Massive disruption to Emotet botnet as authorities worldwide take it down

Law enforcement and judicial authorities worldwide have this week disrupted one of most significant botnets of the past decade: EMOTET. Investigators have now taken control of its infrastructure in an international coordinated action. 

This operation is the result of a collaborative effort between authorities in the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Lithuania, Canada and Ukraine, with international activity coordinated by Europol and Eurojust. This operation was carried out in the framework of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT)

EMOTET has been one of the most professional and long lasting cybercrime services out there. First discovered as a banking Trojan in 2014, the malware evolved into the go-to solution for cybercriminals over the years. The EMOTET infrastructure essentially acted as a primary door opener for computer systems on a global scale. Once this unauthorised access was established, these were sold to other top-level criminal groups to deploy further illicit activities such data theft and extortion through ransomware.

The EMOTET group managed to take email as an attack vector to a next level. Through a fully automated process, EMOTET malware was delivered to the victims’ computers via infected e-mail attachments.  A variety of different lures were used to trick unsuspecting users into opening these malicious attachments. In the past, EMOTET email campaigns have also been presented as invoices, shipping notices and information about COVID-19. 

All these emails contained malicious Word documents, either attached to the email itself or downloadable by clicking on a link within the email itself. Once a user opened one of these documents, they could be prompted to “enable macros” so that the malicious code hidden in the Word file could run and install EMOTET malware on a victim’s computer. 

The infrastructure that was used by EMOTET involved several hundreds of servers located across the world, all of these having different functionalities in order to manage the computers of the infected victims, to spread to new ones, to serve other criminal groups, and to ultimately make the network more resilient against takedown attempts. 

To severely disrupt the EMOTET infrastructure, law enforcement teamed up together to create an effective operational strategy. It resulted in this week’s action whereby law enforcement and judicial authorities gained control of the infrastructure and took it down from the inside. The infected machines of victims have been redirected towards this law enforcement-controlled infrastructure.  This is a unique and new approach to effectively disrupt the activities of the facilitators of cybercrime. 

As part of the criminal investigation conducted by the Dutch National Police into EMOTET, a database containing e-mail addresses, usernames and passwords stolen by EMOTET was discovered. You can check if your e-mail address has been compromised.

Jason Davies

UK based technology professional, with an interest in computer security and telecoms.

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