The weak link in the enterprise security chain: Falling for phishing

According to new research, employees remain a link in the chain ripe for exploiting, and phishing campaigns are an effective tactic to gain access to corporate networks.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
credit cnet
Credit: CNET

New research suggests that human error and a lack of knowledge concerning online scams remain a risk to enterprise security.

The report, McAfee Labs Threats Report: August 2014 (.PDF), claims that phishing campaigns remain a prime way to access enterprise networks.

Phishing campaigns come in many forms and guises. These days, phishing goes far beyond crude emails telling you you've won the Spanish Lottery or have a rich uncle in Nigeria who wants to transfer millions of dollars to your account. Instead, cyberattacks hijack news events -- such as high-profile security breaches -- in order to steal your information. A phishing email may claim your account has been compromised in a breach and you must change your password, PayPal has suspended your account until you verify particular details, a student loan has been delayed until you log in, or your bank has a transaction in question.

Many of these campaigns will lead their victims to genuine-looking but malicious websites that mirror legitimate firms, and once you input your data, the information wings its way to cybercriminals. What makes many phishing emails seem genuine is not only short-term campaigns that exploit news events, but tapping in to the irrational human emotion of panic -- what's going on at the bank, or how will I get my student loan? -- preventing users from taking a step back and thinking before clicking on a link.

As so many businesses now rely on technology to run successfully, and cybercrime continues to evolve and become more sophisticated, it is unsurprising that social engineering is now such an important facet of cyberattacks.

Both mass and spear phishing are rampant in today's cyber space. When McAfee presented 10 email messages which were a mixture of genuine messages and phishing campaigns in a quiz designed to test business users' ability to detect online scams, 80 percent of its participants failed to detect at least one of seven phishing emails.

Furthermore, employees in finance and human resource departments proved to be the worst at detecting phishing campaigns.

The most successful tactic was the use of spoofed email addresses, and test takers missed them 63 percent and 47 percent of the time, respectively. The sample phishing email most likely to fool users appears to be sent from UPS, complete with a sender address spoofed to appear from the UPS.com domain. The email itself contained a link to the genuine UPS shipment tracking page, but a second, malicious link prompted an "invoice" download. This link delivered a payload of malware disguised in a .zip archive.

Since last quarter's Threat report, McAfee has collected more than 250,000 new phishing URLs, leading to a total of nearly one million new malicious sites in the past year. The security firm says not only is there an increase in total volume, but also the overall sophistication of phishing campaigns targeting the enterprise. The United States continues to host the most phishing URLs globally.

In addition to McAfee's finding concerning phishing campaigns, the company says in the black market, lists of Heartbleed-vulnerable websites and tools to mine them are becoming hot property. Denial of service attacks rose by four percent over the quarter, and new malware samples rose by one percent in Q2 2014.

Vincent Weafer, senior vice president for McAfee Labs commented:

"One of the great challenges we face today is upgrading the Internet’s core technologies to better suit the volume and sensitivity of traffic it now bears. Every aspect of the trust chain has been broken in the last few years -- from passwords to OpenSSL public key encryption and most recently USB security. The infrastructure that we so heavily rely on depends on technology that hasn’t kept pace with change and no longer meets today’s demands."

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