An Android remote access trojan (RAT) known as VajraSpy was found in 12 malicious applications, six of which were available on Google Play from April 1, 2021, through September 10, 2023.
The malicious apps, which have now been removed from Google Play but remain available on third-party app stores, are disguised as messaging or news apps.
Those installing the apps became infected with VajraSpy, allowing the malware to steal personal data, including contacts and messages, and depending on the granted permissions, even to record their phone calls.
ESET researchers who uncovered the campaign report that its operators are the Patchwork APT group, which has been active since at least late 2015, primarily targeting users in Pakistan.
In 2022, the threat actor unintentionally revealed details of their own campaign when they accidentally infected their infrastructure with the ‘Ragnatela’ RAT, a tool they were employing at the time. This misstep provided Malwarebytes with a window into the Patchwork’s operations.
The link between VajraSpy and the activity cluster that ESET identifies as Patchwork was first established by QiAnXin in 2022 (attributing to APT-Q-43), followed by Meta in March 2023, and Qihoo 360 in November 2023 (attributing to APT-C-52).
ESET researcher Lukas Stefanko found 12 malicious Android applications containing the same VajraSpy RAT code, six of which were uploaded on Google Play, where they were downloaded roughly 1,400 times.
The apps that were available on Google Play are:
Rafaqat رفاقت (news)
Privee Talk (messaging)
Let’s Chat (messaging)
Quick Chat (messaging)
Chit Chat (messaging)
VajraSpy apps available outside Google Play are all bogus messaging apps:
Timeline of the campaign and apps used (ESET)
Third-party app stores do not report download counts, so the number of people who have installed them through these platforms is unknown.
ESET’s telemetry analysis indicates that most victims are located in Pakistan and India and are most likely tricked into installing the fake messaging apps via a romance scam.
Two of the 12 fake apps (ESET)
VajraSpy is a spyware and RAT that supports various espionage functionalities that mostly revolve around data theft. Its capabilities are summarized as follows:
Gather and transmit personal data from the infected device, including contacts, call logs, and SMS messages.
Intercept and extract messages from popular encrypted communication apps like WhatsApp and Signal.
Record phone calls to enable eavesdropping of private conversations.
Active the device’s camera to take pictures, turning it into a surveillance tool.
Intercept notifications from various apps in real time.
Search and exfiltrate documents, images, audio, and other types of files.
VajraSpy logging data from WhatsApp (ESET)
The power of VajraSpy lies in its modular nature and adaptability, while the extent of its spying capabilities is determined by the level of permissions it obtains on an infected device.
ESET concludes by advising that users should refrain from downloading obscure chat apps recommended by people they don’t know, as this is a common and longstanding tactic cybercriminals employ to infiltrate devices.
While Google Play introduces new policies that make it harder for malware to hide in apps, threat actors continue to sneak their malicious apps onto the platform.
Previous attacks performed much better than this VajraSpy spyware campaign, such as an October adware campaign amassing 2 million installs.
More recently, it was discovered that the SpyLoan information-stealing malware was downloaded 12 million times from Google Play in 2023.