Smoke Loader Campaign: When Defense Becomes a Numbers Game

Smoke Loader Campaign: When Defense Becomes a Numbers Game

Authored by Alexander Sevtsov
Edited by Stefano Ortolani


Everybody knows that PowerShell is a powerful tool to automate different tasks in Windows. Unfortunately, many bad actors know that it is also a sneaky way for malware to download its payload. A few days ago we stumbled upon an interesting macro-based document file (sha1: b73b0b80f16bf56b33b9e95e3dffc2a98b2ead16) that is making one too many assumptions about the underlying operating system, thus sometimes failing to execute.

The Malicious Document

The malicious document file consists of the following macro code:

The macro itself is nothing special: it first reads the “Title” property by accessing the BuiltInDocumentProperties of the current document. The property value is then used to decode a PowerShell command line, which is eventually executed via the Shell method.

The PowerShell Downloader

Instead of using sophisticated evasion techniques, the malware relies on a feature available from PowerShell 3.0 onwards. To download the malicious code the command invokes the Invoke-WebRequest cmdlet:

This tiny detail has the side-effect of requiring Windows 8 and above for the command to complete successfully. Note that although PowerShell comes installed by default since Windows 7, PowerShell 3.0 is only available on Windows 7 as an optional update. Therefore any network activity can only be observed if the underlying operating system is at least Windows 8, or if Windows 7 has the specific update installed. In other words, the more diversity between our analysis environments, the more chances we can elicit the malicious behavior.

Payload – Smoke Loader

The payload is a variant of the Smoke Loader family (Figure 1) which shows quite a number of different activities when analyzed by the Lastline sandbox (sha1: f227820689bdc628de34cc9c21000f3d458a26bf):

Figure 1. Analysis overview of the Smoke Loader

As it often happens, signatures are not really informative as we can see in Figure 2.

Figure 2. VT detection of the Smoke Loader

The aim of this malware is to download other components by sending 5 different POST requests to microsoftoutlook[.]bit/email/send.php. While some are met with a 404 error, three are successful and download the following payloads:

  • GlobeImposter Ransomware eventually displaying the ransom note in Figure 3.
    Smoke Loader Ransom Note

    Figure 3. Ransom note of the GlobeImposter Ransomware delivered by the Smoke Loader.

  • Zeus trojan banker, also known as Zbot, capturing online banking sessions and stealing credentials from known FTP clients, such as FlashFXP, CuteFtp, WsFTP, FileZilla, BulletProof FTP, etc.
  • Monero CPU miner based on the open source XMRig project (as indicated by some of the strings included in the binary, see Figure 4). The command used to spawn the miner reveals some well-known pool id we have been seeing already:

Figure 4. XMRig Monero CPU miner


It’s worth mentioning that it’s not the first time we have seen the IP address from which the loader is downloaded. Based on our intelligence records, another malicious VBA-based document file (sha1: 03a06782e60e7e7b724a0cafa19ee6c64ba2366b) called a similar PowerShell script that perfectly executed in a default Windows 7 installation:

This variant downloads the payload by invoking the DownloadFile method from the System.Net.WebClient class, indeed a much more common (and backward compatible) approach to retrieve a remote resource.


There is an inherent problem with dynamic analysis: which version of the underlying operating system should be used? To address this issue, the Lastline engine is capable of running deep behavioral analysis on several different operating systems, increasing the probability of a successful execution. Moreover, application bundles (see previous article for more details) can be further used to shape the analysis environment when additional requirements are needed to elicit the malicious behavior.

Figure 5 shows what the analysis overview looks like when analyzing the sample discussed in this article: besides some reported structural anomalies, which are detected by our static document analysis, we can see that dynamic behaviors are exhibited only in Windows 10.

Figure 5. Analysis overview of the malicious macro-based document file (sha1: b73b0b80f16bf56b33b9e95e3dffc2a98b2ead16)


In this article, we analyzed a malicious macro-based document relying on a specific version of PowerShell, thereby delivering a highly sophisticated multi-component malware, Smoke Loader. This is achieved by calling a cmdlet normally not available on PowerShell as installed in Windows 7, showing once more that operating system diversity is a key requirement for successful dynamic analysis.

Appendix: IoCsdivider-2-white

The Malicious Document b73b0b80f16bf56b33b9e95e3dffc2a98b2ead16
Smoke Loader f227820689bdc628de34cc9c21000f3d458a26bf
Monero CPU Miner 88eba5d205d85c39ced484a3aa7241302fd815e3
Zeus Trojan 54949587044a4e3732087a56bc1d36096b9f0075
GlobeImposter Ransomware f3cd914ba35a79317622d9ac47b9e4bfbc3b3b26
Smoke Loader C&C microsoftoutlook[.]bit
Alexander Sevtsov

Alexander Sevtsov

Alexander Sevtsov is a Malware Reverse Engineer at Lastline. Prior to joining Lastline, he worked for Kaspersky Lab, Avira and Huawei, focusing on different methods of automatic malware detection. His research interests are modern evasion techniques and deep document analysis.
Alexander Sevtsov
Stefano Ortolani

Stefano Ortolani

Stefano Ortolani is Head of Threat Intelligence at Lastline. Priot to that he was part of the research team in Kaspersky Lab in charge of fostering operations with CERTs, governments, universities, and law enforcement agencies. Before that he earned his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the VU University Amsterdam.
Stefano Ortolani

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