Phish Scales: Malicious Actor Combines Personalized Email, Variety of Malware To Target Execs

April 05, 2016
Matthew Mesa

The rule of thumb for phishing emails is that the more personalized they are, the more effective they will be. Personalization, though, is expensive, both in terms of the necessary research and preparation of highly targeted malicious emails. The tradeoff between efficacy and cost has always been a constraint on attackers. Unfortunately, Proofpoint has recently observed one actor who appears to have found a way to scale spear phishing. One recent study puts the average cost of a successful spear phishing campaign at $1.6 million per incident - if spear phishing becomes the norm instead of the outlier, the math becomes fairly intimidating for targeted organizations.

Since January 2016, a financially motivated threat actor whom Proofpoint has been tracking as TA530 has been targeting executives and other high-level employees, often through campaigns focused exclusively on a particular vertical. For example, intended victims frequently have titles of Chief Financial Officer, Head of Finance, Senior Vice President, Director and other high level roles.

Additionally, TA530 customizes the email to each target by specifying the target’s name, job title, phone number, and company name in the email body, subject, and attachment names. On several occasions, we verified that these details are correct for the intended victim. While we do not know for sure the source of these details, they frequently appear on public websites, such as LinkedIn or the company’s own website. The customization doesn't end with the lure; the malware used in the campaigns is also targeted by region and vertical.

While these campaigns aren't approaching the size of, for example, Dridex and Locky blasts that go after very large numbers of random recipients, TA530 has sent approximately a third of a million personalized messages to recipients in US, UK, and Australian organizations. These attacks are quite large relative to other selective or spear phishing campaigns.

We observed TA530 at times targeting only a specific and narrow vertical, such as Retail and Hospitality. At other times, the campaigns appear more widespread. Overall, the volume of messages targeting each vertical is shown below:

Figure 1: Top targeted industries

Malware Arsenal

In addition to the targeted and personalized approach, we observed TA530 having access to the necessary infrastructure and attempting to deliver and install the following primary malware payloads.

  • Ursnif ISFB - banking Trojan configured to target Australian banks
  • Fileless Ursnif/RecoLoad - Point of Sale (PoS) reconnaissance Trojan targeted at Retail and Hospitality. It was first featured in Kafeine’s blog [1] in July of 2015,  which suggests that it has been in distribution since 2014; shortly after, it was described with more detail by Trend Micro [2].
  • Tiny Loader - a downloader used in campaigns targeting Retail and Hospitality verticals. We have not observed it download secondary payloads, but previously it has been used to download malware such as AbaddonPOS [3].
  • TeamSpy/TVSpy - RAT utilizing Teamviewer [4], primarily targeted at Retail and Hospitality
  • CryptoWall - File encrypting ransomware targeted at a variety of companies
  • Nymaim - Installs a banking Trojan [5] primarily targeted at Financial companies
  • Dridex Botnet 222 - banking Trojan botnet with UK targeting. Proofpoint first observed this botnet when it was dropped by Bedep in January 2016 [6]

TA530 also used additional intermediary loaders such as H1N1 Loader and Smoke Loader.


One of the trends we noticed is that the POS-oriented payloads (TinyLoader and Fileless Ursnif) and TVSpy were targeted at retail and hospitality companies, while the banking and ransomware payloads were targeted a wider variety of companies. In each case, however, they were primarily still aimed at high-value employees.

Figure 2: Fileless Ursnif campaigns targeting primarily Retail and Hospitality verticals

In one email targeting a retail company, we saw TA530 attempting to infect a manager. In that particular message, the actor used the target's name, phone number, and the company they work for to “report” an incident at one of the retail locations using the actual address of that location. If the target were to open the attachment (Figure 3), and macros were enabled, it would infect the user by running WMI commands to launch Powershell with a command to download and launch the Fileless Ursnif payload from a byte array (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Example document used to deliver Fileless Ursnif

Figure 4: Macro used in document serving Fileless Ursnif

In other recent examples, we see the messages specify the company name, the contact’s name (Figure 6 and 7), and even the contact’s position in the company (Figure 6). Again, the attachment is a Word document (Figure 8) containing macros, but in this case, the document simply downloads and runs an executable. In these examples, the delivered payload is Nymaim. We have observed Nymaim utilizing Ursnif to perform banking injects. It appears the intent is to infect employees who have a higher chance of interacting with banking websites on behalf of the company. Similar emails (Figure 9) have also been used to distribute an instance of Ursnif which targets Australian banking sites with its web injects.

