Ransomware, DDoS extortion, and encrypted communications abound as cybercriminals in the region refine their tradecraft.
Ransomware infections increased by 233% this past year in the Middle East and North Africa as part of a shift toward more savvy and aggressive cybercrime operations in a region where criminals just last year mostly were sharing malware tools, phony documents, and services for free or on the cheap.
Researchers at Trend Micro found that cybercrime in the region has matured rapidly in the past year, with hackers employing the Telegram messaging app for encrypted communications and money-laundering services to replace rudimentary cash-out transaction methods that in many cases converted stolen physical items into cash. “The increase in money-laundering services also shows the demand for monetizing ill-gotten gains has increased over time,” says Jon Clay, global threat communications director at Trend Micro. “This all shows an increase in money-motivated cybercrimes within this region.”
The shift from email, Skype, and Facebook Messenger to Telegram as well as WhatsApp for encrypted communications and money-laundering schemes is about flying under the radar as the cybercrime gangs in the region have evolved into more experienced and lucrative operations. They now offer so-called broker services or “contracts” for moving money, using European banks, PayPal, Western Union, and banks in the region. They offer commissions between 10% to upward of 50% to convert stolen funds into a different currency, preferring to cash out in stronger currencies, such as the US dollar via US banks.
SQL injection tools, keyloggers, port numbers for Internet-connected SCADA equipment, and hacking instruction manuals all had been offered for free in the region’s underground in 2017, according to previous Trend Micro research. The WannaCry ransomware sample was sold for $50. Freely shared tools still exist there today, according to Clay, but the criminals are moving to more stealthy and secure infrastructures to hide their activities.
One of the biggest changes Trend Micro saw was the move from a tool that was “open source (and likely insecure) to a private communications tool,” he says. “This tool encrypts all communications between the members and can ensure law enforcement cannot access. This has provided the underground community with a much more secure and private means of communications.”
Aside from ransomware, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and website defacements remain a popular attack by hackers in the region. What was once the domain of hacktivists has become yet another money-making opportunity for cybercriminals to extort their victims with destructive attacks on their websites, for example.
The oil and gas industry remains one of the biggest targets in the region – half of all cyberattacks hit that sector – due to its pervasiveness and financially lucrative status. These organizations can’t afford a ransomware or DDoS attack to disrupt sensitive operations. “These factors make it more likely that a compromised victim may pay an extortion or ransom fee,” Clay says.
Law enforcement, too, has matured in its fight against cybercrime, which, in turn, has forced attackers to better hide their tracks. So far, Trend Micro hasn’t detected any links between the cybercrime world there and nation-state operations. “In our analysis of the actors themselves, we’re seeing predominately young males with either a high school or college education. As such, they are likely very good with technology, aggressive in their work, but still need more time to build their skillsets,” Clay says.
All of this means yet another international cybercrime region is emerging as a threat to nations such as the US. “This is a region that is increasing in their cybercriminal operations and will likely target organizations within the US,” Clay says. “With an increase in the US oil and gas industry, these actors are learning what works within their own region and can take that knowledge and apply it into attacks within the US region.”
They already are selling tools in both Arabic and English-speaking underground forums, notes Mayra Rosario Fuentes, senior threat researcher at Trend Micro. “They are no longer just targeting their own region.”
The Middle East and North Africa will become a bigger player in global cybercrime. “This should be a call for the regional law enforcement and government to improve their laws and ability to arrest and convict these criminals,” Clay says. “It is also a call for organizations to recognize this region as a threat to their operations and improve their security capabilities to thwart attacks from this region.”