Either way, the cryptomining code then works in the background as unsuspecting victims use their computers normally. The only sign they might notice is slower performance or lags in execution.
How cryptojacking works
Hackers have two primary ways to get a victim’s computer to secretly mine cryptocurrencies. One is to trick victims into loading cryptomining code onto their computers. This is done through phishing-like tactics: Victims receive a legitimate-looking email that encourages them to click on a link. The link runs code that places the cryptomining script on the computer. The script then runs in the background as the victim works.
The other method is to inject a script on a website or an ad that is delivered to multiple websites. Once victims visit the website or the infected ad pops up in their browsers, the script automatically executes. No code is stored on the victims’ computers. Whichever method is used, the code runs complex mathematical problems on the victims’ computers and sends the results to a server that the hacker controls.
Hackers often will use both methods to maximize their return. “Attacks use old malware tricks to deliver more reliable and persistent software [to the victims’ computers] as a fall back,” says Alex Vaystikh, CTO and cofounder of SecBI. For example, of 100 devices mining cryptocurrencies for a hacker, 10% might be generating income from code on the victims’ machines, while 90% do so through their web browsers.
Some cryptomining scripts have worming capabilities that allow them to infect other devices and servers on a network. It also makes them harder to find and remove; maintaining persistence on a network is in the cryptojacker’s best financial interest.
To increase their ability to spread across a network, cryptomining code might include multiple versions to account for different architectures on the network. In one example described in an AT&T Alien Labs blog post, the cryptomining code simply downloads the implants for each architecture until one works.
The scripts might also check to see if the device is already infected by competing cryptomining malware. If another cryptominer is detected, the script disables it. A cryptominer might also have a kill prevention mechanism that executes every few minutes, as the AT&T Alien Lab post notes.
Unlike most other types of malware, cryptojacking scripts do no damage to computers or victims’ data. They do steal CPU processing resources. For individual users, slower computer performance might be just an annoyance. Organization with many cryptojacked systems can incur real costs in terms of help desk and IT time spent tracking down performance issues and replacing components or systems in the hope of solving the problem.
Why cryptojacking is popular
The decline began earlier, however. Positive Technology’s Cybersecurity Threatscape Q1 2019 report shows that cryptomining now accounts for only 7% of all attacks, down from 23% in early 2018. The report suggests that cybercriminals have shifted more to ransomware, which is seen as more profitable.
“Cryptomining is in its infancy. There’s a lot of room for growth and evolution,” says Marc Laliberte, threat analyst at network security solutions provider WatchGuard Technologies.
In January 2018, researchers discovered the Smominru cryptomining botnet, which infected more than a half-million machines, mostly in Russia, India, and Taiwan. The botnet targeted Windows servers to mine Monero, and cybersecurity firm Proofpoint estimated that it had generated as much as $3.6 million in value as of the end of January.
Cryptojacking doesn’t even require significant technical skills. According to the report, The New Gold Rush Cryptocurrencies Are the New Frontier of Fraud, from Digital Shadows, cryptojacking kits are available on the dark web for as little as $30.
The simple reason why cryptojacking is becoming more popular with hackers is more money for less risk. “Hackers see cryptojacking as a cheaper, more profitable alternative to ransomware,” says Vaystikh. WIth ransomware, a hacker might get three people to pay for every 100 computers infected, he explains. With cryptojacking, all 100 of those infected machines work for the hacker to mine cryptocurrency. “[The hacker] might make the same as those three ransomware payments, but cryptomining continuously generates money,” he says.
The risk of being caught and identified is also much less than with ransomware. The cryptomining code runs surreptitiously and can go undetected for a long time. Once discovered, it’s very hard to trace back to the source, and the victims have little incentive to do so since nothing was stolen or encrypted. Hackers tend to prefer anonymous cryptocurrencies like Monero and Zcash over the more popular Bitcoin because it is harder to track the illegal activity back to them.
Real-world cryptojacking examples
Cryptojackers are a clever lot, and they’ve devised a number of schemes to get other peoples’ computers to mine cryptocurrency. Most are not new; cryptomining delivery methods are often derived from those used for other types of malware such as ransomware or adware. “You’re starting to see a lot of the traditional things mal-authors have done in the past,” says Travis Farral, director of security strategy at Anomali. “Instead of delivering ransomware or a Trojan, they are retooling that to deliver crypto-mining modules or components.”
Here are some real-world examples:
Prometei cryptocurrency botnet exploits Microsoft Exchange vulnerability
The Prometei, which as been around as early as 2016, is a modular and multi-stage botnet designed to mine the Monero cryptocurrency. It uses a variety of means to infect devices and spread across networks. In early 2021, however, Cybereason discovered that Prometei was exploiting Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities used in the Hafnium attacks to deploy malware and harvest credentials. The botnet would then use the infected devices to mine Monero.
