MegaCortex (.aes128ctr) ransomware virus - removal and decryption options
Written by Tomas Meskauskas on (updated)
What kind of malware is MegaCortex?
Ransomware is software that encrypts files stored on a computer and keeps them inaccessible unless a ransom is paid. MegaCortex is one of these programs and was discovered by Michael Gillespie. It also renames all encrypted files by adding the ".aes128ctr" extension.
For example, "1.jpg" becomes "1.jpg.aes128ctr". Additionally, MegaCortex creates a ransom message within the "!!!_READ_ME_!!!.txt" file and places it in folders that contain encrypted files.
Screenshot of files encrypted by MegaCortex (".aes128ctr" extension):
Ransom note overview
"!!!_READ_ME_!!!.txt" informs victims about how to decrypt their files. It states that the only way to do this is using their decryption tool. The cost is unknown, however, this information should be provided after contacting MegaCortex's developers via the firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com email address.
Victims are urged not to restart or shut down computers, since this might cause permanent data loss. As 'proof' that they have a decryption tool, they offer free decryption of two files that should be send with the "fracxidg.tsv" file (according to them, this file is placed on the "C:" disk). Even if they decrypt a number of files free of charge, they should not be trusted.
More about ransomware
Ransomware developers often send no decryption tools even if their ransom demands are met. People who develop these programs use cryptography algorithms that ensure strong encryptions that are impossible to decrypt without using the correct tools held by specific cyber criminals. Typically, the only free way to re-access decrypted files is to restore them from a backup.
Examples of other ransomware variants
Some examples of other ransomware-type programs that are similar to MegaCortex are Prodecryptor, Todarius, and Sodinokibi. Most of these programs are designed to encrypt data and keep it locked unless a ransom is paid. Main differences are usually cost of a decryption (tool/key) and the type of cryptography algorithm (symmetric or asymmetric) used.
The biggest problem is that most ransomware-type programs are impossible to 'crack' without using the correct tool. Only the developers have these tools. Decryption without their involvement is possible only if their programs are not finished and have bugs/flaws. Therefore, maintain regular backups and store them on remote servers or unplugged storage devices.
How did ransomware infect my computer?
Research shows that cyber criminals often proliferate MegaCortex using a Cobalt Strike trojan. Criminals use hijacked system admin accounts to run a PowerShell script, which is essentially a Base64-encoded Cobalt Strike script. This script opens a Meterpreter reverse shell, which allows cyber criminals to use the Windows PowerShell remotely.
Criminals then use the reverse shell to download several files on all computers connected to the network. Therefore, MegaCortex is injected into multiple computers at once. Before running/executing the malware, criminals run a batch file which terminates more than one hundred system processes and disables start-on-startup.
The MegaCortex excecutable is then opened. The list of terminated/disabled processes includes mostly those relating to system protection and anti-virus applications.
As compared to other ransomware-type infections, this distribution method is ineffective, since most such infections are proliferated via spam email campaigns, Trojans, untrustworthy software download sources, unofficial (fake) software updaters and software 'cracking' tools. When criminals use spam campaigns, they send emails that include malicious attachments.
Trojans are malicious programs that cause chain infections, however, to cause any damage, they must first be installed. They then download and install other malicious programs.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, free file hosting and freeware download websites, various other third party software download sources (and unofficial pages) can be used by cyber criminals to proliferate viruses. They use these channels to present their malicious executables as legitimate. If downloaded and opened, however, they infect computers with malware.
By using these channels, people risk computer infections. Fake software updaters infect systems by downloading malicious programs rather than the updates and fixes, or by exploiting bugs/flaws of installed and outdated software.
