North Korean Hackers Stole $400 Million Worth of Cryptocurrency in 2021

North Korea-linked hacking group Lazarus stole close to $400 million worth of crypto-assets last year, Chainalysis reports.

The most well-known APT operating on behalf of the North Korean government and active for more than a decade, Lazarus is believed to have been involved in multiple high-profile attacks, including the $81 million cyber theft from the central bank of Bangladesh in 2016, and the WannaCry attack.

Starting in 2018, Lazarus conducted multiple cryptocurrency heists to generate revenue in support of North Korea’s military programs.

After stealing roughly $500 million in crypto-assets in 2018, the group pilfered only $200-$300 million in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, however, it managed to divert close to $400 million in crypto-coins.

The higher amount, Chainalysis says, is the result of intensified activities: there were seven North Korea-linked hacks in 2021, compared to only four in 2020. Furthermore, the value extracted from these attacks went up by 40%.

Chainalysis also noticed that Lazarus no longer focuses on stealing Bitcoin. In 2021, only 20% of the stolen crypto-assets were Bitcoin, with Ether accounting for 58% and ERC-20 tokens or altcoins for 22%.

Lazarus’ crypto-heist efforts, Kaspersky notes in a new report, also include creating fake cryptocurrency software development companies to distribute legitimate-looking applications and steal funds from the unsuspecting victims.

Lazarus’ SnatchCrypto campaign, which has been ongoing since 2017, has hit small and medium-sized companies worldwide, including organizations in the Czech Republic, China, Hong Kong, India, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Ukraine, the US, the UAE, and Vietnam.

In 2021, Kaspersky’s researchers observed Lazarus studying successful cryptocurrency startups to identify topics of interest and compromise these organizations without raising suspicion. The group abused the brand and employee names of 15 venture businesses to conduct their attacks.

As part of the campaign, the hackers built a complex infrastructure, as well as exploits and malware implants, and distributed a full-featured Windows backdoor that features surveillance functions.

The hacking group intercepted notifications of large transfers and, when the users attempted to move funds to other accounts, they injected their own logic into the transaction process, changing the recipient’s address and draining the account.

The stolen funds were then laundered using a complex mechanism involving mixers and swapping the funds for other cryptocurrencies. Following the hack in August 2021, the North Korean hackers laundered $91 million.

However, Lazarus has yet to launder $170 million in funds stolen in 49 separate hacks.

“This suggests that DPRK-linked hackers aren’t always quick to move stolen cryptocurrencies through the laundering process. It’s unclear why the hackers would still be sitting on these funds, but it could be that they are hoping law enforcement interest in the cases will die down, so they can cash out without being watched,” Chainalysis says.

Related: North Korean Hackers Targeting IT Supply Chain: Kaspersky

Related: U.S. Charges North Korean Hackers Over $1.3 Billion Bank Heists

Related: Here’s How North Korean Hackers Stole Data From Isolated Network Segment

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Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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