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Phishing Layer 8 – The Human Layer

Misleading concepts about Email Security Gateways are being spread by new players of the email security industry

Cisco’s SpamCop service: worldwide outage after its domain expired

Yesterday most of the mail administrators, organizations, and MSPs worldwide suddenly found that their mail was being rejected as it reported as being listed in the blacklist at bl.spamcop.net.

SpamCop, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cisco Systems, provides a Real-time Blackhole List (RBL) that mail servers can use to determine if incoming mail should be marked as spam, suffered a worldwide outage after its domain mistakenly was allowed to expire.

As a consequence of this all cloud services and mail servers – including Libraesva, Cisco and Barracuda only to mention a few – who use their RBL started to reject incoming mail automatically.

According to a post on Reddit, when visiting spamcop.net, the domain was shown as parked , and users that tried to contact Cisco didn’t get any answer. Libraesva has contacted Cisco as well with further questions but has not received any reply from them as of yet.

Sunday evening finally Cisco renewed the spamcop.net domain, but some customers and mail administrators are still reporting that they continue to see issues with their incoming mail being blocked by SpamCop. This is due to the DNS systems dealing with cache and TTL. We suggest to manually expire DNS cache before re-enable the SpamCop RBL Service.

We do apologize with all Libraesva’s customers for any inconvenience that we may have caused relying on SpamCop RBL.

Earlier in December another big company offering cloud storage – Wasabi – had a worldwide outage caused by its domain being suspended by GoDaddy and taking down on their knees all customers worldwide, being unable to resolve their object storage bucket.

It seems that simple tasks like keeping a service domain active and healthy are huge problems for these industry giants… Nevertheless if this is a mission critical task with worldwide impact.



Mimecast® for Microsoft 365™ hacked

A few days ago, Microsoft® informed that a Mimecast® for Microsoft 365™ certificate has been hacked and is being used against Mimecast’s customers.

This certificate allows full administrative access to the Microsoft 365Exchange Web Services of some Mimecast’s customers, estimated to be around 10% of their global install base, who had configured the integration between Mimecast® and Microsoft 365.

Since this announcement was made, we have been asked by our channel partners and customers if the integration between Libraesva’s products and Microsoft 365 can be abused in the same way.

The short answer is no. The long answer is no, because…

1) We do not use a single certificate to authenticate against our customer’s Microsoft 365 tenants.

Libraesva products (Email Security Gateway and Email Archiver) authenticate to Microsoft 365 using credentials that are unique for each tenant.

A single certificate that acts as a passe-partout key for full access to many customer’s tenants is a bad design choice from a security standpoint. This is, of course, our opinion.

2) We instruct our customers to provide to Libraesva with the minimum set of permissions we require.

Libraesva asks for the minimum set of permissions required to provide the services we provide. We do not advise our customers to provide complete access to their own tenants. We ask them to only provide the permissions that they need, based on how they use our products.

3) We have a de-centralized architecture.

Libraesva’s products are designed for full isolation between customers. Each customer ‘lives’ in a separate virtual appliance, with a unique IP address. We do not store access credentials in any central repository.

As Libraesva is a security company, we know that security is difficult and that anybody can fail. Our architectural and software design choices are based on strict security principles, among which is avoiding any single point of failure.

What is a secure email gateway and why you need it

The last year, maybe like no year before, demonstrated clearly just how much every moment and aspect of our day-to-day lives depend on the Internet. This dependence leads to an increase of risks and threats to our “online security”.

According to the latest Data Breach Investigation Report, email is still the main vehicle for delivering cyber threats, with particular reference to malicious links and attachments which are developed in order to carry malware. 46% of those surveyed included companies who said they had received the bulk of malware delivery attempts via email. Social Engineering attacks also remain very high, around 96%, and phishing is confirmed the favourite form, while successful Business Email Compromise deliveries has led to an average loss of $ 44,000 per company.

Why email?

According to a Radicati Group’s study, there will be more than 4.2 billion email users within the first months of 2022; this means that about half of the global population will be using email to communicate. Consequently, a cyber attack delivered via email has a high chance of being successful and spreading like wildfire.

