From Ransomware to DDoS: Guide to Cyber Threat Actors—How, Why, and Who Threat Actors Choose to Attack
Threat actors who execute cyberattacks, such as ransomware, can wreak havoc on organizations across the private and public sectors. These cyberattacks put their reputation, assets, stakeholders, and customers at stake.
What Do Cyber Threat Actors Want? Money, Mostly.
Threat actors who execute cyberattacks, such as ransomware, can wreak havoc on organizations across the private and public sectors. These cyberattacks put their reputation, assets, stakeholders, and customers at stake. Two seminal yearly studies say it all:
- According to Verizon’s Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), encompassing nearly 4,000 breaches last year, 86% of breaches were financially motivated.
- All said, threat actors cost companies an average of $4.24M per incident, according to the IBM and Ponemon Institute’s 2021 Cost of Data Breach Report, a survey of more than 500 breaches. (This represents the highest number ever recorded in the report’s 17-year history.)
In this article we focus specifically on the behaviors of cyber threat actors, whose interactions occur primarily online and are commonly motivated by financial gain.
The behaviors of cyber threat actors are ever-changing. Their targets, methods, and even their motivations (which are usually, but not always, financially motivated) evolve with every passing minute.
Security and fraud teams at government and law enforcement agencies, as well as enterprises, must possess the kinds of finished, actionable intelligence that will help them proactively engage in meaningful cyber threat hunting and ultimately prevent attacks which could result in the disclosure of data to an unauthorized party.
This begins with a deep understanding of the threat actor landscape. In this article we:
- Define threat actors, including the overlap between a threat actor and a cyber threat actor
- Describe common threat actor motivations—financial and ideological.
- Detail the illicit communities where threat actors commonly operate.
- Outline common methods of attack, including phishing, malware, and ransomware, and desired intent of each (tip: it’s not always malicious).
What is a cyber threat actor?
Cyber threat actors, or simply threat actors, are groups of individuals who locate and attack technological vulnerabilities—via information systems, networks, domains, devices, and other potentially breachable windows—and then leverage stolen data to accomplish a variety of goals, most commonly for financial gain.
Cyber threat actors use a variety of tactics to see their aims through. This includes ransomware attacks, phishing scams, credential stuffing, and DDoS attacks, all of which we describe below.
A group of threat actors is commonly referred to as a “collective.”
Threat actor Vs. Cyber threat actor
“Threat actor” is an all encompassing term for individuals, or groups of individuals, who are motivated by a cause and take illicit (and often illegal) actions to realize them.
Threat actors are typically split into two categories: those whose methods manifest physically (physical security) and those which manifest as cyberattacks (cybersecurity). Notably, threat actors who intend physical harm, such as violent non-state actors (VSNA), may communicate digitally (via the Telegram messaging app, for example), and therefore possess a certain cyber element to their methods.
Where cyber threat actors operate
Threat actors operate in a number of illicit communities, depending on their objectives.
For example, a number of established forums are dedicated to credit card fraud, one of the earliest forms of cybercrime. This includes forums that discuss carding—from stealing both online and in-store card data, to monetizing it. Additionally, there are a number of cybercrime shops that facilitate the sale of compromised card credentials.
While most cyber threat activity is associated with the “deep and dark web,” chat applications like Telegram and Discord, messaging boards like 4chan, and conventional social media are also common sources of fraudulent activity.
Additionally, threat actors commonly operate on established forums and communities with rooms dedicated to cybercrime subcategories malware, social engineering, and access providing. Flashpoint analysts have also seen cybercriminals establish their own new communities tailored to illicit interests like ransomware, after traditional forums prohibited such activities.
Types of threat actors and their motivations
It isn’t always easy to isolate a threat actor and figure out their individual motivations. Multiple threat actors can join a single group and unite behind a cause, only to splinter when their interests diverge. Further complicating this picture is the fact that a threat actor or group can have multiple motivations.
For example, a ransomware collective can be financially motivated and extort ransoms from organizations, but only target entities in certain countries based on political or social motivations. While most threat actors are motivated by money, they may also exhibit other motivations, such as causing chaos.
