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New Report Details Rise, Spread of Email-based Attacks

Criminals are diversifying their target list and tactics in a continuing effort to keep email a valuable attack vector against enterprise victims.

Criminal hackers are sold on the value of email and social media, and they're adapting their use of those channels to maintain the impact of their attacks. A new report indicates how powerful those adaptions are and just how important communication channels remain to criminals.

"Protecting People: A Quarterly Analysis of Highly Targeted Cyber Attacks" is a new report from Proofpoint that draws on the company's captured and analyzed traffic to draw conclusions about the current targets and tactics of cyber criminals. One of the findings is that criminals are continually changing targets within an organization; 99% of the most targeted email addresses weren't ranked at all in the last report.

"To lure new and unsuspecting victims, cybercriminals must conduct constant reconnaissance and refine their targeting accordingly. By overhauling 99% their target list, attackers are effectively widening their pool of potential targets and increasing their chances at successfully infiltrating a company," says Mark Guntrip, director of product marketing at Proofpoint.

Those new addresses tend not to belong to employees who deal directly with enterprise finances. While production and operations employees make up the largest group of targets, representing 23% of the attacks, workers in marketing, public relations, and human resources departments represented a significantly larger share of the attacks versus the previous quarter, now making up slightly more than one fifth of the total.

"Communication teams, including PR and marketing, have access to confidential and embargoed company information, like quarterly earnings, and human resources maintains pertinent employee records, all of which are of high value to cybercriminals," says Guntrip, adding, "These groups also depend on frequent communication with outside vendors, which can make them easier targets to fall for attacks."

In order to avoid triggering traditional spam filters and anti-malware software, URL-based attacks now far outnumber those based on malicious attachments. The URL frequently comes in an email message designed to appear critical, with “request,” “urgent,” and “payment” appearing in the subject lines of 58% of all email scams, according to the report.

As for the malicious URLs themselves, their nature varies from attack to attack. According to Chris Dawson, threat intelligence lead for Proofpoint, "Some use typosquatted or lookalike domains (e.g., acme.com vs. acmec.om). Many just hyperlink apparently benign display text. Still others use attacker-controlled domains with no apparent connection to the target."

At the same time that email attacks are on the rise, social media channels are also increasingly used as attack vectors against companies and organizations. The report notes, "Customer-support fraud on social media soared 486% vs. the year-ago quarter to its highest level ever." Dawson says, "We are increasingly seeing support fraud (aka 'angler phishing') on social media, a technique that is unique to this vector. In these attacks (up 486% from Q3 2017), threat actors hijack conversations between consumers and trusted brands, tricking users into providing credentials or payment information via social media channels."

To protect an organization against these evolving threats, the report urges security groups to adopt a security posture focused on people, since that's the way that the criminals using these techniques see the organization. The report notes, "Consider the individual risk each user represents, including how they’re targeted, what data they have access to, and whether they tend to fall prey to attacks."

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