For example, let’s think about the Account Takeover phenomenon, a fraudulent identity theft attack method: cybercriminals obtain a victimis’ account credentials through brand impersonation, phishing and social engineering techniques and then monitor an organisations activities to learn how the company does business, manages financial transactions and even communicate with one another. This allows the cybercriminal to glean valuable information to resell to competitors, damage a companies reputation or bottom line, generate and spread further cyber attacks or acquire further credential logins, creating an endless cycle.

A single malicious email can cause a significant amount of damage to networks and, in some cases, completely halt business growth. This is exactly why email protection should be considered a crucial part of any businesses cyber-security strategy. Investing in email security is not an expense, but a saving. While it may seem convenient to use free secure email gateways, there are drawbacks to consider, such as the lack of real-time updates to block emerging threats or a lack of comprehensive security features. During the last year we have witnessed how cybercriminals rapidly change their strategies to become more effecient at delivering succesful attacks, circumventing free and simple to manouvere security platforms, negating cost saving benefits realised by implementing free email protection there resulting in larger costs to fix and recover from them – bringing the total cost of a free solution, to many thousands of pounds more expensive than if they had paid for one which can offer real-time protection and the use of a combination of advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, enabling predictive threat analysis.

What is a secure email gateway?

A secure email gateway is essentially a firewall that scans your incoming email in order to protect your mailbox from email-borne cyber threats, such as phishing attacks, compromised business emails, malware, next-generation spam, or fraudulent content of various kinds. But a secure email gateway can also scan outgoing messages to prevent sensitive data from leaving an organization.

What do you need to consider when choosing a secure email gateway?

Choosing a secure email gateway can be a long and difficult process. There are many gateways available on the market and, even if they look very similar, there are numerous differences. To help you along this path, we have suggested some points that you should take in consideration:

  • Deployment: it is important to have the possibility to choose between a cloud and local service, based on the needs of your organization
  • Threat intelligence, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, to detect and block both emerging & known threats and help administrators to understand which attack techniques and strategies are used the most against their company
  • Active analysis of URLs and attachments, to quickly and accurately block various types of malware spread in this way, thus preventing phishing attacks
  • Response capabilities, to recognise a malicious email and automatically identify and block all subsequent ones
  • Control of outgoing content to prevent sensitive data from being released

What are the advantages of using a secure email gateway?

First and foremost, a secure email gateway helps to plug gaps in email security. It is a big mistake to think that installing an antivirus engine will protect you against threats delivered via email, or to believe that solutions such as Microsoft365™ (formerly Office365™), offer a complete and secure email gateway service. A recent test carried out on numerous implementations of Microsoft365™ lasting for 1321 days across 175.110 users and 109.284.844 emails, demonstrated that a large number of threats were not intercepted by security filters included in the solution. Unfortunately, cybercriminals have become very good at finding strategies to circumvent software such as antivirus and multi-vector attacks, which use evasion techniques, such as anti-forensics and encryption, expanding significantly in recent years; exactly why nearly 35% of organizations that have switched to Microsoft365™ are integrating their native email security features with a third-party product that combines threat intelligence with traditional filters.

Furthermore, these malicious actos are well aware that employees are the weak link in the chain and the main vehicle for intrusion into corporate networks: the presence of a secure email gateway allows companies to improve employee safety by blocking unsafe URLs and malicious attachments, which are capable of spreading phishing attacks, compromised business emails, malware, and more.

Another advantage of using a secure email gateway is the ability to preserve the operational continuity of email; in the unlikely instance of a primary server experiencing downtime, a secure email gateway can allow users to send and receive email messages through their web interface.

Another feature that a secure email gateway should offer is quarantine management, to allow users to examine blocked messages and log search in a flexible and customizable way, providing comprehensive reports and useful information to help them decide which messages to release, which senders to blacklist and much more.

Finally, the right email gateway offers maximum security, requires minimal maintenance and operates largely in the background in a “set and forget” manner, guaranteeing continuous protection with minimal use of human and time resource.

Why it’s important to test your email security

The significance of email communication in the modern business world cannot be overstated – hundreds of email messages are sent and received daily by even the smallest companies, containing confidential and personal information such as clients’ data, competitive advantages, financial data or just private information.

The global shift to remotely working culture due to the COVID-19 pandemic has empowered cybercriminals to launch highly sophisticated cyberattacks. Moreover, ransomware, phishing, BEC attacks, etc. are amongst the most common types of data breaches that we have witnessed this year, till now.