Figure 5: Nymaim banking Trojan targeting primarily Financial Services

Figure 6: Example email delivering Nymaim

Figure 7: Example email delivering Nymaim

Figure 8: Example document used to deliver Nymaim

Figure 9: Example email delivering Ursnif ISFB

Here we see another similar email (Figure 10) targeting an HR director, except this time the email is targeting a company in the UK and the attached document (Figure 11) leads to the installation of Dridex botnet 222. Dridex 222 webinjects/redirects are primarily configured for UK targets.

Figure 10: Example email delivering Dridex 222

Figure 11: Example document used to deliver Dridex 222

In our last example we see a personalized email (Figure 13) using the company name and contact’s name to deliver the malicious document (Figure 14). In this case, the delivered payload was CryptoWall. This campaign targeted management or higher level employees across several verticals (Figure 12), and since the payload is a ransomware, there was a higher chance of encrypting valuable files.

Figure 12: Cryptowall targeting

Figure 13: Example email delivering CryptoWall “crypt5028”

Figure 14: Example email delivering CryptoWall “crypt5028”

We have also observed TA530 using similarly personalized emails to distribute malicious links as well as messages attaching JavaScript downloaders. Although we have observed TA530 using messages which were not personalized, this was not the norm among most of these campaigns.


Based on what we have seen in these examples from TA530, we expect this actor to continue to use personalization and to diversify payloads and delivery methods. The diversity and nature of the payloads suggest that TA530 is delivering payloads on behalf of other actors. The personalization of email messages is not new, but this actor seems to have incorporated and automated a high level of personalization, previously not seen at this scale, in their spam campaigns.

It is unlikely that these techniques will ultimately be limited to TA530. Rather, we expect increasing degrees of personalization and targeting as actors learn to effectively harvest corporate data from public sites like LinkedIn, potentially making their campaigns more effective. This is a natural extension of the types of activities we have been seeing on both the malware and the impostor threat fronts and, as always, reinforces the need for both secure email gateway solutions and ongoing user education.








Indicators of Compromise

e099d716b97b694468e99419e62151a11ac2ad4858677c3faa1fb31c68d4fe50 SHA256 CryptoWall/H1N1 Loader Document
408a53621f34427388c71c7343544e9794a0c1d85fcada4c3cbf2fbd39801ec7 SHA256 Dridex 222 Document
c0407c207b17179241ddd1ac38cd57de3e2bb4bd1c1e6e093af9ffcd87f28fab SHA256 AU Ursnif Document
4d0c14edfa616c0a5618b312f5ca90b3a29188288f35c5d8c1c2ae37ef11371f SHA256 Nymaim Document
30cd5d32bc3c046cfc584cb8521f5589c4d86a4241d1a9ae6c8e9172aa58ac73 SHA256 Fileless Ursnif Document
20338201ea3cbb697dd74ac709cf2574e5feedbe6306592706aa8c276c8bf40c SHA256 CryptoWall hash
A0EF6BD2842658695BE4F1F84F0C62D010A8AA406E3A31E9DE5EF8662A058D80 SHA256 H1N1 Loader hash
B1ACB11DBEDD96763EE00DD15CE057E3259E1520294401410D8C42CFA768A50A SHA256 NeutrinoBot hash
BCDB7ED813D0D33B786AE1A4DFA09A2CB3A0B61CE1BB8DB01DBDF7D64EC4B4A0 SHA256 Pony hash
21B96966DB9395C123C4620FD90C142F6080DBA038BD65F6A418293BA3104816 SHA256 TinyLoader hash
affa76507118deef34d20a9dde224fbce7bdcf5633e7ff529e5b291cfc2bce8c SHA256 SmokeLoader hash
e70e34fb85894d27e0711f56e1d57b9d126c4bb22a62454cc38f39fc3cd2c37d SHA256 TVSpy hash
92BB0544F1AD7661BF2A77F5305EC439B10FB005CCA3545FAEC2B8DE5887110E SHA256 Dridex 222 hash
2cba464f6454b598809063e58beed60d7a322f87720567997dda5f685ec5936a SHA256 AU Ursnif hash
A51BE357ABB2BB1CDF977EBE05BEEB85943FAEFDA16855F0345EDFEE915C0CDB SHA256 Nymaim hash
d6b818c6ed3fd3be9f113d19cde7e43a2d4d46c2377ee91236986342ec00a828 SHA256 Fileless Ursnif hash