Financially-motivated threat actors
Profit is one of the most frequent motivations of cybercriminals at any level of sophistication. Financially-motivated threat actors are opportunistic and target low-hanging fruit; these threat actors are not concerned with the discoverability of their attacks because they’re only interested in stealing assets that they can convert into money as quickly as possible.
“Cybercriminal” is a blanket term used to describe an individual who conducts illegal activities online.
Cybercriminals are also often referred to as “threat actors” or “cyber threat actors.” As every country has different laws governing online activity, the label “cybercriminal” is subjective.
Organized crime: Ransomware
Ransomware is a type of cyber attack that renders a victim’s files inaccessible by encrypting them and demanding a monetary ransom for the decryption key.
Recently, the term “ransomware actors” has also come to be associated with groups participating in data extortion, or the practice of exfiltrating and threatening to publish or sell sensitive corporate or personal documents in addition to, or instead of, encrypting them.
Ransomware actors can operate individually or in specialized groups under the Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) model, where multiple threat actors specialize in various aspects of an attack (initial access, encryption, negotiation, etc.) each carry out a separate part of the attack and split the ransom amongst themselves.
Since the May 2021 ban of ransomware activity on forums, operators began advertising on the closed-membership forum RAMP. Analysts have also observed advertisements on encrypted messengers like Jabber.
Insider threats, or insider cyber threats, can be done intentionally—or not—and make up about 30% of all data breaches.
Intentional insider threats involve actions taken to harm an organization for personal benefit or to act on a personal grievance. The intentional insider is often synonymously referenced as a “malicious insider.”
However, not all insider threats are intentional. A threat actor that is incompetent or negligent puts an organization at risk through carelessness. Negligent insiders are generally familiar with security policies and IT best practices but choose to ignore them, thereby creating risk for the organization.
Out of convenience or incompetence, these unintentional insider threats actively try to bypass security controls. Against security policies, they leave vulnerable data and resources unsecured, giving attackers easy access. Organizations can take proactive steps to mitigate employee mistakes and follow best practices to protect themselves from insider threats.
A carder is an individual who is involved in credit card theft and subsequent fraudulent activities associated with the stolen credit cards. Generally, carding doesn’t require as much technical knowledge as other cybercrime activities, and it is often seen as the stepping stone for many cybercriminals.
Scammers are typically involved with various types of fraud. This may include tactics to steal personally identifiable information, or payment card details. Other scams may include perpetrating synthetic identity fraud to borrow lines of credit, or more recently observed COVID-19 scams, like CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or Small Business Association (SBA) loan fraud.
Ideologically motivated threat actors
FUD: Fear, uncertainty, and doubt
FUD-motivated threat actors, motivated by certain political ideologies, disseminate false or misleading information in a targeted manner. They also seek to influence public perception of their capabilities or goals, thereby confusing law enforcement or other adversaries.
Examples include a ransomware collective sharing a message to call rivals to arms against the United States, in order to achieve media exposure, or a threat actor sharing publicly available voter information on an illicit forum in order to create the semblance of election meddling.
What are government/state-sponsored and APT groups?
Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups are threat actors or collectives that are typically supported by a nation state either directly (e.g. units of an intelligence agency) or indirectly (e.g. a syndicate supported by the state through shell companies or similar entities)—and who are thus capable of using advanced capabilities in a sustained manner to attack large entities to achieve specific goals.
APTs are usually politically or economically motivated, often use spear phishing or social engineering as initial attack vectors, and apart from doing harm to a target by disrupting operations or stealing funds, will often also have espionage capabilities. Their targets include state institutions, critical infrastructure and large companies possessing key assets. APTs are typically referred to with a number and various researchers and vendors may attach other aliases to them.
Recent examples include the SolarWinds cyberattack (also a supply chain attack) and ransomware-driven cryptocurrency schemes being run out of North Korea.
Hacktivists are individuals, or groups such as the decentralized group Anonymous, that act as socially or politically active threat actors. They pose a medium-level threat of carrying out an isolated but damaging attack. Most hacktivist groups attempt to draw public attention to what they believe is an important issue or cause using propaganda, rather than by causing damage to critical infrastructures.
Their goal is to support their own political or social agenda. Their sub-goals are propaganda and causing reputational damage—such as the recent BlueLeaks hack or Epik leak—to achieve notoriety for their cause to inspire social or political change.
