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Legitimate Windows Tool AutoHotkey Now Part of Cyber Attackers Arsenal to Avoid Detection
Researchers at Trend Micro have discovered a new malicious software (malware) that uses the AutoHotkey – a Microsoft Windows tool initially aimed at providing easy keyboard shortcuts, enabling attackers to avoid detection, steal certain information and even gain remote control to a compromised computer.
This latest malware, according to Trend Microresearchers, initially infects a computer via a spear phishing attack, a form of a targeted cyber-attack that uses an email as a weapon. The malicious email used by the attackers contains a malicious attachment in the form of a disguised legitimate Excel file.
According to the researchers, at first glance, this disguised Excel file has only one filled sheet. Upon scrutiny, however, this file has another sheet with two blank columns. Upon closer look, the attackers had written malicious code on these two columns using white font, hiding the code in plain view.
Once the email receiver enables macro to open the disguised Excel file, AutoHotkey is then dropped onto the victim’s computer. The researchers said that the legitimate tool AutoHotkey allows the attackers to connect to the server that they control every 10 seconds to download, save and execute script files.
AutoHotkey, in this case, downloaded and executed TeamViewer, a software that allows attackers to gain remote control over the compromised computer. The researchers noted that AutoHotkey can download and execute other script files depending on the command it receives from the server controlled by the attackers.
Other malicious acts activated via AutoHotkey in this newly discovered malware include the creation of a link file in the startup folder for AutoHotkeyU32.exe, allowing the attack to persist even after a system restart, and the sending of the volume serial number of the C drive, which allows the attacker to identify the victim’s computer.
“We have yet to conclude this attack’s exact purpose,” researchers at Trend Micro said. “For now, we can surmise that it has the makings of a potential targeted attack because of its cyber espionage capabilities, as well as the potential for delivering ransomware and coinminer.”
History of AutoHotkey
AutoHotkey software is a free, open-source scripting language that was initially developed at providing easy keyboard shortcuts for Windows. This software, later on, evolved into something more than providing easy keyboard shortcuts as it allows Windows users to automate any desktop tasks, including monitoring programs, setting up scheduled tasks, and automating repetitive operations inside third-party software. The software was initially released 10 years ago, with the stable release of the software done only in November 2018.
The evolution of AutoHotkey made it an attractive tool for attackers. AutoHotkey, also known in the online gaming community as AHK, has been used numerous times in creating online game cheating tools. Beyond the gaming world, cyber attackers with varied criminal intents have made AutoHotkey as an addition to their attack arsenal.
An example of malware that abuses AutoHotkey is the malware called “Win32/Ahkarun.A”, an AutoHotKey compiled script that spreads itself without any human interaction through removable drives and sends the user's IP address to a remote server. According to Microsoft, which reported about the malware in June 2008, Ahkarun uses the common icon resembling a Windows file folder in order to trick a user into opening and executing the malware.
Once executed on the victim’s computer, this malware then awaits connections of removable media such as USB thumb drives, and when this happens the malware copies itself and components to the removable drive, and as a result performing malicious actions such as identifying the IP address of the infected machine and sending the obtained IP address to a predefined email account.
In February 2018, the research team at Ixiareported two cases of AutoHotkey-based malware, one distributing an cryptocurrency mining malware and the other distributing a clipboard hijacker. In cryptocurrency mining, an attacker hijacks the computing power of someone else’s computer for cryptocurrency mining. In clipboard hijacking, meanwhile, in the AutoHotkey-based malware discovered by the Ixia research team stays in the compromised computer’s memory and awaits for any activity in the clipboard. When a user inputs into the clipboard a cryptocurrency wallet address, the malware replaces the user’s cryptocurrency wallet address to the address owned and controlled by the attacker, thus tricking the victim into sending cryptocurrency to the attacker instead.
In March 2018, researchers at Cybereasondiscovered an AutoHotkey-based malware they called “Fauxpersky” as this malware masquerades as Kaspersky Antivirus and spreads through infected USB drives. Fauxpersky has a keylogging feature, recording every keystroke made by a computer user, exfiltrating the data recorded through Google Forms and depositing it in the attacker’s inbox.
