Suspected APT29 Operation Launches Election Fraud Themed Phishing Campaigns

On May 25, 2021, Volexity identified a phishing campaign targeting multiple organizations based in the United States and Europe. The following industries have been observed being targeted thus far:

  • NGOs
  • Research Institutions
  • Government Agencies
  • International Agencies

The campaign’s phishing e-mails purported to originate from the USAID government agency and contained a malicious link that resulted in an ISO file being delivered. This file contained a malicious LNK file, a malicious DLL file, and a legitimate lure referencing foreign threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections.

This blog post provides details on the observed activity and outlines possible justification that this campaign could be related to APT29.

Phishing Email Campaign

The original e-mails looked like the following:

Figure 1. Phishing e-mails sent to numerous organizations

Volexity also observed a smaller campaign from the same sender with largely the same content several hours earlier, but with the subject line "USAID Special Alert!". Most of the hyperlinks in the e-mail are of the following format.

https://r20.rs6[.]net/tn.jsp?f=001R6x5duwxLa513iT3wolVtyZj3Ojypr9nwPwZKB3X68SGRFzUVNUR4MdENUXj_c4poo1hx_rFF79P1NsazE-FONIrA9G0ypkCwKTRfL95fp3xUyuceYYrPAtcDp20R1wmw-XZ197ks1FH22V3BIcZYlAfIHdUZQ3M&c=[Random Data]&ch=[Random Data]&__=[Victim Email]

While each link was consistent in a given e-mail, parts of the e-mail varied.

The “” domain is used by Constant Contact e-mail marketing software to track click-throughs on links, meaning the attacker should be able to map the success of their campaign. On the newsletter page of USAID's website, their sign-up link is through Constant Contact. As a result of using this software, the attacker is able to generate a more convincing spear-phish e-mail. Additionally, the e-mail appears to originate from USAID; however, news-related e-mails from this organization are traditionally sent via the [email protected] e-mail address.

When a recipient clicks the Constant Contact URL referenced above, their network request will be redirected to the following URL:

https://usaid.theyardservice[.]com/d/[Victim Email]

This network request will initiate a download for the malicious ISO file “ICA-declass.iso” to the victim's system. The same file is delivered to every user irrespective of their e-mail or referring URL.

Delivered Malware

The malware in question is provided as an ISO file, which acts as a container for embedded files. This ISO has the following properties:

SHA1 bf7b36c521e52093360a4df0dd131703b7b3d648
Modification Date 2021:05:25 13:37:24-04:00

ISO files are similar to archives and can contain several embedded files. They have been popular with criminal threat actors as alternatives to ZIP and RAR files for some time. The following files were present within the ISO:

Filename SHA1 Hash
ICA-declass.pdf 738c20a2cc825ae51b2a2f786248f850c8bab6f5
Reports.lnk 1cb1c2cd9f59d4e83eb3c950473a772406ec6f1a
Documents.dll 1fb12e923bdb71a1f34e98576b780ab2840ba22e

The PDF file appears to have been pulled directly from the website and acts as a decoy; its contents are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. PDF lure included within the malware

If a user opened the embedded LNK file, it would run the Document.dll file and use its exported function “Open”.

Figure 3. Parsed LNK file embedded within ISO

It should be noted that nearly all of the metadata from the LNK file has been removed. Typically, LNK files contain timestamps for creation, modification, and access, as well as information about the device on which they were created.

The DLL included in the ISO has the following attributes:

SHA1 Hash 1fb12e923bdb71a1f34e98576b780ab2840ba22e
Filename Document.dll
Compile Timestamp 2019-04-27 18:24:28 UTC
File Type PE32+ executable (DLL) (GUI) x86-64, for MS Windows
PDB String C:\Users\dev\Desktop\나타나게 하다\Dll6\x64\Release\Dll6.pdb

While the PDB string contains the Korean word for “develop,” Volexity does not believe Korean-speaking threat actors or developers are responsible for this malware family. Volexity instead believes this to be a false flag. Additionally, the compile timestamp dating to the year 2019 is likely to have been falsified.

