The China-based threat actor Mustang Panda is conducting spear phishing campaigns against organizations in NATO countries and Russia, as well as entities in the US and Asia, according to researchers at Cisco Talos. The goal of this activity is cyberespionage.
“This attacker started attacks earlier this year where a vast majority of the lures and decoys consisted of themes related to the European Union (EU),” the researchers write. “For example, in early January 2022, we saw the attackers employ a lure that consisted of a European Commission report on state aid to Greece between 2022 and 2027. Toward the end of January, the attackers started using a press release from the EU regarding the union’s human rights priorities in 2022. The attackers also started taking advantage of publications and documents related to the degrading relations between Ukraine and Russia. In late January, the group started spreading a lure containing PlugX that disguised itself as a report from the EU’s general secretary.”
The researchers note that the threat actor is using the war in Ukraine as phishbait to target certain countries.
“As recently as March 2022, we discovered a downloader pretending to be a report on the current situation along European borders with Belarus,” the researchers write. “In another instance, we observed an executable named ‘Благовещенск – Благовещенский Пограничный Отряд.exe’ roughly translating to ‘Blagoveshchensk – Blagoveshchensk Border Guard Detachment.exe’, a report on the border detachment to Blagoveshchensk, a town located on the Sino-Russian border.”
Mustang Panda has improved its malware arsenal over the past year to avoid detection.
“Apart from Mustang Panda’s tool of choice, PlugX, we’ve observed a steady increase in the use of intermediate payloads such as a variety of stagers and reverse shells,” Talos says. “The group has also continuously evolved its delivery mechanisms consisting of maldocs, shortcut files, malicious archives and more recently seen downloaders starting with 2022. Mustang Panda is a highly motivated APT group relying primarily on the use of topical lures and social engineering to trick victims into infecting themselves.”
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