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Stopping Emotet Before it Moves Laterally

Brian Donohue
Originally published . Last modified .

We’ve written a lot about lateral movement on this blog, and we took a long look at the tactic with some of our friends from MITRE and Carbon Black in an on-demand webinar. However, if you’re dealing with lateral movement, it’s likely something has already gone wrong in your environment.

As a precursor to our lateral movement webinar, we’re going to examine how our Cyber Incident Response Team (CIRT) can detect adversaries attempting to execute Emotet—and, by extension, other email-borne threats—before it compromises a customer environment. You can use the information here to help develop a strategy for detecting Emotet (and other trojans) before a compromise occurs, and then you can use our lateral movement webinar to create strategies for dealing with Emotet and other laterally moving malware or adversaries in cases where a breach has already occurred.

We chose to highlight Emotet here and in the webinar because it is one of the most prolific (and headache-inducing) lateral movers. Also, as Jessica Payne from Microsoft explained in a recent Twitter thread, strategies for detecting Emotet are applicable to a wide variety of other adversary behaviors in both malware and hands-on techniques.

It All Starts with a Malicious Document

As is so often the case, our detection—and the potential infection it alerted our customer about—started with a malicious Microsoft Word document. The document was delivered as an attachment in an email message containing a macro to launch an encoded command line.

Threat Detection Timeline

After executing, the Word document spawned cmd.exe with an obfuscated command line.

Threat Detection Timeline

The cmd.exe process, in turn, launched another obfuscated command line:

Threat Detection Timeline

Microsoft Word Launches PowerShell… Eventually

This chain of obfuscated commands ultimately led to PowerShell, which is where things started to get interesting.

Threat Detection Timeline

In the detection timeline, PowerShell made an outbound network connection to a compromised website and downloaded an executable binary. Our internal threat intelligence (and VirusTotal) revealed that the hash of the downloaded binary was associated with the Emotet trojan.

Threat Detection Timeline

PowerShell eventually executed that binary, which, in turn, wrote a new binary and deleted itself.

Threat Detection Timeline

What Next?

In an uninhibited Emotet infection, it’s likely the malware would have then attempted to move laterally to other machines in the environment. There are numerous means for lateral movement, but Emotet has been known to move from machine to machine by leveraging a server message block (SMB) vulnerability exploit like ETERNALBLUE or by brute-forcing credentials for access to Windows Administrative Shares. Malwarebytes has some good analyses of Emotet if you’re looking for further reading.

Detecting Emotet

Of course, many security tools or services can detect and block an attempted Emotet infection when the MD5 hash of the binary is known to be malicious and when the site hosting that binary is known to have been compromised.

However, the malicious binary and the compromised website, while certainly helpful in this particular detection scenario, are not required for detection. In fact, we have at least five distinct opportunities here—each of which triggered an event in our backend—for the Red Canary CIRT to have detected this activity in the absence of a known bad hash or compromised website:

  1. Microsoft Word spawned command line
  2. A command line contained obfuscated environmental variables
  3. A PowerShell command leveraged the Invoke-Item cmdlet
  4. A PowerShell command contained a URL
  5. PowerShell downloaded a file

Any one of these elements would have raised a flag for our CIRT, which would have then investigated the surrounding context and informed the customer of this confirmed threat accordingly. Looking for similar activity in your environment can yield similar results, once you tune out authorized activity such as that from client management tools.


We hope this article proves useful for anyone seeking out strategies for detecting Emotet and many other email-born malware that use PowerShell to load malicious binaries—known or otherwise—from external hosts. As mentioned at the outset, this threat detection blog is a predecessor to an on-demand webinar on lateral movement.

Our intention is to first offer strategies so you can detect and ultimately prevent Emotet and other malware infections with this blog, and then to offer additional guidance in the webinar so you can apply lateral movement detection strategies to root out traces of higher-level adversaries in your environment.

With the right combination of visibility and context, you can own your network and stop adversaries in their tracks!


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