Hades Ransomware Operators Use Distinctive Tactics and InfrastructureCommonalities revealed during multiple Secureworks incident response engagements provided insights into the GOLD WINTER threat group’s tactics, techniques, and procedures. By: Counter Threat Unit Research Team
Hades ransomware has been on the scene since December 2020, but there has been limited public reporting on the threat group that operates it. Secureworks® incident response (IR) engagements in the first quarter of 2021 provided Secureworks Counter Threat Unit™ (CTU) researchers with unique insight into the group’s use of distinctive tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).
The financially motivated threat group operating the Hades ransomware is known as GOLD WINTER. Some third-party reporting attributes Hades to the HAFNIUM threat group, but CTU™ research does not support that attribution. Other reporting attributes Hades to the financially motivated GOLD DRAKE threat group based on similarities to that group’s WastedLocker ransomware. Despite use of similar application programming interface (API) calls, the CryptOne crypter, and some of the same commands, CTU researchers attribute Hades and WastedLocker to two distinct groups as of this publication.
Ransomware groups are typically opportunistic: they target any organization that could be susceptible to extortion and will likely pay the ransom. However, GOLD WINTER’s attacks on large North America-based manufacturers indicates that the group is a “big game hunter” that specifically seeks high-value targets.
Analysis of these IR engagements revealed TTPs not associated with other ransomware families. Some of the tactics and tools may be similar to those used by other threat groups, but GOLD WINTER added some unusual aspects.
Hades’ absence on underground forums and marketplaces suggests that it is operated as private ransomware rather than ransomware as a service (RaaS). GOLD WINTER “names and shames” victims after stealing their data but does not use a centralized leak site to expose the exfiltrated data. Instead, Tor-based Hades websites appear to be customized for each victim (see Figure 1). Each website includes a victim-specific Tox chat ID for communications (see Figure 1). Using Tox instant messaging for communications is a novel technique that CTU researchers have not observed with other ransomware families.
Figure 1. Hades ransomware victim site. (Source: Secureworks)
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
GOLD WINTER has a propensity for copying ransom notes from other high-profile ransomware families. The Hades ransom note samples observed by CTU researchers duplicated REvil or Conti ransom notes. The REvil look-alike ransom note (HOW-TO-DECRYPT-<victim ID>.txt) featured a unique victim identifier that was hard-coded in the ransomware executable (see Figure 2). This ransom note referred each victim to a personalized Tor victim site, whose URL is hard-coded in the malware.
Figure 2. REvil look-alike ransom note used by GOLD WINTER. (Source: Secureworks)
In early April, CTU researchers observed the threat actors dropping a Conti look-alike ransom note (CONTACT-TO-DECRYPT.txt). It included contact email addresses instead of a website, indicating a potential change in TTPs. GOLD WINTER may use look-alike ransom notes to confuse researchers or perhaps to pay homage to admired ransomware families.
CTU researchers also observed the threat actors shifting from using a randomly generated five-character string for the victim ID and encrypted file extension to using words. A March IR engagement revealed use of a single word: “cypherpunk”. Based on the definition of this term, perhaps the threat actors view their ransomware activity as a way to prompt organizations to improve their security.
Two IAVs are better than one
CTU researchers identified two distinct initial access vectors (IAVs) across the analyzed environments. In some intrusions, the threat actors used stolen or guessed credentials to log in via a virtual private network (VPN) that did not implement multi-factor authentication. The second IAV was SocGholish malware delivered via fake browser updates. SocGholish is commonly associated with the GOLD DRAKE threat group.
Threat actor toolbox
GOLD WINTER’s tools include Cobalt Strike Malleable C2, Mimikatz, Advanced Port Scanner, PsExec, Metasploit, and MSBuild. Most of these tools are commonly observed in compromised environments. But in one uncommon implementation used in a Hades intrusion, MSBuild executed a file containing a Metasploit payload (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. MSBuild used to execute malicious file. (Source: Secureworks)
CTU researchers also observed two scripts that repeatedly stopped services (see Figure 4) and cleared event logs (see Figure 5). Both scripts featured a distinctive 60-second ‘sleep’ loop.
Figure 4. Batch script to stop services. (Source: Secureworks)
Figure 5. Batch script to clear event logs. (Source: Secureworks)
The threat actors disguised the Cobalt Strike executable as a Corel Draw graphics application (see Figure 6) to obfuscate the true nature of the file. While spoofing legitimate applications is not unusual, the use of Corel Draw is unique.
Figure 6. EXIF data associated with Cobalt Strike disguised as Corel Draw. (Source: Secureworks)
GOLD WINTER has used Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and reverse SOCKS proxies (see Figure 7) to maintain access to victims’ environments. The MEGAsync cloud storage platform was used for data exfiltration.
