Phishing Attacks Continue to Rise, Proofpoint Reports

While the volume of phishing attacks grew in 2018, Proofpoint found that there were also several positive trends that helped organizations reduce cyber-security risk.

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Proofpoint State of Phish

Phishing remains an active threat vector with the volume of attacks growing, according Proofpoint's 2019 State of the Phish report, released on Jan. 24.

In a phishing attack, a hacker aims to trick a user into clicking on some form of malicious link that is hidden with an email. The study found that in 2018, 83 percent of global infosecurity respondents were impacted by phishing attacks, up from 76 percent in 2017. Targeted phishing attacks known as spear phishing also were on the rise from 53 percent in 2017 up to 64 percent in 2018. Among the key findings in the report was also the simple fact that not all employees within organizations actually understand cyber-security terms and their associated risks. For example, in the U.S., only 65 percent of individuals actually could correctly explain what phishing is.

"Terms like ‘phishing’ and ‘ransomware’ are second nature for security professionals because they are spoken within IT departments each and every day," Amy Baker, vice president of Security Awareness Training Strategy and Development for Proofpoint, told eWEEK. "That is simply not the case for the rest of the organization."

Baker added that for a significant portion of the workforce, employees only encounter security terms during communication with the IT team. She noted that it is critical that infosecurity professionals keep in mind the learning curve associated with cyber-security awareness and ensure that they communicate in a way that employees can understand, process and learn. Awareness of cyber-security terms also varied by age, but with a somewhat non-intuitive result.

"It was surprising that despite being raised on technology from a young age, Millennials were found to be the least cyber-aware, as they fell significantly behind at least one other age group on all cyber-security terminology questions," Baker said. "Baby Boomers, who are often thought of as the least technologically-savvy generation, outperformed all groups in the fundamental understanding of phishing and ransomware."

Phishing Attack Impact

There are several different outcomes that can occur from a successful phishing attack, including loss of data, malware infections and compromised accounts. Baker noted that 65 percent of infosecurity professionals surveyed reported that their organizations dealt with account compromise resulting from a phishing attack in 2018. That figure is an increase from only 38 percent in 2017.

"While we did not ask about business email compromise in this survey, our respondents did share that successful phishing attacks led to a loss of funds," she said. "In addition, the number of organizations that experienced data loss as a result of phishing attacks more than tripled between 2016 and 2018."

Positive Trends

While phishing attacks grew in 2018, there were a number of positive cyber-security trends that the Proofpoint study was able to identify. 

Two findings in the report stand out as extremely positive, Baker said. One is that 57 percent of infosecurity professionals have quantified a reduction in phishing susceptibility because of training programs. Another positive finding identified in the study is that 59 percent of suspicious emails reported by end users in 2018 were classified as potential phishing. 

"These two findings demonstrate that security awareness training effectively educates employees on the latest cyber-security trends," Baker said.

She added that the positive results also show that security awareness training helps IT teams ensure that employees are prepared to identify malicious emails, reducing the success rates of phishing attacks. Looking forward, Baker is hopeful that training will continue to have an impact in the years ahead.

"We expect to see a continued rise in reported quantifiable reductions in phishing susceptibility, as organizations continue to train their employees and security awareness training vendors continue to enhance their solutions," she said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.