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US Agencies Warn of ‘Vice Society’ Ransomware Gang Targeting Education Sector

The FBI, CISA, and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) are raising the alarm on a ransomware gang’s increased targeting of the education sector.

The FBI, CISA, and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) are raising the alarm on a ransomware gang’s increased targeting of the education sector.

In a joint advisory this week, the three agencies warn that a threat actor tracked as ‘Vice Society’ has been “disproportionately targeting the education sector with ransomware attacks”.

Ransomware attacks targeting the education sector, especially K-12, are not uncommon, and the US government agencies expect an increase in attacks as the 2022/2023 school year begins.

“School districts with limited cybersecurity capabilities and constrained resources are often the most vulnerable; however, the opportunistic targeting often seen with cyber criminals can still put school districts with robust cybersecurity programs at risk,” the advisory reads.

The advisory was issued on the same day that a huge Los Angeles school district was hit with a ransomware attack that prompted an unprecedented shutdown of its computer systems.

The impact from ransomware attacks on K-12 institutions may range from canceled school days to restricted access to data, delays in exams, and the theft of personal information belonging to both students and staff.

“K-12 institutions may be seen as particularly lucrative targets due to the amount of sensitive student data accessible through school systems or their managed service providers,” the FBI, CISA, and the MS-ISAC say.

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Active since the summer of 2021, Vice Society is a hacking group that engages in intrusion, data exfiltration, and extortion, and which employs various ransomware families, including versions of Hello Kitty/Five Hands and Zeppelin ransomware, the joint advisory reads.

Vice Society likely gains access to targeted networks via compromised credentials by exploiting internet-facing applications. Next, tools such as SystemBC, PowerShell Empire, and Cobalt Strike are used for lateral movement.

Before deploying ransomware, the adversary explores the breached network to identify and exfiltrate data of interest, which is then used to pressure the victim into paying a ransom.

The threat actor has exploited the PrintNightmare vulnerabilities (CVE-2021-1675 and CVE-2021-34527) for privilege escalation, and using scheduled tasks and autostart registry keys for persistence.

The hacking group also employs DLL side-loading and attempts to evade detection using process injection and by masquerading their malware as legitimate files.

“Vice Society actors have been observed escalating privileges, then gaining access to domain administrator accounts, and running scripts to change the passwords of victims’ network accounts to prevent the victim from remediating,” the US agencies say.

Organizations are advised to keep offline backups of data, encrypt backups, monitor external remote connections, restrict the execution of unknown programs, implement multi-factor authentication, audit user accounts, implement network segmentation, monitor for abnormal activity, disable unused ports, keep systems and applications updated, and implement a recovery plan.

Related: CISA, FBI Warn Organizations of Zeppelin Ransomware Attacks

Related: CISA, FBI Issue Warnings on WhisperGate, HermeticWiper Attacks

Related: CISA, FBI Warn of Potential Critical Infrastructure Attacks on Holidays

Written By

Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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