Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Vulnerabilities / Threats

10:30 AM
Eyal Benishti
Eyal Benishti
Connect Directly
E-Mail vvv

Advanced Phishing Scenarios You Will Most Likely Encounter This Year

In 2019, there will be no end in sight to email-driven cybercrime such as business email compromise, spearphishing, and ransomware.

The year 2018 was another record-breaking year for cyberattacks, and organizations should expect more of the same in 2019. Attackers, who continue to prioritize email as the primary attack vector, are increasingly deploying more sophisticated phishing techniques to bypass traditional email security safeguards, thereby complicating cybersecurity initiatives for many government agencies and private sector businesses. Thus, it's a safe bet that advanced phishing threats, such as business email compromise (BEC), spearphishing, ransomware, and brand impersonation attacks, will continue to ascend in the year ahead.

The 2019 Threat Landscape
Attackers have steadily increased their attacks on both business and government entities, while financial gain continues as the primary motivator. In 2018, ransomware and spoofing attacks grew by 350% and 250% respectively, according to IndustryWeek. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reports that the average cost of a cyber breach hit $7.5 million in 2018, up from $4.9 million in 2017. Those are alarming statistics by any measure, but what's even more concerning are the number of municipalities, large corporations, and small businesses impacted by cyberattacks in 2018. 

In March, a ransomware attack shut down online systems at the City of Atlanta, forcing the government of the sixth largest metro to go without digital services for a week. While attribution remains inconsistent, most security officials believe that nation-state actors continued to target US elections and government entities, with several high-profile attacks against US senators and critical infrastructure, according to Gov Tech. Meanwhile, major companies such as Under Armour, Panera, Facebook, Strava, and Orbitz all suffered notable data breaches this year while there was a massive spike in attacks targeting small and midsized companies across industries.

Attackers no longer discriminate their targets with such frequency as in year's past. Today, launching an automated phishing campaign requires very little work for potentially very high ROI. So with no decline to email-driven cybercrime in sight, here are some trends we can expect to see:

  • More Sophisticated Attacks Executed by Unsophisticated Attackers: Attackers of all skill levels can now access a whole range of online black-market tools, including how-to guides, AI-enabled programs, and cloud-based phishing-as-a-service solutions that enable anyone to orchestrate complex attacks. They're also scouring social media for information and cross-referencing with company websites and job listings to cultivate personal messages.
  • Nation-State Attacks Will Continue: Emboldened by recent successes and a lack of consequences, it is expected that attacks by nation-states will expand and continue in 2019. As government entities increase their security efforts, attackers with government finances at their disposal may also shift more efforts to businesses and private entities, which will be challenging for those organizations to detect and respond. Several cybersecurity firms predict 2019 will be a troublesome year for cyberwars and nefarious nation-state activities, according to an article at ZDnet.com.
  • Attacks Will Become "Smarter" & More Automated: Just as artificial intelligence and machine learning will help detect and prevent phishing attacks, it will also aid cybercriminals. Attackers are now using these technologies to scan for vulnerabilities and create malware that can better avoid detection. Symantec executives said in a recent blog post that whereas in the past crafting individual messages was labor-intensive and costly, AI-powered toolkits could soon make spearphishing more abundant and easy to perpetrate.  
  • History Will Repeat Itself: As attackers develop new strategies, they're also bringing back old tactics. Email flooding, a strategy that dates to the 1990s, has been revived as a smokescreen for BEC attacks, spearphishing, and malware. Criminals now use it to flood inboxes and distract victims while they perpetrate fraudulent transactions. According to a global security report by AppRiver, criminals are using distributed span distraction (DSD) to bombard accounts for a period of 12 to 24 hours. Anyone can now pull off an email bomb attack as services on the Dark Web will bomb an email account with 5,000 messages for as little as $20. Kraken — an earlier, simple and effective ransomware — also re-emerged in September 2018 when a researcher found it bundled in an exploit kit, according to an article in Dark Reading.
  • Ongoing Attempts to Bypass Two-Factor Authentication: Over the last year, hackers have continuously attempted to bypass two-factor authentication. According to the McAfee Labs 2019 Cybersecurity Threats Report, that won't show any signs of slowing down in the coming year, as cybercriminals continue to develop a stronger and more sophisticated underground to organize and discover new ways to exploit information that is key to authentication such as usernames, passwords, and web session cookies.

