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Exploiting People Instead of Software: Report Shows Attacker Love for Human Interaction

Cybercriminals Continue to Rely on Human Interaction to Conduct Wide Range of Attacks

Cybercriminals have been scaling up people-centered threats, increasingly using social engineering rather than automated exploits even in web attacks, a recent report from Proofpoint report reveals.

Humans have been long said to be the best exploits in the eyes of cybecriminals, with social engineering becoming the most used attack method years back, when almost all attached documents and URLs in malicious emails required human interaction.

Now, Proofpoint’s The Human Factor 2018 report (PDF) reveals that both cybercriminals and threat actors have found new ways to trick victims into becoming their unwitting accomplices. Email remained the most popular attack vector, while the rise of crypto-currency drove innovations in phishing and cybercrime.

Proofpoint saw attacks that include both large, multimillion-message malicious campaigns distributing malware such as ransomware (the biggest email-borne threat of 2017) and highly targeted assaults orchestrated by state-sponsored groups and financially motivated fraudsters.

“Whether they are broad-based or targeted; whether delivered via email, social media, the web, cloud apps, or other vectors; whether they are motivated by financial gain or national interests, the social engineering tactics used in these attacks work time and time again. Victims clicked malicious links, downloaded unsafe files, installed malware, transferred funds, and disclosed sensitive information at scale,” Proofpoint notes.

Last year, suspiciously registered domains of large enterprises outnumbered brand-registered domains 20 to 1, according to the report. Furthermore, 95% of observed web-based attacks used social engineering to trick users into installing malware, 55% of social media attacks impersonating customer-support accounts targeted customers of financial services companies, and 35% of social media scams using links took users to video streaming and movie download sites.

Dropbox phishing was the top lure for phishing attacks, but click rates for Docusign lures were the highest. Network traffic of coin mining bots jumped almost 90% between September and November, while ransomware and banking Trojans accounted for more than 82% of all malicious email messages. Although used often in email campaigns, Microsoft Office exploits usually came in short bursts.

The largest numbers of email fraud attacks hit education, management consulting, entertainment, and media firms, while construction, manufacturing, and technology were the most phished industries. Manufacturing, healthcare, and technology firms were targeted the most by crimeware.

Although ransomware predominated worldwide, banking Trojans were highly popular in Europe and Japan, accounting for 36% and 37% of all malicious mail in those regions, respectively.

Proofpoint has examined hundreds of thousands of SaaS accounts during risk assessments conducted across industries and says that around 1% of all cloud service credentials have been leaked. Furthermore, the security firm discovered that 25% of all suspicious login attempts to cloud services were successful (24% of all logins to cloud services were suspicious).

Attackers are increasingly using cloud services that users are accustomed to receive email notifications from to send malicious messages and host malware. While no major cloud services avoided abuse, services such as G Suite and Evernote were used to send phishing emails and malware.

“Most cloud platforms are extensible. Third-party add-ons open up new features, but they also create possibilities for abuse. We found a vulnerability in Google Apps Script, for example, that allowed attackers to send malware through legitimate emails that came from G Suite accounts,” the security researchers report.

Looking at how people behave in response to these threats, Proofpoint discovered that North American employees tended to click at the beginning of the work day, at lunch, and the end of the work day. South America followed a similar pattern, but Australian employees were more likely to click in the morning.

Half of all clicks (52%), however occurred within one hour of the message being delivered, with 11% of recipients clicking on the malicious URL within the first minute and a quarter within 5 minutes.

Usually focused on high-profile targets, state-sponsored attackers and established cyber criminals switched to targeting smaller targets in 2017.

The North Korea- affiliated Lazarus Group launched multistage attacks against individuals and point-of-sale (POS) infrastructure to steal cryptocurrency and consumer credit card data. The financially-motivated FIN7 started targeting individuals within restaurant chains using a new backdoor and malicious macros.

The Cobalt Group used new malware and document exploits in attacks against financial institutions and used anti-sandbox features to make detection more difficult.

The security firm also observed cryptocurrency phishing campaigns and identified sophisticated phishing templates targeting wallets and exchanges, including one attack that used malicious Office documents to install a banking Trojan. As of January, the researchers discovered over 100,000 Bitcoin-related domains, some supposedly registered for nefarious purposes.

“Social engineering is at the heart of most attacks today. It can come through something as simple as a bogus invoice lure in a multimillion message malicious spam campaign. It may appear as an intricate fake chain of emails and out-of-band communications in email fraud. Even web-based attacks—which once depended almost exclusively on exploit kits and drive-by downloads—are now built around social engineering templates. People willingly download bogus software updates or fake anti-malware software,” Proofpoint notes.

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