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Maze ransomware group calls it quits… maybe

2020 has claimed victim nearly 200,000 small businesses across the United States—a gut punch of a statistic. But there’s one group closing up shop that I won’t shed any tears over: Maze ransomware.

Last week, the notorious Maze ransomware group known for corporate targeting and data extortion schemes announced they are shutting down operations. So why aren’t security folks like me rejoicing? First, we’ve seen ransomware families disappear before, only to come back with a smarter business plan for distribution or key updates that increase their potency. Second, never trust the word of a cybercriminal.

Back in May 2019, Malwarebytes researchers discovered a new strain of ransomware known as Maze, distributed via the Fallout exploit kit. Soon after, we found that Maze was spreading indiscriminately through other exploit kits, such as Spelevo, as well as through spam campaigns using documents laced with malicious macros.

As time went on, Maze operators began to adopt a more targeted approach, likely looking for a higher return on investment. They began going after organizations with spear phishing campaigns or by exploiting vulnerabilities in exposed infrastructure. Nothing new there. However, Maze was a pioneer in some regards, as it was one of the first to threaten its victims with leaking sensitive data if the ransom was not paid. Its authors also adopted clever tricks to evade detection by leveraging virtual machines to encrypt files.

Rumors began months ago that the threat actors behind Maze ransomware might be abandoning ship, as several of its affiliates switched to an up-and-coming ransomware family known as Egregor, which likely shares some of its code with Maze. In fact, it’s possible that former Maze developers are the ones behind the Egregor project, which would explain the recruitment of their affiliates.

On November 1, coincidentally my birthday, the group behind Maze released a statement claiming that they were done for good. The error-laden message (more of a rant) went on to claim that the future will be lived entirely online, therefore Maze’s efforts were meant to help prepare companies by forcing them to increase their security—typical rhetoric among delusional criminals who try to reframe their acts as benevolent.

There’s no doubt the Maze developers and distributors made enough money to call it a day. Their so-called press release is perhaps a distraction meant to hide conflicts or internal disagreements. It could also be a smokescreen for a potential shift to Egregor. When a cybercriminal says, “We never had partners or official successors,” you can count on the opposite to be true.

Whether Maze is actually gone, we can’t yet say for sure. We thought Ryuk had vanished earlier in 2020, only to have it return. At the same time, the affiliate shift to Egregor is reminiscent of the shift away from GandCrab to Sodinokibi ransomware in 2019.

Unfortunately, history has shown us that when a crime group decides to close their doors, it’s rarely because they have seen the error in their ways. Because of this, it’s best to continue to guard against, at the very least, the types of attack vectors used by Maze ransomware. I suggest:

  • Updating software and hardware to shore up vulnerabilities (protecting against exploit kits)
  • Boosting protection against brute force attacks and exposed RDP ports
  • Increasing employee awareness on sophisticated spear phishing tactics
  • Segmenting sensitive data into more restrictive servers

For more information on the Maze ransomware group’s retirement, take a look at our blog on Malwarebytes Labs: https://blog.malwarebytes.com/ransomware/2020/11/maze-ransomware-gang-announces-retirement/

For an in-depth threat spotlight on Maze ransomware’s capabilities: https://blog.malwarebytes.com/threat-spotlight/2020/05/maze-the-ransomware-that-introduced-an-extra-twist

For TechCrunch’s take on Maze’s retirement: https://techcrunch.com/2020/11/02/maze-ransomware-group-shutting-down

By Marcin Kleczynski

CEO of Malwarebytes, click About Me at the top of the page to learn more!

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