NICKEL - Targeting Organizations Across Europe, North America, and South America


FortiGuard Labs is aware of reports relating to NICKEL, a state sponsored group targeting varying interests in Europe, North and South America. NICKEL is a state sponsored group operating out of China and is targeting governmental organizations, diplomatic groups and non governmental organizations in 29 countries.

NICKELs' modus operandi is the usage of exploits on unpached systems to compromise vulnerable systems and their unpatched services. Observed exploits used by NICKEL included the exploitation of services such as Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft SharePoint, and Pulse Secure VPN. Microsoft filed pleadings with the United States District Court of Eastern Virginia on December 2nd to seize control of servers used by NICKEL.

What are the Technical Details?

NICKEL malware variants use Internet Explorer COM interfaces to receive instructions from predefined command and control (C2) servers. The malware will then connect to the web-based C2 servers to check for a specific string located on these servers. Once confirmed, the malware will decode a Base64 encoded blob that will load shellcode for further exploitation.

NICKEL malware is capable of capturing system information such as the IP address, OS version, system language, computer name and username of the current signed in user. It also contains backdoor functionality to execute commands and to upload and download files. NICKEL then uses the stolen and compromised credentials of the targeted victim to login to Microsoft 365 accounts via browser logins to exfiltrate victim emails for further damage.

What Other Names is NICKEL Known As?

According to Microsoft - NICKEL is also known as APT15, APT25, and Ke3Chang.

Is this Limited to Targeted Attacks?

Yes. Attacks are limited to varying targets in specific countries and verticals.

What Countries were Targeted?

They are:

Argentina, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Italy, Jamaica, Mali, Mexico, Montenegro, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom, United States of America, and Venezuela.

What is the Status of Protections?

FortiGuard Labs provides the following AV coverage used in this campaign as:





All network IOC's are blocked by the FortiGuard WebFiltering client.

Any Other Suggested Mitigation?

Because it has been reported that NICKEL obtains access via unpatched and vulnerable systems, It is important to ensure that all known vendor vulnerabilities are addressed and updated to protect from attackers having a foothold within a network. Attackers are well aware of the difficulty of patching and if it is determined that patching is not feasible at this time, an assessment should be conducted to determine risk.

Also - organizations are encouraged to conduct ongoing training sessions to educate and inform personnel about the latest phishing/spear phishing attacks. They also need to encourage employees to never open attachments from someone they don't know, and to always treat emails from unrecognized/untrusted senders with caution. Since it has been reported that various phishing and spear phishing attacks have been delivered via social engineering distribution mechanisms, it is crucial that end users within an organization be made aware of the various types of attacks being delivered. This can be accomplished through regular training sessions and impromptu tests using predetermined templates by an organizations' internal security department. Simple user awareness training on how to spot emails with malicious attachments or links could also help prevent initial access into the network.