Over the years, attackers have looked for new ways to gain access to an organization’s network. Years ago, it was SQL Injection attacks. More recently the industry has been plagued with remote desktop-based attacks. But throughout the years, one attack vector has remained near or at the top of the list: email.

According to a study done by Radicati Group in 2020, there will be more than 4.2 billion email users by the start of 2022. Bringing it closer, it means that about half the entire planet uses email right now!

So it’s no surprise that email is still the number one attack vector also in 2020. That’s why it’s important to test your email security. And you will be impressed by how many different ways there are to steal personal information or install malware with an email message: attachments, links, scripts, tracking bugs, macro enabled Office documents, macro-less ones, PDFs or viruses, just to mention a few.

Many IT security professionals assume their email security is performing reasonably enough, until a user reports that he has received a phishing email or when their Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM) solution alerts that your network has been breached.

If you are among the lucky minority that hasn’t seen an attack recently, don’t assume that your email security is just fine because an attack has not been discovered, or just because you have an email security solution in place: test it!

We at Libraesva, developed a free, exclusive Email Security Tester (https://emailsecuritytester.com) that you can use as email self assessment tool, so you can discover where the holes and gaps are in your defenses. Once you know where they are you can do something about it. Don’t wait for someone else to discover it!

We are dedicated only to email security problems, and we are constantly updating our test with the latest tricks that we see in the wild, so you can effectively test your email security. The Test is non-intrusive and private, no client integration or installation is required. It’s completely safe and will not disrupt operations. Minimal details are required to begin the test, so low impact on resources. The test is free and there’s no obligation to buy anything.

Do test your email security now!

New wave of EXCEL 4.0 malware campaigns abusing FORMULA macro function

VBA has been introduced in Excel 5.0. Before then Excel only had XLM macros, which are still supported today.

XLM macros allow writing code by entering statements directly into cells, just like normal formulas. In fact they are called macro-formulas.

In case you are curious, the reference document of the Excel 4.0 macro functions is here.

There are a few statements among these macro-formulas that allow executing malicious code, these are named EXEC, RUN and CALL. Last month, in April 2020, a wave of malware abusing these calls has circulated.

In May we’ve seen a new wave that apparently still abused XLM macros but without calling EXEC, RUN or CALL. At the time we got them, most of these samples had a 0 detection rate on virustotal, so they seemed to be worth investigating.

Some of these files were using additional tricks to confuse the analysis, like putting the macros in “hidden” sheets. Some others used “very hidden” sheets, some were protected with the “VelvetSweatshop” password (which is a trick used by Microsoft to define read-only documents). There is also a great variability in file names and email campaigns. I won’t waste time on these details and will get straight to the point.

Here is what you see when opening one of these samples:

macro promt

This is the macro prompt shown by Excel when opening the document

This is the usual Macro prompt from Excel. Nothing unusual.

Then this is how the document appears after either accepting or declining the “enable macro” prompt.

The malicious document as soon as it is opened

Again, nothing unusual here. This is just one of the samples, there are of course many variants but, again, we don’t care.

In this case the sample has two visible sheets. As I said before some of the sample have invisible sheets but this is also not important for our analysis.

What all these samples have in common is the abuse of the FORMULA macro-formula. The recursive naming may create some confusion so let me provide a bit of clarification: just like any other formula statement (like IF or SUM for example), the statement FORMULA can be entered into a cell in the form of a formula. This particular statement happens to be named FORMULA itself.

What does this FORMULA statement do? It enters a formula in the active cell (or in a reference). Basically what is given as a parameter to this call becomes a fomula.

Indirect formula generation if you wish and, yes, it is dangerous as it sounds.

While it is quite clear that the following formula may be dangerous

=EXEC("C:\tools\nc.exe 443 -e cmd.exe") 

it may not be immediately clear that the following one is


An this is basically how these malicious samples behave: they crate a formula by gathering data from lots of different cells and making some transformations. Then they apply the formula by using the FORMULA.FILL statement (or one of it’s variants, see the functions reference linked above if you are interested).

The exact text of the FORMULA is built at runtime and this ensures obfuscation which seems to be effective given the zero or very low scores that these samples got on Virustotal.

