ESET researchers have discovered a piece of banking malware that employs a new technique to bypass dedicated browser protection measures
Banking malware (also referred to as banker) has been decreasing in popularity among cybercrooks for a few years now, one of the reasons being that both anti-malware companies and web browser developers are continuously widening the scope of their protection mechanisms against banking Trojan attacks. This results in conventional banking malware fraud becoming more complicated to pull off every day, resulting in malware authors shifting their time and resources into developing easier-to-make and more profitable types of malware like ransomware, cryptominers, and cryptocurrency stealers.
We have discovered a new banking malware family that uses an innovative technique to manipulate the browser: instead of using complex process injection methods to monitor browsing activity, the malware hooks key window message loop events in order to inspect values of the window objects for banking activity.
We first noticed the group behind this banking malware spreading their earlier projects – one of them being malware that was stealing cryptocurrency by replacing wallet addresses in the clipboard – back in January of this year. The group focused on clipboard malware for a few months and eventually introduced the first version of the banking malware, detected by ESET as Win32/BackSwap.A, on March 13.
In the figure below we can see a dramatic spike in detection rate compared to the previous projects, as viewed from our backend processes. The authors have been very active in the development of the banker and have continued to introduce new versions pretty much on a daily basis, taking breaks only at weekends.
Distribution and execution
Very often the victim machines are also compromised by the well–known Win32/TrojanDownloader.Nymaim downloader, which seems to be spread using a similar method. At the time of writing we do not know whether this is just a coincidence or if these two families are directly connected.
The payload is delivered as a modified version of a legitimate application that is partially overwritten by the malicious payload. The application used as the target for the modification is being changed regularly – examples of apps misused in the past include TPVCGateway, SQLMon, DbgView, WinRAR Uninstaller, 7Zip, OllyDbg, FileZilla Server. The app is modified to jump to the malicious code during its initialization. One of the techniques used to achieve this is adding a pointer to the malicious payload into the _initterm() function table, which is an internal part of C Run-Time Library that initializes all global variables and other parts of the program that need to be initialized before the main() function is called.
This method might be reminiscent of “trojanization”, but the difference is that the original application no longer works, and once control is transferred to the malware, it will never return to the original code. Therefore, the intent is not to fool users into thinking they are running the legitimate app, but rather to increase the “stealthiness” of the malware against analysis and detection. This makes the malware harder for an analyst to spot, as many reverse engineering tools like IDA Pro will show the original main() function as a legitimate start of the application code and an analyst might not notice anything suspicious at first glance.
The payload is a position-independent blob of code with all its data embedded within. The character strings are stored in plain text, which ruins its otherwise very small footprint, as all required Windows APIs are looked up by hash during runtime. The malware starts by copying itself into a startup folder in order to ensure persistence and then proceeds with its banking functionality.
Conventional injection methods
To steal money from a victim’s account via the internet banking interface, typical banking malware will inject itself or its specialized banking module into the browser’s process address space. For many reasons, this is not an easy task – first of all, as mentioned before, the injection might be intercepted by a third-party security solution. The injected module also needs to match the bitness of the browser – a 32-bit module cannot be injected into a 64-bit browser process and vice versa. This results in banking trojans usually having to carry both versions of a given module in order to support both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the browsers.
When successfully injected, the banking module needs to find browser-specific functions and hook them. The malware looks for functions that are responsible for sending and receiving HTTP requests in plain text before encryption, and after decryption, respectively. The difficulty of finding these functions varies from browser to browser – in the case of Mozilla Firefox, the functions are exported by the nss3.dll library and their addresses can be effortlessly looked up by their widely known names. On the other hand, Google Chrome and other Chromium-based browsers have these functions hidden and implemented deep inside the binary, which makes them very hard to find. This forces the malware authors to come up with specialized methods and patterns that only work for the specific version of the browser. Once a new version comes out, new methods and patterns must be implemented.
