Counterfeit Code-Signing certificates even more popular, but still too expensive

Pierluigi Paganini February 25, 2018

Code-signing certificates are precious commodities in the criminal underground, they are used by vxers to sign malware code to evade detection.

Other precious commodities in the criminal underground are code-signing certificates, they allow vxers to sign the code for malware to evade detection. Operators of the major black markets in the darknets buy and sell code-signing certificates, but according to an interesting research conducted by threat intelligence firm Recorded Future, the prices for them are too expensive for most hackers.

Cybercriminals would use the Dark Web for selling high-grade code certificates -which they have obtained from trusted certificate authorities- to anyone that is interested in purchasing them.

Sales of code signing certificates have increased considerably since 2015 when experts from IBM X-Force researchers provided some best practice guides on checking for trusted certificates.

Digital certificates allow companies to trust the source code of a software and to check its integrity, The certificates are issued by the certificate authorities (CAs) and are granted to companies that generate code, protocols or software so they can sign their code and indicate its legitimacy and originality.

Using signing certificates is similar to the hologram seal used on software packages, assuring they are genuine and issued from a trusted publisher. Users would receive alerts in an attempt to install files that are not accompanied by a valid certificate. This is why cybercriminals aim to use certificates for legitimizing the malware code they make.

According to Andrei Barysevich, Director of Advanced Collection at Recorded Future, most of the code-signing certificates are obtained by hackers due to fraud and not from security breaches suffered by the CAs.

“Recorded Future’s Insikt Group investigated the criminal underground and identified vendors currently offering both code signing certificates and domain name registration with accompanying SSL certificates.” states the report published by Recorded Future.

“Contrary to a common belief that the security certificates circulating in the criminal underground are stolen from legitimate owners prior to being used in nefarious campaigns, we confirmed with a high degree of certainty that the certificates are created for a specific buyer per request only and are registered using stolen corporate identities, making traditional network security appliances less effective.”

Cybercriminals offer the precious commodity via online shops, when buyers place an order the shop’s operators used stolen identities from a legitimate company and its employees to request the certificate for a fake app or website to the CAs (i.e. Comodo, Thawte, and Symantec).  The certificates are used to encrypt HTTPS traffic or sign apps.

Recorded Future’s Insikt Group investigated the criminal ecosystem and identified vendors currently offering both code signing certificates and domain name registration with accompanying SSL certificates.

The researchers identified four well-known vendors operating since 2011, only two vendors are currently still active in Russian-speaking crime forums.

“One of the first vendors to offer counterfeit code signing certificates was known as C@T, a member of a prolific hacking messaging board.” continues the report. “In March 2015, C@T offered for sale a Microsoft Authenticode capable of signing 32/64b versions of various executable files, as well as Microsoft Office, Microsoft VBA, Netscape Object Signing, and Marimba Channel Signing documents, and supported Silverlight 4 applications. Additionally, Apple code signing certificates were also available.”


Prices for code-signing certificates range from $299 to $1,799, most expensive items are the fully authenticated domains with EV SSL encryption and code signing capabilities.

“Standard code signing certificates issued by Comodo that do not include SmartScreen reputation rating cost $295. A buyer interested in the most trusted version of an EV certificate issued by Symantec would have to pay $1,599, a 230 percent premium compared to the price of the authentic certificate.” continues the report.

“For those seeking to purchase in bulk, fully authenticated domains with EV SSL encryption and code signing capabilities could also be arranged for $1,799”

code-signing certificates offer


According to recorded future, code signing certificates are not widespread among malware developers due to the high price.

Vxers prefer to pay less for other AV evasion tools, such as crypters (readily available at $10-$30)that represent an excellent compromise between cost and effectiveness

“Unlike ordinary crypting services readily available at $10-$30 per each encryption, we do not anticipate counterfeit certificates to become a mainstream staple of cybercrime due to its prohibitive cost.” concluded the report. “However, undoubtedly, more sophisticated actors and nation-state actors who are engaged in less widespread and more targeted attacks will continue using fake code signing and SSL certificates in their operations”

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  code signing certificates, cybercrime)

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