'Francophoned' cybertheft operation reportedly back in action

Attackers steal funds from French organizations using spear phishing, information-snatching malware and rogue phone calls

A cybercriminal operation that combines phone-based social engineering attacks with spear phishing and malware to steal money from organizations has resurfaced this year, finding victims in French-speaking countries in particular.

The unusual attack campaign, dubbed "Francophoned," started in May 2013 and was first documented by security researchers from Symantec in August. Attackers send fake invoices to French-speaking accounting and finance department employees then follow up with phone calls impersonating managers and asking for those invoices to be processed.

The rogue invoices are malware programs that allow attackers to gather sensitive information needed to transfers funds from the victim organizations to offshore accounts by abusing in-house accounting systems or by calling banks and impersonating company representatives.

"According to our telemetry, the Francophoned operation reemerged in October 2013 with a new campaign of spear phishing emails, immediately followed by a lull in activity that could be due to the attackers using this time to process the data acquired from successful attacks and preparing for the next campaign," Lionel Payet, a security response manager at Symantec, said in a blog post Wednesday. "A few months later, two new campaigns were observed, with a much shorter processing/preparation period in-between. Both of these campaigns used a completely new threat."

The most recent two attack campaigns, in February and April, no longer used the W32.Shadesrat (Blackshade) remote access Trojan seen in last year's attacks. Instead the Francophoned attackers switched to a new Trojan program called Rokamal that can download and execute malicious files, steal information, open a backdoor on the infected computer, launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and mine cryptocurrency.

The DDoS and cryptocurrency mining functions weren't enabled in the Rokamal samples associated with Operation Francophoned because they would have likely raised red flags within organizations, Payet said.

The new Francophoned campaigns targeted organizations from a wide range of sectors including education, government, research, manufacturing, energy, automotive, medical, marketing, construction, financial and law. However, the education, government and research sectors were the most targeted ones, accounting for 62 percent of the total number of affected businesses, according to Symantec's data.

France was expectedly a focal point for Operation Francophoned attacks, but organizations in other countries, including the U.S., were also compromised.

"French speakers are concentrated not just in France, but also in wide areas of Africa, nearby European countries, Canada, and various islands around the world," Payet said. "As such, French speakers present a large pool of potential victims who may not have been targeted as heavily as English speakers."

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