As shown in the above-mentioned examples of AutoHotkey-based malware, criminals are starting to abuse legitimate Windows tool AutoHotkey. Being a legitimate Windows tool, often used by system administrators, AutoHotkey flies under the radar and drops a varied range of payloads – part of the malware that performs malicious actions – without triggering any anti-malware alarms.
One of the reasons why we see lesser abuses of AutoHotkey by cyber attackers, to date, is due to the fact that this software isn’t pre-installed on Windows computers. Attackers, therefore, have to take an extra step of dropping the software onto the victim’s computer and executing it in order for this tool to work.
Training your organization’s staff to recognize, avoid and report suspicious emails is one approach that could prevent AutoHotkey abuses. As exemplified in the newly discovered AutoHotkey-based malware, attackers initially infect their victims through phishing attacks, a type of cyber attack that utilized emails as a weapon.
Another approach in preventing AutoHotkey abuses is by disabling your organization’s active content (data connections or macros). When active content is disabled, the next time your organization’s staff receives an active content via email, this content can’t be opened and the Message Bar with the notice "Macros have been disabled” will then appear as an alert that the active content may contain malware and other security hazards that could harm your organization’s computer or network.
Why Nonprofits Are Easy Targets for Phishing Attacks
Cybersecurity was once low on the list of priorities of nonprofit organizations. Times are, however, changing. In recent years, nonprofit organizations have become an easy target for phishing attacks.
In a 2018 study that was drawn from a data set of more than 6 million users, KnowBe4found that nonprofit organizations have the highest percentage of “phish-prone” employees in large organizations (1,000 or more employees) category. The phish-prone percentage is determined by KnowBe4 by the number of employees that open a malicious attachment or click a malicious link in a simulated phishing email.
What Is Phishing Attack?
Phishing attack is a type of cyberattack that uses a fraudulent email as a weapon. An email used for a phishing attack appears to come from a reputable source. This email, however, is a fraudulent one.
A phishing email comes with a malicious attachment or malicious link. When the malicious attachment in a phishing email is downloaded, it installs a malicious software (malware) into the email receiver’s computer. In case the malicious link in a phishing email is clicked, this leads the email receiver to a fake website coaxing the receiver to reveal confidential information or this scam site could be used to download malware into the victim’s computer.
Why Nonprofit Organizations Are Targeted?
Nonprofit organizations are repositories of critical data, including benefactors’ names, addresses and credit card details, as well as critical data of clients and proprietary information as in the case of nonprofit research organizations.
Aside from donations from individuals, nonprofits are entrusted by governments with significant financial and social responsibilities. In some local governments, some of the top contractors are nonprofits with contracts worth millions.
Holding said critical information and funds make nonprofit organizations attractive to cybercriminals.
While nonprofit organizations face the same security risks as for-profit organizations, nonprofits generally lag behind for-profit organizations in terms of implementing policies and practices necessary in securing their IT systems. Cybercriminals have come to realize that nonprofits lack the resources in implementing cybersecurity best practices, making them easy targets for phishing attacks.
How Phishing Attacks Impact Nonprofits?
Here are two ways by which phishing attacks impact nonprofit organizations:
1. Ransomware Attacks
Ransomware is a type of malware that denies victims access to their computer files until a ransom is paid. Ransomware is often spread through phishing emails.
In March 2016, four computers at the Ottawa Hospital, a nonprofit, public university teaching hospital, were infected with the ransomware called “WinPlock”. Kate Eggins, the institution’s director of media relations, told IT World Canadathat four staff at the institution each clicked a phishing email which resulted in the installation of the WinPlock ransomware.
According to Microsoft, WinPlock ransomware encrypts files, denying users access to their files. After encrypting the computer files, this ransomware displays a ransom note that asks for one Bitcoin as ransom payment.
