Emsisoft

Ransomware Group Turns to Facebook Ads

It’s bad enough that many ransomware gangs now have blogs where they publish data stolen from companies that refuse to make an extortion payment. Now, one crime group has started using hacked Facebook accounts to run ads publicly pressuring their ransomware victims into paying up.

On the evening of Monday, Nov. 9, an ad campaign apparently taken out by the Ragnar Locker Team began appearing on Facebook. The ad was designed to turn the screws to the Italian beverage vendor Campari Group, which acknowledged on Nov. 3 that its computer systems had been sidelined by a malware attack.

On Nov. 6, Campari issued a follow-up statement saying “at this stage, we cannot completely exclude that some personal and business data has been taken.”

“This is ridiculous and looks like a big fat lie,” reads the Facebook ad campaign from the Ragnar crime group. “We can confirm that confidential data was stolen and we talking about huge volume of data.”

The ad went on to say Ragnar Locker Team had offloaded two terabytes of information and would give the Italian firm until 6 p.m. EST today (Nov. 10) to negotiate an extortion payment in exchange for a promise not to publish the stolen files.

The Facebook ad blitz was paid for by Hodson Event Entertainment, an account tied to Chris Hodson, a deejay based in Chicago. Contacted by KrebsOnSecurity, Hodson said his Facebook account indeed was hacked, and that the attackers had budgeted $500 for the entire campaign.

“I thought I had two-step verification turned on for all my accounts, but now it looks like the only one I didn’t have it set for was Facebook,” Hodson said.

Hodson said a review of his account shows the unauthorized campaign reached approximately 7,150 Facebook users, and generated 770 clicks, with a cost-per-result of 21 cents. Of course, it didn’t cost the ransomware group anything. Hodson said Facebook billed him $35 for the first part of the campaign, but apparently detected the ads as fraudulent sometime this morning before his account could be billed another $159 for the campaign.

The results of the unauthorized Facebook ad campaign. Image: Chris Hodson.

It’s not clear whether this was an isolated incident, or whether the fraudsters also ran ads using other hacked Facebook accounts. A spokesperson for Facebook said the company is still investigating the incident. A request for comment sent via email to Campari’s media relations team was returned as undeliverable.

But it seems likely we will continue to see more of this and other mainstream advertising efforts by ransomware groups going forward, even if victims really have no expectation that paying an extortion demand will result in criminals actually deleting or not otherwise using stolen data.

Fabian Wosar, chief technology officer at computer security firm Emsisoft, said some ransomware groups have become especially aggressive of late in pressuring their victims to pay up.

“They have also started to call victims,” Wosar said. “They’re outsourcing to Indian call centers, who call victims asking when they are going to pay or have their data leaked.”

Why Paying to Delete Stolen Data is Bonkers

Companies hit by ransomware often face a dual threat: Even if they avoid paying the ransom and can restore things from scratch, about half the time the attackers also threaten to release sensitive stolen data unless the victim pays for a promise to have the data deleted. Leaving aside the notion that victims might have any real expectation the attackers will actually destroy the stolen data, new research suggests a fair number of victims who do pay up may see some or all of the stolen data published anyway.

The findings come in a report today from Coveware, a company that specializes in helping firms recover from ransomware attacks. Coveware says nearly half of all ransomware cases now include the threat to release exfiltrated data.

“Previously, when a victim of ransomware had adequate backups, they would just restore and go on with life; there was zero reason to even engage with the threat actor,” the report observes. “Now, when a threat actor steals data, a company with perfectly restorable backups is often compelled to at least engage with the threat actor to determine what data was taken.”

Coveware said it has seen ample evidence of victims seeing some or all of their stolen data published after paying to have it deleted; in other cases, the data gets published online before the victim is even given a chance to negotiate a data deletion agreement.

“Unlike negotiating for a decryption key, negotiating for the suppression of stolen data has no finite end,” the report continues. “Once a victim receives a decryption key, it can’t be taken away and does not degrade with time. With stolen data, a threat actor can return for a second payment at any point in the future. The track records are too short and evidence that defaults are selectively occurring is already collecting.”

Image: Coveware Q3 2020 report.

The company said it advises clients never to pay a data deletion ransom, but rather to engage competent privacy attorneys, perform an investigation into what data was stolen, and notify any affected customers according to the advice of counsel and application data breach notification laws.

Fabian Wosar, chief technology officer at computer security firm Emsisoft, said ransomware victims often acquiesce to data publication extortion demands when they are trying to prevent the public from learning about the breach.

“The bottom line is, ransomware is a business of hope,” Wosar said. “The company doesn’t want the data to be dumped or sold. So they pay for it hoping the threat actor deletes the data. Technically speaking, whether they delete the data or not doesn’t matter from a legal point of view. The data was lost at the point when it was exfiltrated.”

Ransomware victims who pay for a digital key to unlock servers and desktop systems encrypted by the malware also are relying on hope, Wosar said, because it’s also not uncommon that a decryption key fails to unlock some or all of the infected machines.

“When you look at a lot of ransom notes, you can actually see groups address this very directly and have texts that say stuff along the lines of, Yeah, you are fucked now. But if you pay us, everything can go back to before we fucked you.’”