Iranian cybercriminals Educated Manticore are improving their tools and methods with each new attack.
Researchers at Check Point have linked an Iranian state-owned hacking group to a new wave of phishing attacks targeting Israel in a recent report. The purpose of the malicious campaign was to deploy an updated version of the Windows backdoor called PowerLess.
Check Point tracks these intruders under the alias of the mythical creature "Educated Manticore". The group, according to the researchers, shows “strong overlaps” in methods and tools with the APT35 hacker group (aka Charming Kitten, Cobalt Illusion, ITG18, Mint Sandstorm, TA453 and Yellow Garuda).
“Like many other actors, Educated Manticore has adopted the latest trends and started using ISO images and possibly other archive files to start infection chains,” the Check Point report says.
The chain of attacks documented by the researchers begins with an ".iso" disk image file with an Iraq-themed decoy in its name. After opening the image and running the executable inside, a malicious loader is dropped into memory, which eventually launches the PowerLess implant.
The ISO file acts as a conduit for displaying a decoy document written in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, and is intended to display academic content about Iraq from a legitimate non-profit organization called the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF), indicating that the research the community may also have been the target of this malicious campaign.
The PowerLess backdoor, previously documented by Israeli Cybereason in February 2022, has the ability to steal data from web browsers and apps, take screenshots, record audio, and log keystrokes.
“While the updated PowerLess payload is similar in many ways to the old version, its loading mechanisms have been greatly improved through the use of rarely seen in the wild (ITW) techniques, such as the use of .NET binaries created in mixed mode with assembly code,” says in a Check Point message.
“PowerLess communication with the C2 server is Base64 encoded and encrypted after receiving the key from the server. To mislead researchers, attackers add three random letters to the beginning of each blob,” the experts added.
The researchers also said they found two other archive files already used in another attack chain that overlaps with the above pattern. Further analysis showed that the chains of infection arising from these archived files ended with the execution of a PowerShell script designed to download two more malicious files from a remote server and then run them.
Check Point experts noted that the Educated Manticore group continues to evolve, improving their toolkits and attack methods. In particular, attackers have begun to use the now popular trends to use ISO images to avoid detection.