2. Business Email Compromise (BEC) Attacks
Business Email Compromise (BEC), also known as CEO fraud, is a form of a phishing attack where an attacker impersonates an executive of an organization, oftentimes the CEO, thus the name CEO fraud, and attempts to trick an employee authorized to make payments into paying a fake invoice or making an unauthorized money transfer from the organization’s bank account to the fraudster’s bank account.
Nonprofit organization Save the Childrenin its 2017 tax report revealed that in April 2017, an unknown cyber attacker or attackers impersonating as an employee of the institution tricked the institution into transferring money worth $997,400 to a fraudulent organization in Japan on the belief that the money would be used to purchase solar panels for health centers in Pakistan.
Save the Children said that by the time the scam was found out in May 2017, the transferred funds could no longer be recovered. Save the Children told the Boston Globethat the attackers deceived the institution into transferring nearly $1 million to a fraudulent organization in Japan by breaking into an email account of an employee of the institution and by creating false invoices and other documents.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)reported that between the period of October 2013 to May 2016, BEC attackers pocketed nearly USD $3.1 billion from 22,143 victims worldwide. The FBI said that in addition to compromising legitimate emails, attackers carry out BEC attacks by using spoofed emails – those that closely mimic legitimate emails, for instance, using the spoofed email abc-company.com based on a
legitimate email of abc_company.com.
How Can Non-profits Prevent Phishing Attacks?
Here are some cybersecurity measures in order to protect your organization from phishing attacks:
And Finally, Alert Your Staff About Phishing Attacks
Phishing scammers are constantly changing their tactics. During your organization’s regular cybersecurity training, include tips on how to spot the latest phishing schemes.
For instance, one typical characteristic of a phishing email is it gives an urgent vibe, pressuring the email receiver via the email subject to act now or something negative will happen.
When you need help with raising awareness and protecting your digital assets, speak with one of our cybersecurity and IT risk experts. Contact ustoday and subscribe to the newsletterto receive cybersecurity tips and important alerts.
Latest Phishing Campaign Attempts to Install Remcos Remote Access Tool into Victims' Computers
Thousands of Icelanders have been targeted in the latest phishing campaign that attempts to install the Remcos remote access tool into the victims' computers, this according to the recent report by Cyren.
While the actual victims may seem low, Cyren said, this could be the largest cyberattack to hit Iceland, a country with just close to 350,000 population.
Latest Phishing Attack Modus Operandi
Magni Reynir Sigurðsson, senior threat analyst at Cyren, reported that the phishing campaign targeting Icelanders, which has been observed since October 6th, begins with an email impersonating the Lögreglan – Icelandic police. The email requests the recipient to come to the police station for questioning. The email also threatens the recipient that an arrest warrant may be issued in case of non-compliance.
The attackers registered the domain name www[dot]logregian[dot]is. This domain name, on the first glance, is very similar to the official domain name of the Icelandic police www[dot]logreglan[dot]is. The only difference is that the “l” in the official site is changed to “i”. Buying this similarly named domain enables the attackers to send emails with sender address ending in “logregian[dot]is”, which on the first glance, closely resembles the emails from the official Icelandic police ending in “logreglan[dot]is”.
The link provided in the phishing email that purportedly leads to additional information about the case leads to the phishing site www[dot]logregian[dot]is that strikingly resembles the official site of the Icelandic police www[dot]logreglan[dot]is.
In the phishing site, the victim is asked to provide an Icelandic social security number. Unlike other phishing sites which can be fooled by entering wrong data, this phishing site knows whether the victim is entering the wrong social security number or not. When a wrong number is entered, an error alert is shown, and when the number entered is correct, this leads to a new phishing webpage that displays the victim's actual name. Sigurðsson hypothesized that the phishers used a database, containing Icelanders’ social security numbers and actual names, that was leaked years ago.
Being able to match the social security number with actual name further give credence to this phishing campaign. To give further credence to this campaign, the attackers ask the victim to enter the authentication number contained in the email that was sent to him.
