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Security Research

Malvertising, Exploit Kits, ClickFraud & Ransomware: A Thriving Underground Economy

April 21, 2015 - 14 min read

Malvertising involves using malicious online advertisements as a means to serve malware payloads to unsuspecting users. Cybercriminals leverage compromised advertising networks to serve malicious advertisements on legitimate websites which subsequently infect the visitors. This has become one of the most successful vectors of malware delivery for cybercriminals. Malvertising campaigns in most cases will involve a malicious advertisement redirecting the user to an Exploit Kit (EK) landing page.

Exploit Kits
Exploit Kits are web-based frameworks that attempt to exploit browser application plugins for known vulnerabilities. Upon successful exploitation, the EK will silently download and install a malware payload on the victim machine. The entire exploit cycle is completely hidden from the end user.

The Exploit Kit infection cycle typically moves through three distinct stages:

Stage 1 - Loading stage: This stage involves the initial delivery mechanism which causes the user to visit a compromised website or advertisement. This compromised website then leads the user to the actual Exploit Kit landing page which may involve a series of web redirects.

The initial delivery vector can be any of the following:
  • Spam & phishing e-mail
  • Social Networking sites
  • SEO poisoning
  • Compromised website
  • Malvertising on legitimate sites
It is important to note that malvertising is one of the most dangerous and extremely successful initial delivery mechanism here as even the most cautious user is susceptible to this attack while visiting a perfectly legitimate website. In most other cases, a well informed user can avoid the attack by carefully inspecting the link in an e-mail or search results.

Stage 2 - Landing Stage: During this stage, the victim machine visits the actual EK hosting site and the exploit cycle is started. The EK code will attempt to exploit the identified vulnerable plugins by downloading the relevant exploit payloads.

Upon successful exploitation, the EK will lead to the download of the malware payload as configured by the EK operator. The entire exploit cycle may not require any user intervention in most cases, which greatly increases the success rates.

Stage 3 - Malware Payload Delivery: This is the final stage of the Exlpoit Kit infection cycle where the malware executable is downloaded and installed on the victim machine. This is usually achieved, after successful exploitation, by one of the EK payloads that was served during the landing stage.

The EK operators strive to ensure that the EK code, exploit payloads and the end malware payloads have very low to zero antivirus detection. Over the past few years, EK authors have implemented multiple new features to improve the effectiveness & infection success rates:
  • Anti-VM and Anti-Analysis features
  • Detection of known antivirus drivers
  • Multiple levels of highly obfuscated JavaScript code
  • Dynamic construction of exploit payload URLs only when a vulnerable plugin is found
  • Short lived exploit payload URLs often restricted to one visit per IP address
  • Obfuscated and repackaged exploit payloads
  • Repackaged malware payloads
Recent Malvertising & EK campaigns
After last year’s infamous “Kyle & Stan” malvertising campaign that affected Google, Yahoo, YouTube and multiple other popular websites, this year has been no different. We have seen a malvertising campaign leading to a zero day Flash Exploit payload via the Angler EK to start of the year, followed by a Malvertising campaign targeting European Transit users. There have been numerous other instances of Malvertising which involved popular sites like,, and we only expect this trend to continue throughout the year.
Malvertising attempts blocked [Last 7 days]
Users targeted globally by Malvertising [Last 7 days]

Advanced techniques to evade detection
We have also noticed some new techniques being introduced in the Malvertising & EK exploit chain this year to further evade detection by URL reputation & network scanners:
  • 302 cushioning, or a 'cushion attack', is used to redirect victims to malicious sites via simple HTTP 302 redirects rather than traditional techniques like iframes or JavaScript redirects which are easy to detect by network IDS/IPS devices.
  • Domain Shadowing, involves compromising the parent domain and creating multiple sub-domains that point to malicious code.

Please refer to our most recent write-up describing it in more detail.

A typical Malvertising infection cycle would involve following stages:
Malvertising infection cycle

Cybercrime Infrastructure & Business Model

Threat actors involved at different stages of the infection cycles are part of a thriving Cybercrime infrastructure & business model that is all interconnected as seen below:
Cybercrime Infrastructure & Business Model

