PHOREAL Malware Targets the Southeast Asian Financial Sector

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Preamble

Elastic Security has identified an ongoing campaign targeting a Vietnamese financial services institution with the PHOREAL/RIZZO backdoor. While this malware has been in use for some time, this is the first time that we have observed it loading into memory as a defense evasion and campaign protection technique. Upon analysis of our own observations and previously reported information, we are tracking this activity group (malware + technique + victimology) as REF4322.

What is the threat?

PHOREAL/RIZZO is a backdoor allowing initial victim characterization and follow-on post-exploitation operations to compromise the confidentiality of organizations’ data. It has been reported in other research as being used exclusively by APT32 (AKA SeaLotus, OceanLotus, APT-C-00, Group G0050).

What is the impact?

APT32 largely targets victims with political or economic interests in Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam.

What is Elastic doing about it?

Elastic Security detailed how to triage one of these threat alerts, extracted observables for endpoint and network filtering, and produced a new malware signature for identification and mitigation of the threat across the fleet of deployed Elastic Agents.

Investigation Details

While conducting Threat Discovery & Monitoring operations, Elastic Security researchers identified a cluster of shellcode_thread Windows memory protection alerts generated from an Elastic Agent endpoint sensor. These particular alerts were interesting because they all occurred within the same cluster, and unusually they targeted the control.exe process. The Windows control.exe process handles the execution of Control Panel items, which are utilities that allow users to view and adjust computer settings.

Generally when we observe false positives for the shellcode_thread protection, it is identified across a broad user-base and in many cases it is attributed to various gaming anti-cheat or DRM (Digital Rights Management) mechanisms. In this case, a single cluster and a Microsoft signed target process was atypical, and worthy of further investigation.

You can read more about Elastic Security’s memory protections HERE and about in-memory attacks HERE.
With our interest piqued from the outlier characteristics of the alerts, we investigated further to validate and characterize the threat:

Targeted process is a signed Windows binary

...
"process": {
     "args": [
       "control.exe",
       "Firewall.cpl",
       "{2D48D219-C306-4349-AE1F-09744DFFB5B9}"
     ],
     "Ext": {
       "code_signature": [
         {
           "trusted": true,
           "subject_name": "Microsoft Windows",
           "exists": true,
           "status": "trusted"
         }
       ],
       "dll": [
...
Read more
Unsigned loaded .dll
...
   "Ext": {
     "mapped_address": 1945501696,
     "mapped_size": 21135360
   },
   "path": "C:\\Windows\\SysWOW64\\tscon32.dll",
   "code_signature": [
     {
       "exists": false
     }
   ],
   "name": "tscon32.dll",
   "hash": {
     "sha1": "007970b7a42852b55379ef4cffa4475865c69d48",
     "sha256": "ec5d5e18804e5d8118c459f5b6f3ca96047d629a50d1a0571dee0ac8d5a4ce33",
     "md5": "2b6da20e4fc1af2c5dd5c6f6191936d1"
   }
 },
...
Read more
Starting module from the alerting thread
...
 "pe": {
   "original_file_name": "CONTROL.EXE"
 },
 "name": "control.exe",
 "pid": 5284,
 "thread": {
   "Ext": {
     "start_address_module": "C:\\Windows\\SysWOW64\\tscon32.dll",
...
Read more
Alerting memory region metadata
...
"memory_region": {`
   "region_size": 73728,
   "region_protection": "RWX",
   "allocation_base": 81395712,
   "bytes_allocation_offset": 0,
   "allocation_type": "PRIVATE",
   "memory_pe_detected": true,
   "region_state": "COMMIT",
   "strings": [
     "QSSSSSSh ",
     ...
     "bad cast",
     "Local\\{5FBC3F53-A76D-4248-969A-31740CBC8AD6}",
     "Netapi32.dll",
     "NetWkstaGetInfo",
     "NetApiBufferFree",
     "\\\\.\\pipe\\{A06F176F-79F1-473E-AF44-9763E3CB34E5}",
     "list<T> too long",
     "{FD5F8447-657A-45C1-894B-D533926C9B66}.dll",
     "DllEntry",
     ...
     ".?AVbad_alloc@std@@",
     "C:\\Windows\\syswow64\\control.exe",
     ":z:zzzzzz7",
     ...
     "InternalName",
     "mobsync.exe",
     "LegalCopyright",
...
Read more
Thread data for pivoting
...
"thread": {
 "Ext": {
   "start_address_bytes": "8bff558bece8e6430000e8db43000050e8bb43000085c0751fff7508e8c94300",
   ...
   "start_address_bytes_disasm": "mov edi, edi\npush ebp\nmov ebp, esp\ncall 0x000043f0\ncall 0x000043ea\npush eax\ncall 0x000043d0\ntest eax, eax\njnz 0x00000038\npush dword ptr [ebp+0x08]"
 },
...