Entering the authentication number leads the victim to another phishing webpage that automatically downloads a .rar file that purportedly contains additional document about the case. When this .rar file is extracted, a .scr file (Windows Screensaver) disguised as a Word document with file name “Boðun í skýrslutöku LRH 30 Óktóber.scr”, roughly translated to English as “Called in for questioning by the police on October 30th” is shown.
When this disguised Word document is executed, a file called “Yfirvold.exe” and “Yfirvold.vbs” are dropped into the victim's computer. Sigurðsson said that the Yfirvold.vbs file is placed in the Windows Startup folder so that in case the victim reboots his computer the .vbs script will execute Yfirvold.exe – a malware that uses the code and components from a known remote access tool called “REMCOS”.
What Is REMCOS?
REMCOS stands for Remote Control & Surveillance Software. This software is sold online by the company called “Breaking Security”. Remcos’ price ranges from €58 to €389. Buyers of Remcos can also pay using a variety of cryptocurrencies.
Breaking Security markets Remcos as a legitimate software that allows users to remotely control and monitor Windows operating system, from Windows XP and all versions thereafter, including server editions. In addition to selling Remcos, Breaking Security also offers Octopus Protector, keylogger and mass mailer. Octopus Protector encrypts a file laden with malware on the disk, allowing it to bypass several antivirus protections. Keylogger records and sends the keystrokes made on a computer, while a mass mailer sends large volumes of emails.
In the case of the phishing attack targeted against thousands of Icelanders, according to Sigurðsson, the Remcos that’s installed into the victims’ computers comes with keylogging capability, collecting input from the victims’ keyboards and storing them in logs and then uploading them to the command and controller servers controlled by the attackers. These servers, Sigurðsson said, are located in Germany and Holland.
The Remcos that’s installed into the victims’ computers in the Iceland phishing attack also comes with a fact checker that checks if the victims are accessing the largest online banks in Iceland. According to security researcher MalwareHunterTeam, this fact-checking capability is a selective keylogger feature of Remcos.
According to researchers at Cisco Talos, Remcos was also used to attack international news agencies, diesel equipment manufacturers operating within the maritime and energy sector, and HVAC service providers operating within the energy sector.
"Since Remcos is advertised and sold on numerous hacking-related forums, we believe it is likely that multiple unrelated actors are leveraging this malware in their attacks using a variety of different methods to infect systems,” researchers at Cisco Talos said.
Similar to the phishing attack targetting Icelanders, the cyberattacks mentioned by Cisco Talos started with a phishing email, purportedly coming from a government agency and comes with an attached document.
Embedded into the attached document is a small executable. “The extracted executable is simple and functions as the downloader for the Remcos malware,” Cisco Talos researchers said. “It is a very basic program and is used to retrieve Remcos from an attacker-controlled server and execute it, thus infecting the system.”
While the company behind Remcos claims that its software is meant for legitimate use, data in the wild, including the cyber incidents reported by Cyren and Cisco Talos demonstrate that Remcos is being used by malicious actors.
Remcos is a powerful remote access tool that’s being regularly modified to include new functionalities to remotely control and monitor any Windows operating system.
Make sure that your organization is implementing security measures to combat Remcos and another phishing modus operandi.
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Canadian University Loses $11.8 Million to BEC Scammers
An Edmonton, Alberta-based university publicly acknowledged that it was a victim of a recent cyber attack.
According to the Alberta-based university, a series of bogus emails tricked university staff into changing the electronic banking information for one of the university’s major supplier. This resulted in the money transfer worth $11.8 million to a bank account that the university staff believed belonged to the supplier.
The university traced over $11.4 million of the money to bank accounts in Canada and Hong Kong. According to the university, the traced bank accounts have been frozen and the university is working with its legal counsel in Montreal and Hong Kong to pursue civil action to recover the money. The remaining balance of these accounts is, however, unknown at this time.
“There is never a good time for something like this to happen but as our students come back to start the new academic year, we want to assure them and the community that our IT systems were not compromised during this incident,” the university spokesperson said.