The DLL is equipped with a number of anti-sandbox and anti-vm checks based on the presence of registry keys commonly found in Virtual Machine environments, as shown in Figure 4:

Figure 4. Decompiled virtual machine checks found within the malicious DLL

After these checks are passed, the malware de-obfuscates a payload by flipping the order of bytes within it. Once de-obfuscated, the payload is executed within the same process. The final payload is CobaltStrike Beacon and contains the following configuration options:

BeaconType HTTPS
Port 492
SleepTime 60591
MaxGetSize 1403629
Jitter 37
MaxDNS Not Found
PublicKey_MD5 2f163ef9db5234bd45b49c41f2dbdb61
C2Server hxxps://dataplane.theyardservice[.]com/jquery-3.3.1.min.woff2
UserAgent Not Found
HttpPostUri /jquery-3.3.2.min.woff2
Malleable_C2_Instructions Remove 1517 bytes from the end
HttpGet_Metadata Not Found
HttpPost_Metadata Not Found
SpawnTo '\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00'
PipeName Not Found
DNS_Idle Not Found
DNS_Sleep Not Found
SSH_Host Not Found
SSH_Port Not Found
SSH_Username Not Found
SSH_Password_Plaintext Not Found
SSH_Password_Pubkey Not Found
SSH_Banner Not Found
HttpGet_Verb GET
HttpPost_Verb POST
HttpPostChunk 0
Spawnto_x86 %windir%\syswow64\dllhost.exe
Spawnto_x64 %windir%\sysnative\dllhost.exe
CryptoScheme 0
Proxy_Config Not Found
Proxy_User Not Found
Proxy_Password Not Found
Proxy_Behavior Use IE settings
Watermark 1359604927
bStageCleanup True
bCFGCaution False
KillDate 0
bProcInject_StartRWX False
bProcInject_UseRWX False
bProcInject_MinAllocSize 0
ProcInject_PrependAppend_x86 '\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90'
ProcInject_PrependAppend_x64 '\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90\xec\x90'
ProcInject_Execute Not Found
ProcInject_AllocationMethod NtMapViewOfSection
bUsesCookies True
HostHeader Not Found
headersToRemove Not Found

Volexity has encountered a secondary DLL payload downloaded by the attacker after successful infection with CobaltStrike. This malware family, which Volexity has named "FRESHFIRE", uses specific attributes on the infected hostname to decrypt and execute data received from a remote C2 server.

This second-stage DLL has the following attributes:

SHA1 Hash 38c99e8cd95f28b8d79b758cb940cf139e09f6ae
Filename DbgView.dll
Compile Timestamp 2021:05:25 9:32:14 UTC
File Type PE32+ executable (DLL) (Console) x86-64, for MS Windows
Original Filename goog.dll

The exported function "WaitPrompt" of this DLL launches the malicious behavior. The malware begins by attempting to open a mutex with the name "UlswcXJJWhtHIHrVqWJJ". If this mutex already exists on the system the malware will exit, otherwise it will proceed. The malware then queries the file attributes of the file "C:\dell.sdr" and appends data from these file attributes to the above mutex name. This combined string is then hashed with MD5 and used to generate a Triple DES decryption key.

Figure 5. Encryption routine leveraged by the malware

The sample then uploads a timestamp to Firebase and downloads a blob from Firebase storage. This data is base64 decoded and decrypted using the generated key. Then, the data is executed in a separate thread, and an HTTP DELETE request is sent to the Firebase storage address used to download the payload.

Figure 6. Decryption routine used to decrypt the remote payload

The following URLs are observed in use by this malware:


Volexity was able to capture an encrypted payload from the Firebase URL and are currently in the process of analyzing it.


While Volexity cannot say with certainty who is behind these attacks, it does believe it has the earmarks of a known threat actor it has dealt with on several previous occasions. However, a number of attack attributes are consistent with previous tactics used by APT29:

Notably, in the 2018 case, FireEye highlighted the same MAC address had been used to create the LNKs observed in 2016 and 2018, while the newest LNK detailed in this blog post has had this metadata scrubbed. This is perhaps an indication that the attacker is learning from public reports on their work.

From an infrastructure point of view, the domains used bear some similarity to the Dark Halo campaign reported by Volexity. In the case of Dark Halo, domains were bought at auction or through marketplace transactions which meant they appeared to be created long ago in WHOIS records. This is the case again with the domains used for command and control in these attacks. Following the Volexity publication, it has been alleged that the Dark Halo campaign was also the work of APT29; however, Volexity has not reached that conclusion at this time.

Volexity cannot be completely certain this new activity is the work of APT29, but it is believed with moderate confidence that it is.


Volexity believes the APT29 threat actor is likely responsible for a phishing campaign against numerous organizations within the United States and Europe. It is currently unclear how many organizations have been targeted, but several of Volexity's customers—as well as a number of organizations submitting to VirusTotal—have been attacked.

After a relatively long hiatus with no publicly detailed spear phishing activity, APT29 appears to have returned with only slight changes to its historical TTPs. In this instance, the attacker purports to be from USAID, enticing victims into clicking an embedded file to download and execute a malicious ISO file. In doing so, the CobaltStrike Beacon implant is executed, providing remote access to the attackers.

