Group-IB uncovers PerSwaysion — sophisticated phishing campaign targeting executives worldwide

Group-IB, a Singapore-based cybersecurity company, has identified a series of sophisticated successful phishing attacks against the management and executives of more than 150 companies around the world. The campaign, dubbed PerSwaysion due to the extensive abuse of Microsoft Sway, has been active since at least mid-2019 and was attributed to Vietnamese speaking developers and Nigerian operators. Сybercriminals behind the PerSwaysion campaign gained access to many confidential corporate MS Office365 emails of mainly financial service companies, law firms, and real estate groups. The PerSwaysion campaign proliferates with alarming rates by leveraging compromised accounts’ email data to select further targets who hold important roles in their companies and share business relations with the victims. Group-IB continues to work with the relevant parties in local countries to inform the affected companies of the breach.

Not brute force but only PerSwaysion

PerSwaysion is a highly-targeted phishing campaign. One of the defining signatures of PerSwaysion is that it spreads like wildfire jumping from one victim to another while no malware is present on a user device during the attack. New round of phishing attempts leveraging current victim’s account usually takes less than 24 hours. The campaign resulted in a compromise of 156 high-ranking officers in global and regional financial hubs such as the US, Canada, Germany, the UK, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other locations. The PerSwaysion campaign primarily focuses on financial services companies (~50%), law firms, and real estate companies to conduct further supply-chain attack against their clients and business contacts. Group-IB set up a website, where everyone can check if their email was compromised by PerSwaysion.

Group-IB DFIR team was brought in to examine an incident in an Asia-based company which allowed to establish that PerSwaysion is a sophisticated 3-phase phishing operation that uses special tactics and techniques to avoid detection. The threat actors leverage perfectly orchestrated social engineering technique by “persuading” people holding significant corporate positions to open a non-malicious PDF email attachment coming from an authentic address in their contacts.

The PDF attachment is a well-crafted notification of Office 365 file sharing to the victim mimicking legitimate format. Upon clicking “Read Now”, the victim, which in most cases is a high-ranking officers, is taken to a file hosted on MS Sway in this case. The attackers pick legitimate cloud-based content sharing services, such as Microsoft Sway, Microsoft SharePoint, and OneNote to avoid traffic detection. The page resembles an authentic Microsoft Office 365 file sharing page. However, this is a specially crafted presentation page which abuses Sway default borderless view.

From this page the targeted individual is redirected to the final destination, the actual phishing site disguised as a 2017 version of the Microsoft Single Sign-On page. Here the victim is assigned a unique serial number by the phishing kit, which serves as a rudimentary fingerprinting technique. Any repeated request to the exact same URL will be rejected. It stops any automated threat detection efforts to URLs visited by the targets. When the high-level employee submits corporate Office 365 credentials, the information is sent to a separate data server with an extra email address which is hidden on the page. This extra email is used as a real-time notification method to make sure attackers react on freshly harvested credentials.

Gone in 24 Hours

PerSwaysion threat actors conduct follow-up operations with newly collected account credentials of high-ranking officers very fast. Group-IB researchers revealed that the attackers take 3 main steps to push new round of phishing against users whom the victims had recent correspondence with, which on average takes less than 24 hours. After the credentials are sent to their CnCs the PerSwaysion operators log into the compromised email accounts. They dump email data via API and establish the owner’s high-level business connections. Finally, they generate new phishing PDF files with current victim’s full name, email address, company legal name. These PDF files are sent to a selection of new people who tend to be outside of the victim’s organization and hold significant positions. The PerSwaysion operators typically delete impersonating emails from the outbox to avoid suspicion. The detailed technical analysis of PerSwaysion operations and attack scheme is available in Group-IB’s blog post.

PerSwaysion threat actors have not demonstrated clear preferences of financial profit generating models yet. The attackers hold covert access to many corporate email accounts and large piles of sensitive business email data of high-level management. Hence, it opens up a wide range of possibilities. The account access could be sold in bulk to other cybercriminals to conduct traditional monetary scams. Sensitive business data extracted from emails, such as non public financial records, secret trading strategies, and client lists, could be sold to the highest bidder in the underground markets.

Feixiang He
Feixiang He

Senior Threat Intelligence analyst at Group-IB

Who are “The PerSwayders”?