This is a glance of what you see by analyzing one of these samples with Decalage‘s olevba:

Tiny portion of the olevba output for one of these samples

I’ve highlighted the FORMULA.FILL function call. There are tens of these calls in any given sample.

We are not interested in reverse-engineering each sample in order to find out the details of the behavior. As an email security company we focus on the methods and the tools used by the attackers rather than on the specific malware variant.

Our job is to block these threats on the gateway, we know that the approach of recognizing known malicious stuff is not effective and therefore we focus on removing the tools that the attackers use.

The philosophy of our QuickSand sandbox is more similar to a firewall: when our systems see a pattern like these they don’t really care about reverse-engineering the actual behavior, they don’t even care about recognizing whether this is a known malware variant or a new one.

Whether it is direct or indirect, any way of executing stuff is not allowed for documents delivered via email. This approach is less prone to evasion and it is proactive: it blocks current and future, known and unknown variants.

The low detection rate of these samples on virustotal and on many sandboxing services based on virtualization confirms that in order to be effective with ever-changing threats this is a better approach.


Rodolfo Saccani / Security R&D Manager @ Libraesva

Exploiting Fear as a Threat Actor

One of Libraesva’s Security Researchers recently discovered, along with other security vendors, targeted phishing and whaling campaigns all based around the Coronavirus outbreak, we don’t believe in playing on the fear, but its always good to see how these attacks work and why they work.

Figure 1 shows the email in question we received and blocked, the attackers in this case pretended to be the director of Milan University, warning internal users of the outbreak and steps to take to prevent further spread. As it turns out in fact, the email was spoofed and sent by a trusted sender from a fellow university, typical whaling attack, instead this time the call to action wasn’t transferring funds, but instead helping fight this infectious disease.

Figure 1 – Email Spoof of Director of Milan University, sent from a University of Bologna compromised account.

The interesting thing about this attack is that the sender of the email is trusted by the university and states on many occasions about the dangers of the virus 2019-nCoV as a respiratory epidemic, the call to action here is to quickly, look into the attached document which is a simple docx file with a link shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 – The Document “Documento condiviso dell’Universita di Milano.docx” Attached.

Here in Figure 2 we can see the document in all its glory, feigning the need to access the file via a link which takes you to the screen in figure 3, obviously trying and failing to spoof an Office 365 login page

Figure 3 – The landing page when following the link from the attached document

Once Download file is selected you can clearly see when this becomes a true phishing scam, asking for passwords.

Figure 4 – After selecting download file, we can clearly see credential harvesting fields.

The Coronavirus is a great opportunity for any hacker worth their salt, but there are a few essential things considered when Libraesva decides that this is malicious

How we spotted it:

Whaling Protection: Our first observation was that the Director of Milan University is in our Business Email Compromise protection list, so we took additional checks to stop this user’s name and email being used against their own organisation. Effectively protecting this specific customer from any BEC/Whaling Attacks

Adaptive Trust Engine: Next we saw that the trust between these two organisations was quite high using the Adaptive Trust Engine’s relationship monitoring, but the trust between the two individual user’s was low, we didn’t let the organisational trust get in the way of understand the true nature of the email.

Sandboxing: Libraesva’s uniquely designed and built-in sandboxes disarm any docx, xlsx and pdf documents creating zero risk files meaning this attack, even if delivered to user’s would be unable to ex-filtrate information due to there being no links, no code, nothing in that document.

To Conclude:

Hopefully you learnt a little bit about how these business email compromise attacks look, and how threat actors work off the fear that the public have, Libraesva spotted this early and stopped it from reaching anyone. Thanks for reading and let us know if you have any questions at all.

What is an Evasion Technique?

What exactly are Evasion Techniques?

Evasion techniques are what malicious payloads use to avoid detection from Sandboxing services, Malware authors have two priorities when creating malware, being silent and being deadly, getting as much as they can for as little effort as possible.

We thought it’d be wise to talk about how effective these evasion techniques are against traditional sandboxes and how we as Libraesva handle them in our Email Security Gateway.