The incident that occurred at the Alberta-based university is an example of the cyber attack called business email compromise (BEC).
What is a Business Email Compromise (BEC)
BEC is a cyber attack that targets organizations that have regular dealings with foreign suppliers and regularly perform wire transfer payments.
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), from October 2013 to December 2016, a total of 40,203 BEC incidents were reported worldwide, with the total financial loss amounting to $5.3 billion. The IC3 said that the scam has been reported in 131 countries, with victims ranging from non-profit organizations to small businesses and large corporations. These businesses offer a variety of goods and services, signifying that no specific sector is targeted more than another. Tech giants Google and Facebook succumbed to BEC scams.
"Ransomware has been drawing much of the attention in the security world lately,” Cisco 2017 Midyear Cybersecurity Report (PDF) said. “However, a threat that’s not nearly as high-profile is raking in far more for its creators than ransomware: Business email compromise, or BEC."
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, some of the organizations affected by BEC reported being a victim of ransomware attack before the BEC incident.
How BEC Works
BEC is an elaborate deception scheme.
First, attackers study the organization they want to target.
Attackers spend weeks and even months to study the organization’s suppliers, billing systems, top executive or CEO’s writing style and his or her travel schedule.
Attackers get the above-mentioned information from public online resources such as social media accounts and by using malicious software that’s capable of infiltrating the organization’s networks, gain access to passwords, financial account information and email threads relating to billing and invoices.
Second, attackers establish a relationship with a target employee.
When the time is right, for instance, when the CEO isn’t in his or her office, BEC scammers contact a specific employee – bookkeeper, accountant, controller or chief financial officer – in an organization who’s responsible for directly transferring money to suppliers.
Attackers exploit the target employee through email spoofing, phishing email and telephone calls.
A spoofing tool is also used by the attackers to direct email replies to a different account that the attackers control. At this stage, the target employee is tricked into thinking that he or she is corresponding with the organization’s CEO.
Third, attackers send instructions for money transfer.
For this third stage, attackers further deceive the target employee, for instance, by convincing the employee that the supplier has a new bank account number and instruct the employee to send payment to this new account. Attackers may also send a bogus email from a CEO to release the money to the new bank account.
Fourth, money sent is drained to different accounts.
In this fourth stage, money is sent to “money mules” in different parts of the world. Some of these accounts are difficult to trace. If the scam isn’t uncovered in time, it may be hard to recover the money.
How to Prevent BEC Scams
Here are some of the ways to prevent BEC scams:
1. Verify the authenticity of the money transfer request.
“The best way to avoid being exploited is to verify the authenticity of requests to send money by walking into the CEO’s office or speaking to him or her directly on the phone,” said FBI Special Agent Martin Licciardo.
Also, confirm the money transfer request by calling the supplier with the previously known company numbers, not the one provided in the email request. In the case of the Alberta-based university, based on the preliminary assessment of the university’s internal audit group, the BEC scammers were able to succeed in deceiving the university staff as “controls around the process of changing vendor banking information were inadequate”.
2. Use an email intrusion detection system.
This automated system can flag emails with extensions that are similar to your organization’s email. For example, an intrusion detection system for legitimate email of xyz-corporation.com can flag bogus emails from xyz_corporation.com.
4 Lessons Small Businesses Can Learn from WannaCry and NotPetya Cyber Attacks
WannaCry and NotPetya, also known as Petya, have been the most talked about cyber attacks in the past three months. WannaCry was released into the wild in May this year; NotPetya in June this year.
Their popularity is understandable given that the combined victims of these two cyber attacks reached hundreds of thousands worldwide, with WannaCry affecting over 300,000 computers in 150 countries; NotPetya affecting over 12,500 computers in 65 countries.
Most importantly, these two cyber attacks, labeled as ransomware – malicious software that encrypts computer data and asks for ransom money to unlock it – victimized big corporations and big government institutions worldwide.
