11:19 AM

Spear Phishing Attacks On The Rise

Symantec warns that spear-phishing attack volume has hit a two-year high as attackers try to install botnet software, keylogging applications, or other malware.

Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, LocalPain
Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, Local Pain
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Targeted email attacks are on the rise. In fact, the volume of such attacks has recently reached a two-year high.

That warning comes via Symantec, which said that it's now intercepting 85 targeted attacks per day--a subset of the actual number that would be seen on the Internet--which is the highest volume since March 2009, when it saw 107 attacks per day prior to that year's G20 conference in London.

Furthermore, the nature of such attacks appears to be evolving. "While some high-profile targeted attacks in 2010 attempted to steal intellectual property or cause physical damage, many of these targeted attacks preyed on individuals for their personal information," said Francis deSouza, group president of enterprise products and services for Symantec, in a blog post.

Symantec's warning came on the heels of last week's announcement from Google that it was seeing attacks that targeted specific Gmail users' accounts. Google's Eric Grosse, the engineering director of the Google Security Team, said the attack appeared to originate from China.

"We recently uncovered a campaign to collect user passwords, likely through phishing," said Grosse in a website post. "This campaign, which appears to originate from Jinan, China, affected what seem to be the personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users including, among others, senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists."

"The goal of this effort seems to have been to monitor the contents of these users' emails, with the perpetrators apparently using stolen passwords to change peoples' forwarding and delegation settings," he said.

Grosse said that Google's investigation was aided by spear-phishing research published in February, which warned that attackers were using fake Gmail log-in pages to harvest log-in credentials, then forwarding email to an attacker-controlled account.

To mitigate the risk that these types of targeted attacks pose, Grosse offered numerous recommendations, including activating two-step verification for Gmail, which employs a phone and second password for signing in. He also recommended using a unique, strong password, and never entering it except for a proper sign-in prompt on a page encrypted via HTTPS, and watching for red "warning about suspicious activity" that appear above the Gmail inbox. Finally, he said that users should beware attempts to forward their accounts to strange addresses, or to delegate the account inappropriately.

Gmail tweaks aside, stopping targeted attacks remains quite difficult, as its success against numerous organizations, including the White House, as well as security powerhouse RSA, illustrates.

That's because many of these attacks employ so-called spear phishing techniques. Unlike regular phishing, which sends large numbers of emails to large numbers of people, spear-phishing refers to sending a phishing email to a particular person or relatively small group. Attackers may also heavily customize their spear-phishing emails, using public information gleaned from the Web, to make the emails seem more authentic.

The purpose of these targeted attacks it typically to get the recipient to execute an attachment, which is really malware, or to get them to visit a website that then attempts to exploit their PC using known vulnerabilities. In either case, the attacker's goal is to gain root-level access to the targeted PC, typically by installing botnet software, keylogging applications, or other malware.

In this new Tech Center report, we profile five database breaches--and extract the lessons to be learned from each. Plus: A rundown of six technologies to reduce your risk. Download it here (registration required).

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