Spear-fishing PowerGhost steals Windows credentials
The Cyber Threat Alliance’s (CTA’s) The Illicit Cryptocurrency Mining Threat report describes PowerGhost, first analyzed by Fortinet, as stealthy malware that can avoid detection in a number of ways. It first uses spear phishing to gain a foothold on a system, and it then steals Windows credentials and leverages Windows Management Instrumentation and the EternalBlue exploit to spread. It then tries to disable antivirus software and competing cryptominers.
Graboid, a cryptominder worm spread using containers
In October, Palo Alto Networks released a report describing a cryptojacking botnet with self-spreading capabilities. Graboid, as they named it, is the first known cryptomining worm. It spreads by finding Docker Engine deployments that are exposed to the internet without authentication. Palo Alto Networks estimated that Graboid had infected more than 2,000 Docker deployments.
Malicious Docker Hub accounts mine Monero
In June 2020, Palo Alto Networks identified a cryptojacking scheme that used Docker images on the Docker Hub network to deliver cryptomining software to victims’ systems. Placing the cryptomining code within a Docker image helps avoid detection. The infected images were accessed more then two million times, and Palo Alto estimates that the cryptojackers realized $36,000 in ill-gotten gains.
MinerGate variant suspends execution when victim’s computer is in use
According to the CTA report, Palo Alto Networks has analyzed a variant of the MinerGate malware family and found an interesting feature. It can detect mouse movement and suspend mining activities. This avoids tipping off the victim, who might otherwise notice a drop in performance.
BadShell uses Windows processes to do its dirty work
A few months ago, Comodo Cybersecurity found malware on a client’s system that used legitimate Windows processes to mine cryptocurrency.
Rogue employee commandeers company systems
At the EmTech Digital conference earlier this year, Darktrace told the story of a client, a European bank, that was experiencing some unusual traffic patterns on its servers. Night-time processes were running slowly, and the bank’s diagnostic tools didn’t discover anything. Darktrace discovered that new servers were coming online during that time—servers that the bank said didn’t exist. A physical inspection of the data center revealed that a rogue staffer had set up a cryptomining system under the floorboards.
Serving cryptominers through GitHub
In March, Avast Software reported that cryptojackers were using GitHub as a host for cryptomining malware. They find legitimate projects from which they create a forked project. The malware is then hidden in the directory structure of that forked project. Using a phishing scheme, the cryptojackers lure people to download that malware through, for example, a warning to update their Flash player or the promise of an adult content gaming site.
Exploiting an rTorrent vulnerability
Cryptojackers have discovered an rTorrent misconfiguration vulnerability that leaves some rTorrent clients accessible without authentication for XML-RPC communication. They scan the internet for exposed clients and then deploy a Monero cryptominer on them. F5 Networks reported this vulnerability in February, and advises rTorrent users to make sure their clients do not accept outside connections.
Facexworm: Malicious Chrome extension
This malware, first discovered by Kaspersky Labs in 2017, is a Google Chrome extension that uses Facebook Messenger to infect users’ computers. Initially Facexworm delivered adware. Earlier this year, Trend Micro found a variety of Facexworm that targeted cryptocurrency exchanges and was capabile of delivering cryptomining code. It still uses infected Facebook accounts to deliver malicious links, but can also steal web accounts and credentials, which allows it to inject cryptojacking code into those web pages.
WinstarNssmMiner: Scorched earth policy
In May, 360 Total Security identified a cryptominer that spread quickly and proved effective for cryptojackers. Dubbed WinstarNssmMiner, this malware also has a nasty surprise for anyone who tried to remove it: It crashes the victim’s computer. WinstarNssmMiner does this by first launching an svchost.exe process and injecting code into it and setting the spawned process’s attribute to CriticalProcess. Since the computer sees as a critical process, it crashes once the process is removed.
CoinMiner seeks out and destroys competitors
Cryptojacking has become prevalent enough that hackers are designing their malware to find and kill already-running cryptominers on systems they infect. CoinMiner is one example.
According to Comodo, CoinMiner checks for the presence of an AMDDriver64 process on Windows systems. Within the CoinMiner malware are two lists, $malwares and $malwares2, which contain the names of processes known to be part of other cryptominers. It then kills those processes.
Compromised MikroTik routers spread cryptominers
Bad Packets reported in September last year that it had been monitoring over 80 cryptojacking campaigns that targeted MikroTik routers, providing evidence that hundreds of thousands of devices were compromised. The campaigns exploited a known vulnerability (CVE-2018-14847) for which MikroTik had provided a patch. Not all owners had applied it, however. Since MikroTik produces carrier-grade routers, the cryptojacking perpetrators had broad access to systems that could be infected.
How to prevent cryptojacking
Follow these steps to minimize the risk of your organization falling prey to cryptojacking:
Incorporate the cryptojacking threat into your security awareness training, focusing on phishing-type attempts to load scripts onto users’ computers. “Training will help protect you when technical solutions might fail,” says Laliberte. He believes phishing will continue to be the primary method to deliver malware of all types.
