What is RAT software and why you should be concerned

If you have been receiving messages saying something like “we have installed RAT software on your device. Your email account is hacked” and would like to know more about what RAT software is, the information bellow will be of interest to you.

one rat software email message
one rat software email message

Although RAT software has been around for nearly two decades, every few years it experiences a new surge of public interest. One such surge has been going on lately. And believe it or not, it has directly to do with the current geopolitical situation of our planet. But before we get into that, and get into it we will, let’s first describe what it is we’re talking about here. What is RAT software actually? The term RAT stands for Remote Access Trojan. Now, we don’t doubt that everyone is familiar with the term Trojan. But for the sake of avoiding any misunderstandings, let’s clarify that as well.

Trojans are the most popular type of malware program – no contest. As a matter of fact, they make up, according to various sources, up to a whopping 80% of all malware ever. And that is because they are incredibly handy in accomplishing a variety of different malicious deeds. In addition, Trojans are masters of stealth invasions, which is another very valuable asset of theirs in the eyes of any hacker. So, to put it all together, RAT software is pretty much a Trojan horse virus that will allow the hypothetical hacker to remotely access any invaded system, after the said RAT software download.

But first – a little history

In order to explain exactly what we meant by saying that the geopolitical state of things today has to do with the resurgence of RAT software, we need to get down and dirty with its history. The very-very first RAT program to be created is the notorious Back Orifice. It was developed in the distant 1998, allegedly with the intention of demonstrating the weaknesses of Window 98. This was the grandfather of all modern RAT software and it even spawned two sequels.

But back to geopolitics and the likes. In 2003 it was discovered that a group of Chinese hackers were actually using RATs to engage in the massive theft of US defense technology. This knowledge surfaced as a result of an investigation conducted by the Pentagon, which became known as Titan Rain. It revealed, in fact, that extensive amounts of classified information were being transferred from US defense contractors to different locations in China. Furthermore, other such attacks followed later on. That same year, there was the US East Coast power grid shutdown. And another shutdown exactly like it happened again in 2008. And who was behind it? You guessed it – it was Chinese hackers again. And again they used RAT software to make it happen. Now do you see where this is going?

Delving deeper…

Moving on, hackers actually employ RATs in something called Advanced Persistent Threats, or APT for short. This is basically just an advanced type of attack that can be spread out over vast periods of time, sometimes even up to several years. And the point of it is that hackers can quietly loot your network by visiting it on a regular basis. The goal isn’t to just raid it and pillage it for all its worth, thus alerting any defense mechanisms and destroying your chances of repeating the process in the future.

So as you can see, employing APTs is a much smarter and strategically optimal way to use RAT software. And that just so happens to have become a technique adopted by the military of several countries. Among them is of course China, as seen above. Not to mention that APTs have clearly also been used by Chinese hackers for the purposes of conducting corporate and industrial espionage.

But in addition to that, Russia has also officially integrated RATs in its military arsenal. It is now part of a strategy that is better known these days as hybrid warfare. There are even semi-official groups of hackers that are known under different names that all start with ‘APT’.  For example, there is APT28, as one of the better known groups.

Thus, with the fairly volatile political situation that the world has been in over the past couple of years, it’s evident that cyberattacks involving RAT software have played their significant part in major scandals. Whenever there are tensions or there’s a conflict, cyberattacks seem to follow.

So, what is RAT software used for, in essence?

Theft and espionage are the usages that we’ve outlined so far. But how exactly does that occur? And is that really all there is to RAT software in general?

RATs can use a variety of means to get their sticky hands on your precious data. For example, they can be used to copy and transfer your credit card details, login credentials, including passwords, etc. Similarly, malware of this type can also be set to explore your system and its files and, likewise, copy whatever information it deems necessary. And if they’re somewhat less picky, RATs can even hijack your entire traffic and send to some remote servers. That way they can just automatically gain access to pretty much everything you use the internet for. Alternatively, they can simply just be used to allow the hackers to monitor your screen and harvest information that way. Keylogging is also a technique often employed by Trojans to collect data that relates to everything you use the keyboard for.

But of course there are also other uses for these types of viruses. And some of them can perhaps be even more menacing than what we’ve described so far. Corporate espionage, political schemes and sabotage aside, things can just as well be up close and personal, too. RAT software can be employed to remotely switch on the mic and webcam of an infected computer. And thus the hackers on the other side can easily be watching and listening to their victims, without the latter even suspecting it. We won’t get into the goriness of the potential harm this could lead to. But we think you get the picture.

Then there is also the possibility of using RAT viruses for downright criminal activities. For example, a virus of this type may be designed to allow the hackers to exploit your internet address. And that in turn can allow them to impersonate you, use you as a front for all sorts of illegal business and so on. Furthermore, hackers can even use your machine to attack other computers with malware. Not to mention that RAT software on your PC could be specifically installed there for the task of downloading other types of viruses onto it.

It’s actually not uncommon for ransomware attacks, for example, to occur in this fashion. And it’s very easy for this to happen once there’s a RAT virus on your computer, exactly because it allows remote access to external parties. After the initial RAT software download, they can literally just give their permission as an administrator (on your behalf) to further download and install whatever they please. This can then lead to the subsequent encryption of precious files, extortion, etc. What’s more, it can even lead to your drives being formatted and valuable information being lost forever. If you would like to make your own little test you can follow the steps in this article. 

What is RAT software’s means of distribution?

There is about a handful of tricks that hackers use to get you to install a RAT virus onto your PC. Emails, unfortunately, are still as common a tactic as ever, no matter how often security experts try to sound the alarm about them. A RAT virus email will typically contain an attached file, or in some cases it may have a link enclosed. And under whatever pretense, it will try to convince you to open/run the attached file or follow the link. Doing so will, in turn, initiate the RAT software download.

Other ways in which they can get you to you to install the RAT software is by actually installing some other program. The thing is that that program (e.g. a game, music player, etc.) already has the virus hiding in it. Then once you give your permission for the installation process to begin, you will essentially be installing the RAT software along with it.

How can you protect your system from RAT software?

Well, we could say that exercising basic safety measures and being cautious when browsing the web would be enough to keep your system safe. And while that may be true for many viruses out there, the bottom line is that if they want to get to you – they probably will. And at the rate at which new threats are being developed these days, even the most powerful antivirus may not be enough to shield you. After all, these viruses are designed to stay hidden away from you for as long as possible.

In order to detect the presence of a RAT on your computer, you can start by monitoring system processes. That way you have a chance of noticing any suspicious activity that’s been going on. But for better results, you may need specialized intrusion detection software. And only after you have actually revealed the malware can you proceed to find a way to remove it.

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Daniel Sadakov has a degree in Information Technology and specializes in web and mobile cyber security. He harbors a strong detestation for anything and everything malicious and has committed his resources and time to battling all manners of web and mobile threats. He is a contributar at tripwire.com, a website dedicated to covering the top security stories and providing useful tips for the everyday and expert users.