From the example alert we first identify the start_address_module which is the dll/module where the thread began. C:\\Windows\\SysWOW64\\tscon32.dll is the start_address_module for the thread that we’ve alerted on. It’s also the only unsigned dll loaded, so a great place to focus our efforts. When checking the hash value in VirusTotal, to identify previously disclosed information about the sample, we did not see any results.

Digging deeper, we looked at the start_address_bytes, which are the first 32 bytes of our alerting thread. We can use the value of the start_address_bytes (8bff558bece8e6430000e8db43000050e8bb43000085c0751fff7508e8c94300) to search for pivots in VirusTotal by querying content: {8bff558bec56e83f3e0000e8343e000050e8143e000085c0752a8b750856e821}. We identified relatively few results, but they included the below entry first submitted in July 2021.

VT result matching `start_address_bytes`
In researching the results from VirusTotal, we could see that threat researcher Felix Bilstein (@fxb_b) authored a crowdsourced YARA rule identifying this as the PHOREAL backdoor. Moving on to the CONTENT tab, we can compare some of the strings from our alert with what has been previously reported to VirusTotal.
VT result CONTENT tab
Using the unique strings we identified above and the start_address_bytes, we can create a YARA signature by converting the unique strings ($a) and the start_address_bytes ($b) into hex values as shown below.

Converted YARA strings
strings:
          \\  "\\.\pipe\{A06F176F-79F1-473E-AF44-9763E3CB34E5}"  ascii wide
    $a1 = { 5C 00 5C 00 2E 00 5C 00 70 00 69 00 70 00 65 00 5C 00 7B 00 41 00 
            30 00 36 00 46 00 31 00 37 00 36 00 46 00 2D 00 37 00 39 00 46 00 
            31 00 2D 00 34 00 37 00 33 00 45 00 2D 00 41 00 46 00 34 00 34 00 
            2D 00 39 00 37 00 36 00 33 00 45 00 33 00 43 00 42 00 33 00 34 00 
            45 00 35 00 7D 00 }

          \\  "Local\{5FBC3F53-A76D-4248-969A-31740CBC8AD6}"  ascii wide
    $a2 = { 4C 00 6F 00 63 00 61 00 6C 00 5C 00 7B 00 35 00 46 00 42 00 43 00 
            33 00 46 00 35 00 33 00 2D 00 41 00 37 00 36 00 44 00 2D 00 34 00 
            32 00 34 00 38 00 2D 00 39 00 36 00 39 00 41 00 2D 00 33 00 31 00 
            37 00 34 00 30 00 43 00 42 00 43 00 38 00 41 00 44 00 36 00 7D 00 }

          \\  "{FD5F8447-657A-45C1-894B-D533926C9B66}.dll"  ascii
    $a3 = { 7B 46 44 35 46 38 34 34 37 2D 36 35 37 41 2D 34 35 43 31 2D 38 39 
            34 42 2D 44 35 33 33 39 32 36 43 39 42 36 36 7D 2E 64 6C 6C }

