestigious awards, which make an important contribution to our society through the recognition of journalistic excellence. I’d like to congratulate all of tonight’s winners and, as always, I’d like to pay tribute to our hardworking judges. Ryland Fisher, Mathatha Tsedu, Arthur Goldstuck, Collin Nxumalo, Elna Rossouw, Patricia McCracken, Megan Rusi, Mary Papayya, Albe Grobbelaar and Obed Zilwa: thank you for making these awards a continued success.”
Veteran journalist and media stalwart Ms Amina Frense is the winner of the 2018 Vodacom Journalist of the Year Lifetime Achiever Award. She has spent decades in mainstream media both locally and internationally. She is a former Managing Editor: News and Current Affairs at the SA Broadcasting Corporation. She has worked in many countries abroad as a producer and a foreign correspondent, has written two books and is also a founding member of SANEF where she still serves as a council member (full citation below).
The overall winners share the R100 000 main prize. National winners in the various categories are as follows, with each winner taking home R10 000:
The entries in this category were of an exceptionally high standard. One entrant stood out and became the unanimous winner. This journalist showed an exceptional skill for story-telling and for finding unexpected angles and unknown facts. For his stories about Musangwe’s fight for recognition, Age cheating in SA football, and Hansie Cronje revisited, the winner is Ronald Masinda, and the team of Gift Kganyago, Nceba Ntlanganiso and Charles Lombard from eSAT TV.
Cons exploit Telegram ICO
Kaspersky Lab researchers have uncovered dozens of highly convincing fake websites claiming to be investment sites for an initial coin offering (ICO) by the Telegram messaging service. Many of these websites appear to belong to the same group. In one case alone, tens of thousands of US dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency were stolen from victims believing they were investing in ‘Grams’, Telegram’s rumoured new currency. Telegram has not officially confirmed an ICO and has warned people about fraudulent investor sites.
In late 2017, stories started to circulate that the Telegram messaging service was launching an initial coin offering (ICO) to finance a blockchain platform based on its TON (Telegram Open Network) technology. Unverified technical documentation was posted online, but there appears to have been no confirmation from Telegram itself. The resulting confusion seems to have allowed fraudsters to capitalise on investor interest by creating fake sites and stealing vast sums of money.
Kaspersky Lab researchers have discovered dozens of such sites, possibly belonging to the same group, claiming to sell tokens for ‘Grams’ and inviting investors to pay with cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, lice litecoin, dash and Bitcoin dash. A record of transactions on one site revealed that the scammers were able to steal at least $35,000 US dollars’ worth of Ethereum from investors.
The researchers found that some of the websites were so convincing that even after Telegram and others began to issue warnings, they were still able to recruit potential investors. Most use a secure connection, require registration and generate a unique online wallet for each new victim, making it harder to track the money.
Judging by the content of the fake websites, it appears they may have common ownership. For example, several have the exactly the same ‘Our Team’ section.
“ICOs are a fairly risky investment and many people don’t yet fully understand how they work, so it is not surprising that high quality fake websites, with seemingly reassuring features such as a secure connection and registration are successful at luring people in. People wishing to invest in an ICO would do well to check with the company behind it and make sure they know exactly who they are giving their money to, or they may never see it again,” said Nadezhda Demidova, Lead Web-Content Analyst, Kaspersky Lab.
Kaspersky Lab offers the following advice for users considering investing in an ICO:
- Check for warning signs: for example, some of the fake Telegram ICO websites had the same wrong image next to the name of Telegram’s Chief Product Officer.
- Do your homework: always check with the brand’s official site to verify the legitimacy of the investment site and, if necessary contact the company’s ICO teams before investing any money or currency.
- Use reliable security solutions such as Kaspersky Internet Security and Kaspersky Internet Security for Android, which will warn you if you try to visit fake internet pages.