Financial Phishing Attacks Take Off, Malware Declines

In the past year, the number of digital threats increased by nearly half as phishing swamped malware to become the most dominant attack technique.



Threat activity targeting financial institutions, including phishing attacks and malware, rose 48% in 2019, as cybercriminals and online attackers made use of easy-to-use commodity tools and services to conduct attack campaigns against victims, according to a new report by threat-protection firm ZeroFOX.

Attackers continue to target financial-services firms, which — because they are rapidly adopting digital technologies and business models, such as mobile apps for account access and cryptocurrencies for payment — are raising their attack surface area and potentially increasing their customers' risk. Among attack techniques, phishing continues to be the top risk, with 443,000 phishing domains identified in 2019, more than 75% of which hosted live content, according to ZeroFOX.

Moreover, easy-to-use phishing kits have opened up a path for cybercriminals to easily spin up campaigns, says Ashlee Benge, senior threat researcher at ZeroFOX.

"Phishing kits have really come to dominate this landscape versus malware, which I think many financial institutions historically have been concerned with," she says. "That is not to downplay the effect of malware on organizations, especially ransomware, but if you are looking for a large victim pool, the easiest way to do that is with phishing."

The dominance of phishing among attack methods is a stark change from 2017, when consumers and workers had to worry equally about financially-themed phishing attacks and malware designed to steal financial information and account data.

Yet, starting in early 2018, phishing quickly became the dominant attack type targeting financial institutions and their customers, according to the report. To some degree, phishing is similar to generic spam in that more attacks do not necessarily mean more threats, but new techniques built into phishing kits can make attackers more difficult to spot.

"I don't know that the landscape has overall gotten worse, but it has changed," Benge says. "It's a different kind of risk, [and] when people are not aware of these risks, they typically do fall victim to these scams."

Malware — even commodity malware sold as a service — requires some technical knowledge to use correctly. Phishing kits, however, are simple to put into play and often are offered as a service. 

"The easier a kit is to set up and use, the more attractive it becomes to aspiring or professional scammers," ZeroFOX stated in the report. "Because of this, many kits offer frequent feature updates, user support, tutorial videos and community chatrooms for scammers to swap notes."

In addition to phishing and malware, ZeroFOX tracked fraudulent mobile apps, finding more than 1,500 malicious apps in 2019. Typically, such applications are compromised copies of legitimate programs that steal account information or exfiltrate sensitive personal information from the victim's phone, the report stated.

With the coronavirus pandemic, the phishing lures used in 2020 have trended toward COVID-19 themes. Attackers have focused on scraping data on potential victims from social media and using that information to target victims. Adding health or coronavirus information to the social engineering tends to make it more successful, says Benge.

"What we have noticed is that just about every threat tactic has adopted some variation on a COVID theme," she says, "whether that is malicious mobile apps that advertise that they will help with mortgage payments or credit checks or phishing pages that have adopted a coronavirus lure."

Phishing kits are also asking for more personal details than previous scams. While most phishing targets a victim's banking credentials, others ask for users to confirm their identity by asking for a picture of the user holding a driver's license. Such information can be used to open up an account in the victim's name at another financial institution.

Finally, financial firms have to worry about e-mail-based fraud, such as business e-mail compromise. Earlier this year, a cybercriminal group known as the Florentine Banker Group stole $1.3 million from UK and Israeli financial organizations using fake e-mail messages sent from actual accounts whose credentials were stolen by attackers. 

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio
 

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