For more than five months, Lastline security researchers have tracked the evolution of malicious Excel 4.0 (XL4) macros, observing the fast pace at which malware authors change them to stay ahead of security tools.
During their five-month research, Lastline observed thousands of malicious samples, clustered into waves that provide a comprehensive picture of how the threat has evolved in both sophistication and evasiveness.
The identified techniques, the cybersecurity firm says, include the ability to evade automated sandbox analysis and signature-based detection, but also hands-on analysis by researchers. Each new wave would introduce new techniques, building on the previous wave or cluster, but old methods continue to be used even in current samples.
New waves would emerge every one or two weeks, each one more evasive and sophisticated, extending previous functionality with new techniques. The samples appear generated by a toolkit or document generator, and closely resemble one another.
The malware authors, Lastline says, mainly focused on evasion and obfuscation, leaving the base functionality of the observed samples unmodified: they were created to download and execute a payload such as an EXE or DLL file.
“These macros are very straightforward and easy to create, thus easy to modify to bypass signature-based detection. Security vendors are having difficulty detecting this threat, likely due to not having solutions in place to properly assess and parse the format and structure of how these macros are stored in Excel documents,” Lastline notes.
Excel 4.0 macros are becoming increasingly popular for cyber criminals, as security vendors struggle to play catchup and detect them properly given that attackers are using a legitimate feature, not a vulnerability. We've been tracking these attacks. This blog post describes each wave of...