Security Market Segment LS
Monday, 29 February 2016 10:15

Cybercriminals prey on human weakness


Cybercriminals have shifted tactics to fool victims, rather than invest in technical exploits across email, social media and mobile applications. It is easier!

Proofpoint, a leading next-generation cybersecurity company, has released its annual Human Factor cybercrime report. In 2015, attackers significantly shifted their strategy to fool humans into becoming unwitting accomplices in the quest to steal information and money. Based on customer data, the Proofpoint Human Factor 2016 report (registration required for the free report) details trends across email, social media platforms and mobile applications to reveal attacker behaviours and recommend how organizations can secure their systems to combat the human factor.

“Attackers moved from technical exploits to human exploitation in 2015,” said Kevin Epstein, vice president of Threat Operations for Proofpoint. “People’s natural curiosity and gullibility are now targeted at an unprecedented scale. Attackers largely did not rely on sophisticated, expensive technical exploits. They ran simple, high-volume campaigns that hinged on social engineering. People were used as unwitting pawns to infect themselves with malware, hand over key credentials, and fraudulently wire money on the attackers’ behalf.”

Even more disturbing was that Proofpoint discovered more than 12,000 malicious mobile apps in authorized Android app stores. Read on for the report highlights.

Key findings from The Human Factor 2016 report include:

  • Attackers infected computers by tricking people into doing it themselves rather than using automated exploit technology. More than 99 percent of all documents used in attachment-based malicious email campaigns relied on human interaction. Ransomware was very popular in 2015 exploit kit campaigns and has continued its reign in 2016.
  • Banking Trojans were the most popular type of malicious document payload in email campaigns. Dridex message volume was almost 10 times greater than the next most-used payload. The documents themselves used malicious macros extensively and relied on social engineering to trick the user into running malicious code.
  • Hackers served phishing emails for breakfast and social media spam for lunch. Cybercriminals timed attacks to ensure optimum distraction. For example, Tuesday mornings between 9-10 a.m. were the most popular for phishing campaigns and social media spam hit a high in the afternoon.
  • Social media phishing scams are 10 times more common than social media malware. Fraudulent social media accounts, pretending to represent known brands, spiked last year. Forty percent of Facebook accounts and 20 percent of Twitter accounts claiming to represent a global 100 brand were unauthorized.
  • Dangerous mobile apps from rogue marketplaces affect forty percent of enterprises. Users who download apps from rogue marketplaces – and bypass multiple security warnings in the process – are four times more likely to download a malicious app. These apps steal personal information, passwords and data.
  • People willingly downloaded more than two billion mobile apps that steal personal data. Proofpoint discovered more than 12,000 malicious mobile apps in authorized Android app stores. Many were capable of stealing information, creating backdoors and other nefarious functions.


As I ploughed through the 28-page report it became clear that a new breed of cybercriminal was out there – one with limited hacking skills that bought malware off-the-shelf from the dark web – but one with the persistence to use social engineering to get gullible people to click on a link and install malware. Success estimates vary, but I have read reports that say around 16% of malware makes it through – sometimes very much higher if highly targeted spear phishing is used.

So cybercriminals hire a low-cost botnet by the hour and make money while they sleep relying on the human factor. And while eastern and western Europe had more attacks Australia was next followed by the US and Japan. It Australia more fertile ground?

But that human factor, or rather the gullibility and stupidity behind it meant they successfully targeted key people who had valued credentials, such as usernames and passwords to crucial systems or useful services, tricking them into turning over their ‘keys to the castle’.

These attacks were narrow and highly targeted. They aimed for users with the right job duties and ability act directly on behalf of attackers. These users, thinking they were following orders from higher-ups, most often made wire transfers to fraudulent bank accounts.

These attacks differed in scale and volume. But they all shared one common thread: using social engineering to persuade people to do the work of malware—and deliver big dividends for the attackers.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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