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HELP_HELP_HELP virus – Cerber 2017 variant decryption and removal

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Cerber ransomware keeps showing its ugly fangs as its latest variant goes live, which creates HTA and JPG _HELP_HELP_HELP ransom notes on infected computers.

Ransomware updates are a normal phenomenon in this sector of extortion-centered cybercrime. Old samples get refreshed regularly to be an ever-moving target for researchers and get anti-detection enhancements. In a predictable move, the authors of the Cerber ransomware have recently released a new edition of their nasty program. The tweak has brought about a couple of changes. First off, the infection now provides decryption steps through a new combo of ransom manuals. These include the following files: _HELP_HELP_HELP_[random_8_chars].hta and _HELP_HELP_HELP_[random_8_chars].jpg. Furthermore, Cerber does not bring its version number out in the open anymore, as opposed to its predecessors that indicated this information right on the desktop wallpaper.

The _HELP_HELP_HELP edition of Cerber ransomware in action
The _HELP_HELP_HELP edition of Cerber ransomware in action

Other than these modifications, the malicious code in question is still the same old Cerber. It is being distributed via two different techniques. One of these boils down to spam campaigns that deliver contagious Word files in ZIP archives. These objects are attached to emails impersonating business partners, Internet service providers or even government organizations. If a would-be victim gets curious enough to explore what this enclosed document is about and opens it, the file turns out blank or displays unintelligible content. To correct this, the user is prompted to enable macros, which pose an attack vector widely used by ransomware peddlers. What happens next is the associated VBScript downloads and installs the infection.

Another method of contaminating computers relies on exploit kits. This technique isn’t as straightforward as the spam route. When surfing the web, users may visit a compromised site that contains what’s called the pseudo-Darkleech script. This code reroutes the traffic to a page hosting the Rig-V EK (exploit kit), which in its turn finds and exploits a known software vulnerability on the targeted workstation. This way, the HELP_HELP_HELP variant of Cerber is executed on the system without raising any red flags.

Information displayed on the Cerber Decryptor page
Information displayed on the Cerber Decryptor page

The subsequent workflow of the attack is what security analysts are quite familiar with. Cerber deploys a massive data lookup on the infected machine’s hard drive as well as network shares and removable media that’s currently plugged in. During this scan, it searches for files that are likely to matter the most to the victim. In particular, these are various sorts of personal documents, objects stored in different graphical formats, video files, databases and the like. The pest is driven by the extension hallmark when performing this traversal.

When the full list of these matching items is ready, the ransomware makes them inaccessible. It implements the AES cryptographic algorithm immaculately, therefore there is negligible probability that brute-forcing of the secret decryption key will help. Every filename undergoes an alteration during this process. The malady turns them into arrays of 10 hexadecimal characters, which are appended with a victim-specific extension consisting of 4 characters. So it’s impossible to even work out what exactly has been scrambled on the PC.

To lend victims a “helping hand” in terms of recovery, the ransom Trojan adds the aforementioned help files to the desktop and all directories with affected data. According to these _HELP_HELP_HELP_[random_8_chars].hta/jpg files, the user will have to install Tor Browser and use it to visit a specific gateway called the Cerber Decryptor page. This service provides the amount of Bitcoin to pay for the decryption key, the destination BTC wallet address, and the deadline for doing it. This is certainly a disgusting deal, so it’s advised that victims try everything else first. If there are no data backups, the workarounds that may help include the use of specially crafted recovery software as well as tools that restore previous versions of encoded files.

HELP_HELP_HELP ransomware automated removal and data recovery

When dealing with the HELP_HELP_HELP threat, you can get a lot of mileage out of the Malwarebytes automatic security tool that will pinpoint and iron out the infection in minutes. Malwarebytes is one of the big names in the anti-malware industry with an immaculate track record of protecting systems against all prevalent forms of harmful code.

The solution uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to detect both known and zero-day threats, including potentially unwanted programs (PUPs), ransomware, exploits, and malicious sites. It boasts low system footprint, high scanning speed, and intuitive interface where every module clearly explains what it does. Follow the steps below to come through the malware predicament unscathed:

1. Download and install the latest version of Malwarebytes onto your PC.

As part of this step, you will be prompted to specify where you are installing the program (personal or work computer) and toggle the advanced setup options if you so desire. You can use all the premium features for 14 days free of charge.

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2. Once the application is up and running, go ahead and click on the Scan button in the bottom middle part of the GUI.Click the Scan button

3. Wait until Malwarebytes checks for updates of its proprietary Katana detection engine and scans the memory, startup items, registry, and file system for threats.Malwarebytes scan in progress

4. When the scan is completed, go over the report listing the infections that have been identified. Make sure there are checkmarks next to all the unwanted items and click on the Quarantine button as shown below.Malwarebytes scan results

5. You will be prompted to restart your computer to finish the removal process. Click Yes to do it immediately or close the dialog and restart later on.Restart to complete the removal process

6. As soon as the threats have been moved to Quarantine, they can no longer harm your computer. If you are sure that you won’t need to restore any of those items at a later point, click on the Detection History pane at the bottom left of the Malwarebytes home screen, select the Quarantined items tab, and click Delete.Delete quarantined items

Data recovery toolkit to the rescue

Some strains of ransomware are known to delete the original files after the encryption routine has been completed. As hostile as this activity appears, it can play into your hands. There are applications designed to revive the information that was obliterated because of malfunctioning hardware or due to accidental removal. The tool called Stellar Data Recovery features this type of a capability and therefore it can be applied in ransom attack scenarios to at least get the most important files back. So use the app to get an idea of what data can be restored and let it do the recovery job. Here is a step-by-step walkthrough:

1. Download and install Stellar Data Recovery.

Download Stellar Data Recovery

2. Open the application, select the types of recoverable files to look for, and click Next.Stellar Data Recovery main screen

3. Choose the areas you want the tool to recover from and click the Scan button.Select which PC areas to recover from

4. Having scanned the specified locations, the program will display a notification about the total amount of recoverable data. Close the dialog and click the Recover button. This will hopefully help you get some of your valuable files back.Recover files

HELP_HELP_HELP ransomware manual removal and file recovery

Some ransomware strains terminate themselves after completing the encryption job on a computer, but some don’t. Furthermore, the HELP_HELP_HELP virus may prevent victims from using popular antimalware tools in order to stay on board for as long as possible. Under the circumstances, it may be necessary to utilize the Safe Mode with Networking or System Restore functionality.