The top Exploit Kits that we have seen involved in various Malvertising campaigns in 2015 are:
  • Angler
  • Nuclear
  • Magnitude
  • RIG
Angler Exploit Kit
Angler Exploit Kit is one of the most prevalent exploit kits in existence today and has many similarities with other exploit kits. Victims are usually served Angler landing pages via compromised websites where an iframe or script has been injected into the compromised site's page and loads Angler's exploit page. The landing page for Angler is very similar to Nuclear, but instead of displaying totally randomized text for obfuscation, random passages from the novel "Sense and Sensibility" are used. Angler domains at first glance may look like legitimate domains, for example:
Angler EK operators are leveraging domain shadowing technique to shield their landing sites from URL categorization-based detection. Over the past few months, we've seen Angler changing tactics somewhat. In late 2014, the landing page took the form of a 10 character alphanumeric php page, for example: 
This format quickly changed to exclude the php extension, then changed to an entirely new format:
This is another attempt to blend in with normal looking web traffic. Exploit pages and payloads have a similarly consistent format that has not noticeably changed since late 2014:
The majority of the recent Angler EK infections were serving the Bedep AdFraud bot.
Angler EK instances blocked
Angler EK server locations
Nuclear Exploit Kit
Nuclear EK is arguably the most advanced exploit kit currently in use and includes a variety of different exploits. First appearing in 2009, the kit is very actively developed, with new exploits and defenses added incrementally over the years, and it is used to serve any number of payloads, including ransomware, click fraud, and multiple backdoors. Nuclear contains exploits for multiple common software components, including Flash, Internet Explorer, Java and Silverlight. Notably, in March 2015, the kit began including a Flash exploit for CVE-2015-0336 only a week after a patch was released by Adobe. Similar to Angler EK, Nuclear uses compromised webservers to serve exploits via 302-cushioning and domain shadowing, but free subdomain and dynamic DNS providers are also heavily used.
Using new subdomains of compromised sites enables Nuclear to evade older, domain-based blocking and allows for rapid rotation or one-time use of subdomains to hinder analysis by security researchers. In addition, before actually serving the exploit kit's landing page, potential victims are sent through an intermediary hop via 302-redirection; the victim is either 302-redirected to the landing page if this is a new victim, or sent to the desired non-malicious page.

Another interesting feature of Nuclear is that various fields are Base64-encoded and passed to the malicious domain:
--base64 decoded--
Similar to Angler, the landing page contains sections of highly obfuscated JavaScript in between chunks of text; however, unlike Angler, Nuclear uses totally randomized text, which makes landing pages more difficult to detect using traditional signatures.
<textarea id='DjwvKE' title='riaXWWvroLTqxkFhlrC' name='MTdak' cols='84' rows='7'>cbkKKLhgidYWpsNmcSUOJXFDrjdbvBIScsdmDKTlorIdjVQMnlaxJgAAPecLfkdIdGvgRPSFGbjqwACkmcivIjwYOYjuJNCmUySlNlrUMbKJbMuNpcJyMFWadGUnTXZnVsYjdQDqrOATbuhQXqPjvlJZseMLBmyXeXGInJyfYyzztgPQWeASQJsInFUprSMVqSddccJAbIzUoPlLuleLvWUjboYSHloxDRbgukhVthqixbtrNYDIuXsWMQpTBdQFvsmpcTLVBCDyexqrVtAQRsndJcxLGORBGDriXDEYFIXkGNbcG</textarea>
<h2>QMx sKWhYGWu eZJGyZ aFnKgWwC xfgcc KmTs rOETlec oBWPHKZ yVrHkWnM AXkEQvfe oPeaHHcdWk kYVRPcClQO GmV gQl</h2>
<h4>fQgQqXM gvllOkaC HknmN qvPFFFKKja TRNMxyHikW JYAb QOWuNSKTX mhzDYzV</h4>
The majority of the recent Nuclear EK infections were serving Teslacrypt Ransomware.

Nuclear EK instances blocked
Nuclear EK server locations

Magnitude Exploit Kit
Magnitude EK, like Angler and Nuclear, is heavily reliant on landing page javascript obfuscation as a means of both exploiting the victim’s system and hindering detection. First documented in October 2013, the kit targets users with outdated Browser application plugins and CVE-2015-0336 was recently included in the kit’s arsenal of exploits. This exploit kit has historically leveraged malvertising for distribution rather than compromising individual websites. ThreatLabZ has observed numerous ad networks being used as intermediaries, including one campaign which saw Yahoo! ads redirecting victims to Magnitude landing pages.
A Magnitude landing page is easy to spot at a glance since they typically have an unusually large number of subdomains, as seen in the examples below.
The payload page for these threats is the same hostname and domain followed by a 32-40 character hexadecimal string. The final payload is ransomware called CryptoWall 3.0, which encrypts the victim’s files. CryptoWall displays a message demanding payment for decrypting the files; this ransom increases depending on how long the victim waits. This is done to give the victim less time to find an alternative solution and to get the maximum amount of money from the victim. 
Magnitude EK instances blocked
Magnitude EK server locations
RIG Exploit Kit
The RIG EK has been a relative newcomer to the exploit kit ecosystem. Since its debut in early 2014, it has been a prevalent threat to web-surfers. The developers have been very active in updating it with the latest features common to other exploit kits, and is currently making heavy use of domain shadowing. One major difference between RIG and others seems to be the modularity of the kit itself. RIG doesn't contain any exploits directly, but relies on a backend service for providing exploits. This is evidenced by the source code that was supposedly leaked by a RIG developer in February 2015. The leak seems to have been the result of internal squabbles between the developers, with the leak intended as a final blow to the development team. Customer posts on underground forums complained that their RIG deployments would occasionally be hijacked to deliver malware payloads that they did not designate for use. These issues point to a rogue developer in the RIG team, and the availability of the source will surely result in the emergence of derivative exploit kits.
Though RIG has made news by being injected into some major sites such as and, it appears that RIG is most frequently encountered via a combination of Malvertising and search poisoning. We commonly see redirectors that match the following two patterns:
There’s a two stage landing page that follows the redirectors, with the landing pages hosted on a variety of domain-shadowed hostnames:
An example of the redirector and two-stage landing page:
Two-stage landing page
Analysis of the URI paths on the landing pages shows that there are a few distinct parts. In the example above, the path “?xXmNd7GfKB7KA4M=l3SKfPrfJxzFGMSUb-nJDa9GPkXCRQLPh4SGhKrXCJ-ofSih17OIFxzsmTu2KV_OpqxveN0SZFT_zR3AaQ4ilotXQB5MrPzwnEqWwxWeioWA_0TfZl4W-5rBHbU6iw6gyLRGJMlzk0TQu2gCz-kaUEgbrA” features two distinct components separated by an equal sign (“=”). The first part (“xXmNd7GfKB7KA4M”) appears to be a unique client identifier while the much longer second part appears to be related to the overall campaign, with the same characters starting the string. A selection of campaign strings follow:
RIG EK instances blocked
RIG EK server locations

