Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


End of Bibblio RCM includes -->
12:03 PM
Connect Directly

SolarWinds Attackers Impersonate USAID in Advanced Email Campaign

Microsoft shares the details of a wide-scale malicious email campaign attributed to Nobelium, the group linked to the SolarWinds supply chain attack.

The group behind last year's SolarWinds supply chain attack is conducting an advanced and widespread email campaign that delivers malicious links while impersonating the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Microsoft reports.

Related Content:

Stopping the Next SolarWinds Requires Doing Something Different

Special Report: Assessing Cybersecurity Risk in Today's Enterprises

New From The Edge: How Are Cyber Insurance Companies Assessing Ransomware Risk?

Microsoft's Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) says it has been tracking this Nobelium-operated campaign since January 2021 and it has evolved as the group experiments with new tactics. The phishing attack has so far targeted some 3,000 accounts at more than 150 organizations across several industry verticals. The victims span 24 countries, though most attacks aimed at the US.

Nobelium, a group connected to Russia, has historically targeted organizations, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, military, IT service providers, health technology and research, and telecommunications providers. In this case, Microsoft reports at least a quarter of targets work with international development, humanitarian, and human rights work.

Its newest campaign leverages Constant Contact, a legitimate mass-mailing service used for email marketing. Due to a high volume of emails distributed in this campaign, automated email threat detection marked many of the malicious emails as spam. However, some automated detection systems may have effectively delivered them due to configuration and policy settings.

Microsoft reports the attackers were able to gain control of the USAID Constant Contact account, allowing them to send seemingly authentic emails from USAID to thousands of victims. There were many iterations in the May 25 campaign; in one example, emails appear to come from USAID but have an authentic sender email address that matches Constant Contact.

"Nobelium launched this week's attacks by gaining access to the Constant Contact account of USAID," wrote Tom Burt, corporate vice president for consumer security and trust at Microsoft, in a blog post. Burt noted Microsoft is in the process of notifying targeted customers and there is no indication these attacks use an exploit against, or flaw in, Microsoft products and services.

Use of Constant Contact allowed attackers to hide links behind the mailing service's URL. Officials note many emails and document service providers offer a tool to simplify link sharing and provide information into who clicks these links and when.

When clicked, the email's malicious link leads to delivery of an ISO file that contains a malicious LNK file, a malicious DLL file, and a legitimate lure referencing foreign threats to the 2020 US federal elections, Volexity researchers explain in a blog post on the threat published this week. Microsoft notes the DLL is a custom Cobalt Strike Beacon loader that it calls NativeZone.

If successfully deployed, these payloads let attackers remain persistent on compromised systems so they can move laterally, steal data, deploy additional malware, and infect other machines on the network.

"Microsoft security researchers assess that the Nobelium's spearphishing operations are recurring and have increased in frequency and scope," MSTIC wrote in a separate blog post sharing the details of this attack, as well as its evolution and mitigations. "It is anticipated that additional activity may be carried out by the group using an evolving set of tactics."

A Closer Look At Nobelium's Strategy
This active campaign is notable for a few reasons, Burt explained. When considered along with the SolarWinds attack, it's clear Nobelium aims to breach trusted technology providers and infect their customers.

"By piggybacking on software updates and now mass email providers, Nobelium increases the chances of collateral damage in espionage operations and undermines trust in the technology ecosystem," Burt wrote.

While different from the attack on SolarWinds, this campaign underscores the consistency of cyber espionage. SolarWinds was notable for its stealth and discipline, but loud and widespread spear-phishing attacks were once a "calling card" of SVR operators who launched noisy phishing campaigns, says John Hultquist, vice president of analysis for Mandiant Threat Intelligence, who adds these attacks by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service often effectively gained access to major government offices and other targets.

"And while the spear-phishing emails were quickly identified, we expect that any post-compromise actions by these actors would be highly skilled and stealthy," he points out. This newly identified campaign seems to have ramped up as the supply chain attacks were winding down, a sign these threats aren't going away any time soon.

"Given the brazen nature of this incident," Hultquist says, "it does not appear the SVR is prepared to throttle down on their cyberespionage activity."

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
I Smell a RAT! New Cybersecurity Threats for the Crypto Industry
David Trepp, Partner, IT Assurance with accounting and advisory firm BPM LLP,  7/9/2021
Attacks on Kaseya Servers Led to Ransomware in Less Than 2 Hours
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  7/7/2021
It's in the Game (but It Shouldn't Be)
Tal Memran, Cybersecurity Expert, CYE,  7/9/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
Everything You Need to Know About DNS Attacks
It's important to understand DNS, potential attacks against it, and the tools and techniques required to defend DNS infrastructure. This report answers all the questions you were afraid to ask. Domain Name Service (DNS) is a critical part of any organization's digital infrastructure, but it's also one of the least understood. DNS is designed to be invisible to business professionals, IT stakeholders, and many security professionals, but DNS's threat surface is large and widely targeted. Attackers are causing a great deal of damage with an array of attacks such as denial of service, DNS cache poisoning, DNS hijackin, DNS tunneling, and DNS dangling. They are using DNS infrastructure to take control of inbound and outbound communications and preventing users from accessing the applications they are looking for. To stop attacks on DNS, security teams need to shore up the organization's security hygiene around DNS infrastructure, implement controls such as DNSSEC, and monitor DNS traffic
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2023-05-26
Craft is a CMS for creating custom digital experiences. Cross site scripting (XSS) can be triggered by review volumes. This issue has been fixed in version 4.4.7.
PUBLISHED: 2023-05-26
Django-SES is a drop-in mail backend for Django. The django_ses library implements a mail backend for Django using AWS Simple Email Service. The library exports the `SESEventWebhookView class` intended to receive signed requests from AWS to handle email bounces, subscriptions, etc. These requests ar...
PUBLISHED: 2023-05-26
Highlight is an open source, full-stack monitoring platform. Highlight may record passwords on customer deployments when a password html input is switched to `type="text"` via a javascript "Show Password" button. This differs from the expected behavior which always obfuscates `ty...
PUBLISHED: 2023-05-26
Craft is a CMS for creating custom digital experiences on the web.The platform does not filter input and encode output in Quick Post validation error message, which can deliver an XSS payload. Old CVE fixed the XSS in label HTML but didn’t fix it when clicking save. This issue was...
PUBLISHED: 2023-05-26
GDSDB infinite loop in Wireshark 4.0.0 to 4.0.5 and 3.6.0 to 3.6.13 allows denial of service via packet injection or crafted capture file