Phishing Attacks Continue to Sneak Past Defenses

By Robert Lemos  |  Posted 2016-02-11 Print this article Print
phishing attacks

While the stereotypical phishing attack may be grammatically challenged, the popular attack method continues to be effective, according to Cloudmark's annual threat report.

While phishing attacks have a reputation for being poorly written and fairly obvious in their attempts to con users, the attacks continue to be a problem for most companies, according to a security threat report published by Cloudmark on Feb. 11.

Ninety-one percent of companies encountered phishing attacks in 2015, with the lion's share—84 percent—of companies claiming attacks successfully snuck past their security defenses, according to a survey of 300 U.S. and UK firms conducted as part of the report. A relatively simple attack—sending a message to the accounting department purportedly from the company CEO—has become quite popular, with 63 percent of companies having encountered the tactic.

"Even though companies are taking actions, it is still one of the easiest ways in," Angela Knox, senior director of engineering and threat research for Cloudmark, told eWEEK. "It is much easier for someone to hack a human by going through email than to attempt to find a zero day."

Phishing is a low-percentage game. Sending 10,000 emails to get one attachment opened or link clicked by an employee is still a success for the attackers. More targeted phishing, known as spearphishing, requires more of an attacker's time but also has a higher success rate.

Phishing continues to be a primary method through which attackers infiltrate corporate networks—nearly 23 percent of recipients continue to open phishing email messages, and another 11 percent click on attachments, according to last year's Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report.

Cloudmark noted that, despite the success of both forms of phishing, companies and hosting providers are not doing enough. Attacks such as the Swizzor malware campaign use phishing to distribute malware to potential victims. Like many other forms of malware, Swizzor uses a domain generation algorithm (DGA) to create pseudo-random domains from lists of words, dodging defenses that rely on static lists.

In the survey, 93 percent of respondents stated that their company was at least "somewhat prepared" for phishing attacks. Only 36 percent of those polled thought their firm was very prepared.

While some infrastructure providers are using technology to remove phishing emails before they can reach their customers, many service providers need to do more to combat the problem, Cloudmark stated in the report. When phishing attacks contain an URL-shortened link, for example, the user has no way to determine its veracity. URL-shortening services should filter out links that point to spam sites, but many do not, Cloudmark claims.

Some providers, such as Twitter, have begun blocking shortened URLs that point to known malicious sites and currently has reduced the fraction of spam-related links using the Twitter URL shortening service to 2.6 percent.

As a technology provider, Cloudmark unsurprisingly argues that training employees to be more resilient to attacks is a strategy that can only go so far. Most companies would rather have a good technology solution than a well-trained employee base, Knox said.

"Training is the stop-gap measure that you use if the technology is not providing you defenses you can rely on," she said. "If the technology is protecting you, you don't need training."



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