Conti, Karma ransomware launch attacks at the same time — Sophos

Conti and Karma ransomware staged dual attacks and gained access to the network through an unpatched Microsoft Exchange Server of a healthcare provider. This is one of the findings of cybersecurity solutions company Sophos.

In the article “Conti and Karma Actors Attack Healthcare Provider at Same Time Through ProxyShell Exploits,” Sophos explained that Karma ransomware operators left extortion notes that Conti, another ransomware gang, encrypted 24 hours later. The two groups, however, used different tactics to implement their attacks.

“We have seen several cases recently where ransomware affiliates, including affiliates of Conti, used ProxyShell exploits to penetrate targets’ networks,” said Sean Gallagher, senior threat researcher, Sophos. “We have also seen examples of multiple actors exploiting the same vulnerability to gain access to a victim. However, very few of those cases involved two ransomware groups simultaneously attacking a target and it shows, literally, how crowded and competitive the ransomware landscape has become.”

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Sophos further explained that Conti and Karma attackers were simultaneously active for around four days “moving around each other.” Most of the activities detected were downloading and running scripts, installing Cobalt Strike beacons, collecting and exfiltrating data, among others.

“Karma deployed the final stage of its attack first, dropping an extortion notice on computers demanding a bitcoin payment in exchange for not publishing stolen data,” Gallagher said. “Then Conti struck, encrypting the target’s data in a more traditional ransomware attack. In a strange twist, the Conti ransomware encrypted Karma’s extortion notes.”

Dual attacks

Sophos believes that the first incident started on Aug. 10, 2021, when attackers, possibly Initial Access Brokers, used a ProxyShell exploit to gain access to the network and establish a foothold on the compromised server. The Sophos investigation showed that almost four months passed before Karma appeared on Nov. 30, 2021, and exfiltrated more than 52 gigabytes of data to the cloud.

Sophos discovered that on Dec. 3, 2021, Karma attackers dropped an extortion note on 20 computers, demanding a ransom and explaining that they did not encrypt the data because the target was a healthcare provider. This happened while Conti was quietly operating in the background also exfiltrating data.

“The target started onboarding Sophos’ incident response team to help with Karma,” Sophos said. “While Sophos was onboarding, Conti deployed its ransomware on Dec. 4, 2021. Sophos subsequently tracked the start of the Conti attack to another ProxyShell exploits leveraged on Nov. 25, 2021.

“Whether the initial access broker sold access to two different ransomware affiliates, or whether the vulnerable Exchange server was just an unlucky target for multiple ransomware operators, the fact that a dual attack was possible is a powerful reminder to patch widely known, internet-facing vulnerabilities at the earliest opportunity,” said Gallagher. “Defense-in-depth is vital for identifying and blocking attackers at any stage of the attack chain, while proactive, human-led threat hunting should investigate all potentially suspicious behavior, such as unexpected remote access service logins or the use of legitimate tools outside the normal pattern, as these could be early warning signs of an imminent ransomware attack.”

Sophos endpoint products, such as Intercept X, protect users by detecting the actions and behaviors of ransomware and other attacks, such as those described in this Sophos research. 

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