At the time of writing, all files involved have relatively low static detection rates on VirusTotal. This suggests the attacker is likely having some success in breaching targets.

Organizations are encouraged to perform the following actions to protect against this threat:

  • Block the following network indicators identified as part of this phishing campaign:
    • theyardservice[.]com
    • worldhomeoutlet[.]com
    • refreshauthtoken-default-rtdb[.]
  • Refer to the Appendix for a list of file hashes that may be used for blocking
  • Use the provided YARA rules in the Appendix to detect the malware observed in this blog post

Appendix A - YARA Rules

rule apt_win_flipflop_ldr : APT29


author = "[email protected]"
date = "2021-05-25"
description = "A loader for the CobaltStrike malware family, which ultimately takes the first and second bytes of an embedded file, and flips them prior to executing the resulting payload."
hash = "ee42ddacbd202008bcc1312e548e1d9ac670dd3d86c999606a3a01d464a2a330"



$s1 = "irnjadle"
$s3 = "iMrcsofo taBesC yrtpgoarhpciP orived r1v0."



all of ($s*)



rule trojan_win_cobaltstrike : Commodity


author = "[email protected]"
date = "2021-05-25"
description = "The CobaltStrike malware family."
hash = "b041efb8ba2a88a3d172f480efa098d72eef13e42af6aa5fb838e6ccab500a7c"



$s1 = "%s (admin)" fullword
$s2 = {48 54 54 50 2F 31 2E 31 20 32 30 30 20 4F 4B 0D 0A 43 6F 6E 74 65 6E 74 2D 54 79 70 65 3A 20 61 70 70 6C 69 63 61 74 69 6F 6E 2F 6F 63 74 65 74 2D 73 74 72 65 61 6D 0D 0A 43 6F 6E 74 65 6E 74 2D 4C 65 6E 67 74 68 3A 20 25 64 0D 0A 0D 0A 00}
$s3 = "%02d/%02d/%02d %02d:%02d:%02d" fullword
$s4 = "%s as %s\\%s: %d" fullword
$s5 = "%s&%s=%s" fullword
$s6 = "rijndael" fullword
$s7 = "(null)"



all of them



import "pe"

rule apt_win_freshfire : APT29


author = "[email protected]"
date = "2021-05-27"
description = "The FRESHFIRE malware family. The malware acts as a downloader, pulling down an encrypted snippet of code from a remote source, executing it, and deleting it from the remote server."
hash = "ad67aaa50fd60d02f1378b4155f69cffa9591eaeb80523489a2355512cc30e8c"



$uniq1 = "UlswcXJJWhtHIHrVqWJJ"
$uniq2 = "gyibvmt\x00"

$path1 = "root/time/%d/%s.json"
$path2 = "C:\\dell.sdr"
$path3 = "root/data/%d/%s.json"




pe.number_of_exports == 1 and


) or

any of ($uniq*) or

2 of ($path*)


Appendix B - File Hashes

Name: ICA-declass.iso
MD5: 29e2ef8ef5c6ff95e98bff095e63dc05
SHA1: bf7b36c521e52093360a4df0dd131703b7b3d648
SHA256: 94786066a64c0eb260a28a2959fcd31d63d175ade8b05ae682d3f6f9b2a5a916


Name: Documents.dll
MD5: 1c3b8ae594cb4ce24c2680b47cebf808
SHA1: 1fb12e923bdb71a1f34e98576b780ab2840ba22e
SHA256: ee42ddacbd202008bcc1312e548e1d9ac670dd3d86c999606a3a01d464a2a330


Name: ICA-declass.pdf
MD5: b40b30329489d342b2aa5ef8309ad388
SHA1: 738c20a2cc825ae51b2a2f786248f850c8bab6f5
SHA256: 7d34f25ad8099bd069c5a04799299f17d127a3866b77ee34ffb59cfd36e29673


Name: Reports.lnk
MD5: dcfd60883c73c3d92fceb6ac910d5b80
SHA1: 1cb1c2cd9f59d4e83eb3c950473a772406ec6f1a
SHA256: 48b5fb3fa3ea67c2bc0086c41ec755c39d748a7100d71b81f618e82bf1c479f0


Name: DbgView.dll
MD5: cca50cd497970977a5e880f2e921db72
SHA1: 38c99e8cd95f28b8d79b758cb940cf139e09f6ae
SHA256: ad67aaa50fd60d02f1378b4155f69cffa9591eaeb80523489a2355512cc30e8c