WannaCry disrupted the operations of UK’s National Health Service, U.S. express delivery company FedEx and Renault's assembly plant in Slovenia. NotPetya, on the other hand, disrupted the operations of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Merck and Danish shipping firm Maersk.
While big corporations affected by NotPetya such as Nuance, TNT Express, Saint-Gobain, Reckitt Benckiser Group and Mondelēz International publicly acknowledged that their operations have been disrupted, and they have suffered economic losses because of the attack, these big corporations have proven their resilience.
“If a public breach damages a brand and causes customers to switch to a competitor, a larger business can weather the impact better than a smaller business,” Cisco said in its 2017 midyear cyber security report. “When attackers breach networks and steal information, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are less resilient in dealing with the impacts than larger organizations.”
Here are 4 lessons small businesses can learn from WannaCry and NotPetya cyber attacks:
1. Use the Latest Operating System
Users of old operating systems are vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Majority of NotPetya ransomware infections, according to Microsoft in a bulletin dated June 29, this year, were observed in computers using Windows 7. Windows 10, on the other hand, according to Microsoft is resilient against the NotPetya ransomware attack.
For WannaCry, users of old Microsoft operating systems – in particular, Windows XP, Windows 8 and Windows Server 2003 – fell victim to this malicious software. Microsoft ended its support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014; Windows Server 2003 on July 14, 2015; and Windows 8 on January 13, 2016.
For Windows XP, Microsoft issued this statement:
"After April 8, 2014, Microsoft will no longer provide security updates or technical support for Windows XP. Security updates patch vulnerabilities that may be exploited by malware and help keep users and their data safer. PCs running Windows XP after April 8, 2014, should not be considered to be protected, and it is important that you migrate to a current supported operating system – such as Windows 10 – so you can receive regular security updates to protect their computer from malicious attacks."
In the paper “The hackers holding hospitals to ransom” published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) two days before the WannaCry attack, Krishna Chinthapalli, a doctor at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, found that a number of British hospitals were using Windows XP, an operating system introduced by Microsoft in 2001.
2. Install Security Update of the Latest Operating System
Even if you’re using the latest operating system and you fail to install the latest security update or patch, your computers are still vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Users of Windows 10 – the latest operating system from Microsoft – who failed to install the security update released by Microsoft on March 14, 2017 fell victim to WannaCry.
Microsoft said that its March 14, 2017 update resolves vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows that “could allow remote code execution if an attacker sends specially crafted messages to a Microsoft Server Message Block 1.0 (SMBv1) server.” WannaCry exactly exploited this specific security vulnerability mentioned in the March 14th update by Microsoft.
3. Paying Ransom Isn’t a Guarantee that You’ll Get Your Data Back
In a typical ransomware, computer data is encrypted, a ransom note is shown on the computer screen of the victim, the victim pays and the victim recovers data as the data is decrypted.
WannaCry victims paid close to $100,000 – paid in bitcoins; NotPetya victims paid close to $10,000. These earnings are stark contrast to the number one top grossing ransomware Locky which earned $7.8 million, and the second top grossing ransomware Cerber which earned $6.9 million based on the data provided in a Google-led study (PDF).
The reason why these two didn’t earn that much bitcoins is that many victims early on knew that these malicious programs couldn’t restore their data despite paying ransom. According to the Google-led study, WannaCry and NotPetya are "impostors” as they are in reality “wipeware” pretending to be ransomware.
Matt Suiche from Comae Technologies concluded that NotPetya is a wiper as it “does permanent and irreversible damages to the disk”. Suiche differentiates a wiper and a ransomware, this way: “The goal of a wiper is to destroy and damage. The goal of a ransomware is to make money. Different intent. Different motive. Different narrative.”
Victims of NotPetya also can’t pay ransom as the payment email address isn’t accessible anymore. The email address specified in the NotPetya ransomware notice was immediately blocked by the email provider Posteo. The perpetrator or perpetrators of NotPetya also didn’t replace the blocked address with another one.