Software 'cracking' tools are programs that activate licensed software free of charge, however, cyber criminals often use these tools to proliferate viruses. Rather than 'cracking' software, these programs download and install ransomware-type and other malicious programs.
|Threat Type||Ransomware, Crypto Virus, Files locker.|
|Detection Names (winnit.exe)||Avast (Win32:Malware-gen), BitDefender (Trojan.Ransom.CBH), ESET-NOD32 (a variant of Win32/Agent.AAPF), Kaspersky (UDS:DangerousObject.Multi.Generic), Full List Of Detections (VirusTotal)|
|Encrypted Files Extension||.aes128ctr|
|Ransom Demanding Message||!!!_READ_ME_!!!.txt text file.|
|Free Decryptor Available?||Yes. User manual and decryption tool is hosted on Bitdefender's official website.|
|Cyber Criminal Contactfirstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com|
|Symptoms||Cannot open files stored on your computer, previously functional files now have a different extension (for example, my.docx.locked). A ransom demand message is displayed on your desktop. Cyber criminals demand payment of a ransom (usually in Bitcoins) to unlock your files.|
|Distribution methods||Infected email attachments (macros), torrent websites, malicious ads.|
|Damage||All files are encrypted and cannot be opened without paying a ransom. Additional password-stealing trojans and malware infections can be installed together with a ransomware infection.|
|Malware Removal (Windows)||
To eliminate possible malware infections, scan your computer with legitimate antivirus software. Our security researchers recommend using Combo Cleaner.
How to protect yourself from ransomware infections?
Analyze each email before opening attachments/links presented in them, especially if they are received from suspicious, unknown addresses and are irrelevant. Ignore these emails and leave attachments unopened. Download software from official websites and using direct download links. The aforementioned tools should not be trusted.
Operating systems or installed programs should be updated using implemented functions or tools that are provided by the official software developers. The same applies to software activation. Third party 'cracking' tools are illegal and they often infect systems with malicious programs.
Additionally, have a reputable anti-virus or anti-spyware suite installed and enabled. If your computer is already infected with MegaCortex, we recommend running a scan with Combo Cleaner Antivirus for Windows to automatically eliminate this ransomware.
Screenshot of a message encouraging users to pay a ransom to decrypt their compromised data ("!!!_READ_ME_!!!.txt"):
Text presented in MegaCortex ransomware text file ("!!!_READ_ME_!!!.txt") :
Your companies cyber defense systems have been weighed, measured and have been found wanting.
The breach is a result of grave neglect of security protocols.
All of your computers have been corrupted with MegaCortex malware that has encrypted your files.
We ensure that the only way to retrieve your data swiftly and securely is with our software.
Restoration of your data requires a private key which only we possess.
Don't waste your time and money purchasing third party software, without the private key they are useless.
It is critical that you don't restart or shutdown your computer.
This may lead to irreversible damage to your data and you may not be able to turn your computer back on.
To confirm that our software works email to us 2 files from random computers and C:\fracxidg.tsv file('s)
and you will get them decrypted.
C:\fracxidg.tsv contain encrypted session keys we need in order to be able to decrypt your files.
The softwares price will include a guarantee that your company will never be inconvenienced by us.
You will also receive a consultation on how to improve your companies cyber security .
If you want to purchase our software to restore your data contact us at:
We can only show you the door. You're the one who has to walk through it.
Update September 12, 2019 - Cyber criminals are promoting MegaCortex as Ransomware as a Service (RaaS), meaning that anyone can purchase the entire ransomware kit and start generating revenue by spreading malware and blackmailing victims.
Screenshot of the website used to promote MegaCortex as RaaS:
Update January 10, 2023 - Bitdefender has recently released a free decryption tool capable of restoring data encrypted by MegaCortex ransomware. You find the user manual and download the tool from Bitdefender's official website.
Screenshot of Bitdefender's decryption tool for MegaCortex ransomware:
MegaCortex ransomware removal:
Instant automatic malware removal:
Manual threat removal might be a lengthy and complicated process that requires advanced computer skills. Combo Cleaner is a professional automatic malware removal tool that is recommended to get rid of malware. Download it by clicking the button below:
Video suggesting what steps should be taken in case of a ransomware infection:
- What is MegaCortex virus?
- STEP 1. Reporting ransomware to authorities.
- STEP 2. Isolating the infected device.
- STEP 3. Identifying the ransomware infection.
- STEP 4. Searching for ransomware decryption tools.
- STEP 5. Restoring files with data recovery tools.
- STEP 6. Creating data backups.
