Venezuela has emerged as a potential base for the development of ransomware tools to cybercriminals after one man was charged with designing software used to carry out a range of cyberattacks.
Earlier this month, Moises Luis Zagala Gonzalez, from Bolivar City, was charged in the Eastern District Court of New York for attempted computer intrusions and conspiracy to commit intrusions owing to his "use and sale of ransomware, as well as his extensive support of, and profit sharing arrangements with, the cybercriminals who used his ransomware programs."
Going by aliases 'Nosophoros,' 'Aesculapia' and more recently 'Nebuchadnezzar,' the cardiologist had amassed a long list of criminal clients over the years.
He primarily offered clients access to a tool for creating fully customizable ransomware programs known as 'Thanos'. Additionally, he leased and operated his own ransomware program known as 'Jigsaw v. 2', reportedly charging $500 a month to use the software and $3,000 for the underlying source code.
Zagala's Thanos program was used as the model for a slew of offshoots that plague international institutions. Prometheus, Haron and Midas are all variants of Zagala's original program that dabble in this extortive economy. Prometheus in particular, has a long list of Latin American victims with a special appetite for institutions in Chile and Brazil.
For several years, undercover agents with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tracked his business as well as the dedicated cybercrime team he himself allegedly led.
According to the FBI, Zagala sold his Thanos ransomware builder to at least 38 clients, accepting payments via PayPal and cryptocurrencies, including at least one "Iranian state-sponsored hacking group," according to the criminal complaint.
InSight Crime Analysis
Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) has been widely used to target companies and institutions across Latin America for their sensitive data. It also provides a low barrier to entry, thus fueling the proliferation of ransomware programs.
Zagala's Thanos tool fits this mold perfectly.
Boasting a wide array of customization features and the added benefit of continued tech support from Zagala himself, the ransomware builder gives cybercriminals access to a new frontier of victims even if they themselves are not expert hackers. "Numerous users responded to Zagala... posting that they had used the software and praising its quality," stated FBI agent Chris Clarke in his testimony.
For Steph Shample, a cybersecurity expert and fellow at the Middle East Institute, RaaS providers are opening the floodgates for further data theft and extortion, especially in an internet space as poorly regulated as Latin America's.
Shample explained "these RaaS actors can essentially cater and do absolutely everything for you. If you can pay that fee to have more of the hand-holding; plus the fact that that it's all remote means anybody can purchase their tools to conduct ransomware attacks."
In July 2021, one report detailed how Prometheus had been used to target a wide range of victims in Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Chile, including government institutions, customs agencies, financial institutions and private companies.
Brazilian private and public institutions report the largest portion of attacks from ransomware gangs. In 2020, the country accounted for nearly half of all such reported attacks in the region with Mexico and Colombia trailing behind.
This regional disparity may also be due in part to more consistent attention paid to the issue in those countries. Shample noted "Colombia and Brazil are a little bit better in terms of cyber security," but that their high rates of connectivity make for nice potential targets in "finance, supply chains and the manufacturing sector."