In the case of WannaCry, McAfee researchers found that while WannaCry can decrypt files, “WannaCry attackers appear to be unable to determine which users have paid the ransom and they cannot decrypt on a per-user basis.”
4. Backup Your Data
Make your organization resilient to cyber attacks by backing up your critical data. You can always get back your operating system or other software applications by reinstalling them. It may, however, be impossible to recreate your data lost to cyber criminals. It’s important then to always backup your critical data.
Backing up data on a regular basis isn’t just helpful in case cyber attackers corrupt your data, it’s also valuable in case your computers are stolen or destroyed as result of fire or other disasters.
You have a backdoor to your business, and it's Email
Email is the most widely used form of business communication today. It’s inexpensive and fast. This form of communication, however, exposes businesses to cyber criminals.
Malicious cyber criminals consider the email as businesses’ backdoor – a vulnerable feature of a computer system that calls for exploitation. Failing to protect your business emails is like fortifying your house with the latest alarm systems and then leaving your backdoor wide open.
Symantec in its 2016 Internet Security Threat Report estimated that nearly 190 billion emails were in circulation each day in 2015 alone, with an average of 42 emails sent and received by each business user every day – a growing number of users reading their emails on their mobile devices.
Symantec reported that in 2015, email spam rate increased by 53%; phishing rate at one in 1,846 emails; and malware rate in one in 220 emails. “For cybercriminals who want to reach the largest number of people electronically, email is still the favored way to do it,” Symantec said.
3 Ways Cyber Criminals Exploit the Vulnerabilities of Emails
Cyber criminals exploit the vulnerabilities of emails in a number of ways. Here are 3 ways cyber criminals exploit emails:
1. Business Email Compromise (BEC) Scams
The cyber threat called business email compromise (BEC) relies on the oldest trick of con artists: deception. In BEC, con artists zero in employees who have access to company’s finances, deceiving them into making wire transfers to bank accounts thought to belong to business partners – when in fact, the money ends up in the accounts of cyber criminals.
BEC is one form of phishing – a form of identity theft that tricks people to reveal their Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and other valuable details – by making an email looks like it came from a legitimate source such as a bank, a partner company or government agency.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that since 2013, organized crime groups, employing the business email compromise scam, have targeted small and large organizations and companies in every U.S. state and more than 100 countries around the world. According to the FBI, since January 2015, there has been a 1,300 percent increase in BEC, with losses now totaling over $3 billion.
Tech giants such as Google and Facebook are not spared by BEC scammers. In March 2017, the FBI arrested Evaldas Rimasauskas for scamming multinational internet companies of over $100 million via email compromise scheme. While the FBI didn’t name the companies, a Fortune investigation revealed that the multinational internet companies referred by the FBI as victims of Rimasauskas were tech giants Google and Facebook. In the Rimasauskas case, Google and Facebook thought they were communicating via email with a legitimate staff of Quanta – supplier of the tech giants’ computer servers.
Business Email Compromise (BEC) Scams Prevention
BEC scams can be prevented in the following manner:
Phishing Scams Prevention
Here are some of the ways to prevent phishing scams in general:
2. Malware Spread
Email is one of the oldest ways to spread malware – short for “malicious software” – software designed to damage or infiltrate computers without the users’ consent. In May 2000, the malware called “ILOVEYOU” infiltrated millions of computers. The ILOVEYOU malware comes in a form of an email from someone the receiver know, with a subject "ILOVEYOU" and the body of the message reads "kindly check the attached LOVELETTER coming from me."
An enormous number of people – probably out of the universal need to be loved – opened the ILOVEYOU email and downloaded the attached file. Once run, the malware overwrites all computer files and then send an identical email to all the contacts of a victim's Outlook address book. As a result of the ILOVEYOU malware, a number of mail systems worldwide were overloaded causing a meltdown of electronic communication among businesses and governments.
Malware Spread Prevention
Here are some of the ways to combat the spread of malware sent via emails:
3. Denial of Service (DoS) Attack
A denial-of-service (DoS) attack is an attempt by cyber criminals to prevent legitimate users from accessing online services like email. Spam email messages can be used by attackers to prevent your customers from emailing your company.
