UK users receive most phishing spam, email analysis suggests

Statistic quirk or a sign of poor filtering?

Research by security firm Proofpoint has discovered something unexpected about the flood of spam sent to users in the UK - more of these emails seem to contain malicious links than for other countries.

Comparing the ratio of malicious email to non-threatening email, the UK beat all comers for the phenomenon, with 2.6 times as much as the US, and between three and five times as much as France or Germany.

When we enquired about this odd finding, we assumed it might be a statistical fluke - why would UK users receive more phishing spam than these very similar? The firm then correlated its figures with overall spam levels in case the UK was simply receiving more and found .that Germany received the highest percentage. The UK was pretty much identical to France and the US.

The figures were drawn from an analysis of around 7 billion URLs looked at each week over a three-week period in the summer. This raises the possibility that the higher phishing levels aimed at the UK are a random fluctuation and a result of when the time period chosen than a fundamental trend.

Proofpoint's explanation is that either more phishing email gets through to UK users and the marginally higher response rate encourages more attacks or that it has something to do with the importance of the banking sector.

"The attacks are clearly financially motivated. In the case of financial, vs political or espionage-related attacks, we've historically seen higher volumes of attacks targeted at regions that generate more success for the attackers because that's where the money is," said Proofpoint vice president of advanced security and governance, Kevin Epstein.

"Relative to other countries in this report, this is a startlingly high number of targeted attacks against the UK. Given the financial motivations of the attacks, this strongly suggests cybercriminals have found UK organisations to be an unusually lucrative target."

On the other hand, simply being targeted more didn't mean that the impact was greater. Despite experiencing apparently lower levels of phishing, Germany remained the most attacked country in the world relative to GNP.

Measuring phishing volumes could, perhaps, be missing the point. It is the number of recipients who click on the links that defines the problem and all the evidence suggests that plenty do.

A recent online McAfee test found that almost everyone is fooled by phishing emails eventually whether they click on them or not. With trust implicit in email since its invention, legitimate emails were simply impossible to tell from bogus ones with absolute certainty.

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