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Phishing Threats Move to Mobile Devices

Mobile devices are emerging as a primary gateway for phishing attacks aimed at stealing data.

A mobile user is 18 times more likely to be exposed to a phishing attempt than to malware, according to a new report on techniques and technologies that try to get a user to be an accomplice in their own victimization.

While employees have been taught to be suspicious of links and attachments in email, there is considerably less scrutiny of channels like SMS, Skype, WhatsApp, games, and social media. "As more communications take place over mobile devices, organizations haven't changed their thinking to cover the modes of communications taking place on the devices," says Michael Covington, vice president of product at Wandera, which published the report.

Mobile devices are the technology channel on which personal employee and corporate apps and data come together, and criminal hackers are taking advantage of that to reach enterprise credentials through personal communications.

"You can train an employee to not be a victim, but the mobile attacks are so compelling that education isn't enough," Covington says. "We want to see corporations move into the present, recognize the risk and mitigate the risk."

That risk is considerable. According to Wandera's mobile phishing report, the average iOS user has 14 different accounts on their work phone, typically including services such as Amazon, Paypal, and Airbnb. On Android, the number jumps to 20 unique apps. And both messaging and social media apps increased in popularity as an attack vector by more than 100% in 2017, with no sign of that growth slowing in 2018.

While email remains the most common target of phishing attackers, the effectiveness has been dramatically reduced by improving defense systems and years of employee training, the report notes. Fewer than one in five successful attacks originate with email phishing campaigns on desktop and mobile devices. That's not to say that phishing as a tactic is going away.

According to the Verizon 2018 Data Breach Investigations Report, 90% of cyberattacks begin with phishing. There's a good reason for that, Covington says, especially in the mobile domain. "To be perfectly honest, these mobile devices are pretty hardened," he says. "They do have problems, we have seen them exploited, but if you look at something like the current iOS it's pretty hardened. Phishing allows an attacker to bypass all of those protections."

There are companies that see statistics such as those around phishing through apps and decide that the solution is to lock down apps. But that's not an effective solution to the problem, according to Wandera.

"Phishing attacks have been observed in practically every single form of communication on mobile devices, including Skype, QQ, WeChat, Viber and Kik. Clearly this is a problem at scale that cannot be solved through blocking certain apps, or through app- centric controls," the report said. "Phishing attacks have been observed in practically every single form of communication on mobile devices, including Skype, QQ, WeChat, Viber and Kik. Clearly this is a problem at scale that cannot be solved through blocking certain apps, or through app-centric controls."

Mobile phishing attacks have become more sophisticated and effective as the stakes have increased. As Mike Murray, vice president of security intelligence at Lookout said in an InteropITX session, "Mobile has become not just a target, but the primary target in the enterprise."

"Mobile has a gap and often it's the user sitting on the other side of the interface," says Covington. That danger of that gap is amplified by the behavior of the companies where they work. Covington explains, "Most organizations want to stop phishing and protect data with GDPR coming online. Neither is being addressed with mobile."

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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