Email accounts, whether supplied by a paid service or free services such as Yahoo or Gmail, are assigned a specific quota. This quota limits the number of emails that your business account can receive at a given period of time. When attackers bombard your business account with too many or large email messages, this can consume your quota and prevents your company from receiving legitimate messages.
DoS Attack Prevention
To prevent DoS attack.
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Why do we fall victim to email phishing attacks?
Cyber criminals are crafty when it comes to email phishing attacks. Judging by the results of the most recent Google email phishing campaign, they are succeeding. Cyber criminals are smart, knowledgeable and won’t stop at any means to achieve their goals, which is to acquire your personal information and use it against you and the people on your contact list.
Almost daily, people receive fake emails asking for their personal information, such as user IDs and passwords. These phishing emails can be disguised as if they came from your bank, your email provider, a government agency or even your employer. Cyber crime gangs often prey on our own cybersecurity illiteracy and laziness.
Let me ask you a few questions:
Since cybersecurity illiteracy is what cybercriminals use as an advantage, cybersecurity literacy and awareness would be a good antidote.
The easiest way to spot a phishing email
Most fake emails can be spotted by simply looking at the “from” email address. An email from a fake sender would look something like this: Google Support <firstname.lastname@example.org>. This is definitely a fake. It might not be obvious, but that an email from Google would most certainly come from email@example.com.
In any event, here is the easiest way to spot a phishing scam. Please remember it, print it out and share with others:
If you receive an email whereby someone is asking for your personal information, including your user ID and / or passwords with a sense of urgency, most likely it’s a phishing scam.
Why? Because you bank, your email provider, or your employer WILL NEVER ASK FOR YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION VIA EMAIL.
For example, you received an email that appears to be from your bank, and it looks something like this:
This is to inform you that due to suspicious activity, your savings account has been locked. Please click here to change your password immediately to re-gain access to your account.
Customer Service Manager”
While it appears legitimate, your bank will never ask to provide any personal information via email. In most cases, they will call you, and will ask you to go to the nearest branch to address any account security related issues.
Even when someone calls you and introduces him or herself as a banking specialist asking for your personal information, you don’t have to provide it. Hang up, call your bank using the number on the back of your bank card, and tell them that you were contacted, and if there are any issue they could help you address. Same goes to calls from any government agency, including the IRS.
A Sophisticated Phishing Attack
As reported by several cyber security researchers, and the mainstream media, cyber criminals unleashed a new, sophisticated phishing campaign targeting both individuals and corporate Gmail users. In fact, it’s so sophisticated, that even savvy users are being tricked by it.
An email arrives with a link, and when clicked, it asks for your Gmail user credentials. The trick is that the page looks exactly like the original Gmail sign on page. When you enter your user ID and password, the attackers automatically log into your Gmail account. When they are in, they immediately begin gathering additional information to support further attacks. Appears that they are looking for the attachments you’ve previously shared with others, and gather email addresses from your contacts.
The contacts they gather, inevitably become new targets. Now rogue emails are coming from someone the victim knows.
It's very hard to notice foul play since the URl in the email is disguised very well. In most cases, victims won't even look at the address bar at the top to validate the website's authenticity.
How to protect yourself against phishing attacks?
Fortunately, you can protect your account almost instantly by enabling 2-step verification for your Gmail account. Even if you don’t use Gmail, and use another Cloud email service, we recommend that you enable a 2-step verification without delay.
When 2-step verification is enabled, unless cybercriminals have direct access to your smartphone, it would be nearly impossible for them to use your password, even if you have fallen victim to a phishing attack.
Instructions on enabling 2-step verification for Gmail (personal use):
Instructions on enabling 2-step verification for Gmail (corporate accounts). Note that for corporate accounts, you need to share these instructions with your IT department, and Gmail administrator will be able to add the extra security centrally:
Have questions? Please contact us and we will be more than happy to assist.
Steve E. Driz