Insider threats that are intentional involve actions taken to harm an organization for personal benefit or to act on a personal grievance. The intentional insider is often synonymously referenced as a “malicious insider” or “malicious actor.” Their motivation is personal gain or harming an organization.
However, not all insider threats are intentional. A threat actor that is incompetent, negligent, or inadvertent puts an organization at risk through carelessness. Negligent insiders are generally familiar with security policies and IT best practices, but choose to ignore them, creating risk for the organization. Out of convenience or incompetence, these unintentional insider threats actively try to bypass security controls. Against security policies, they leave vulnerable data and resources unsecured, giving attackers easy access
Therefore, organizations should take proactive action to mitigate employee mistakes and follow best practices to protect themselves from insider threats.
Script kiddies (skiddies)
“Script kiddies,” also known as “skiddies,” are threat actors with little experience—newcomers to illicit online communities—who generally engage in areas of cybercrime with a low barrier to entry. The term is used pejoratively to describe actors who, for example, may not understand how a programming language works but are able to download and use scripts written by others.
For example, there are many publicly available tools which can be used for credential stuffing that do not require any real knowledge of penetration testing or programming; therefore, script kiddies have a propensity to engage in this activity.
Cyber threat actor tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs)
A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack is a malicious attempt to disrupt the normal traffic of a targeted server, service, or network by flooding it with internet traffic. DDoS attacks are most effective when utilizing multiple compromised computer systems as sources of attack traffic. DDoS attacks are often pivoted to enable threat actors to steal data from the victim.
Malware refers to software that is purposefully designed in order to cause damage to a computer or other network resource. There are a variety of malware attack types—including trojans, worms, stealers, rootkits, cryptojacking, keyloggers, and ransomware—all of which allow actors to gain access to specific network resources and steal data.
Ransomware is a type of malware wherein threat actors employ encryption in order to lock up a victim’s data and then hold it ransom.
Extortionist ransomware refers to the practice of publishing, or threatening to publish, stolen data from an infected server in order to pressure the victim to pay the ransom. This type of ransomware means that backing up data no longer mitigates the threat of ransomware attacks.
Cloud resources common vulnerabilities and misconfigurations are often exploited by threat actors before or soon after they have been disclosed. From there, threat actors can pivot their access to exfiltrate data to later resell in illicit marketplaces, or attempt to move laterally through the cloud environment.
Threat actors will target third party software or technology solutions providers in order to infect a larger number of downstream customers. Managed service providers, cloud service providers, and other IT services providers are integrated into corporate environments and possibly interact with organizational data.
Social engineering methods are often leveraged by threat actors to serve as initial entry points to a certain network or resource. This type of attack takes advantage of the human element within any cyber environment. Phishing is a popular form of social engineering that involves sending correspondence (phishing email, e.g.) from a seemingly reputable source in order to manipulate a human element and gain access to a cyber environment.
Brute forcing and Credential Stuffing
Brute forcing is the act of programatically guessing all possible combinations of a potential piece of data, such as a password.
Credential stuffing is the act of using a previously obtained list of passwords to try to gain access to a victim’s account. These two attacks are closely related, and threat actors commonly use the term “brute forcing” or “brute” to refer to them both.
For example, a threat actor who wants to gain access to streaming accounts might buy a list of usernames and password hashes obtained from a compromised dating site. They will then attempt to “crack” those password hashes by brute forcing them—i.e. guessing and hashing all possible combinations of letters in order to determine what plaintext passwords those hashes represent.
Finally, as an example of credential stuffing, the threat actor will take that list of usernames—and, now, plaintext passwords from the dating site—and try all username:password pairs on the streaming site in the hope that some users signed up for both services using same username/password combination.
There are many variations on this kind of attack. For example, “reverse brute forcing” tries one common password with a list of many usernames, and some attacks use “brute forcing tools” in order to test username:password combinations on multiple sites at the same time. However, ultimately, these attacks all have unauthorized access to victim accounts as their goal.
Prepare for Ransomware and Cyber Extortion with Flashpoint
Keep track of IOCs associated with groups known to target your industry on the Flashpoint platform. Request a demo or sign up for a free 90-day trial and see firsthand how Flashpoint cybersecurity technology can help your organization access critical information and insights into ransomware actors and their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).