Malware Payload: ClickFraud & Ransomware

Exploit kits can serve a variety of different payloads, from Backdoors and Ransomware, to generic Downloaders. We’ve noted that the ultimate goal of many exploit kits is to monetize the infected system as much as possible, most commonly via Adfraud/ClickFraud. To support this goal, a very common payload for exploit kits is the Trojan Bedep, which can download additional malware and is used to perpetrate advertising fraud. In order to evade detection, Bedep is usually downloaded in an encrypted form and decrypted in memory as part of the infection process. Once decrypted, Bedep uses a domain generation algorithm (DGA) to communicate with its command and control servers. This communication is over normal HTTP, but messages are encrypted and then Base64 encoded, making analysis and detection more difficult.

When used for advertising fraud, Bedep creates a hidden desktop (a desktop instance not visible to the end user), shown below, that is not normally accessible in Windows, then begins displaying loading web pages and advertisements to commit advertising fraud.
Bedep Adfraud traffic & hidden desktop used to display Ads
Multiple windows are created to display ads (shown below) and in practice, this heavily impacts the performance of the infected system.
Bedep displaying multiple Ads on hidden desktop

Pages are quickly cycled to make as much money from the Ads as possible. In general, Bedep’s Adfraud traffic takes the form of ‘/r.php?key=’ or ‘/ads.php?sid=’ followed by a 32-character alphanumeric string, for example:
Another popular payload for exploit kits is ransomware, such as CryptoLocker and CryptoWall. This type of ransomware encrypts files on an infected system, and then demands payment to decrypt the files. CryptoLocker was first discovered in 2013 and quickly became popular due to the use of asymmetric encryption to hold user’s files for ransom, which is expected to be paid in Bitcoins. Additionally, recent samples contact a command and control infrastructure hosted on TOR hidden servers via TOR proxy gateways, such as ThreatLabZ recently analyzed a sample of CryptoWall 3.0, a derivative clone of CryptoLocker, and found the binaries were hosted with a “.jpg” extension to avoid raising suspicion. Some of the other features of this CryptoWall sample include:
  • Decryption service hosted on TOR
  • CAPTCHA on decryption service
  • High ransom amount (700 USD, increasing to over 1400 USD)
  • Multiple payment options accepted besides Bitcoin
Ransomware is an attractive payload for criminals since many individuals and companies with no or incomplete data backups are likely to pay the ransom to recover sensitive files. Since the victim’s files are already encrypted, there is little to fear from traditional anti-virus signatures or blocking command and control traffic. Finally, even if someone pays the ransom, there is no guarantee that any files will be decrypted.

Multi-tasking example from a recent infection
A recent development we’ve observed is using Bedep to install ransomware as well as committing advertising fraud. In the observed sample, Angler EK first installed Bedep on the compromised system, which immediately downloaded a piece of ransomware called “Threat Finder v2.4.” Like other popular ransomware, Threat Finder displays a “HELP_DECRYPT” message which instructs users to send 300 USD of Bitcoins to a Bitcoin wallet in order to decrypt files. The screenshot below shows both the Threat Finder ransom window and advertising fraud sessions captured by Fiddler. Installing both ransomware and committing advertising fraud potentially generates even more money for the perpetrators.
Threat Finder v2.4, Bedep, dual infection
Trust us, we'll decrypt your files.... but only if you pay!
Malvertising campaigns have seen a significant uptick in 2015 and continue to be the most lucrative initial delivery mechanism for Exploit Kits. The fact that the legitimate websites becoming target of these campaigns have very little to no control for preventing such attacks makes this a very dangerous vector and a popular choice for cybercriminals.

The users should ensure that all the Browser application plugins are always patched with latest updates and disable the plugins that are not used. We also highly recommend using click-to-play feature available in many browser for Java & Flash plugins.

Analysis by: Deepen Desai, John Mancuso, Ed Miles, Chris Mannon
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