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Hackers behind bank attack campaign use Russian as decoy

Lucian Constantin August 11, 2017

The hackers behind a sophisticated attack campaign that has recently targeted financial organizations around the world have intentionally inserted Russian words and commands into their malware in an attempt to throw investigators off.

Researchers from cybersecurity firm BAE Systems have recently obtained and analyzed additional malware samples related to an attack campaign that has targeted 104 organizations -- most of them banks -- from 31 different countries.

They found multiple commands and strings in the malware that appear to have been translated into Russian using online tools, the results making little sense to a native Russian speaker.

"In some cases the inaccurate translations have transformed the meaning of the words entirely," the researchers said in a blog post. "This strongly implies that the authors of this attack are not native Russian speakers and, as such, the use of Russian words appears to be a 'false flag'."

This unusual behaviour is most likely intended to make attribution harder and throw investigators on a false lead. In reality there is technical evidence to link these malware samples and the overall attack campaign to a group known in the security industry as Lazarus.

This group has been active since at least 2009 and has been responsible for various attacks against government and private organizations from South Korea and the U.S. over the years.

Lazarus is believed to have been responsible for the 2014 attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment that resulted in sensitive data being leaked from the company and many of the company's computers being rendered inoperable. The FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies attributed that attack to North Korea.

The Lazarus group has also been linked to the theft of US$81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh last year. In that attack, hackers used malware to manipulate the computers used by the bank to operate money transfers over the SWIFT network. They attempted to move $951 million in total, but some transactions failed and others were successfully reversed after the heist was detected.