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What is Emotet malware?

Emotet is a form of trojan that burst onto the cybersecurity scene in 2014 and has persistently blazed a trail of havoc since its discovery. But how exactly does Emotet work? And why has it become such a huge issue?

Charles Whitmore

Charles Whitmore

Feb 28, 2022 · 3 min read

What is Emotet malware?

Emotet malware

Emotet at its most basic definition is a trojan. It creates unauthorized backdoors into computer systems that can be exploited by tech-savvy criminals. This piece of malware gained notoriety originally as banking malware. Once Emotet is established on a victim’s computer, the hacker can proceed to steal as much private information as they desire. Emotet will also attempt to spread itself to other devices connected to the host computer.

The fact that Emotet distribution relies heavily on social engineering feeds into the insidious aspect of this virus. Emotet is spread through incredibly convincing spam emails, where a victim is tricked into clicking a link and unwittingly initiating the malware download.

how emotet malware works

Why is Emotet so notorious?

Emotet is a form of polymorphic malware. This immediately makes it a pain for any antivirus software or scanner. A polymorphic virus can change its coding on the fly, consistently fooling an antivirus that scans for specific signatures of other, well-known, and recognizable malware. In many cases, Emotet is undetectable due to its polymorphic nature. Once its presence has finally been found, the damage has already been inflicted.

Since its discovery in 2014, Emotet has been a consistent component in many cyber attacks. Its ability to remain undetected, combined with being able to funnel even more malware through the backdoor it creates, makes Emotet an enticing option for many hackers and a significant threat for all cybersecurity experts.

“The world’s most dangerous malware”

The first incarnation of Emotet in 2014 was a mere trojan meant to infiltrate banking systems and siphon off the credentials needed for electronic thievery. The initial notoriety of Emotet was brought about due to the consistent, high-value, European banking targets.

Come 2017, the creators of Emotet decided to advertise the virus as “malware as a service.” They created a botnet based on Emotet infrastructure then allowed other hackers to “rent out” its use.

After efforts from Europol’s cybersecurity teams, the botnet was finally taken down on April the 25th, 2021. Unfortunately, the peace wasn’t to last. A resurgence of Emotet’s use was found in November of 2021, implemented by Trickbot, another piece of banking malware.

The biggest Emotet attack

By 2019, Emotet services were in full swing and being used by a plethora of different hacker groups and individuals. It was this year that Emotet’s capabilities were on full display for the world, as an attack against several different German institutions was initiated.

Over the course of two weeks, Emotet infected Justus Liebig University, Bad Homburg (a city north of Frankfurt), and the Catholic University of Freiburg. The final victim was the entire IT network of city authorities in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt infection was traced back to an employee who opened up a malicious email attachment.

To prevent the risk of a ransomware attack following the detected Emotet infection, Frankfurt immediately shut its IT network down and worked to purge its systems of the infection. The only institution that didn’t catch the infection in time was Justus Liebig University, which quickly became a victim of ransomware.

How to tell if your computer is infected with Emotet malware

As with all forms of polymorphic malware, detection is unfortunately difficult. Some software involving behavior-based detection may work because it finds threats based on how they act rather than scanning their code like a typical antivirus. Luckily, however, Japan’s computer emergency response team has put together a tool called EmoCheck. Letting this application run should give you a prompt answer on whether or not your computer is infected with Emotet.

It is also a good idea to keep an eye on your finances. If you start to notice funds shifting around or a loss of cash, it might be time to purge your computer.

How do I prevent an Emotet infection?

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to social engineering. Remember that hackers actively try to trick you into clicking a link or downloading a file. If an email seems suspicious or has come from a shady or odd email address, send it straight to the trash.

Protecting your accounts with two-factor authentication is a great way to thwart stolen data being used against you. Emotet has often used a brute-force attack to get through some admin passwords, so make sure you strengthen your accounts by creating strong passwords. You could skip that step by having a passwords manager take care of creating complex codes.

One of the best ways you can avoid unwittingly downloading malware is by using NordVPN's Threat Protection feature. Threat Protection scans all files downloaded from the net — if it detects any hidden malware, that file is automatically deleted.

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