Exploit Kits: Facts, Techniques and How to Avoid Them

By Jayden Andrews. June 9, 2020

Exploit kits are a major cyber threat today as they’re responsible for a huge percentage of malware infections globally. All cybercriminals, from inexperienced hackers to black hat attackers, can use these kits. If you take an interest in cybersecurity, then you have undoubtedly heard about the severe damage done by the Blackhole exploit kit.

Here, we discuss what an exploit kit is and everything else you need to know about this kind of threat. Therefore, keep reading to find out.

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What Is an Exploit Kit?

An exploit kit refers to a special package used by cybercriminals to launch malware attacks. This kit mostly focuses on searching for any vulnerabilities on your device and then uses them to download malware onto the system.

Most hackers target popular software that you have on your computer, such as Oracle Java, Adobe Flash, and Internet Explorer. A software vulnerability is a bug or error that enables a hacker to gain access to your system easily. For instance, CVE-2018-8174 is one of the most common Internet Explorer vulnerabilities exploited by attackers nowadays. Therefore, the more popular the applications on your device are, the higher your chances of being targeted.

Exploit kits can be used to simultaneously attack multiple vulnerabilities on your PC. Doing this increases the chances of the hacker successfully gaining access to your machine because if one exploit fails, then another will most probably succeed. In addition, an exploit kit is usually pre-built, which makes it extremely popular, especially with inexperienced cybercriminals.

How Is an Exploit Kit Used?

To be successful, an exploit kit has to

  • use a landing page to establish contact with the host,
  • redirect you to an alternative landing page to scan your device for vulnerabilities that can be exploited,
  • attack, and
  • infect your device with malware.

An exploit kit contains everything a hacker needs to go through these stages without much hassle. Let’s discuss these stages in more detail to understand them better.

1. Establish Contact

A cybercriminal first compromises a particular landing page and then tricks you into visiting it. The hacker can use a pop-up, malvertisement, or email link to lead you to this landing page. Once you follow the sent link, the first stage is complete for the attacker.

Sometimes, cybercriminals target people who are in a certain location. Therefore, a hacker checks your IP address during this stage to see if you meet the criteria. If you don’t, then you are filtered out, and luckily, the attack is over for you.

2. Redirect

If you’re among the remaining visitors, then you will be redirected to a different landing page. There is always some embedded code on this page to check for vulnerabilities on your machine. The attack stops if your computer has no weaknesses, but if it has some, then the manipulated site notifies the attacker.

3. Attack

After spotting a vulnerability on your device, the cybercriminal then uses it to inject malware. The direction of the attack mostly depends on the application that will be used to download malware on your PC. If a web browser like Microsoft Edge is the main target, then the attacker will embed some code on web pages to launch the attack. Another commonly targeted app is Microsoft Silverlight, in which case hackers use a file to exploit your machine.

4. Infect

After your device has been successfully exploited, the malware that has been injected is executed. Cybercriminals use exploit kits to spread different malware types, including Trojans and ransomware. An attacker can even run some cryptocurrency mining software on your computer. This type of malware hijacks your PC and uses its resources for illegal bitcoin mining without your permission.

Major Exploit Kits

Due to security patches added by software developers, exploit kits usually have a limited lifespan. So, hackers keep updating their kits to take advantage of new vulnerabilities on your machine. This explains why some exploit kits have been around for so long. Below are the major exploit kits to be aware of:

RIG

RIG is one of the most popular kits around the planet. Its usage was more common around 2018 but has slowly declined over the years. However, that does not mean that it vanished as some hackers still use it. This kit uses different attack methods and payloads. Most cybercriminals use this exploit trick to spread ransomware, coin miners, and Trojans like Grobios.

GrandSoft

This one is among the oldest kits, and it resurfaced around 2018. The GrandSoft exploit kit is known to spread miners, ransomware like GrandCrab, and Trojans such as QuantLoader and AZORult.

Angler

The Angler exploit kit has been around since 2013 and is a very notorious kit as it uses JavaScript, Silverlight, HTML, and more to remain undetected on your device.

Magnitude

This exploit kit usually targets certain Asian countries and spreads a specific payload. Magnitude is also an old exploit kit, and it was mostly used to exploit Flash Player. Nowadays, it has changed its form and now solely attacks Internet Explorer.

Magnitude EK is one of this kit’s versions, and it delivers unique ransomware called Magniber to South Korea.

Neutrino

The Neutrino kit is a malicious kit that is used a lot by new hackers as it’s easier to use compared to other kits. This kit exploits vulnerabilities like CVE-2013-0422, CVE-2013-0431, and CVE-2012-1723 in your Java Runtime Environment (JRE) component.

Sweet Orange

The Sweet Orange kit appeared in 2012 and was offered for hire on most cybercrime-related platforms during that time. This kit usually targets people using browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer and Chrome.

Blackhole

Blackhole, as of 2012, is described as the most dominant exploit kit. The Blackhole exploit kit mostly targets web browsers.

Why Are Exploit Kits Usually Successful?

Considering that cybercriminals often use known vulnerabilities, you might wonder why these weaknesses remain exposed, allowing attacks to keep happening. However, cybercriminals are always on the lookout for new vulnerabilities, which makes it harder for companies to catch up as they are always on their toes, trying to ward off known attacks. Therefore, most enterprises find themselves leaving some doors open as they focus on solutions to the most severe attacks that are already known to them.

So, companies can’t update all their systems simultaneously to prevent attacks that are not yet known, thus leaving some room for hackers to keep attacking users. Also, they have to be careful because cybercriminals will still look for weaknesses even in the latest updates and use them to attack. Besides, if you miss a particular update, then you are left more vulnerable to exploit kit attacks.

Another major factor that contributes hugely to the success of exploit kit attacks is you clicking on malvertisements or other malicious links. Also, after the hacker already has you in the initial contact stage, then you won’t even notice if any attacks are happening on your computer.

How Do Hackers Get Exploit Kits?

Since exploit kits are illegal, getting them is never easy. Most kits are usually available on underground black hat forums. Such forums are not indexed by Google, which makes them almost impossible to find without doing some prior deep digging.

Although you might stumble on one of these forums, getting in will be the hardest part as hackers are always very organized. Therefore, you have to prove that you are indeed a hacker to get access.

Note that exploit kits are not usually bought from the authors but rented. So, just like the regular commercial software, these kits also have licenses that you have to purchase to gain access for a certain period.

There are some leaked exploit kits on the web today, and you can easily access them through open sources. However, these kits are usually older versions, meaning they are less reliable. Using these kits in a test environment can help you see how the actual exploitation takes place, therefore allowing you to create an excellent security strategy.

How to Stay Safe From Exploit Kits

It is difficult to detect that some exploit kits have been used to inject malware into your device. Therefore, it’s best that you avoid them at all cost. The following are some tips that you can use:

  • Always update your software – Updating your software allows you to patch vulnerabilities, thus making you less vulnerable to attacks.
  • Use a high-quality VPN – Having an excellent VPN on your machine enables you to stay anonymous online and detect malicious websites, thus making it easy to avoid exploit kit attacks.
  • Avoid clicking on spammy links – If you receive an email from an unknown address, then it’s best that you not click any links in it.
  • Do not click pop-ups and ads as they might be malvertisements containing viruses.

As you can see from this article, exploit kits are very dangerous as they’re hard to detect and can easily install malware on your PC. Therefore, it is vital that you understand the different exploit tricks out there and how they work. That way, you can implement the most effective measures to stay safe.

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