My Top Evasion Techniques

Polymorphic Code – Code commonly used to bypass pattern and hash based detection, the malware modifies itself in delivery to other locations, thus effectively being really hard to track and detect. Polymorphic attacks don’t have a single detectable signature, Shikata ga nai meaning (“It cannot be helped”) is a popular polymorphic encoder inside metasploit’s framework making it relatively easy to turn malicious code into polymorphic code.

This technique specifically involves encoding the payload in some fashion, then placing a decoder to undo that mess in front of the payload before sending it. When the target executes the polymorphic code, the decoder is run first which rewrites the subsequent payload into its original, malicious and nasty form before executing.


User and System Interaction Detection – Users interact with computer systems in different ways, they are unpredictable in some essence, which makes them obvious to spot. They press keys on a keyboard in a specific way, scroll with the mouse wheel and click on things with the mouse. However, there are no interactions this bespoke in a Traditional Sandboxed environment. Malicious hackers teach malware to wait for a specific user interaction before exhibiting their malicious behaviors.

Examples of this is executing after you scroll to a particular place within a word document, using paragraph codes in Word files, Trojan.APT.BaneChan activates only after a certain number of mouse clicks are made by a user, other examples of this are timing the speed of the mouse movement and halting all code unless the mouse moves at a human’s speed.

Other system checks malware perform can be the Core Count technique, allowing malware to find differences between virtual and physical system CPU cores. Many sandbox vendors hide their system settings and hardware so when the system check is done, the coded malware is returned with null, which is a good sign for malware to stop running.

Lastly one of my personal favourite checks is the reboot check, where the malware checks to see if reboot triggers are executed in full, Sandboxes can try to emulate a reboot by logging out and back in as users and sleeping the system, however these never fully run all reboot triggers. The main reason this is such a useful evasion technique is due to most Sandboxes not being able to survive true reboots. So if you make your malware run after you switch the machine off and back on, you’ll rarely detonate on a sandbox environment!


Obfuscation of Internal Data – Some sandbox evasion techniques consist of malware being allowed to change and encrypt, similar to the polymorphic examples referenced above, however this is more simple to run and can help you target attacks to specific organizations.

Fast Flux is a technique of changing DNS names and IP addresses rapidly, mainly used by large botnets that aim to hide themselves from phishing detection systems. It allows malware to bypass blacklists that most security solutions create. Some malware is known to change its domain names as fast as every 10 minutes.

Data Encryption can be a quick way to win big, encrypting API calls so that traditional sandboxes can’t read the APIs, usually multiple encryption keys are used to protect the malware from brute force decryption detection.


How does Libraesva’s Sandbox get around this?

Traditional sandboxes are in a constant fight to catch up with malware authors in understanding their evasion techniques and the malware’s specific behaviors. This is sometimes known as a cat and mouse game.

Malware constantly evolves and security teams constantly research.

Libraesva’s QuickSand Sandbox deploys a pragmatic method to stopping these threats by looking directly at the evasion techniques and signs that things could be malicious, not the malicious act itself. QuickSand is a preventative sandbox which utilizes evasion techniques to protect you and your users.

Our Head of Research and Development Rodolfo Saccani told me once “A man walks into a bank with a mask over his head, does the bank care what the man plans to do? No, they’ve already alerted the police.” This way of explaining evasion techniques and how to use them as identifiers sticks with me and helps me define what Libraesva’s threat approach is like, we look less at who he points the gun at or why is he asking for the bank’s money, but more at the identifiers of the man being malicious i.e. the mask over his head and the gun in his hand.

QuickSand directly looks at things within documents that scream “I’m a bad document” an example of this is if a word document you’ve been sent has JavaScript embedded inside of is, we don’t care what the JavaScript is doing, we’ve already cleaned the document and disarmed it of any active java code because in a typical working environment, this isn’t a legitimate use of JavaScript.

QuickSand is also available directly on the appliance, meaning your files and data don’t leave the Libraesva appliance, we aren’t sending anything to a cloud virtual machine sandbox, we process everything in seconds on your own Libra machine.

So next time you are cleaning up a breach or patching holes in your network, try finding new ways to prevent threats, preferably looking at them before they are detonated, to try and find patterns and warning signs of them being malicious!

Did I mention that our sandbox is included in Libraesva’s Email Security Gateway?


Thanks for reading this! If you think it was beneficial let me know, and provide any feedback you can to me and the team over on LinkedIn or YouTube!