Malicious OAuth applications abuse cloud email services to spread spam

 Microsoft researchers recently investigated an attack where malicious OAuth applications were deployed on compromised cloud tenants and then used to control Exchange Online settings and spread spam. The investigation revealed that the threat actor launched credential stuffing attacks against high-risk accounts that didn’t have multi-factor authentication (MFA) enabled and leveraged the unsecured administrator accounts to gain initial access. The unauthorized access to the cloud tenant enabled the actor to create a malicious OAuth application that added a malicious inbound connector in the email server. The actor then used the malicious inbound connector to send spam emails that looked like they originated from the targets’ domain. The spam emails were sent as part of a deceptive sweepstakes scheme meant to trick recipients into signing up for recurring paid subscriptions.

Microsoft has been monitoring the rising popularity of OAuth application abuse. One of the first observed malicious usage of OAuth applications in the wild is consent phishing. Consent phishing attacks aim to trick users into granting permissions to malicious OAuth apps to gain access to user’s legitimate cloud services (mail servers, files storage, management APIs, etc.). In the past few years, Microsoft has observed that more and more threat actors, including nation-state actors, have been using OAuth applications for different malicious purposes – command-and-control (C2) communication, backdoors, phishing, redirections, and so on.

This recent attack involved a network of single-tenant applications installed in compromised organizations being used as the actor’s identity platform to perform the attack. As soon as the network was revealed, all the related applications were taken down and notifications to customers were sent, including recommended remediation steps.

This blog presents the technical analysis of this attack vector and the succeeding spam campaign attempted by the threat actor. It also provides guidance for defenders on protecting organizations from this threat, and how Microsoft security technologies detect it.

A diagram of the attack chain. It presents the flow of activity from left to right, starting with the attacker gaining access to its target tenant and leading to spam messages being sent to targets.
Figure 1. Overview of the attack chain. The time between application deployment and usage varied; there were cases where the actor took months before using the application.

Initial access

For the attack to succeed, the threat actor needed to compromise cloud tenant users with sufficient permissions that would allow the actor to create an application in the cloud environment and give it admin consent. The actor performed credential stuffing attacks against their targets, attempting to access users with the global admin role. The authentication attempts, which originated from a single IP address, were launched against the Azure Active Directory PowerShell application (app ID: 1b730954-1685-4b74-9bfd-dac224a7b894). The same application was later used to deploy the rest of the attack.

Based on the success ratio of the authentication attempts, it is inferred that the attacker used a dump of compromised credentials. The investigation also revealed that 86% of the compromised tenants had at least one admin with a real-time high risk score, which means they were flagged by Azure AD Identity Protection to be most likely compromised. It is also important to note that all the compromised admins didn’t have MFA enabled, which could have stopped the attack. These observations amplify the importance of securing accounts and monitoring for high-risk users, especially those with high privileges.

Deploying malicious OAuth application

Once the threat actor gained access to privileged users, their next step was to set up the malicious application. Based on analysis of the event user agent (Swagger-Codegen/ and how quickly the deployment of the application was done, it is likely that the actor ran a PowerShell script to perform the following Azure Active Directory (AAD) management activities in all targeted tenants:

  • Register a new single–tenant application with the naming convention of [domain name]_([a-zA-Z]){3} (for example: Contoso_GhY)
  • Add the legacy permission Exchange.ManageAsApp which can be used for app-only authentication of Exchange Online PowerShell module
  • Grant admin consent to the above permission
  • Give global admin and Exchange Online admin roles to the previously registered application
  • Add application credentials (key/certificate/both)  

The threat actor added their own credentials to the OAuth application, which enabled them to access the application even if the initially compromised global administrator changed their password.

The activities mentioned gave the threat actor control of a highly privileged application. It was observed that the threat actor did not always use the application right after it was deployed. In some cases, it took weeks or months before the application was utilized. Also, in organizations that didn’t monitor for suspicious applications, the applications were deployed for months and used multiple times by the threat actor.

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