Sophisticated Email Hack Targeting Organizations, Warns Microsoft

The attacks targeted approximately 3,000 email accounts at more than 150 different organizations in 24 different countries.
Conor Cawley

Hackers just keep getting bolder and bolder, as Microsoft has issued a warning about a recent email attack that is specifically targeting government organizations.

To say online security has become an important aspect on the digital world would be a drastic understatement. Protecting your personal information feels like a full-time job at this point, as security breaches and ransomware attacks have become exceedingly common in recent years.

Now, Microsoft is warning government agencies that an advanced email attack is combing the US and 23 other countries for vulnerabilities that could lead to some serious problems.

Microsoft Warns of “Sophisticated” Attack

Posted in a company blog post on Thursday, Microsoft informed users that a “sophisticated email-based attack” had been dedicated. The attacks specifically targeted “approximately 3,000 email accounts at more than 150 different organizations,” including government agencies, think tanks, consultants, and other non-government agencies.

“Microsoft is issuing this alert and new security research regarding this sophisticated email-based campaign… to help the industry understand and protect from this latest activity.”

The attack was propagated by Nobelium — the Russian threat group behind the infamous SolarWinds attack. The nefarious actors used Constant Contact, an email marketing platform, to gain access to the accounts of members of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

From there, hackers sent phishing emails to a wide range of other notable organizations in hopes of getting users to click on a malicious link that downloaded malware onto their devices. This would then provide a backdoor to Nobelium to access these organizations as they see fit.

Constant Contact has been swift in disconnecting affected accounts and cooperating with organizations to get to the root of the problem, but as Microsoft puts it, this is nothing if not a notable hack.

Why Is This Hack So Notable?

Outside of the obvious importance of Nobelium successfully completing another significant hack, Microsoft specified that this hack is notable for three different reasons:

  • The Intent – Perhaps the biggest concern is that Nobelium's intent here is unsettling. Having focused their attacks on trusted technology providers, Microsoft believes that the threat group's attacks purposefully “undermine trust in the technology ecosystem,” which could lead to “collateral damage in espionage operations.”
  • The Victims – Once Nobelium had access to these technology providers, their primary subjects of focus were humanitarian and human rights organizations, which further shows that there is a political element to these attacks.
  • The Frequency – These kinds of large scale cyber attacks aren't slowing down, and it's at least partly due to a lack of action on laws and regulations to keep nation-states from engaging in this kind of nefarious behavior.

Simply put, this isn't just another breach of a company with lax security. This is a coordinated effort from a Russian-based hacker group with plans to sow discord in any way they can. And it's working.

How to Protect Yourself Online

All this talk of security breaches and sophisticated hacks can make anyone concerned about their own online safety. Fortunately, there are a few tools in your digital tool box that can protect you online.

Password managers are arguably one of the best and most important avenues to a safe online experience. As the first — and sometimes only — obstacle to stealing your personal information, a strong one that is encrypted through a good password manager can do wonders when it comes to keeping you safe.

Antivirus software and VPNs are two more online tools that can seriously improve your online security, by keeping viruses at bay and hiding your online activity, respectively.

When it comes to phishing scams though, like the one propagated by Nobelium here, your best defense is a bit of vigilance. While Microsoft noted that this email was particularly authentic, the reality is that keeping your eyes out for anything suspicious — particularly when clicking links or providing personal information — can go a long way in keeping you safe online.

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Conor is the Senior Writer for Tech.co. For the last five years, he’s written about everything from Kickstarter campaigns and budding startups to tech titans and innovative technologies. His extensive background in stand-up comedy made him the perfect person to host tech-centric events like Startup Night at SXSW and the Timmy Awards for Tech in Motion. You can email Conor at conor@tech.co.

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