If you are a victim of a ransomware attack we recommend reporting this incident to authorities. By providing information to law enforcement agencies you will help track cybercrime and potentially assist in the prosecution of the attackers. Here's a list of authorities where you should report a ransomware attack. For the complete list of local cybersecurity centers and information on why you should report ransomware attacks, read this article.
List of local authorities where ransomware attacks should be reported (choose one depending on your residence address):
- USA - Internet Crime Complaint Centre IC3
- United Kingdom - Action Fraud
- Spain - Policía Nacional
- France - Ministère de l'Intérieur
- Germany - Polizei
- Italy - Polizia di Stato
- The Netherlands - Politie
- Poland - Policja
- Portugal - Polícia Judiciária
Isolating the infected device:
Some ransomware-type infections are designed to encrypt files within external storage devices, infect them, and even spread throughout the entire local network. For this reason, it is very important to isolate the infected device (computer) as soon as possible.
Step 1: Disconnect from the internet.
The easiest way to disconnect a computer from the internet is to unplug the Ethernet cable from the motherboard, however, some devices are connected via a wireless network and for some users (especially those who are not particularly tech-savvy), disconnecting cables may seem troublesome. Therefore, you can also disconnect the system manually via Control Panel:
Navigate to the "Control Panel", click the search bar in the upper-right corner of the screen, enter "Network and Sharing Center" and select search result:
Click the "Change adapter settings" option in the upper-left corner of the window:
Right-click on each connection point and select "Disable". Once disabled, the system will no longer be connected to the internet. To re-enable the connection points, simply right-click again and select "Enable".
Step 2: Unplug all storage devices.
As mentioned above, ransomware might encrypt data and infiltrate all storage devices that are connected to the computer. For this reason, all external storage devices (flash drives, portable hard drives, etc.) should be disconnected immediately, however, we strongly advise you to eject each device before disconnecting to prevent data corruption:
Navigate to "My Computer", right-click on each connected device, and select "Eject":
Step 3: Log-out of cloud storage accounts.
Some ransomware-type might be able to hijack software that handles data stored within "the Cloud". Therefore, the data could be corrupted/encrypted. For this reason, you should log-out of all cloud storage accounts within browsers and other related software. You should also consider temporarily uninstalling the cloud-management software until the infection is completely removed.
Identify the ransomware infection:
To properly handle an infection, one must first identify it. Some ransomware infections use ransom-demand messages as an introduction (see the WALDO ransomware text file below).
This, however, is rare. In most cases, ransomware infections deliver more direct messages simply stating that data is encrypted and that victims must pay some sort of ransom. Note that ransomware-type infections typically generate messages with different file names (for example, "_readme.txt", "READ-ME.txt", "DECRYPTION_INSTRUCTIONS.txt", "DECRYPT_FILES.html", etc.). Therefore, using the name of a ransom message may seem like a good way to identify the infection. The problem is that most of these names are generic and some infections use the same names, even though the delivered messages are different and the infections themselves are unrelated. Therefore, using the message filename alone can be ineffective and even lead to permanent data loss (for example, by attempting to decrypt data using tools designed for different ransomware infections, users are likely to end up permanently damaging files and decryption will no longer be possible even with the correct tool).
Another way to identify a ransomware infection is to check the file extension, which is appended to each encrypted file. Ransomware infections are often named by the extensions they append (see files encrypted by Qewe ransomware below).
This method is only effective, however, when the appended extension is unique - many ransomware infections append a generic extension (for example, ".encrypted", ".enc", ".crypted", ".locked", etc.). In these cases, identifying ransomware by its appended extension becomes impossible.
One of the easiest and quickest ways to identify a ransomware infection is to use the ID Ransomware website. This service supports most existing ransomware infections. Victims simply upload a ransom message and/or one encrypted file (we advise you to upload both if possible).
The ransomware will be identified within seconds and you will be provided with various details, such as the name of the malware family to which the infection belongs, whether it is decryptable, and so on.