If the right functions are found and hooks are successfully installed (note that hooks may also be detected by a security solution), the banking trojan can begin to modify the HTTP traffic or redirect the victim to a different website impersonating a bank while faking the validity of a certificate. Similar techniques are incorporated by currently active, high-profile banking trojans like Dridex, Ursnif, Zbot, Trickbot, Qbot and many others.
New browser manipulation technique
Win32/BackSwap.A has a completely different approach. It handles everything by working with Windows GUI elements and simulating user input. This might seem trivial, but it actually is a very powerful technique that solves many “issues” associated with conventional browser injection. First of all, the malware does not interact with the browser on the process level at all, which means that it does not require any special privileges and bypasses any third-party hardening of the browser, which usually focuses on conventional injection methods. Another advantage for the attackers is that the code does not depend either on the architecture of the browser or on its version, and one code path works for all.
The malware monitors the URL currently being visited by installing event hooks for a specific range of relevant events available through the Windows message loop, such as EVENT_OBJECT_FOCUS, EVENT_OBJECT_SELECTION, EVENT_OBJECT_NAMECHANGE and a few others. The hook will look for URL patterns by searching the objects for strings starting with “https” retrieved by calling the get_accValue method from the event’s IAccessible interface.
The malware will then look for bank-specific URLs and window titles in the browser that indicate that the victim is about to make a wire transfer.
In older samples, the malware inserts the malicious script into the clipboard and simulates pressing the key combination for opening the developer’s console (CTRL+SHIFT+J in Google Chrome, CTRL+SHIFT+K in Mozilla Firefox) followed by CTRL+V, which pastes the content of the clipboard and then sends ENTER to execute the contents of the console. Finally, the malware sends the console key combination again to close the console. The browser window is also made invisible during this process – to regular users it might seem as if their browser simply froze for a moment.
Another countermeasure implemented by Mozilla Firefox disallows pasting scripts into the console by default and instead shows a message warning users about potential risks, forcing them to type in “allow pasting” first. The malware bypasses this by executing the shell command shown in Figure 6, which modifies the prefs.js configuration file and removes this countermeasure.
The banker implements a specific script for each targeted bank, as every banking site is different and has different source code and variables. These scripts are injected into pages the malware identifies as initiating a wire transfer request, such as paying a utility account. The injected scripts secretly replace the recipient’s bank account number with a different one and when the victim decides to send the wire transfer, the money will be sent to the attackers instead. Any safeguards against unauthorized payment, such as 2-factor authorization, won’t help in this case, as the account owner is willingly sending the wire transfer.
Win32/BackSwap.A has had malicious scripts targeting five Polish banks in total – PKO Bank Polski, Bank Zachodni WBK S.A., mBank, ING and Pekao. Its authors sometimes remove some banks from the list of targets and in the most recent version, for example, they left only three banks – PKO BP, mBank and ING. In older versions, the attackers were retrieving the receiving bank account numbers from C&C servers that were hosted on hacked WordPress websites. In the recent versions, they have stored these account numbers directly in the malicious scripts. The malicious bank account numbers change very frequently, and pretty much every campaign has a new one.
As we can see in the figure below, the banker will only steal money if the wire transfer amount is in a certain range – they usually target payments between 10,000 and 20,000 PLN, which is around 2,800 – 5,600 USD. The script replaces the original recipient bank account, and also replaces the input field for that number with a fake one that displays the original bank account, so the user sees the valid number and thus is unlikely to be suspicious.
Win32/BackSwap.A shows us that in the ongoing battle between the security industry and authors of banking malware, new malicious techniques do not necessarily need to be highly sophisticated to be effective. We think that, as browsers become better protected from conventional code injection, malware authors will attack the browsers in different fashions and Win32/BackSwap.A might have just shown us one of the possibilities.
ESET solutions detect and block the threat as Win32/BackSwap.A trojan.
We have notified the affected browser vendors about the innovative script injection technique.
Special thanks to Paweł Śmierciak for discovering this family and his help in this research.