Government Officials Take Down NetWalker Ransomware Gang

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in News February 09, 2021

In another big win for the good guys, Bulgaria and the U.S. teamed up to seize a dark web site used by the NetWalker gang. The group had been using this website to post data they stole in various hacking and ransomware incidents.

What Happened?

A joint venture between the U.S. Department of Justice and Bulgarian officials took down the NetWalker infrastructure and accompanying dark web site and they made a single arrest.

Along with seizing the website and servers, the government charged a Canadian national, Sebastien Vachon-Desjardins, with extortion of more than $27 million in conjunction with NetWalker operations. Data Breach Today commented that;

“Vachon-Desjardins has been charged with intentional damage to a protected computer, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, the federal indictment notes.”

Along with the site seizure, the Bulgarian officials also seized servers belonging to the hacker group disrupting operations and destroying the NetWalker infrastructure. This news, combined with reports of Europol taking down Emotet, ramps up the positive momentum of the good guys winning over the bad guys. At least for now.

According to Data Breach Today “In the Netwalker takedown, police have confiscated hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom payments collected by the cybercriminal gang, federal prosecutors note.”

On January 10th, the federal indictment noted that the FBI also seized more than $450,000 from NetWalker affiliates. The money was collected through ransomware attacks.

Data Breach Today reports “Ransomware groups have had operations with near complete impunity for far too long, so this is great to see,” says Brett Callow, a threat analyst at security firm Emsisoft. “We need strong action to combat the ransomware epidemic, and this is certainly a step in the right direction.”

How Was it Done?

A blockchain analysis firm Chainalysis, worked with law enforcement to identify cryptocurrency wallets linked to NetWalker affiliates, and they were able to identify 345 addresses for associates of Vachon-Desjardins. Some date back to 2018, and others as recently as last week. This information may help lead to further arrests.

Data Breach Today said that “The Chainalysis report also notes that Vachon-Desjardins was allegedly involved in at least 91 NetWalker attacks since April 2020 and received 80% of the ransom for his role in deploying the ransomware.”

The data breach publication also noted that “Vachon-Desjardins is also suspected of working as an affiliate for a number of other ransomware-as-a-service operations, including Sodinokibi, Suncrypt and Ragnar Locker, according to the Chainalysis report.”

NetWalker was most active during 2020, using pandemic-themed phishing emails to lure victims and during the year raked in about $46 million in ransomware payments from victims. Some affiliates earned portions of the profits between 76 - 80%.

According to the FBI, “the most common vulnerabilities exploited by Netwalker over the last year are  CVE-2019-11510, which is found in Pulse Secure VPN servers, and  CVE-2019-18935, which is found in Telerik UI, a toolset used with Windows Presentation Foundation to help build applications.”

What is NetWalker?

NetWalker is a ransomware product used by a hacker group with the same name. The malware is continuously updated, and the owners rent it out to other hackers. Historically, the seized website is where the group leaked stolen data to pressure victims into paying up. The malware and group have been around since 2019.

In 2020 NetWalker was responsible for some huge ransomware attacks, including one where the University of California San Francisco was a victim. They ended up paying $1 million to have their data restored. Another victim, Toll Group (an Australian transportation and logistics company), was attacked in February 2020.

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