HP’s ‘Threat Insights Report’ Reveals Wave of Malware ‘Families’

HP Inc. released its quarterly “Threat Insights Report” revealing a wave of cybercriminals spreading malware families – including QakBot, IceID, Emotet, and RedLine Stealer – are shifting to shortcut (LNK) files to deliver malware.

Shortcuts are replacing Office macros – which are starting to be blocked by default in Office – as a way for attackers to get a foothold within networks by tricking users into infecting their PCs with malware. This access can be used to steal valuable company data, or sold to ransomware groups, leading to large-scale breaches that could stall business operations and result in significant remediation costs.

The latest global HP Wolf Security Threat Insights Report – which provides an analysis of real-world cyberattacks – shows an 11 percent rise in archive files containing malware, including LNK files. Attackers often place shortcut files in ZIP email attachments, to help them evade email scanners. The team also spotted LNK malware builders available for purchase on hacker forums, making it easy for cybercriminals to shift to this “macro-free” code execution technique by creating weaponized shortcut files and spreading them to businesses.

“As macros downloaded from the web become blocked by default in Office, we’re keeping a close eye on alternative execution methods being tested out by cybercriminals. Opening a shortcut or HTML file may seem harmless to an employee but can result in a major risk to the enterprise,” said Alex Holland, senior malware analyst, HP Wolf Security threat research team, HP Inc. “Organizations must take steps now to protect against techniques increasingly favored by attackers or leave themselves exposed as they become pervasive. We’d recommend immediately blocking shortcut files received as email attachments or downloaded from the web where possible.”

By isolating threats on PCs that have evaded detection tools, HP Wolf Security has specific insight into the latest techniques used by cybercriminals. In addition to the increase in LNK files, the threat research team highlights these insights this quarter:

  • HTML smuggling reaches critical mass –HP identified several phishing campaigns using emails posing as regional post services or major events like Doha Expo 2023 that used HTML smuggling to deliver malware. Using this technique, dangerous file types that otherwise would be blocked by email gateways can be smuggled into organizations and lead to malware infections.
  • Attackers exploit the window of vulnerability created by the Follina (CVE-2022-30190) zero-day vulnerability –Following its disclosure, multiple threat actors exploited the recent zero-day vulnerability in the Microsoft Support Diagnostic Tool (MSDT) – dubbed “Follina” – to distribute QakBot, Agent Tesla, and the Remcos RAT (Remote Access Trojan) before a patch was available. The vulnerability is dangerous because it lets attackers run arbitrary code to deploy malware, and requires little user interaction to exploit target machines.
  • Novel execution technique sees shellcode hidden in documents spread SVCReady malware –HP uncovered a campaign distributing a malware family called SVCReady, notable for the unusual way it is delivered to target PCs – through shellcode hidden in the properties of Office documents. The malware – mainly designed to download secondary malware payloads to infected computers after collecting system information and taking screenshots – is in an early stage of development, having been updated several times in recent months.

“Attackers are testing new malicious file formats or exploits at pace to bypass detection, so organizations must prepare for the unexpected. This means taking an architectural approach to endpoint security, for example by containing the most common attack vectors like email, browsers, and downloads, so threats are isolated regardless of whether they can be detected,” said Dr. Ian Pratt, global head of security for personal systems at HP Inc. “This will eliminate the attack surface for entire classes of threats, while also giving the organization the time needed to coordinate patch cycles securely without disrupting services.”