          \\  PHOREAL start_address_bytes sequence
          \\  mov edi, edi; push ebp; mov ebp, esp; call 0x000043f0;
          \\  call 0x000043ea; push eax; call 0x000043d0; test eax, eax;
          \\  jnz 0x00000038; push dword ptr [ebp+0x08]
    $str_addr = { 8B FF 55 8B EC 56 E8 3F 3E 00 00 E8 34 3E 00 00 50 E8 14 3E 
            00 00 85 C0 75 2A 8B 75 08 56 E8 21 }
condition:
    2 of them
Read more

This rule when deployed to the Elastic Agent will identify PHOREAL to customers and backstop prevention already provided through the shellcode_thread memory protection (in customer environments with memory protection turned on). In our case this rule’s deployment also enabled the collection of the malicious thread using the same mechanism detailed in our Collecting Cobalt Strike Beacons article.

Shortly after the new YARA artifact was deployed we had a new malware_signature alert in hand with the malicious thread captured from memory. Manual binary triage from our Malware Analysis and Reverse Engineering (MARE) Team quickly confirmed the sample was PHOREAL/RIZZO by comparing the structure and functions between our sample and past reporting. Further, they were able to extract an RC4 encrypted domain from an RCDATA resource as described in a 2018 CYLANCE OceanLotus whitepaper.

RC4 decrypting binary embedded URL
The domain identified by MARE (thelivemusicgroup[.]com) currently resolves to 103.75.117[.]250 which is owned by Oneprovider[.]com, a dedicated server hosting company based out of Canada with data centers distributed globally.

https://ipinfo.io/ query results for 103.75.117[.]250

{
  "ip": "103.75.117[.]250",
  "city": "Hong Kong",
  "region": "Central and Western",
  "country": "HK",
  "loc": "22.2783,114.1747",
  "org": "AS133752 Leaseweb Asia Pacific pte. ltd.",
  "timezone": "Asia/Hong_Kong",
  "asn": {
    "asn": "AS133752",
    "name": "Leaseweb Asia Pacific pte. ltd.",
    "domain": "leaseweb.com",
    "route": "103.75.117[.]0/24",
    "type": "hosting"
  },
  "company": {
    "name": "Oneprovider.com - Hong Kong Infrastructure",
    "domain": "oneprovider[.]com",
    "type": "hosting"
  },
  "privacy": {
    "vpn": false,
    "proxy": false,
    "tor": false,
    "relay": false,
    "hosting": true,
    "service": ""
  },
  "abuse": {
    "address": "1500 Ste-Rose LAVAL H7R 1S4 Laval Quebec, Canada",
    "country": "CA",
    "email": "info@oneprovider.com",
    "name": "ONE PROVIDER",
    "network": "103.75.117[.]0/24",
    "phone": "+1 514 286-0253"
  },
  "domains": {
    "ip": "103.75.117[.]250",
    "total": 2,
    "domains": [
      "thelivemusicgroup[.]com",
      "cdn-api-cn-1[.]com"
    ]
  }
Read more
Most of the interesting information about the domain is privacy guarded, but the “Updated” and “Created” dates in the below figure might be useful for bounding how long this domain has been used maliciously.
https://lookup.icann.org/lookup for thelivemusicgroup[.]com

The Elastic Agent appears to have been deployed post-compromise which limited our ability to determine the vector of initial access. A 2017 Mandiant report indicates that PHOREAL may be deployed in an “establish foothold” capacity to allow for victim triage and follow-on post-exploitation tools.

Analysis

Elastic Security utilizes the Diamond Model to describe high-level relationships between the adversaries and victims of intrusions.

