Hackers Have Devised a New Trick to Disable Macro Security Warnings


Threat actors have found a novel method for disabling macro security warnings in malspam assaults that use non-malicious documents. Microsoft Office macro malware that uses social engineering to infect computers has been a common feature of the threat landscape in recent years. Malware authors are constantly refining their strategies in order to avoid detection. Macro obfuscation, DDE, living off the land tools (LOLBAS), and even legacy-supported XLS formats are among the strategies used. 

Threat actors are now employing non-malicious documents to disable security warnings before executing macro code on the recipient's computer, according to McAfee Labs analysts. Without any malicious code present in the first spammed attachment macro, hackers download and run malicious DLLs (ZLoader). Zloader has been active since at least 2016, and it was used to propagate Zeus-like banking trojans (i.e. Zeus OpenSSL). It steals several functionalities from the renowned Zeus banking Trojan. 

The assault chain begins with a spam mail that uses a Microsoft Word document to download a password-protected Microsoft Excel file from a remote server once opened. Only when the victim has enabled the macros hidden in the Word document could the downloads begin. “After downloading the XLS file, the Word VBA reads the cell contents from XLS and creates a new macro for the same XLS file and writes the cell contents to XLS VBA macros as functions.” read the analysis published by McAfee. 

“Once the macros are written and ready, the Word document sets the policy in the registry to ‘Disable Excel Macro Warning’ and invokes the malicious macro function from the Excel file. The Excel file now downloads the ZLoader payload. The ZLoader payload is then executed using rundll32.exe.” 

Word VBA extracts the content of the cells from the XLS file and uses it to generate a new macro for the same XLS file, writing the cell contents to XLS VBA macros as functions. Once the macros are finished, the Word document disables the macro security warnings by setting the registry policy (HKEY CURRENT USERSoftwareMicrosoftOffice12.0ExcelSecurityAccessVBOM) to Disable Excel Macro Warning and runs the malicious Excel macro function. The Excel file then uses rundll32.exe to download and run the Zloader payload. 

“Malicious documents have been an entry point for most malware families and these attacks have been evolving their infection techniques and obfuscation, not just limiting to direct downloads of payload from VBA, but creating agents dynamically to download payloads,” the researchers conclude.