Meet Valak: The Marquis of Malware


June 23, 2020

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I’m not sure if you’re a horror fan, or if you like spooky stuff. Hey, maybe you are, if you’re reading this you work in cybersecurity and there’s plenty of stuff in this industry that can scare the pants off you on a daily basis.

 Beyond the daily horrors we might encounter, I like scary movies. Love ’em. I’ve tortured myself with them over the course of the pandemic, sitting on my couch, waiting for the big jump-scare, and then shrieking like a little girl when it actually happens.

 If you’ve ever seen the Conjuring series of films, you might be familiar with the name Valak. Or at least form it takes on when it impersonates a demonically possessed nun (see the blog image at the top of the page).

 Now, the character in question is a bunch of made-up, silly nonsense, licensed to Warner Bros. by the estate of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a couple of paranormal con-artists from Connecticut who made a lot of noise claiming to be the best in the business without ever delivering any results. Regardless of the voodoo they cooked up over the course of their career I love the stuff, and when I saw the name Valak pop up in a recent bulletin from Cybereason, it piqued my interest.

 Instead of a paranormal entity haunting the silver screen and my occasional dream, this Valak is a brand spanking new piece of Malware haunting enterprise-level end-users and IT staffers across the world.

 Since being first observed in 2019, Valak has 30 different unique variants in the wild. 30! And while it’s typically been seen as a loader for other malicious pieces of software, it does a pretty good job of stealing important information on its own.

 Like most malware, Valak spreads via the sharing of compromised document files. The file gets passed around as part of a phishing campaign, most likely via an email attachment, until some poor sap clicks on it, opens it, and unleashes…well…heck.

 I’ll skip most of the technical stuff because, quite frankly, I don’t understand it, but once installed Valak’ll call out to its brethren hosted in the dark web’s netherworld and start to download a host secondary payloads. It’s not uncommon for bad hombre’s to infect a computer with malicious software in stages, but Valak does a really, really good job at it.

 Valak’s modular design has made it very difficult to detect and even more lethal when it comes to stealing information. Particularly information related to user accounts on Microsoft Exchange Servers.

 So, besides blessing all your end-points and exchange servers with holy water or hanging garlic in close proximity, how do you protect yourself from Valak?

 1. Restrict egress by source, identity, and protocols

 “This way to the egress!” If you’re not familiar with the quote, it’s okay. It’s an obscure one. P.T. Barnum came up with it. It was a way to trick people who visited his exhibits into leaving without knowing they were doing so. 

 This can apply, in a way to network traffic as well. It’s important to know not only where traffic is coming to on your network, but where it’s going to as well. Yes, some outbound traffic might be normal, or even welcome. That doesn’t mean all of it is.

 Outbound traffic should be restricted by source, identity, and protocols. Start by making a list of remote services you should be communicating regularly. After that, it’s important to scan your network to see if there’s any outbound traffic you don’t recognize, identify what it is and then block it accordingly.

 Consider implementing a DENY ALL outbound traffic policy (with logging enabled) as well that limits outbound traffic of any type to what you expressly allow.

 2. Implement Web Filtering to block known bad, unacceptable and unknown traffic

 Beyond what some say can result in a possible increase in general workforce productivity, web filtering is better-leveraged blocking known bad websites as well as unacceptable and unknown traffic.

 Properly setting up web filtering services on your firewalls can save you hours of headache. Most either have a service built-in or that you can subscribe to that will do most of the heavy lifting for you. Yeah occasionally you might bump into oddly misclassified websites or whatnot, but ultimately it does a pretty darn good job of keeping people safe on the internet.

 We personally use FortiGuard and recommend it to anyone using a FortiGate device. Of course, Fortinet isn’t alone in offering a web filtering product. Others like Cisco and Barracuda (to name a few) do as well.

 3. Block and alert on Botnet and C&C traffic

 Botnets are nasty, nasty things. They can be difficult to detect too since they’re designed to operate without an end-users’ knowledge. But you’re in luck, there are a few common things you can look for. 

  • IRC traffic (botnets and botmasters use IRC for communications)
  • Connection attempts with known C&C servers
  • Multiple machines on a network making identical DNS requests
  • High outgoing SMTP traffic (as a result of sending spam)
  • Unexpected popups (as a result of click-fraud activity)
  • Slow computing/high CPU usage
  • Spikes in traffic, especially Port 6667 (used for IRC), Port 25 (used in email spamming), and Port 1080 (used by proxy servers)
  • Outbound messages (email, social media, instant messages, etc) that weren’t sent by the user
  • Problems with Internet access

 4. Implement Deep Packet Inspection

 Implementing Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) allows you to analyze encrypted traffic that’s being sent over your network. DPI allows you to take action against traffic by blocking, re-routing, or logging it. DPI can also be used to make sure data is formatted correctly, look for malicious code, or if someone is eavesdropping on your network traffic.

 DPI benefits include:

  • Filter and analyze messages
  • Open and close ports
  • Perform in-line spam screening
  • Proxy your IM traffic
  • Perform SSL session inspections
  • Prevent security breaches

 We’re big believers in not being able to manage what you don’t measure. By analyzing your network traffic you get a much better idea of what’s going on day to day. DPI can help you accomplish that.

 5. Enforce Application Control, limited to applications that are both known and sanctioned

 Today’s world is all about apps! I don’t mean appetizers (but if that’s where your first thought went I like where your head’s at). I mean applications. You can’t do anything without ’em! They enable us.

 But there are a lot of bad or questionable apps out there and it’s real easy to install them. By enforcing application control you can limit what gets installed on your end-points to only what is known and what is sanctioned by you. You can implement application control rather easily by applying the principle of least privilege when assigning user rights.

 Keep in mind that the average user doesn’t usually need to install any sort of application on their end-point to do their job. They should already have all the tools they need. Limiting their ability to do so from the get-go might be a solution you want to consider.

 6. Install a next-generation end-point protection application on your end-points and configure it to block scripts

 There are a lot of products out there to consider when it comes to protecting your end-points. We’d never shy away from our love of Cylance but we’ll be the first to admit they’re not the only game in town and there are a lot of solutions out there that would probably work for you. What matters is you pick something and install it.

 One of the biggest threats to municipalities, in general, is a malware infestation. A next-generation end-point protection tool with script blocking configured can do a lot to stop your town from falling victim to a would-be attacker and meeting a similar fate to the towns we listed above.

 7. Educate your end-users so they become more security-minded; start by enabling external email identification notifications

I personally am a big believer in the idea that the best way to protect yourself from something is to know as much as you can about it. If malware is as much a threat to municipalities as it appears to be (and it is) the best way to avoid an infestation is to not only educate yourself regarding the matter but the other people in the organization as well.

 Yes, a next-generation end-point protection product can help you avoid such an awful fate, but it’s much better to be proactive than reactive and a great way to do that is via security awareness training for your end-users.

 Another way to accomplish this is to set up external email notifications that remind people not to do things like download and open attachments from people you don’t know. External email notifications are exceptionally easy to set up and implement (as you can see in this article:

Carl Keyser is the Content Manager at Integris.

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