REF4322 Diamond Model Analysis

Adversary Assessment Justification

We assess with high confidence based on observed activity and previous reporting that REF4322 is APT32/OceanLotus and the actor behind this incident. APT32 has been active since 2014 notably targeting Southeast Asian governments and businesses or other international businesses with interests in Vietnam. APT32 is the only group currently identified as operating the PHOREAL backdoor, and our victim matches the geographic and industry vertical profile of typical and specific prior APT32 victims.

Conclusion

YARA Rules

We have created a YARA rule to identify this PHOREAL activity.

Yara rule to detect REF4322/APT32 in-memory backdoor PHOREAL/Rizzo
rule Windows_Trojan_PHOREAL {
    meta:
        Author = "Elastic Security"
        creation_date = "2022-02-16"
        last_modified = "2022-02-16"
        os = "Windows"
        arch = "x86"
        category_type = "Trojan"
        family = "PHOREAL"
        threat_name = "Windows.Trojan.PHOREAL"
        description = "Detects REF4322/APT32 in-memory backdoor PHOREAL/Rizzo."
        reference_sample = "88f073552b30462a00d1d612b1638b0508e4ef02c15cf46203998091f0aef4de"


    strings:
              \\  "\\.\pipe\{A06F176F-79F1-473E-AF44-9763E3CB34E5}"  ascii wide
        $a1 = { 5C 00 5C 00 2E 00 5C 00 70 00 69 00 70 00 65 00 5C 00 7B 00 41 00 
                30 00 36 00 46 00 31 00 37 00 36 00 46 00 2D 00 37 00 39 00 46 00 
                31 00 2D 00 34 00 37 00 33 00 45 00 2D 00 41 00 46 00 34 00 34 00 
                2D 00 39 00 37 00 36 00 33 00 45 00 33 00 43 00 42 00 33 00 34 00 
                45 00 35 00 7D 00 }

              \\  "Local\{5FBC3F53-A76D-4248-969A-31740CBC8AD6}"  ascii wide
        $a2 = { 4C 00 6F 00 63 00 61 00 6C 00 5C 00 7B 00 35 00 46 00 42 00 43 00 
                33 00 46 00 35 00 33 00 2D 00 41 00 37 00 36 00 44 00 2D 00 34 00 
                32 00 34 00 38 00 2D 00 39 00 36 00 39 00 41 00 2D 00 33 00 31 00 
                37 00 34 00 30 00 43 00 42 00 43 00 38 00 41 00 44 00 36 00 7D 00 }

              \\  "{FD5F8447-657A-45C1-894B-D533926C9B66}.dll"  ascii
        $a3 = { 7B 46 44 35 46 38 34 34 37 2D 36 35 37 41 2D 34 35 43 31 2D 38 39 
                34 42 2D 44 35 33 33 39 32 36 43 39 42 36 36 7D 2E 64 6C 6C }

              \\  PHOREAL start_address_bytes sequence
        $str_addr = { 8B FF 55 8B EC 56 E8 3F 3E 00 00 E8 34 3E 00 00 50 E8 14 3E 
                00 00 85 C0 75 2A 8B 75 08 56 E8 21 }
    condition:
        2 of them
}
Read more

Defensive Recommendations

The following steps can be leveraged to improve a network’s protective posture:

  1. Enable Elastic Security Memory Protection on Windows endpoints
  2. Leverage the included YARA signatures above to determine if PHOREAL activity exists within your organization
  3. Monitor or block network traffic to or from identified network IOCs and remediate impacted systems accordingly.

References

The following research was referenced throughout the document:

Observables

IndicatorTypeReferenceNotes
thelivemusicgroup[.]comdomain-nameC2 domain encrypted in malware
103.75.117[.]250ipv4-addrResolved IP of thelivemusicgroup[.]com
ec5d5e18804e5d8118c459f5b6f3ca96047d629a50d1a0571dee0ac8d5a4ce33SHA256tscon32.dllPHOREAL dll

Artifacts

Artifacts are also available for download in both ECS and STIX format in a combined zip bundle.

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