Last edited 07 Sep 2021

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Cyber-security and phishing

An increasing number of high-profile organisations have fallen victim to sophisticated cyber-attacks as Matt Rhodes from Quiss Technology explains.


[edit] Introduction

An increasing number of high-profile organisations have fallen victim to sophisticated cyber-attacks, such as WannaCry back in May 2017 and the more recent ‘Petya’ malware which formed the second major global ransomware attack in just two months.

It is believed that both attacks exploited vulnerabilities within operating systems, having seeded themselves through hijacked software and via phishing emails.

Despite the clear risks, it is reported that around one in ten individuals will still fall victim to a phishing attack, causing disruption to further organisations as a result.

[edit] Constructing a facade

Cyber-criminals are well practiced in the execution of sophisticated phishing attacks. Creating fake email addresses, criminals are able to impersonate familiar contacts in a credible-looking way, so that they are able to dupe their victim and bypass any security measures that are in place.

Oblivious to an attack, the recipient believes they recognise the email address and opens the email, which contains innocent-looking links. They are prompted to click links which direct them to a convincing, yet fake, website where sensitive information can be extracted.

The email may include toxic attachments containing malware or ransomware. If opened, the device becomes infected and grants criminals access to an organisation’s data.

Criminals continue to find new ways to exploit the weakest point in any system — the people that use it.

[edit] Phishing bait

Even when an email seems to have been sent by a known contact, determine:

[edit] The sender

Are you sure you recognise the sender? Is their email address legitimate or just similar to one you’ve seen before?

[edit] Subject

Does the subject line correspond to the body of the email? Does it look unusual? Is it poorly written? Any subject lines that seem out of the ordinary could be an indication of fraudulent or spam email so look out for spelling mistakes or an excessive use of punctuation.

[edit] Content

Be cautious if an email asks you to enter personal information, requests a reply or encourages you to visit a website.

[edit] Links

Links in emails can easily be disguised to look genuine but may take you to a malicious website, so think twice before you click.

[edit] Attachments

If there are any documents attached to the email, were you expecting it? Is the attachment mentioned in the email? Do you recognise the format? Only open attachments when necessary and do so with caution as they can easily transmit viruses.

Trends in attack methods change frequently so it would be foolish to assume you know what to expect. Anyone can be outwitted by a criminal so don’t get complacent; the outcome could be disastrous.

[edit] The odds are against you

Phishing is favoured by criminals as it has a high success rate whilst being low in risk, and:

  • 10% of people targeted fall for a phishing attack.
  • 23% will open the message.
  • 11% click on attachments.
  • 250% increase in the total number of phishing sites from October 2015 to March 2016.
  • 91% of hacking attacks begin with a phishing or spear-phishing email.
  • 55% increase of spear-phishing campaigns targeting employees.

[edit] Phishing for flaws

Replicating real attack methods, specialist service providers can identify weaknesses in company security systems and train its employees on how to protect themselves from falling victim to phishing emails.

Responses and actions taken are recorded to reveal who opened the emails, clicked links or downloaded attachments, etc.

An email is sent to anyone who interacts incorrectly with the ‘phishing’ email, making them aware of their error and reminding them to be more vigilant in the future. Weaknesses are revealed in a report, enabling businesses to concentrate training where it’s needed most.

Initial failure rates of around 33% will fall to approximately 5%. Unfortunately, a 0% rate is unlikely to ever be achieved as we are dealing with humans.

[edit] Conclusion

Introducing more technology is unlikely to help reduce the risks posed by a phishing attack. The only reliable solution for any organisation is to regularly test defences and to work on changing its security culture.

Targeting employees with ‘fake’ phishing attacks is an effective way to reveal weak links and help resolve them, but businesses should act fast — it’s only a matter of time before the real criminals show up.

This article was originally published here in AT Journal edition 124. It was written by Matt Rhodes, Quiss Technology.

Matt’s primary role is to expand the hosted solutions division of Quiss Technology and to liaise with software vendors to help them develop their Software as a Service (SaaS) offering. He is a regular commentator on industry topics, covering subjects as diverse as cyber security, hybrid cloud solutions, new technology and the Code of Connection (CoCo).


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