Figure 7. Reverse SOCKS proxy invocation. (Source: Secureworks)
Some Hades samples analyzed by CTU researchers use the “ClassicStartMenu.exe” filename and have December 2020 creation dates, which coincides with the first reports of the ransomware. The Hades ransomware executable copies itself into a random %AppData% folder and then executes via the “/go” argument. It checks the compromised environment for virtualization and debugging tools. Like many other ransomware families, Hades deletes volume shadow copies using the “vssadmin.exe Delete Shadows /All /Quiet” command. It also uses a distinctive self-delete command with an unusual inclusion of a waitfor command: cmd /c waitfor /t 10 pause /d y & del "<ransomware file path>" & rd "<ransomware folder>".
CTU researchers observed commonalities across IP addresses and domains used by GOLD WINTER. The threat actors leveraged IP provider Selectel (see Figure 8), and the IP addresses fall under AS49505.
Figure 8. IP addresses used by GOLD WINTER. (Source: Secureworks)
The domains associated with GOLD WINTER infrastructure were issued by Russian registrar REG.RU (see Figure 9). Most of these domains were created in June 2020; the exception is bingoshow . xyz, which was registered in January 2021. Registration data for this domain shows the state as Indiana but a country code for Finland and a New Jersey phone number, likely indicating that the threat actors deliberately provided misinformation. All the identified domains have links to the identified Selectel IP addresses.
Figure 9. Domains used by GOLD WINTER. (Source: Secureworks)
CTU researchers track threats and behaviors identified during IR engagements to understand the nature and evolution of various threats. Through countermeasure development, periodic trend analysis, and ad-hoc tactical reporting on activity observed during these engagements, CTU researchers continuously provide protection, insight, and guidance derived from real-world incidents to Secureworks customers. In many ways, the GOLD WINTER threat group is a typical post-intrusion ransomware threat group that pursues high-value targets to maximize how much money it can extort from its victims. However, GOLD WINTER’s operations have quirks that distinguish it from other groups.
It is crucial for organizations to diligently respond to early signs of threat actor activity before encryption occurs. Staying one step ahead of the threat actors is increasingly difficult as they evolve their TTPs. Organizations do not have the luxury of time when it comes to investigating pre-infection activity.
Learn more about Secureworks proactive and reactive IR services, including process evaluations, training exercises, emergency response, and IR retainers.
To mitigate exposure to this threat, CTU researchers recommend that organizations use available controls to review and possibly restrict access using the indicators in Table 1. Note that IP addresses can be reallocated. The IP addresses and domains may contain malicious content, so consider the risks before opening them in a browser.
|cutyoutube.com||Domain name||Cobalt Strike C2 server used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|onlinemoula.com||Domain name||Cobalt Strike C2 server used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|bingoshow.xyz||Domain name||Hades ransomware victim site|
|bingoshowxyz.com||Domain name||Hades ransomware victim site|
|ddb4a151.news.pocketstay.com||Domain name||SocGholish C2 server used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|5lyi3c7x3ioakru4.onion||Domain name||Hades ransomware Tor victim site|
|o76s3m7l5ogig4u5.onion||Domain name||Hades ransomware Tor victim site|
|92726558efc81ee1ace4036b43fa003b||MD5 hash||Cobalt Strike disguised as Corel Draw in Hades ransomware attacks|
|509833d7724f49a03dadd5668610d464593322b7||SHA1 hash||Cobalt Strike disguised as Corel Draw in Hades ransomware attacks|
|SHA256 hash||Cobalt Strike disguised as Corel Draw in Hades ransomware attacks|
|d9eed5c4fa18ee594f7d3edf5d0ce5bf||MD5 hash||SocGholish disguised as fake Chrome update in Hades ransomware attacks|
|5455f9e07d45f3f9cca6eadc95b75858cda7ee87||SHA1 hash||SocGholish disguised as fake Chrome update in Hades ransomware attacks|
|SHA256 hash||SocGholish disguised as fake Chrome update in Hades ransomware attacks|
|7a0a3e5189f78565b48c36ca226f223a||MD5 hash||Hades ransomware|
|e8d485259e64fd375e03844c03775eda40862e1c||SHA1 hash||Hades ransomware|
|SHA256 hash||Hades ransomware|
|cf3e421ab7f5ce169d12d24873c30e84||MD5 hash||Hades ransomware|
|d2e5fa5510484e99041ed8a4f16acfa40f7a78f6||SHA1 hash||Hades ransomware|
|SHA256 hash||Hades ransomware|
|18.104.22.168||IP address||Used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|22.214.171.124||IP address||Hosting Hades ransomware victim site|
|126.96.36.199||IP address||Cobalt Strike C2 server used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|188.8.131.52||IP address||Cobalt Strike C2 server used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|184.108.40.206||IP address||SocGholish fake Chrome update C2 server used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|220.127.116.11||IP address||SocGholish fake Chrome update C2 server used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|18.104.22.168||IP address||Reverse SOCKS proxy used in Hades ransomware attacks|
|22.214.171.124||IP address||Used in Hades ransomware attacks|