Cybercrooks are attempting to turn the tables on security researchers by setting up fake interfaces on their botnets in a bid to confuse and confound analysis.
The fake honeypot tactic was brought into play by a group using a variant of the infamous Zeus crimeware toolkit. The unknown miscreants targeted quarterly federal taxpayers with fake emails that sought to trick prospective marks into visiting a website loaded with exploits on the pretext that there had been a problem with their tax returns. If successful, the attack resulted in the infection of PCs with variants of ZeuS primarily designed to capture and extract bank login details.
In between waiting for the drop of confidential IDs from compromised machines, the crackers set up a trap for researchers. A bogus administrative panel hands out counterfeit statistics on the number of ZeuS-infected machines, as well as the ability to upload new bot malware, a feature designed to hoodwink security researchers or rival botnet operators.
A write-up of the ZeuS decoy admin console can be found in a post on the Last Line of Defense blog here.
"This admin interface acts as a 'hacker honeypot' that records detailed information about who attempted to access the admin console, as well as who attempted to hack into it," the post explains.
In a nice touch, the phoney login accepts default or easily guessed login credentials. Just for good measure, the interface is also also vulnerable to a simple SQL-injection vulnerability.
The deployment of the fake honeypot tactic in ZeuS-related malware operations is unlikely to be coincidental. The discovery of genuine ZeuS interfaces over recent months has been a major source of raw intelligence for security researchers. Although we can't say for sure at this point it's even possible that this data led to the recent run of arrests of ZeuS crimeware suspects in the UK, US and the Ukraine.
Crooks who use ZeuS as the weapon of choice for snaffling online banking credentials would doubtless be interested in frustrating this kind of researcher through the use of decoys. Viewed from this perspective, spying on what their opponents are up to would be a bonus for cybercrooks. And since ZeuS is highly customisable adding in the additional honeypot hooks would have been no great chore. ®