Details on New Email Exploit – No Attachment Required

People often ask me if it is dangerous to simply open an email, if it is possible to get a malware inflection just by reading an email.  My answer has been a qualified “not at this time.”  Unfortunately, this is no longer true.  It is possible to get a malware installation from the new DDE (Dynamic Data Exchange) exploits reveal by Sophos Labs on October 13 2017.  This can be accomplished without an attachment or link if the email is written in Rich Text format.  The only clue you will get that this is happening to you are the dialog boxes below.  The only correct answer is NO!

If your some reason you click yes, you get one more chance to choose wisely when the following dialog opens.

Dynamic Data Exchange is a 24 year old feature of the Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications.  This feature allows a user to do things such as embed an Excel chart from a spreadsheet into a Word document, and have the chart in the Word document connected to the Excel spreadsheet so whenever you change values in the spreadsheet, the chart in the Word document is automatically updated.

This exploit was originally discovered to be using infected Word, Excel or other Office document attachments in email.  What was unique is that the exploit did not require macros to run.  This exploit works by calling out to a document that is actually located on a web server the attacker controls.

What makes the Outlook email attack variety so powerful is that no attachment is required.  This attack will appear as an email (or an Outlook Meeting Request) without an attachment or link.  The email will appear to be safe, since bad stuff only happens when you open attachments or click links, right?  Not so any more.  The trick is that the email is written using Rich Text format.  RTF allows DDE to execute without the user ever seeing the code, since it is embedded in the email itself.

The good news is the DDE attack in Outlook isn’t completely automated.  The user will see the dialog boxes shown above.  Clicking NO on either of them stops the attack.

In the example above, clicking yes on both dialog boxes will launch a Windows Command dialog, allowing the attacker to inject commands directly to the operating system, and download more malware from command and control servers on the Internet.  Often the first step of this exploit is to install a remote access Trojan horse program, or RAT, to give the attacker access to and control of the compromised computer.

What can you do?  For Office attachments and Outlook emails, here are our recommendations:

  • Read and understand popup messages! If you receive an email and either of the dialog boxes appears, you have a problem.  In the worst case DDE attack scenario, users are still prompted twice before the attack can happen. The older macro-fueled version of this exploit will ask you to enable macros, which you should not do either.  If you don’t understand the message from the dialog box, a quick Google search will explain the meaning.  Do not just click yes.
  • Don’t open attachments.  If you receive a Word, Excel, PowerPoint or other Office document by email and you aren’t expecting it or don’t know the person who sent it, it’s better to leave it unopened.  Even if you know the sender, if the email was sent from a hijacked email account, it will be a fake email from a genuine email account.  Call the sender to confirm the authenticity of the email and attachment.
  • Use an endpoint anti-malware with real-time protection. This product will protect you between system scans by examining all incoming traffic for malware.  This can help you block this exploit.
  • Configure stronger email gateway and filter settings. This may create some additional work for staff as some legitimate email may be directed in spam, junk, or quarantine folders, but the inconvenience is less expensive than the risk of infection.
  • Receive emails in plain text only.  Emails viewed in plain text will stop RTF code from executing.  Unfortunately this breaks HTML formatted emails as well, and makes them difficult to read.  This will not be popular with your user base.
  • Train your staff.  Even if it is nothing more than sharing a link to this article or the others included below, it is important that your staff be aware of this new exploit.

More information:

 

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About the Author:

Cybersecurity guru to business owners in the St Paul, Minneapolis, and western Wisconsin area. Computer security and hacking have been a passion of mine since I entered the computer and networking business in 2000. In 2013 I completed a course of study and certification exam to become a Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). In 2016 I was certified as a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). As Senior Cybersecurity Engineer at Computer Integration Technologies, I help our clients experience high levels of computer security, network security, and web site security. In addition to consulting on security products and services, we also conduct security audits, vulnerability assessments and full penetration tests. We also provide Cybersecurity Awareness Training for clients and their employees. We also work with companies and organizations that need to certify compliance with regulations such as PCI-DSS (credit card processing), HIPAA/HITECH (medical records), and GLBA. The views expressed on this Web site are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.

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