Automation Pluses & Minuses 
One of the biggest challenges to mitigating the risk of phishing is keeping up with the sheer volume of attacks. Fidelis Cybersecurity surveyed security practitioners from companies in multiple industries and found 60% of analysts could only handle up to eight investigations per day. 

To keep pace with the threats, some modern email security solutions have introduced automation — which, in theory, is of great benefit to SOC and security teams — as automated technology could alleviate the burden of manual phishing investigation and response.

Yet, despite the introduction of automation, automated email security tools in some cases offer only partial automated functionality. For example, fractional automation — like the preset of very basic processes, standardized playbooks, and linear technology built on YARA rules — doesn't actually save security teams time because so much manual input is still required.

Having basic awareness of trending attacks and an understanding of modern attacker preferences is often the first step in measurable risk reduction. However, awareness is not enough; instead, automation that can help security teams expedite the time from threat identification to attack remediation is what will move the needle the most.

Related Content:


Eyal Benishti has spent more than a decade in the information security industry, with a focus on software R&D for startups and enterprises. Before establishing IRONSCALES, he served as security researcher and malware analyst at Radware, where he filed two patents in the ... View Full Bio

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Ninja
1/14/2019 | 2:11:06 PM
SSN numbers
No, not the name of a nuclear submarine ---- but social security numbers should CEASE to be identify codes entirely, but a wide range of institutions continue to use them and until they are just BANNED by Federal order, we shall see no end of this personal data being tossed around the web. 
NSA Appoints Rob Joyce as Cyber Director
Dark Reading Staff 1/15/2021
Vulnerability Management Has a Data Problem
Tal Morgenstern, Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer, Vulcan Cyber,  1/14/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: This is not what I meant by "I would like to share some desk space"
Current Issue
2020: The Year in Security
Download this Tech Digest for a look at the biggest security stories that - so far - have shaped a very strange and stressful year.
Flash Poll
Assessing Cybersecurity Risk in Today's Enterprises
Assessing Cybersecurity Risk in Today's Enterprises
COVID-19 has created a new IT paradigm in the enterprise -- and a new level of cybersecurity risk. This report offers a look at how enterprises are assessing and managing cyber-risk under the new normal.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
OpenMage is a community-driven alternative to Magento CE. In OpenMage before versions 19.4.10 and 20.0.6, there is a vulnerability which enables remote code execution. In affected versions an administrator with permission to update product data to be able to store an executable file on the server ...
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
Weave Net is open source software which creates a virtual network that connects Docker containers across multiple hosts and enables their automatic discovery. Weave Net before version 2.8.0 has a vulnerability in which can allow an attacker to take over any host in the cluster. Weave Net is suppli...
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
A vulnerability in the CLI of Cisco SD-WAN vManage Software could allow an authenticated, local attacker to read sensitive database files on an affected system. The vulnerability is due to insufficient user authorization. An attacker could exploit this vulnerability by accessing the vshell of an af...
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
Multiple vulnerabilities in Cisco SD-WAN products could allow an unauthenticated, remote attacker to execute denial of service (DoS) attacks against an affected device. For more information about these vulnerabilities, see the Details section of this advisory.
PUBLISHED: 2021-01-20
Multiple vulnerabilities in certain REST API endpoints of Cisco Data Center Network Manager (DCNM) could allow an authenticated, remote attacker to execute arbitrary SQL commands on an affected device. For more information about these vulnerabilities, see the Details section of this advisory.