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IBM report projects evolution of phishing, ransomware and spoof tech
Wed, 19th Feb 2020
FYI, this story is more than a year old

IBM Security yesterday released the IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2020, highlighting how cybercriminals' techniques have evolved after decades of access to tens of billions of corporate and personal records and hundreds of thousands of software flaws. 

According to the report, 60% of initial entries into victims' networks that were observed leveraged either previously stolen credentials or known software vulnerabilities, allowing attackers to rely less on deception to gain access.

The report identified the top three initial attack vectors:

  • Phishing was a successful initial infection vector in 31% of incidents observed, compared to half in 2018.
  • Scanning and exploitation of vulnerabilities resulted in 30% of observed incidents, compared to just 8% in 2018. 
    In fact, older, known vulnerabilities in Microsoft Office and Windows Server Message Block were still finding high rates of exploitation in 2019.
  • The use of previously stolen credentials is also gaining ground as a preferred point-of-entry 29% of the time in observed incidents. 
    Just in 2019, the report states more than 8.5 billion records were compromised - resulting in a 200% increase in exposed data reported year over year, adding to the growing number of stolen credentials that cybercriminals can use as their source material.

"The amount of exposed records that we're seeing today means that cybercriminals are getting their hands on more keys to our homes and businesses,” says IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence vice president Wendi Whitmore. 

“Attackers won't need to invest time to devise sophisticated ways into a business; they can deploy their attacks simply by using known entities, such as logging in with stolen credentials.

"Protection measures such as multi-factor authentication and single sign-on are important for the cyber resilience of organisations and the protection and privacy of user data," says Whitmore.

IBM X-Force conducted its analysis based on insights and observations from monitoring 70 billion security events per day in more than 130 countries. 

IBM X-Force also runs thousands of spam traps around the world and monitors tens of millions of spam and phishing attacks daily, while analysing billions of web pages and images to detect fraudulent activity and brand abuse.

Ransomware Attacks Evolve

The report shows an uptick in ransomware activity in 2019. IBM X-Force deployed its incident response team to ransomware incidents in 13 industries worldwide, reaffirming that these attacks are industry agnostic.

While over 100 U.S. government entities were impacted by ransomware attacks last year, IBM X-Force also saw significant attacks against retail, manufacturing and transportation -- which are known to either hold a surplus of monetizable data or rely on outdated technology and, thus, face the vulnerability sprawl. 

In 80% of observed ransomware attempts, attackers were exploiting Windows Server Message Block vulnerabilities, the same tactic used to propagate WannaCry, an attack that crippled businesses across 150 countries in 2017.

With ransomware attacks costing organisations over US$7.5 billion in 2019, adversaries are reaping the rewards and have no incentive to slow down in 2020. 

In collaboration with Intezer, IBM's report states new malware code was observed in 45% of banking trojans and 36% of ransomware. 

This suggests that by creating new code, attackers are continuing to invest in efforts to avoid detection.

Concurrently, IBM X-Force observed a strong relationship between ransomware and banking trojans with the latter being used to open the door for high-stakes ransomware attacks. 

For example, the most active financial malware according to the report, TrickBot, is suspected of deploying Ryuk on enterprise networks.

Other banking trojans, such as QakBot, GootKit and Dridex are also diversifying to ransomware variants. 

Adversaries Spoof Tech and Social Media Companies in Phishing Schemes

As consumers become more aware of phishing emails, phishing tactics themselves are becoming more targeted. 

In collaboration with Quad9, IBM observed a squatting trend in phishing campaigns, wherein attackers impersonate consumer tech brands with tempting links - using tech, social media and content streaming companies to trick users into clicking malicious links in phishing attempts.

Nearly 60% of the top 10 spoofed brands identified were Google and YouTube domains, while Apple (15%) and Amazon (12%) domains were also spoofed by attackers looking to steal users' monetisable data. 

IBM X-Force assesses that these brands were targeted primarily due to the monetizable data they hold.

Facebook, Instagram and Netflix also made the list of top 10 spoofed brands observed but at a significantly lower use rate. 

This may be due to the fact that these services don't typically hold directly monetisable data. 

As attackers often bet on credential reuse to gain access to accounts with more lucrative payouts, IBM X-Force suggests that frequent password reuse may be what potentially made these brands targets. 

In fact, IBM's Future of Identity Study found that 41% of millennials surveyed reuse the same password multiple times and Generation Z averages use of only five passwords, indicating a heavier reuse rate.

Discerning spoofed domains can be extremely difficult, which is exactly what attackers bet on. 

With nearly 10 billion accounts combined, the top 10 spoofed brands listed in the report offer attackers a wide target pool, increasing the likelihood that an unsuspecting user clicks a seemingly innocent link from a spoofed brand.