What is an Exploit Kit? (Stages, Process, How to Stay Safe)

An Exploit Kit (EK) is a means for widely disseminating a malware. EKs are intended to operate in the background while a possible victim is surfing the Internet. The end-user does not need to do anything further in order to utilize an EK. EKs are a clever technique of distribution. An exploit is a series of commands or a piece of code that exploits a vulnerability in a program to cause it to act in an unexpected way.

Repository of Various Exploits

An Exploit Kit is nothing more than a software that collects and manages various exploits. They serve as a form of repository, making vulnerabilities accessible to individuals with no technical skills. A software vulnerability is a flaw or problem in the code that allows an attacker to gain access to the program in some way, such as by performing an unauthorized job in the case of exploits.

Popular Software Are Common Targets

Popular software with numerous known vulnerabilities, such as Adobe Flash, Oracle Java, and Internet Explorer, are common targets for exploits. The more popular an application is, the more likely it is for an attacker to find a suitable victim. Exploit kits are designed to exploit numerous vulnerabilities at once and include everything a criminal needs to carry out an assault. If one exploit isn't fit, another could be, giving the cybercriminal a better chance of succeeding.

Exploit Kits are Customizable

Exploit kits have grown in popularity in recent years because they are basically crimeware − customized utility applications that their makers sell (or rent) to purchasers on crime-related forums. Because of the "crimeware as a service" paradigm, the kits may be used by attackers with little technical knowledge, broadening the pool of prospective attackers.

Many exploit kits are built to be modular, allowing new exploits to be added and old ones to be uninstalled with ease. When fresh exploits become available, the kit operators may rapidly start employing them. When the Hacking Team data breach happened in early 2015, for example, the exploit code mentioned in the disclosed material was quickly uploaded to numerous exploit kits.

The Stages of an Exploit Kit Attack

There are four major stages in an Exploit Kit Attack.

The First Step is to Make Contact

Spammed email and social engineering lures are frequently used by attackers to get individuals to click on a link to an exploit kit server. In another scenario, a person visits a genuine website and clicks on malicious advertising (malvertisement).

The initial contact is formed when the victim clicks on the link to the site or types the URL into their browser. There may be some people who don't satisfy certain requirements at this time, such as those who are in the wrong place (often determined based on IP address or install language checks). These users have been screened out, and the assault is now over for them.

The Second Step is to Redirect

The exploit kit generator looks for its intended victim and then filters out those who don't satisfy specific criteria. An exploit kit operator, for example, can target a certain nation by geolocating client IP addresses.

The code placed on this landing page then checks to see if the victim's device is running any vulnerable browser-based programs that match the vulnerabilities in the kit. The attack will cease if no vulnerabilities are found (i.e., everything is up to date and all holes are fixed).

However, if a vulnerability is discovered, the website will direct visitors to the exploit. The profiling process begins as soon as the victim is sent to the landing page. This is where the necessary information about the victim's browser and plugins is gathered.

The exploit kit will be interested in the types of vulnerabilities found in the web browser or the browser's plugins. Because each browser or plugin version has previously been linked to a list of known vulnerabilities, knowing the version numbers is typically enough.

The Third Step is to Exploit

The victims are subsequently led to the landing page of the exploit kit. The landing page defines which vulnerabilities will be exploited during the attack.

The manner in which the exploit is carried out is determined by the application. If web browsers are the target, for example, the exploit will take the form of code embedded within the web page. Another example is Microsoft Silverlight, a regularly targeted program for which the attack is a file.

The exploits are the first thing supplied to the victim's browser. These exploits will, as you have already learned, make use of previously known flaws. The exploit kit then delivers the last blow if the exploit or exploits are effective.

The Fourth Step is to Spread the Infection

The attacker may now download and run malware in the victim's environment after successfully exploiting a vulnerability. Exploits kits can be used to transmit malware such as ransomware and Trojans such as remote access trojans.

Exploit kits are frequently used to run bitcoin mining software. Without the user's consent, it hijacks the victim's computer resources for the purpose of mining bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Chain of Events during an Exploit Kit Attack

During a successful infection with an Exploit Kit, we often witness the following chain of events −

  • An EK's initial step is the landing page. The victim's web browser does not see this HTML page since it is received behind the scenes. The landing page includes malware that collects information about a victim's Windows PC and looks for a susceptible program. Most of the EKs will stop at the landing page itself if your machine is properly patched and up-to-date on all programs. If your PC is out of date, the EK will transmit an exploit for all vulnerable programs it discovers.

  • An EK exploit is a type of malware that uses a vulnerable program (such as Flash Player or Internet Explorer) to silently run malware on a host. EK attacks based on flaws that let an attacker "execute arbitrary code" on the victim's host may be found in Mitre.org's Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database. The EK provides the exploit as a file, generally in some type of archive format, for Flash, Java, or Silverlight. The exploit is supplied as code within the HTML to susceptible web browsers.

  • An EK's payload is malware meant to infect a Windows machine (an .exe or .dll file) (an .exe or .dll file). It's possible that the payload is a file downloader that retrieves other malware, or it's the ultimate virus. The payload is transmitted as an encrypted binary across the network using either simple XOR encryption or an RC4 encryption key with more complex EKs. The victim's host is then used to decode the encrypted binary and run it.

How to Stay Safe from Exploit Kit Attacks?

It's better to avoid exploit kits in the first place since it's so difficult to tell when they're operating and because they're so variable. You can take the following precautions to protect your system from Exploit Kit attacks −

  • Keep all your software up to date. Patching security vulnerabilities is one of the most significant reasons software is updated on a regular basis.

  • Never click any spam links. Always be cautious when opening emails from someone you don't know, and never click on questionable links.

  • Avoid Ads and popups. It can be difficult to resist clicking on popups and adverts since many of them are designed to fool you into doing so (for example, the "close" button is difficult to find, or the ad moves about).

  • Use an antivirus program. Antivirus software isn't infallible, but it can identify and eradicate many known dangers, such as viruses and other sorts of malware, that make their way onto your computer.

Updated on: 14-Jun-2022


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