#1275907: COBALT DICKENS Goes Back to School…Again

Description: In March 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the Mabna Institute and nine Iranian associates for compromising hundreds of universities to steal intellectual property and benefit financially. Secureworks® Counter Threat Unit™ (CTU) researchers assigned the name COBALT DICKENS to this likely Iranian government-directed threat group. Despite this indictment and other disclosures of COBALT DICKENS campaigns, the threat group (also known as Silent Librarian) shows no signs of stopping its activity as of this publication. CTU™ researchers have observed the threat actors using free online services as part of their operations, including free certificates, domains, and publicly available tools.

In July and August 2019, CTU researchers discovered a new large global phishing operation launched by COBALT DICKENS. This operation is similar to the threat group's August 2018 campaign, using compromised university resources to send library-themed phishing emails. The messages contain links to spoofed login pages for resources associated with the targeted universities. Unlike previous campaigns that contained shortened links to obscure the attackers' infrastructure, these messages contain the spoofed URL (see Figure 1).

Recipients who click this link are directed to a web page that looks identical or similar to the spoofed library resource. After the victims enter their credentials, their web browsers are redirected to the next.php file, where the credentials are stored locally in the pass.txt file. The victim's browser is then sent to the legitimate site being spoofed (see Figure 2).

For this campaign, the threat actors registered at least 20 new domains targeting over 60 universities in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, and Switzerland. These domains were registered using the Freenom domain provider, which administers the following free top-level domains (TLDs) unless the domain is considered "special":


Many of these domains use valid SSL certificates, likely to make the spoofed pages appear authentic. The overwhelming majority of the certificates observed in 2019 were issued by Let's Encrypt, a nonprofit organization that programmatically issues free certificates. However, past campaigns used certificates issued by the Comodo certificate authority.

COBALT DICKENS uses publicly available tools, including the SingleFile plugin available on GitHub and the free HTTrack Website Copier standalone application, to copy the login pages of targeted university resources. Metadata in a spoofed login page created on August 1 suggests that COBALT DICKENS sometimes uses older copied versions of target websites. A comment left in the source code indicates it was originally copied on May 1, 2017 (see Figure 3). However, the university was targeted by numerous COBALT DICKENS operations, including the August 2018 and August 2019 campaigns.

Metadata in other spoofed web pages supports the assessment that the threat actors are of Iranian origin. Specifically, a page copied on August 3 reveals an Iranian-related timestamp (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Metadata in COBALT DICKENS spoofed web page indicating that an Iran-based threat actor may have copied the legitimate website. (Source: Secureworks)

As of this publication, CTU researchers observed COBALT DICKENS targeting at least 380 universities in over 30 countries. Many universities have been targeted multiple times. The threat actors have not changed their operations despite law enforcement activity, multiple public disclosures, and takedown activity.

Some educational institutions have implemented multi-factor authentication (MFA) to specifically address this threat. While implementing additional security controls like MFA could seem burdensome in environments that value user flexibility and innovation, single-password accounts are insecure. CTU researchers recommend that all organizations protect Internet-facing resources with MFA to mitigate credential-focused threats.

To provide broader awareness of the threat group's campaigns and curtail its activities, CTU researchers listed all known domains associated with COBALT DICKENS operations in Table 1. Several domains used prior to the indictment remain in use as of this publication. CTU researchers recommend that organizations use available controls to review and restrict access to these domains. They may contain malicious content, so consider the risks before opening them in a browser.
More info: https://www.secureworks.com/blog/cobalt-dickens-goes-back-to-school-again

Date added Sept. 11, 2019, 1:34 p.m.
Source Secure Works
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