PerSwaysion campaign is a series of Malware-as-a-Service-based operations. The analysis of the campaign’s phishing kit revealed that it was primarily developed by the highly specialized Vietnamese-speaking threat actors. The user input validation module (VeeValidate) used in code only includes Vietnamese locale while 48 languages are supported. Further research determined that the developer groups do not run phishing campaigns themselves. Instead, the developers likely sold their phishing kit and PDF generator to various cybercriminals for direct profit. Group-IB Threat Intelligence has tracked down several loosely connected sub-groups of threat actors carrying out phishing attacks independently. They control the total of 27 email addresses used for stolen email account credentials collection and notifications. These emails were embedded in variants of PerSwaysion phishing kits. Some of these emails were used to register LinkedIn accounts for gathering potential victim profiles. Such data helps PerSwaysion attackers to pick people holding significant corporate positions.

Further investigations show one of PerSwaysion earliest operation teams is a group of threat actors who operate in Nigeria and South Africa. The group is allegedly led by a Nigerian who goes by the nickname Sam. This group has been conducting various activities ranging from online shopping scams to phishing attacks since 2017. The vast differences in geo-locations and cultures between phishing kit developers and campaign operators indicate great specialization among cybercriminals.

PerSwaysion campaign is a living example of highly specialized phishing threat actors working together to conduct effective attacks on high ranking officers in large scale. They adopt multiple tactics and techniques to avoid traffic detection and automated threat intelligence gathering, such as the use of file-sharing services and web application hosting from reputable vendors. The campaign pursues non-trivial counterintelligence methods, for example, randomizing malicious JS file names and fingerprinting victim browsers and rejecting repeated visits. Such measures taken by cybercriminals seeking to garner sensitive corporate information requires non-standard approach to their detection and response.

Feixiang He
Feixiang He

Senior Threat Intelligence analyst at Group-IB

Cloud-based corporate services, such as MS Sway, introduce new challenges to traditional cyber risk management frameworks. Proper cloud migration plan should consider changes in early prevention, anomaly detection, and incident response. When adopting cloud-based corporate services, it is crucial to enforce 2FA authentication to mitigate risks of login credential theft. Furthermore, when planning cloud-based service architectures, corporate system administrators need to evaluate various logging options offered by could service providers and integrate activity log data into existing risk detection flows.

About Group-IB

Group-IB, with its headquarters in Singapore, is one of the leading providers of solutions dedicated to detecting and preventing cyberattacks, identifying online fraud, investigating high-tech crimes, and protecting intellectual property. The company’s Threat Intelligence and Research Centers are located in the Middle East (Dubai), the Asia-Pacific (Singapore), and Europe (Amsterdam).

Group-IB’s Unified Risk Platform is an ecosystem of solutions that understands each organization’s threat profile and tailors defenses against them in real-time from a single interface. The Unified Risk Platform provides complete coverage of the cyber response chain. Group-IB’s products and services consolidated in Group-IB’s Unified Risk Platform include Group-IB’s Threat IntelligenceManaged XDRDigital Risk ProtectionFraud ProtectionAttack Surface ManagementBusiness Email ProtectionAudit & ConsultingEducation & TrainingDigital Forensics & Incident ResponseManaged Detection & Response, and Cyber Investigations.

Group-IB’s technological leadership and R&D capabilities are built on the company’s 19 years of hands-on experience in cybercrime investigations worldwide and more than 70,000 hours of cybersecurity incident response accumulated in our leading DFIR Laboratory, High-Tech Crime Investigations Department, and round-the-clock CERT-GIB.

Group-IB is an active partner in global investigations led by international law enforcement organizations such as Europol and INTERPOL. Group-IB is also a member of the Europol European Cybercrime Centre’s (EC3) Advisory Group on Internet Security, which was created to foster closer cooperation between Europol and its leading non-law enforcement partners.

Group-IB’s experience in threat hunting and cyber intelligence has been fused into an ecosystem of highly sophisticated software and hardware solutions designed to monitor, identify, and prevent cyberattacks. Group-IB’s mission is to protect its clients in cyberspace every day by creating and leveraging innovative solutions and services.

Group-IB’s experience in threat hunting and cyber intelligence has been fused into an ecosystem of highly sophisticated software and hardware solutions designed to monitor, identify, and prevent cyberattacks. Group-IB’s mission is to fight high-tech crime while protecting our clients in cyberspace and helping them achieve their goals. To do so, we analyze cyber threats, develop our infrastructure to monitor them, respond to incidents, investigate complex high-tech crimes, and design unique technologies, solutions, and services to counteract adversaries.