Efficiency in Cybercrime: An Analysis of the Implications of Caffeine

By Wyatt Nutter, Principal Threat Detection Engineer

A Vigilant Threat Alerts Series

Are You Saying Attackers Are Drinking More Coffee?

Well, maybe, but that’s not the point. More importantly, attackers have adopted a new level of maturity and automation in offensive operations with the Caffeine phishing-as-a-service (PhaaS) platform recently detailed on the Mandiant blog. Caffeine is an unsettlingly professional example of how attackers are evolving and monetizing their craft, offering multiple tiers of service, complete templates for multiple target demographics, infrastructure management, automated email tools, and defensive countermeasures.

Hasn’t PhaaS Existed For a While?

Yes, though not quite at the level of what Caffeine offers. What sets this new platform apart is the apparent focus on ease of use for prospective “customers.” The UI is intuitive, the feature set offers near-plug-and-play functionality, and a substantial amount of effort has gone into marketing the service on seedy websites. They also charge two to three times as much as their competitors.

Another key differentiator for Caffeine is the streamlined process for gaining access to the platform. Users can register autonomously rather than routing through clandestine networks. Add that to the built-in IP blocking capabilities and you have a robust framework for enabling attackers of any skill to launch successful phishing campaigns.

That Sounds a lot Like a Modern Tech Company

Exactly! Caffeine is yet another example of how attackers are treating cybercrime as a business and seeking to scale their operations in a low-risk fashion. With this level of commoditization in offensive frameworks, defenders should be looking to adapt mitigation and prevention strategies accordingly.

How Should We Be Adapting?

While there isn’t going to be a proverbial “silver bullet” for protecting organizations, a helpful first step is to revisit the basics with a willingness to change. For example, organization-wide multi-factor authentication (MFA) is great, but attackers have shown a dogged resolve in bombarding users with push requests until one is eventually accepted to stop the flood. Adaptation in this case looks like teaching users how to report fraudulent MFA requests, enabling number-matching or non-push-based MFA methods, and actively monitoring for unusual login attempts.

Another important perspective shift is to consider strategy in addition to tactics. Enabling MFA, collecting and monitoring log data, etc. are all good, necessary things for most organizations, but in a vacuum do not provide a solid foundation for security. Instead, security team should be thinking in terms of building recoverable, reliable, and repeatable infrastructure and processes. As evidenced by the development and distribution of Caffeine, attackers have already made considerable progress into this mindset.

Help Me Understand Strategy vs. Tactics

The best way to draw a distinction is to understand tactics as being subservient to a strategic goal. This means that rather than overly investing into one area, discipline, or product, security teams should be evaluating their high-level goals and adjusting, adding, removing, and refining tactics to meet strategic initiatives. Doing so facilitates evaluation of the effectiveness of given tactics without compromising the team’s mission.

The strategy on display with Caffeine is a strong focus on repeatability and ease of use while avoiding direct compromising of targets. This allows the developers of the service to act as a supplier without having to draw too much attention to themselves and having operations be disrupted. In turn, said developers create operational longevity by building trust in their (not-so-friendly) communities for their eventual next project. Thus, the criminal enterprise begins to mirror the technology industry: create a compelling product, find ways to be “sticky” in environments, and expand within the customer base as much as growing said base.

Let’s Talk Takeaways

As defenders improve, attackers are doing so without the burden of compliance, regulation, and legality. While that can make security a Sisyphean task, inspiration can be found in how criminal operations are organized. From studying frameworks like Caffeine alongside standard best practices, security teams can more readily adapt to the next threat against their organization, perhaps before it has even been developed.


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