Malwarebytes Threat Intelligence builds a monthly picture of ransomware activity by monitoring the information published by ransomware gangs on their Dark Web leak sites. This information represents victims who were successfully attacked but opted not to pay a ransom.
In June, LockBit was the most active ransomware, just as it has been all year. The month was also notable for the disappearance of Conti, and the large number of attacks by groups alleged to have links with the disbanded group.
The service industry remained the hardest hit industry sector, and the USA the most attacked country. The number of attacks in the USA continued to dwarf other countries, with more known victims than Canada and all the European countries in our list combined.
Without fanfare, LockBit has become the dominant force in ransomware this year. Although there were fewer victims on its leak site in June than in May, it was still far ahead of its competition.
While Conti—“the costliest strain of ransomware ever documented,” according to the FBI—has spent 2022 making noisy pronouncements and digging itself out of a hole of its own making with a hair-brained scheme to fake its own death, LockBit has been all business.
Like all the ransomware in our review, LockBit is offered in the form of ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS). Attacks are carried out by affiliates ("pen testers") who pay the LockBit organization 20 percent of the ransoms they receive in return for using its software and services.
And while some ransomware gangs seem to want to tell the world what they think, and how great they are, LockBit seems to care more about what its users think. Its affiliate page begins with a statement that seems designed to contrast it with its noisy Russian rival:
We are located in the Netherlands, completely apolitical and only interested in money.
Thereafter the page is peppered with people-pleasing language designed to signal the gang's trustworthiness and willingness to listen. Affiliates are asked "if you do not find one of your favorite features, please inform us," and told that "it is very important for us to know about all our strengths and weaknesses." It says "we have never cheated anyone and always fulfill our agreements. Decrypter work, stolen data is deleted"
It is this combination of attractiveness to affiliates and an ability to avoid costly mistakes that seems to be behind its success this year.
This risk averse approach is nothing new. Out of an abundance of self interest, ransomware has always conspicuously avoided attacking targets in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, for example. Attracting the attention of the three-letter agencies in Russia and the USA is simply bad for business.
Unusually, LockBit hit the headlines in June with some obvious publicity seeking. The gang launched LockBit 3.0, along with a new dark web site, and a bug bounty program promising rewards of up to $1 million for finding bugs in its website and software, submitting brilliant ideas, or successfully doxing the head of the gang's affiliate program.
We invite all security researchers, ethical and unethical hackers on the planet to participate in our bug bounty program. The amount of remuneration varies from $1000 to $1 million.
Whether the group seriously intends to pay out these sums remains to be seen. If all it wanted from the announcement was to drum up some publicity, it has already succeeded. However, if it does intend to use bug bounties it improve its software and sharpen its approach then it could deprive law enforcement and security researchers of valuable tools and information.
As expected, the last public vestige of the Conti ransomware gang, its leak site, disappeared in June, after a few weeks of inactivity. As we reported in last month's ransomware review, detailed research by Advintel in May suggested that the gang's alignment with the Russian state in February had caused victims' lawyers to warn against paying it ransoms, for fear of breaking sanctions.
When the group's revenue dried up its leaders allegedly hatched a plot to retire the brand by dispersing its members into other ransomware gangs like BlackBasta, BlackByte, KaraKurt, Hive and ALPHV, and then faking its own death.
Malwarebytes Threat Intelligence was able to independently confirm that Conti sent an internal announcement about its retirement to affiliates at the end of May, and that its internal chat servers stopped working around the same time.
The leak site disappeared on June 22, 2022, and remains down.
The Conti shutdown has overlapped with the overnight arrival of BlackBasta in April and a big increase in activity (and the appearance of a new leak site) by KaraKurt in June. It may be a coincidence, but we note that last month the combined activity of BlackBasta, BlackByte, and KaraKurt reached Conti-like levels.
Most software, even malware, trends towards "feature completeness"—a point where adding new features adds little, if anything, to its usefulness. Ransomware has been more-or-less feature complete for a number of years, and most RaaS offerings have very similar capabilities.
Similarly, the way that ransomware is packaged and sold, and the ways that different affiliates break into networks and deploy ransomware vary little from one ransomware group to another, and evolve slowly.
The most active area of innovation in the last few years appears to be how gangs operate as a business, and in how they put pressure on victims to pay a ransom.
In June we saw some things we haven't seen before: The LockBit gang offering bug bounties, and a leak site created by the ALPHV group (also known as BlackCat and Noberus) that was dedicated to just one victim.
The site was aimed at the staff and customers of a hotelier, and allowed them to search 112GB of personally identifiable information (PII) belonging to 1,500 employees and guests, to see if their personal details were among them. The new tactic seems to be designed to create further pressure on the hotelier to pay the ransom.
At least one ransomware gang has tried targeting executives at the top of companies in an effort to ramp up the pressure, but ALPHV's targeting of employees and customers with a dedicated website is new.
Very unusually, the leak site was not on the dark web. By putting the site on the regular worldwide web the gang made the information much more accessible to non-technical users, but without the protection of Tor it only lasted a few days before being taken down. The gang would certainly have known this would happen, but presumably it only had to last long enough to gather the attention it needed in order to impact negotiations.
Such innovation is nothing new—ransomware gangs experiment with new ideas all the time. The experiments that don't work are forgotten and those that do are quickly copied by other gangs.
In this case the experiment appears to have been unsuccessful. The victim has since appeared on the main ALPHV dark web leak site, which normally indicates they have resisted the pressure to pay a ransom.
Malwarebytes can protect systems against all ransomware variants in several ways.
The Malwarebytes Anti-Malware technology detects malicious files, browser modifications, and system modifications on Windows PCs using a combination of signature-based and signatureless technologies.
For those already infected, Ransomware Rollback can help recover encrypted files within 72 hours of the attack. Rollback creates a local cache on the endpoint to store changes to files on the system. It can use this cache to help revert changes caused by a threat. The rollback feature is dependent on activity monitoring available in Malwarebytes Endpoint Detection and Response.