Example 1 (Qewe [Stop/Djvu] ransomware):
Example 2 (.iso [Phobos] ransomware):
If your data happens to be encrypted by ransomware that is not supported by ID Ransomware, you can always try searching the internet by using certain keywords (for example, a ransom message title, file extension, provided contact emails, crypto wallet addresses, etc.).
Search for ransomware decryption tools:
Encryption algorithms used by most ransomware-type infections are extremely sophisticated and, if the encryption is performed properly, only the developer is capable of restoring data. This is because decryption requires a specific key, which is generated during the encryption. Restoring data without the key is impossible. In most cases, cybercriminals store keys on a remote server, rather than using the infected machine as a host. Dharma (CrySis), Phobos, and other families of high-end ransomware infections are virtually flawless, and thus restoring data encrypted without the developers' involvement is simply impossible. Despite this, there are dozens of ransomware-type infections that are poorly developed and contain a number of flaws (for example, the use of identical encryption/decryption keys for each victim, keys stored locally, etc.). Therefore, always check for available decryption tools for any ransomware that infiltrates your computer.
Finding the correct decryption tool on the internet can be very frustrating. For this reason, we recommend that you use the No More Ransom Project and this is where identifying the ransomware infection is useful. The No More Ransom Project website contains a "Decryption Tools" section with a search bar. Enter the name of the identified ransomware, and all available decryptors (if there are any) will be listed.
Restore files with data recovery tools:
Depending on the situation (quality of ransomware infection, type of encryption algorithm used, etc.), restoring data with certain third-party tools might be possible. Therefore, we advise you to use the Recuva tool developed by CCleaner. This tool supports over a thousand data types (graphics, video, audio, documents, etc.) and it is very intuitive (little knowledge is necessary to recover data). In addition, the recovery feature is completely free.
Step 1: Perform a scan.
Run the Recuva application and follow the wizard. You will be prompted with several windows allowing you to choose what file types to look for, which locations should be scanned, etc. All you need to do is select the options you're looking for and start the scan. We advise you to enable the "Deep Scan" before starting, otherwise, the application's scanning capabilities will be restricted.
Wait for Recuva to complete the scan. The scanning duration depends on the volume of files (both in quantity and size) that you are scanning (for example, several hundred gigabytes could take over an hour to scan). Therefore, be patient during the scanning process. We also advise against modifying or deleting existing files, since this might interfere with the scan. If you add additional data (for example, downloading files/content) while scanning, this will prolong the process:
Step 2: Recover data.
Once the process is complete, select the folders/files you wish to restore and simply click "Recover". Note that some free space on your storage drive is necessary to restore data:
Create data backups:
Proper file management and creating backups is essential for data security. Therefore, always be very careful and think ahead.
Partition management: We recommend that you store your data in multiple partitions and avoid storing important files within the partition that contains the entire operating system. If you fall into a situation whereby you cannot boot the system and are forced to format the disk on which the operating system is installed (in most cases, this is where malware infections hide), you will lose all data stored within that drive. This is the advantage of having multiple partitions: if you have the entire storage device assigned to a single partition, you will be forced to delete everything, however, creating multiple partitions and allocating the data properly allows you to prevent such problems. You can easily format a single partition without affecting the others - therefore, one will be cleaned and the others will remain untouched, and your data will be saved. Managing partitions is quite simple and you can find all the necessary information on Microsoft's documentation web page.
Data backups: One of the most reliable backup methods is to use an external storage device and keep it unplugged. Copy your data to an external hard drive, flash (thumb) drive, SSD, HDD, or any other storage device, unplug it and store it in a dry place away from the sun and extreme temperatures. This method is, however, quite inefficient, since data backups and updates need to be made regularly. You can also use a cloud service or remote server. Here, an internet connection is required and there is always the chance of a security breach, although it's a really rare occasion.
We recommend using Microsoft OneDrive for backing up your files. OneDrive lets you store your personal files and data in the cloud, sync files across computers and mobile devices, allowing you to access and edit your files from all of your Windows devices. OneDrive lets you save, share and preview files, access download history, move, delete, and rename files, as well as create new folders, and much more.
