Emotet, one of the world’s most dangerous cyber crime services, has been taken down following one of the largest ever internationally-coordinated actions against cyber criminals.
Although it began as banking malware designed to steal financial credentials, Emotet had become an infrastructure tool leased out to cyber criminals to break into victim computer networks and install additional malicious software.
Law enforcement agencies in the UK, North America and Europe had worked for almost two years to map the system’s infrastructure before the National Police of Ukraine raided properties to capture the computers it was being controlled from.
Videos of the raids uploaded by the National Police of Ukraine show the messy environments the computers were being operated from and the range of digital devices, foreign currencies, and even gold bars that were also seized.
The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said the botnet had been used “to infiltrate thousands of companies and millions of computers worldwide”, with Europol – who coordinated the operation alongside Eurojust – described it as “the world’s most dangerous malware”.
Police in the Netherlands, Germany, the US, UK, France, Lithuania, Canada and Ukraine took part in the investigation, with the British NCA leading the financial sleuthing team, tracking “how the criminal network behind the malware was funded, where that funding went, and who was profiteering”.
Although Emotet was first discovered in 2014 as banking malware, it gained a reputation in the cyber crime community as a tool that could be used to open the door for other malwares and ransomware.
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“Cyber criminals used Emotet as their first port of call,” said the NCA, explaining how the automated botnet “would send out emails to unsuspecting victims or companies with the malware either embedded in the email as a downloadable link, or included as a word doc attachment.
“When people clicked into the attachments or links, they were prompted to enable content to view the document, but in doing so allowed the malware to install and take hold of their computers.”
Europol said the Emotet infrastructure “involved several hundreds of servers located across the world, all of these having different functionalities in order to manage the computers of the infected victims, to spread to new ones, to serve other criminal groups, and to ultimately make the network more resilient against takedown attempts”.
Law enforcement has taken down the botnet by effectively hijacking it from the inside.
Although they are unable to uninstall the malware from victim’s computers, the infected machines are now being redirected towards infrastructure which the police are controlling – preventing criminals from using them to steal more data or send phishing emails.
The NCA’s analysis identified $10.5m being moved by the Emotet operators over a two-year period on just one virtual currency platform.
They also spotted almost $500,000 had been spent by the group over the same period just to maintain their criminal infrastructure.
Nigel Leary, the deputy director of the NCA’s National Cyber Crime Unit, said: “Emotet was instrumental in some of the worst cyber attacks in recent times.”
He said that it enabled up to 70% of the entire world’s malwares, including many – such as Trickbot and RYUK – which had a “significant economic impact” on businesses in the UK.
None of the police agencies announced arrests for the individuals who operated the infrastructure, although there was a suggestion that those who used it might be identified.
“Working with partners we’ve been able to pinpoint and analyse data linking payment and registration details to criminals who used Emotet,” said Mr Leary.
“This case demonstrates the scale and nature of cyber crime, which facilitates other crimes and can cause huge amounts of damage, both financially and psychologically.
“Using our international reach, the NCA will continue to work with partners to identify and apprehend those responsible for propagating Emotet Malware and profiting from its criminality.”