Security Experts:

Russian Words Used as Decoy in Lazarus-Linked Bank Attacks

A group of hackers that has been targeting financial organizations around the world has unsuccessfully attempted to trick researchers into attributing their operation to Russian-speaking attackers.

Earlier this month, experts reported that the systems of several banks in Poland had been infected with a new piece of malware. Research conducted by Symantec and BAE Systems revealed that the attacks had been part of a bigger campaign that targeted financial and other organizations across 31 countries since at least October 2016.

The malware used in the attacks has been linked to a threat actor tracked as the “Lazarus Group,” which has been active since 2009 or earlier. The actor has targeted government, military, media, aerospace, financial and manufacturing organizations primarily in South Korea and the United States in both espionage and destructive campaigns.

The list of high-profile attacks attributed to the group includes the 2014 attack on Sony, which some believe was carried out by North Korea. Links have also been found between Lazarus and the theft of $81 million from Bangladesh’s Central Bank.

Security experts have often cautioned that attribution is difficult, especially since attackers can conduct so-called false flag operations, which aim to deceive observers. In the recent bank attacks linked to Lazarus, the actor apparently attempted to deceive researchers and make them believe that the malware was developed by Russian speakers.

Experts at BAE Systems have analyzed half a dozen malware samples and identified several Russian words, including for command and control (C&C) communications. However, a closer analysis revealed that the commands were likely the result of an online translation and they would be difficult to understand for a native Russian speaker.

For example, some words are written as they are pronounced (as shown by online translation services), not how they are actually written using Latin script.

“Through reverse-engineering, we can see the use of many Russian words that have been translated incorrectly. In some cases the inaccurate translations have transformed the meaning of the words entirely. This strongly implies that the authors of this attack are not native Russian speakers and, as such, the use of Russian words appears to be a 'false flag',” BAE Systems researchers said in a blog post.

“Clearly the group behind these attacks are evolving their modus operandi in terms of capabilities – but also it seems they’re attempting to mislead investigators who might jump to conclusions in terms of attribution,” they added.

Related: False Flags and Misdirection in Hacker Attribution

Related: Georgia Tech's $17 Million Rhamnousia Project and the Difficulty of Attribution

Related: Microsoft Proposes Independent Body to Attribute Cyber Attacks

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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.