Over 90 per cent of rargeted attacks derived from spear phishing emails: Trend Micro

New threat research released by Trend Micro gives empirical evidence that an aggressive breed of phishing attacks is well underway.

In an analysis of targeted attack data collected between February and September this year, global cloud security leader Trend Micro found that 91 per cent of targeted attacks involved spear phishing.

This finding reinforces the company’s position that these attacks often begin at a very simple point of contact – an email message that is cleverly crafted to entice a specific individual to either open a malicious file attachment or to click a link to a malware- or an exploit-laden site, starting a compromise within the victim’s network.

Spear phishing – coined as a direct analogue to spearfishing – is a new breed of highly targeted phishing that makes the use of information about a target to make attacks more specific and “personal” to the target.

Spear phishing emails, for instance, may refer to their targets by their specific name, rank, or position instead of using generic titles as in broader phishing campaigns.

According to the report, Spear Phishing Email: Most Favoured APT Attack Bait, 94 per cent of targeted emails use malicious file attachments as the payload or infection source. The remaining 6 per cent use alternative methods such as installing malware through malicious links that download malicious files.

The reason for this huge discrepancy is straightforward: Employees in large companies or government organisations normally share files (e.g., reports, business documents, and resumes) via email since downloading materials straight off the Internet is regarded as insecure.

Jon Oliver, a Melbourne-based senior threat researcher at Trend Micro ANZ, said: “Spear phishing is the first step in the most sophisticated forms of cyber attack. Executives and people in authority in all organisations can be targeted.”

“Phishing in general has become more sophisticated, with these email attacks significantly increasing in number and maliciousness in 2012. They are now more likely to induce users to click on links and open attachments.

“All organisations in Australia and New Zealand need to ensure their email infrastructure is as secure as possible, and should educate their users about what email is safe to click on and which attachments are safe to open,” said Mr Oliver.

Notable highlights from the report:

• The most commonly used and shared file types accounted for 70 per cent of the total number of spear phishing email attachments during the monitored time period. The main file types were: .RTF (38 per cent), .XLS (15 percent), and .ZIP (13 per cent). Alternatively, executable (.EXE) files were not as popular among cybercriminals, most likely because emails with .EXE file attachements are usually detected and blocked by security solutions.

• The most highly targeted industries are government and activist groups. Extensive information about government agencies and appointed officials are readily found on the Internet and often posted on public government websites. Activist groups, highly active in social media, are also quick to provide member information in order to facilitate communication, organize campaigns or recruit new members. These habits elevate member profiles, making them visible targets.

• As a result, three out of four of the targeted victims email addresses are easily found through web searches or using common email address formats.

The full report, Spear Phishing Email: Most Favored APT Attack Bait, is available here (PDF).

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