It’s nice when ransomware gangs have their bitcoin stolen, malware servers shut down, or are otherwise forced to disband. We hang on to these occasional victories because history tells us that most ransomware moneymaking collectives don’t go away so much as reinvent themselves under a new name, with new rules, targets and weaponry. Indeed, some of the most destructive and costly ransomware groups are now in their third incarnation.
Reinvention is a basic survival skill in the cybercrime business. Among the oldest tricks in the book is to fake one’s demise or retirement and invent a new identity. A key goal of such subterfuge is to throw investigators off the scent or to temporarily direct their attention elsewhere.
Cybercriminal syndicates also perform similar disappearing acts whenever it suits them. These organizational reboots are an opportunity for ransomware program leaders to set new ground rules for their members — such as which types of victims aren’t allowed (e.g., hospitals, governments, critical infrastructure), or how much of a ransom payment an affiliate should expect for bringing the group access to a new victim network.
I put together the above graphic to illustrate some of the more notable ransom gang reinventions over the past five years. What it doesn’t show is what we already know about the cybercriminals behind many of these seemingly disparate ransomware groups, some of whom were pioneers in the ransomware space almost a decade ago. We’ll explore that more in the latter half of this story.
One of the more intriguing and recent revamps involves DarkSide, the group that extracted a $5 million ransom from Colonial Pipeline earlier this year, only to watch much of it get clawed back in an operation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
After acknowledging someone had also seized their Internet servers, DarkSide announced it was folding. But a little more than a month later, a new ransomware affiliate program called BlackMatter emerged, and experts quickly determined BlackMatter was using the same unique encryption methods that DarkSide had used in their attacks.
DarkSide’s demise roughly coincided with that of REvil, a long-running ransomware group that claims to have extorted more than $100 million from victims. REvil’s last big victim was Kaseya, a Miami-based company whose products help system administrators manage large networks remotely. That attack let REvil deploy ransomware to as many as 1,500 organizations that used Kaseya.
REvil demanded a whopping $70 million to release a universal decryptor for all victims of the Kaseya attack. Just days later, President Biden reportedly told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he expects Russia to act when the United States shares information on specific Russians involved in ransomware activity.
Whether that conversation prompted actions is unclear. But REvil’s victim shaming blog would disappear from the dark web just four days later.
Mark Arena, CEO of cyber threat intelligence firm Intel 471, said it remains unclear whether BlackMatter is the REvil crew operating under a new banner, or if it is simply the reincarnation of DarkSide.
But one thing is clear, Arena said: “Likely we will see them again unless they’ve been arrested.”
Likely, indeed. REvil is widely considered a reboot of GandCrab, a prolific ransomware gang that boasted of extorting more than $2 billion over 12 months before abruptly closing up shop in June 2019. “We are living proof that you can do evil and get off scot-free,” Gandcrab bragged.
And wouldn’t you know it: Researchers have found GandCrab shared key behaviors with Cerber, an early ransomware-as-a-service operation that stopped claiming new victims at roughly the same time that GandCrab came on the scene. Continue reading