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7/27/2017
10:20 PM
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The Lazy Habits of Phishing Attackers

Most hackers who phish accounts do little to hide their tracks or even mine all of the data they can from phished accounts, mostly because they can afford to be lazy.

The next time a crisis communication manager states that their organization suffered from a "highly sophisticated" attack, someone may want to cross-check that with how most attacks are actually carried out.

According to new research out this week culled from an extensive honeypot operation, most attackers using phishing to initiate attacks are the opposite of sophisticated. They're lax with their opsec-- most don't go through much effort at all to hide their attacks. Considering that some estimates peg 91% of all cyberattacks starting with phishing emails, that tells you that the vast majority of attacks are noisy and very identifiable. Yet the bad guys still manage to do a ton of damage because the resistance they face is paper thin.

The recent report was released by researchers at Imperva, who maintained close to 90 personal accounts on various online and email services over the course of nine months. These "honey accounts" were planted with various traps within them to collect data about how long it took for attackers to exploit stolen passwords and compromise accounts, how and when attackers explored and collected data, and how attackers tried to muffle their malicious activity from detection by the account owner. 

"One of the more interesting areas of the research was uncovering which practices attackers used to cover their tracks, destroy evidence of their presence and activities in the account, and evade detection," says Luda Lazar, security researcher for Imperva. "Our research also showed that not all attackers take equal care in covering their tracks. We were surprised to find that only 17% made any attempt to cover their tracks."

For example, only 15% of attackers deleted sign-in alerts from the inbox and just 13% deleted sent emails and failure notification messages. And a measly 2% went through the trouble to permanently delete sign-in alerts.

What's more, attackers frequently take their sweet time taking advantage of stolen login credentials. Over half of attackers in this experiment took 24 hours or more to access honey accounts after the credential theft. Additionally, nearly three-quarters of attackers explore account content manually rather than through automated tools. 

The lesson here is that most of these attacks are leaving tons of evidence behind for users and defenders alike to start detecting attacks before well before the bad guys have owned the account for the months-long time-period that is today's average industry dwell time. What's more there is a workable window between credential theft and account takeover where it's possible to mitigate the attack before it even starts to sink its fangs into systems.

Unfortunately, statistics indicate that phishing continues to flourish worldwide. According to a report out last week from Kaspersky Lab, in Q1 of 2017 alone, the company blocked over 51 million attempts by users to open a phishing page.

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Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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Christian Bryant
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Christian Bryant,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2017 | 1:45:51 PM
Lazy Hackers, Lazy Architecture
I've often equated to level of sophistication of a hack to the complexity of the infrastructure used in the hack, or penetrated by the hack.  With millions of would be techies out there, the number of one-off domains with shopping carts, emails and PayPal accounts is in the multi-millions.  The number of those that are sophisticated (look like Amazon.com for instance) is incredibly low.  The reason for this, and the reason so many hackers - in this case, phishers - are lazy is that the architecture behind the infrastructure is old and lazy; time to market pushes sophistication out the door in some cases and leaves users vulnerable.  We in tech should never expect our users to be sophisticated.  Instead we need to be, and to make use of tech easy and highly secure.  Yet in most cases when it comes to domains, email and websites we simply don't.  No, these cyber criminals are lazy because they know the tech behind the platforms they exploit are also lazy.  We can't blame the users who fall for phishing scams.  They are not the ones tasked with providing a secure product.
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