Employee training won’t help with auto-executing cryptojacking from visiting legitimate websites. “Training is less effective for cryptojacking because you can’t tell users which websites not to go to,” says Vaystikh.
Install an ad-blocking or anti-cryptomining extension on web browsers. Since cryptojacking scripts are often delivered through web ads, installing an ad blocker can be an effective means of stopping them. Some ad blockers like Ad Blocker Plus have some capability to detect cryptomining scripts. Laliberte recommends extensions like No Coin and MinerBlock, which are designed to detect and block cryptomining scripts.
Use endpoint protection that is capable of detecting known crypto miners. Many of the endpoint protection/antivirus software vendors have added crypto miner detection to their products. “Antivirus is one of the good things to have on endpoints to try to protect against cryptomining. If it’s known, there’s a good chance it will be detected,” says Farral. Just be aware, he adds, that crypto minor authors are constantly changing their techniques to avoid detection at the endpoint.
Keep your web filtering tools up to date. If you identify a web page that is delivering cryptojacking scripts, make sure your users are blocked from accessing it again.
Maintain browser extensions. Some attackers are using malicious browser extensions or poisoning legitimate extensions to execute cryptomining scripts.
Use a mobile device management (MDM) solution to better control what’s on users’ devices. Bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies present a challenge to preventing illicit cryptomining. “MDM can go a long way to keep BYOD safer,” says Laliberte. An MDM solution can help manage apps and extensions on users’ devices. MDM solutions tend to be geared toward larger enterprises, and smaller companies often can’t afford them. However, Laliberte notes that mobile devices are not as at risk as desktop computers and servers. Because they tend to have less processing power, they are not as lucrative for the hackers.
None of the above best practices are foolproof. In recognition of that, and the growing prevalence of cryptojacking, cyber risk solution provider Coalition now offers service fraud insurance coverage. According to a press release, it will reimburse organizations for and direct financial losses due to fraudulent use of business services, including cryptomining.
How to detect cryptojacking
Like ransomware, cryptojacking can affect your organization despite your best efforts to stop it. Detecting it can be difficult, especially if only a few systems are compromised. Don’t count on your existing endpoint protection tools to stop cryptojacking. “Cryptomining code can hide from signature-based detection tools,” says Laliberte. “Desktop antivirus tools won’t see them.” Here’s what will work:
Train your help desk to look for signs of cryptomining. Sometimes the first indication is a spike in help desk complaints about slow computer performance, says SecBI’s Vaystikh. That should raise a red flag to investigate further.
Other signals help desk should look for might be overheating systems, which could cause CPU or cooling fan failures, says Laliberte. “Heat [from excessive CPU usage] causes damage and can reduce the lifecycle of devices,” he says. This is especially true of thin mobile devices like tablets and smartphones.
Deploy a network monitoring solution. Vaystikh believes cryptojacking is easier to detect in a corporate network than it is at home because most consumer end-point solutions do not detect it. Cryptojacking is easy to detect via network monitoring solutions, and most corporate organizations have network monitoring tools.
However, few organizations with network motoring tools and data have the tools and capabilities to analyze that information for accurate detection. SecBI, for example, develops an artificial intelligence solution to analyze network data and detect cryptojacking and other specific threats.
Laliberte agrees that network monitoring is your best bet to detect cryptomining activity. “Network perimeter monitoring that reviews all web traffic has a better chance of detecting cryptominers,” he says. Many monitoring solutions drill down that activity to individual users so you can identify which devices are affected.
“If you have good egress filtering on a server where you’re watching for outbound connection initiation, that can be good detection for [cryptomining malware],” says Farral. He warns, though, that cryptominer authors are capable of writing their malware to avoid that detection method.
Stay abreast of cryptojacking trends. Delivery methods and the cryptomining code itself are constantly evolving. Understanding the software and behaviors can help you detect cryptojacking, says Farral. “A savvy organization is going to stay abreast of what’s happening. If you understand the delivery mechanisms for these types of things, you know this particular exploit kit is delivering crypto stuff. Protections against the exploit kit will be protections against being infected by the cryptomining malware,” he says.
For example, Akamai reported in December 2020 that a known cryptomining botnet had changed tactics to avoid being taken down. The botnet operators had added a bitcoin wallet address to the malware as well as a URL for a wallet-checking API and a cryptic series of nested bash one-liners. The Akamai researchers concluded that the code used the wallet data being fetched from the API to calculate an IP address, which it then used for persistence and to infect more systems.
“This is a very clever and strategic technique. It enables the operators to stash obfuscated configuration data on the blockchain. By pushing a small amount of BTC into the wallet, they can recover infected systems that have been orphaned,” said the researchers in their report.
How to respond to a cryptojacking attack
Update and purge browser extensions. “If an extension infected the browser, closing the tab won’t help,” says Laliberte. “Update all the extensions and remove those not needed or that are infected.”
Learn and adapt. Use the experience to better understand how the attacker was able to compromise your systems. Update your user, helpdesk and IT training so they are better able to identify cryptojacking attempts and respond accordingly.