Threat Signal Report

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

description-logo Description

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.


Traffic Light Protocol

Color When Should it Be used? How may it be shared?


Not for disclosure, restricted to participants only.
Sources may use TLP:RED when information cannot be effectively acted upon by additional parties, and could lead to impacts on a party's privacy, reputation, or operations if misused. Recipients may not share TLP:RED information with any parties outside of the specific exchange, meeting, or conversation in which it was originally disclosed. In the context of a meeting, for example, TLP:RED information is limited to those present at the meeting. In most circumstances, TLP:RED should be exchanged verbally or in person.


Limited disclosure, restricted to participants’ organizations.
Sources may use TLP:AMBER when information requires support to be effectively acted upon, yet carries risks to privacy, reputation, or operations if shared outside of the organizations involved. Recipients may only share TLP:AMBER information with members of their own organization, and with clients or customers who need to know the information to protect themselves or prevent further harm. Sources are at liberty to specify additional intended limits of the sharing: these must be adhered to.


Limited disclosure, restricted to the community.
Sources may use TLP:GREEN when information is useful for the awareness of all participating organizations as well as with peers within the broader community or sector. Recipients may share TLP:GREEN information with peers and partner organizations within their sector or community, but not via publicly accessible channels. Information in this category can be circulated widely within a particular community. TLP:GREEN information may not be released outside of the community.


Disclosure is not limited.
Sources may use TLP:WHITE when information carries minimal or no foreseeable risk of misuse, in accordance with applicable rules and procedures for public release. Subject to standard copyright rules, TLP:WHITE information may be distributed without restriction.