Gotta Catch 'Em All: Detecting PikaBot Delivery Techniques

Sam Scholten, Detection

March 23, 2024

This post will cover a brief background of PikaBot, and focus primarily on recently observed attack techniques and email detection methods.

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The rise of PikaBot

PikaBot, despite its name, is primarily a backdoor or loader rather than a traditional botnet. The malware emerged and has been operational since early 2023.

High-level characteristics of PikaBot include:

Modular Nature: Designed for flexibility and extensibility, PikaBot allows attackers to easily add or update its functionalities. This adaptability makes it a highly versatile tool for cybercriminals, enabling the execution of various malicious activities, from ransomware to InfoStealers.

  • Loader Module: Acts as the initial point of contact, responsible for deploying the core component of the malware.
  • Core Component: This is the heart of PikaBot, handling a multitude of nefarious tasks. It maintains communication with a command-and-control (C2) server, from which it can receive various directives. These include the injection of arbitrary shellcode, DLLs (Dynamic Link Libraries), or executable files onto the victim's system, facilitating a range of harmful activities.


Infection Techniques
: PikaBot's distribution is primarily via email campaigns, utilizing phishing techniques with malicious attachments or deceptive URLs that deliver the malware. These emails are crafted to exploit system vulnerabilities or trick unsuspecting users, prompting the execution of malware through seemingly harmless actions. Delivery of PikaBot has been observed exploiting several known vulnerabilities and techniques, including DLL Search Order Hijacking (T1574) and CVE-2023-33151.

Evasion Tactics: PikaBot delivery mimics legitimate correspondences and employs numerous social engineering tactics to disguise attachments and links as familiar and trustworthy content. There are numerous evasion mechanisms:

  • Code Injector: Utilizes a method to decrypt and inject its core module into the system. This process is bolstered by multiple anti-analysis mechanisms, making detection and mitigation more challenging for cybersecurity defenses.
  • Use of ADVobfuscator: The malware employs this open-source tool for string obfuscation, complicating the task of analyzing and understanding its code.
  • Sleep Function: PikaBot introduces delays in its execution to avoid immediate detection. Unlike conventional malware that might use standard Windows API functions, PikaBot opts for the NtContinue API function, setting timers to further obfuscate its presence and activities.
  • Geolocation Awareness:  PikaBot halts its execution if the system's language setting is identified as Georgian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Slovenian. This indicates a targeted approach and possibly reflects the origins or strategic preferences of its developers.

Secondary Payload Delivery: PikaBot frequently acts as a conduit for additional malware delivery through emails. This could encompass a variety of secondary payloads, such as further ransomware or infostealers.

Initial access techniques

PikaBot is primarily distributed through email attacks. Below, we’ll break down some of the techniques that have been observed and discuss detection strategies.

Link to auto-download zip with JS, LNK, PDF

PikaBot ZIP sample

A technique not exclusive to PikaBot, link-based, multi-stage malware delivery has been observed in numerous campaigns delivering a variety of malware including QakBot and others.

URLs are linked in emails that, when clicked, auto-download a ZIP file, which contain malicious JavaScript, LNK files, or PDFs with malicious embedded URLs.

Sublime uses a variety of signals to detect this type of attack:

  • URL in message that auto-downloads a ZIP file
  • URL in message that auto-downloads a ZIP file, which contains suspicious file types
  • Suspicious or untrusted sender

PDF attachment with embedded URL

PDF > URL > ZIP > JS > DLL

This attack chain begins with a common phishing technique, Brand Impersonation. The victim receives an email containing a PDF attachment that looks to be a Microsoft OneDrive share, with an error asking the user to “Dowland” the file instead.

Clicking this link will download a ZIP archive containing a JS file. If the user extracts and executes this JS file, it begins a fairly complex chain of procedures. First, it calls Windows Script Host ‘wscript.exe” to create a directory and then executes a curl command that downloads a DLL file. After a brief time delay, it then executes the obtained DLL files via ‘rundll32’.

Sublime uses a variety of signals to detect this type of attack:

  • PDF with a OneDrive logo, identified using a computer vision model
  • PDF with suspicious text
  • PDF with suspicious link
  • Untrusted sender
  • PDF with a link that auto-downloads a suspicious file type
  • Threat Intelligence (eg. MalwareBazaar & URLhaus)

Excel attachment with embedded link to SMB share

https://twitter.com/DTCERT/status/1758436565825487102

As originally posted by @DTCERT, this attack also leverages a common vector used in phishing attacks, an Excel attachment. The embedded link is cleverly crafted using an SMB structure. Upon interaction, it invokes Windows Script Host ‘wscript.exe’ to fetch a javascript file. This file downloads and executes a PikaBot DLL.

This can be detected in a variety of ways, from Excel brand impersonation to extracting the OLE relationships inside Word documents and analyzing the linked URLs for suspicious indicators. Source code for our latter detection can be found here.

Thread hijacking with ISO attachment containing DLL

PikaBot delivery: ISO attachment containing DLL

The attack chain begins with a common phishing technique known as "thread hijacking" or "thread reuse" where the attacker spoofs an email from a legitimate vendor. This message is carefully crafted to look like a continuation of previous communications between the vendor and the recipient, enhancing its legitimacy. The message prompts the recipient to review an attached invoice, which is actually an ISO image file containing the malicious payload.

Upon interacting with the ISO, the recipient invokes a modified version of the Windows Write application (’write.exe’). This side-loads a malicious DLL (’edputil.dll’) to specifically bypass security controls or alerts, and execute the malicious code undetected.

At this stage, PikaBot is installed and will attempt to communicate with its Command and Control server (C2). The C2 could send back a variety of options, and in our case an Infostealer was deployed, but this could easily be replaced with Ransomware, or other malicious payloads.

Detection at the email delivery layer is fairly straightforward, so we can use any number of the following methods to flag this message. For more information on how each of these work, as well as the source code, see our open source Feed or view it on GitHub.

Sublime Analysis

What's old is new

The majority of techniques observed delivering PikaBot are not particularly novel—we've seen them used to deliver QakBot and other prominent malware families. It's important to focus on detecting attacker behavior to be resilient to the next evolution.

Sublime's Core Platform is free for the community with the ability to self-host, which means you can deploy protections for these techniques with a few clicks. You can also use our Managed Cloud Platform, which is free for up to 100 mailboxes.

Thank you's

Special shout outs to @malware_traffic, @Cryptolaemus1, and @pr0xylife, whose public research helped inspire this post, and to @affje0x65 for also sharing their research and Sublime Emerging Threats and Detection Rule Feeds.

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