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China-Linked Cyberspies Lure Victims With Security Conference Invites

A China-linked cyber espionage group known as Lotus Blossom, Elise and Esile has used fake invitations to Palo Alto Networks’ upcoming Cybersecurity Summit to trick users into installing a piece of malware on their systems.

Lotus Blossom, a threat actor believed to be sponsored by a nation state, has been around since at least 2012, although some researchers found evidence that it may have been active since as early as 2007.

Palo Alto Networks published a report detailing the group’s activities in June 2015. The security firm had spotted attacks against government and military organizations in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

Lotus Blossom recently started using fake invitations to Palo Alto Networks’ Cybersecurity Summit, scheduled to take place on November 3 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to deliver a relatively new version of the Emissary Trojan.

According to researchers, the attackers have sent out spear phishing emails carrying Word documents named “[FREE INVITATIONS] CyberSecurity Summit.doc.” The document, which contains an image from a previous invitation, attempts to exploit an old Microsoft Office vulnerability tracked as CVE-2012-0158 to install the malicious payload.

Due to these attacks, Palo Alto Networks has decided to stop sending out email invitations and has asked users in Indonesia to disregard any such messages they receive these days.

Researchers determined that the attackers took screenshots of an older invitation, added them to Microsoft Word, and used the application’s crop function to cut out some parts of the image. Experts managed to revert the images to before they were cropped, which provided some information on the system used by the individual who created the decoy document.

The information in the screenshot and an analysis of the document’s timestamp suggested that the user was located in China.

Fake Palo Alto Networks conference invitation used by Lotus Blossom

“The threat actor is running Windows localized for Chinese users, which suggests the actor’s primary language is Chinese. The ‘CH’ icon in the Windows tray shows that the built-in Windows input method editor (IME) is currently set to Chinese,” researchers explained. “Also, the screenshot shows a popular application in China called Sogou Pinyin, which is an IME that allows a user to type Chinese characters using Pinyin. Pinyin is critical to be able to type Chinese characters using a standard Latin alphabet keyboard, further suggesting the threat actor speaks Chinese.”

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.