Remove HELP_HELP_HELP ransomware using Safe Mode with Networking

Remove HELP_HELP_HELP ransomware using Safe Mode with Networking

Get rid of HELP_HELP_HELP ransomware using System Restore

Get rid of HELP_HELP_HELP ransomware using System Restore

System Restore enables Windows users to roll back all changes made to the OS since the latest restore point creation time. This feature can help eliminate the most persistent ransomware. Before going this route, though, make sure System Restore had been enabled prior to the breach, otherwise the method will be inefficient.

  • Open Windows Advanced Options Menu as described in the previous section: hit F8 repeatedly when the PC is starting up. Use arrow keys to highlight the Safe Mode with Command Prompt entry. Hit Enter.Safe Mode with Command Prompt
  • In the Command Prompt window, type cd restore and hit Entercd restore command
  • Type rstrui.exe in the new command line and press EnterType rstrui.exe command
  • When the System Restore screen pops up, click Next, select a restore point that predates the contamination, and use the application’s controls to roll back the system to this earlier state.System Restore window
Be advised that even after the ransomware is removed, files will still be encrypted and inaccessible. The malicious code cleanup part, however, is important because it keeps a relapse of the infection from occurring further on and eliminates all opportunistic malware.

Ways of non-ransom file recovery

Cracking the crypto used by this ransom Trojan is more of a science fiction thing rather than an attainable prospect for the masses. This is why the troubleshooting in predicaments of this sort is a matter of two approaches: one is to pay the ransom, which isn’t an option for many victims; and the other is to apply instruments that take advantage of the ransomware’s possible weaknesses. If the latter is your pick, the advice below is a must-try.

Backups can make your day

Backups can make your day

Not only are you a lucky person in case you’ve been backing up your most important files, but you’re also a wise and prudent user. This isn’t necessarily a resource-heavy activity these days – in fact, some providers of online services are allocating a sufficient size of cloud storage space for free so that every customer can easily upload their critical data without paying a penny. Having removed the HELP_HELP_HELP ransomware, therefore, all you have to do is download your stuff from the remote server or transfer it all from an external piece of hardware if that’s the case.

Restore previous versions of encrypted files

Restore previous versions of encrypted files

A positive upshot of using this technique depends on whether or not the ransomware has erased the Volume Shadow Copies of the files on your PC. This is a Windows feature that automatically makes and keeps the backups of data elements on the hard drive as long as System Restore is enabled. The cryptoware in question is programmed to switch off the Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS), but it has reportedly failed to in some cases.

Checking one’s options regarding this workaround is doable in two ways: through the Properties menu of each file or by means of the remarkable open-source tool called Shadow Explorer. We recommend the software-based way because it’s automated, hence faster and easier. Just install the app and use its intuitive controls to get previous versions of the encrypted objects reinstated.

Shadow Explorer

Alternatively, you can leverage the Previous Versions feature, which is native to Windows operating system. This method is more cumbersome that the use of ShadowExplorer, but it can help restore the most important individual files on condition that the ransomware failed to disable the Volume Snapshot Service on the computer. Right-click on a file of choice and select Properties. Then, go to the Previous Versions tab as illustrated below.

Previous Versions

Go ahead and pick the file’s latest backup version on the list. Use the Copy or Restore buttons to reinstate this object to a new path or to its original folder, respectively.

Ransomware Prevention Tips

To avoid HELP_HELP_HELP ransomware and other file-encrypting infections in the future, follow several simple recommendations:

  • Toggle your email provider’s anti-spam settings to filter out all the potentially harmful incoming messages. Raising the bar beyond the default protection is an important countermeasure for ransom Trojans
  • Define specific file extension restrictions in your email system. Make sure that attachments with the following extensions are blacklisted: .js, .vbs, .docm, .hta, .exe, .cmd, .scr, and .bat. Also, treat ZIP archives in received messages with extreme caution
  • Rename the vssadmin.exe process so that ransomware is unable to obliterate all Shadow Volume Copies of your files in one shot
  • Keep your Firewall active at all times. It can prevent crypto ransomware from communicating with its C&C server. This way, the threat won’t be able to obtain cryptographic keys and lock your files
  • Back up your files regularly, at least the most important ones. This recommendation is self-explanatory. A ransomware attack isn’t an issue as long as you keep unaffected copies of your data in a safe place
  • Use an effective antimalware suite. There are security tools that identify ransomware-specific behavior and block the infection before it can do any harm.

These techniques are certainly not a cure-all, but they will add an extra layer of ransomware protection to your security setup.

Revise your security status

Post-factum assessment of the accuracy component in malware removal scenarios is a great habit that prevents the comeback of harmful code or replication of its unattended fractions. Make sure you are good to go by running an additional safety checkup. Another benefit of using the antimalware tool is that it will keep ransomware threats from intruding on your computer further on.

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