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'PhishMe' Tool Lets Businesses Spear-Phish Themselves

Web-based service generates self-inflicted targeted attacks to enlighten users, assess risk

A new do-it-yourself phishing tool lets enterprises automatically spear-phish their own users.

The new PhishMe software-as-a-service offering is designed to help companies assess their vulnerability to spear phishing, as well as to give their users a real-world taste of these targeted attacks.

Boutique security firm Intrepidus Group, which is made up of some black hat researchers, today rolled out the new Web-based PhishMe service for helping companies find the weakest links in their targeted phishing defense.

Spear phishing attacks target specific organizations or individuals, rather than blanketing large groups of users. A recent report from iDefense Labs found that over 15,000 corporate victims in the past 15 months have been hit by spear phishing attacks.

The concept of unleashing a fake phishing campaign inside your own organization isn’t new -- some companies routinely hire penetration testers or social engineering experts to do the dirty work for them. PhishMe is basically a way to roll your own internal campaign and to collect metrics on how users reacted to the messages.

Rohyt Belani, CEO of Intrepidus, says PhishMe is a spinoff of a service Intrepidus performs for its security clients. “This [PhishMe] is a more scalable solution that can be run across various clients, and it’s cheaper to buy a license from us,” he says. The service ranges from $5,000 to under $50,000 for a one-year license, and Intrepidus runs all the background Web and email servers on its end.

PhishMe is also a gentler way of catching employees falling for a phish. Rather than making them feel punk’d, like some social engineering exploits do, it gives them instant feedback: They are redirected to educational messages and information, including a PhishMe educational comic strip and links to their corporate sites for more information.

“The most important part is that as soon as an employee falls for the simulated phishing attack, they get immediate feedback, training materials... on their screen, telling them this is what it was,” Belani says. “It’s not just 'we did this to you, tricked you, and had fun at your expense.'”

Security experts say the hands-on attack approach is more powerful than a security policy statement or traditional user training. “I think it's one of the simplest and most effective ways at educating [users]," says Robert Hansen (aka “RSnake”), CEO of SecTheory. "I've never thought just telling them what to watch for works.

"This forces them to look at it, and pay attention,” Hansen says. “It's far more real and easy to understand when it's staring you in the face in your inbox.”

Setting up an attack takes just a few minutes, and PhishMe provides user behavior metrics as well as other trend information. For security reasons, Intrepidus doesn’t collect its clients’ user passwords on its servers. “The only thing we have is the email addresses of our clients,” says Aaron Higgby, CTO of Intrepidus.

PhishMe can be configured for any type of phishing exploit, even the more obviously phony ones that aren’t targeted at any particular organization or person.

But spear phishing campaigns are usually the most difficult phishing attacks to detect, experts say. “They are hard to pick up because they are so close to legitimate emails out there,” Belani says. “You need to train people to focus on the targeted phishing attacks.”

The next version of the service will have options for including benign infected-email attachments, Belani says.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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