Sophisticated spear phishing attacks becoming more common
SMBs must focus on prevention as data security, financial costs of breaches climb
By Gary Stoller, ThirdCertainty
Spear phishers continue to pierce even well-defended networks, causing grave financial wounds.
Spear phishers lure a specific individual to click on a viral email attachment or to navigate to a corrupted Web page. Malicious code typically gets embedded on the victim’s computing device, giving control to the attacker.
A recent survey of 300 IT decision-makers in the United States and the United Kingdom—commissioned by threat-protection solutions provider Cloudmark—found that a spear-phishing attack penetrated the security defenses of more than 84 percent of respondents’ organizations.
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Spear phishing continues to turn up time and again as the trigger to massive network breaches, including widely publicized attacks on JPMorgan Chase & Co., eBay, Target, Anthem, Sony Pictures and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
“Criminals have achieved high success rates with spear-phishing attempts, and that success is breeding even more attempted attacks,” says Angela Knox, Cloudmark’s senior director of engineering and threat research.
Respondents to Cloudmark’s survey said that, on average, their organizations lost more than $1.6 million from spear-phishing attacks during the 12 months prior to the survey.
Spear phishers install malware, seek out privileged access accounts, and scour breached networks for confidential business plans, information about current negotiations, and other valuable data. And the attackers are in a position to manipulate, disrupt or destroy systems.
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Attacks on banks, credit unions and professional services firms that help conduct financial transactions often focus on persuading employees to wire money to the phishers’ accounts.
“Even if the money can be recovered, it takes time and effort to recover it,” Knox says. “In one high-profile incident, a company lost $46.7 million due to email spoofing.”
One reason spear phishing persists is because people reveal a wealth of personal and behavioral data on the Internet. Attackers tap this information to profile victims and create email and social media messages crafted to appear to come from a trusted source—in a context that puts the targeted victim at ease.
The end game: Get the person to open a viral email attachment or click to a malicious Web page.
“Everyone is now a target, and users can no longer depend on spelling mistakes or random scams,” says Chester Wisniewski, senior security adviser at antimalware vendor Sophos.
Peter Cassidy, secretary general of the Anti-Phishing Working Group, an international coalition fighting cyber crime, says spear phishers in recent years have gone to greater depths in focus and planning.
“These days, it’s not uncommon to see an attack that targets specific personalities for their access within an enterprise and loads a malware payload to execute an exploit that will open a pathway the attackers are waiting for—and will use to gain access to data they prize,” Cassidy says. “Talk about orchestration! Stravinsky and these guys would have a lot to talk about.”
Employees part of solution
A primary defense is to continually train employees to be vigilant, and a cottage industry of training services and technologies has arisen in recent years to assist companies off all sizes. But even trained employees remain susceptible to sophisticated trickery.
Nearly 80 percent of organizations surveyed by Cloudmark reported using staff training to prevent attacks. Of organizations that test their employees’ responses to spear-phishing attacks, only 3 percent said that all employees passed. Respondents estimated that 16 percent of staff members failed their organizations’ most recent spear-phishing tests.
“Humans are flawed,” Wisniewski says. “You can never stop spear phishing entirely,” because “it is not a technical problem that can be solved.”
It’s human nature for employees who spot something wrong or who believe they may have been tricked to hesitate reporting the incident. Yet quick reporting is a key to remediation. “Accidents happen, but detection and remediation are more successful the less time the criminal has to take advantage of your errors,” Wisniewski says.
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