You can back up your most important folders and files on your PC (your Desktop, Documents, and Pictures folders). Some of OneDrive’s more notable features include file versioning, which keeps older versions of files for up to 30 days. OneDrive features a recycling bin in which all of your deleted files are stored for a limited time. Deleted files are not counted as part of the user’s allocation.
The service is built using HTML5 technologies and allows you to upload files up to 300 MB via drag and drop into the web browser or up to 10 GB via the OneDrive desktop application. With OneDrive, you can download entire folders as a single ZIP file with up to 10,000 files, although it can’t exceed 15 GB per single download.
OneDrive comes with 5 GB of free storage out of the box, with an additional 100 GB, 1 TB, and 6 TB storage options available for a subscription-based fee. You can get one of these storage plans by either purchasing additional storage separately or with Office 365 subscription.
Creating a data backup:
The backup process is the same for all file types and folders. Here’s how you can back up your files using Microsoft OneDrive
Step 1: Choose the files/folders you want to backup.
Click the OneDrive cloud icon to open the OneDrive menu. While in this menu, you can customize your file backup settings.
Click Help & Settings and then select Settings from the drop-down menu.
Go to the Backup tab and click Manage backup.
In this menu, you can choose to backup the Desktop and all of the files on it, and Documents and Pictures folders, again, with all of the files in them. Click Start backup.
Now, when you add a file or folder in the Desktop and Documents and Pictures folders, they will be automatically backed up on OneDrive.
To add folders and files, not in the locations shown above, you have to add them manually.
Open File Explorer and navigate to the location of the folder/file you want to backup. Select the item, right-click it, and click Copy.
Then, navigate to OneDrive, right-click anywhere in the window and click Paste. Alternatively, you can just drag and drop a file into OneDrive. OneDrive will automatically create a backup of the folder/file.
All of the files added to the OneDrive folder are backed up in the cloud automatically. The green circle with the checkmark in it indicates that the file is available both locally and on OneDrive and that the file version is the same on both. The blue cloud icon indicates that the file has not been synced and is available only on OneDrive. The sync icon indicates that the file is currently syncing.
To access files only located on OneDrive online, go to the Help & Settings drop-down menu and select View online.
Step 2: Restore corrupted files.
OneDrive makes sure that the files stay in sync, so the version of the file on the computer is the same version on the cloud. However, if ransomware has encrypted your files, you can take advantage of OneDrive’s Version history feature that will allow you to restore the file versions prior to encryption.
Microsoft 365 has a ransomware detection feature that notifies you when your OneDrive files have been attacked and guide you through the process of restoring your files. It must be noted, however, that if you don’t have a paid Microsoft 365 subscription, you only get one detection and file recovery for free.
If your OneDrive files get deleted, corrupted, or infected by malware, you can restore your entire OneDrive to a previous state. Here’s how you can restore your entire OneDrive:
1. If you're signed in with a personal account, click the Settings cog at the top of the page. Then, click Options and select Restore your OneDrive.
If you're signed in with a work or school account, click the Settings cog at the top of the page. Then, click Restore your OneDrive.
2. On the Restore your OneDrive page, select a date from the drop-down list. Note that if you're restoring your files after automatic ransomware detection, a restore date will be selected for you.
3. After configuring all of the file restoration options, click Restore to undo all the activities you selected.
The best way to avoid damage from ransomware infections is to maintain regular up-to-date backups.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How was my computer hacked and how did hackers encrypt my files?
Ransomware is distributed in various ways. Cybercriminals succeed when users download and execute ransomware by themselves. Typically, users infect computers via links or files in emails sent by threat actors, files downloaded from unreliable sources (e.g., P2P networks, free file hosting pages, third-party downloaders), fake installers, or websites hosting pirated software.
How to open ".aes128crt" files?
These files are encrypted by the MegaCortex ransomware. It means that it is impossible to open them until they are decrypted.
Where should I look for free decryption tools for MegaCortex ransomware?
Files encrypted by MegaCortex can be decrypted with this tool.
Will Combo Cleaner help me remove MegaCortex ransomware?
Yes, Combo Cleaner will remove ransomware from the operating system. It is important to eliminate ransomware because it may encrypt more files and spread over a local network.
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