An odd title for a blog post but something that has been on my mind for a while now. We get a fair amount media requests for comments or perspective on phishing stories. This is a good thing. It’s nice to have recognition in your field. Of course 2011 was no shortage of phishing related news. (What’s up RSA, I’m looking at you. I’ve noticed you frequent our website a lot. How about a demo. Couldn’t hurt?)
What is it about? Simple, the poison ivy trojan wrapped in a password protected ZIP file so it can get past filtering. Symantec has an excellent analysis of these attacks in a paper titled: The Nitro Attacks: Stealing Secrets from the Chemical Industry by Eric Chien and Gavin O’Gorman. You can read the entire paper here.
“The most recent attacks focusing on the chemical industry are using password-protected 7zip files which, when extracted, contain a self-extracting executable. The password to extract the 7zip file is included in the email. This extra stage is used to prevent automated systems from extracting the self-extracting archive.”
Packing malicious code into ZIP file and including the password in the body of the email is fairly common spear phishing technique that has been going on for quite some time. In fact, we have specific training about this tactic available at PhishMe. Here is a small snip from our training about password protected ZIP files:
Future customers: You could be using our award winning solution right now to train people about this exact tactic.
Like many high-profile events, the passing of Apple’s co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs, has initiated a slew of new phishing attacks that are designed to play on recipients’ emotions about the event. Steve Jobs and Apple themed phishing campaigns are in the wild but more concerning are the spear phishing attacks targeting iPhone users. PhishMe understands how these events can adversely affect our customers therefore we have released a new phishing simulation theme designed to train susceptible users on how to identify and avoid current event based attacks.
There is a common spear phishing tactic that we help our PhishMe customers combat, and that is attackers using familiar names with fake free webmail accounts.
The attacker wants to break into Widget, Inc. The first thing they do is research Widget, Inc., looking business units who may have access to the information assets they are targeting. Once they have picked their target, they need familiar names to make their spear phish more enticing to the eventual victim.
They will pick a real name inside of Widget, Inc, that will serve as the From: line of the spear phishing email. Sometimes the attacker is smart enough to choose a name in a different office or time zone. This increases the likelihood that the victim won’t pop their head over the cubical wall and ask “did you just send me an email from your Gmail account?”
Once the phisher is satisfied they have a good name to impersonate, (e.g. Bob Dobolina) they will register email@example.com, (or hotmail, yahoo, etc…)
Armed with a new free email account that uses a familiar name, the phisher will send out their spear phish to the intended targets who may know or have heard of “Bob Dobolina.” This increases the chance that the victim will fall for the phish.
How does the attacker find the names needed to carry on this charade? Social networks and tools like Jigsaw and LinkedIn provide a wealth of information. (Head over to jigsaw.com right now and put your company name in.) You will see that piecing together the necessary information to effectively impersonate someone is quite easy.
Besides making your organization aware of this threat, what else can you do to protect yourself? How about creating fake personas? Ann Smith, Executive Assistant to the Director of Legal. But in this case, Ann Smith isn’t an executive assistant, instead, Ann Smith is an email alias that goes directly to your incident response and network monitoring team.
With all of the media coverage on the recent flurry of successful phishing attacks targeting RSA, Epsilon’s clients and their customers, and Oak Ridge, it’s come to our attention that the fire hose of terms might leave some people confused. We thought it might be a good opportunity to explain what some of these terms are (and aren’t).
Phishing essentially boils down to an adversary tricking a victim into doing something. Email is, by far, the most common medium used but others are certainly possible (snail mail, telephone calls, etc.).
A traditional consumer email phish is what most of us are familiar with. It will try to get the recipient to give-up their login credentials by displaying a fake login form that looks like a legitimate site. But sometimes the attacker only wants the user to click a link to exploit a security vulnerability in the recipient’s web browser or email client. And in the case of the attack on Oak Ridge, recipients were asked to open a specially crafted attachment which exploited a security vulnerability in the program used to open it. If you’re not familiar with these, go check out PhishTank.
Many people think that “spear-phishing” and “phishing” are interchangeable; not true!
A spear-phisher has done their homework to create a targeted attack. They’re sending baited emails to specific individuals (or, a very small group of individuals — like the accounting department, for example).
This could be as simple as including the targeted company’s logo in the email and fake login page. Or it could be as sophisticated as sending an email that appears to come from an individual who actually works at the company about a topical subject (“Hi John – Please complete and return this form to enroll you and your family in the new health care program that President Smith talked about at last month’s all-hands. Thanks! –Sally Jones”).
The spear-phishing label had been mostly reserved for enterprises. But now with the Epsilon breach, consumers will likely start receiving more tailored and targeted phishing scams. So we won’t cringe as much when people confuse phishing and spear-phishing because the line is getting blurred.
Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)
This term is getting thrown around a lot lately. A lot.
There is quite a bit of disagreement in the information security community as to the “correct” definition of an APT. Some people feel it is a “who” (for example, China and/or Russia), some think it’s a “what” (a hacking incident that meets certain, sometimes subjective, criterion), while other people believe it’s a marketing gimmick or an excuse as to why an adversary was successful. When we think of APT at PhishMe, we focus on the “persistent” part: the realization that an organization now has to do business despite the fact they have bad guys inside of their network, and there is a good chance they will NEVER be able to fully rid themselves of this threat. Since the attackers are, by definition “advanced”, they are able to maintain a persistent foothold in an organization.
Unfortunately the misuse of the term APT presents a marketing challenge for us. When people talk about APT, spear-phishing naturally enters into the conversation. The reason is simple, attackers need to break in first before they can become a ” persistent threat”. And it’s no surprise that they are getting in via well-crafted spear-phishing emails. So while spear-phishing is the attack vector that leads to APT, APT is the ugly fact that you may never find a cure to get rid of your persistent threat. People seem to agree with this part of the APT definition, but it seems most technology vendors have successfully been able to re-write the definition of APT to be a convenient scapegoat for anything that circumvented their “bullet proof” technology.
Post Sales Engineer: “Did you have it configured in super-duper-malware analyze mode? .. You did? and you still got owned? Well, it was an APT, what do you expect from us!@# – click”
If our message gets lost in the APT marketing noise, then accept our humble apology in advance for “can’t-beat-em-join-em” regarding the misuse of the term APT in future marketing initiatives.
Fortunately, it’s possible to thwart a spear phishing attack …before it gets Advanced or Persistent.
Most of you have probably heard about the “RSA hack” by now. It was hot news three weeks ago when an employee at RSA fell prey to a targeted phishing attack as explained in this blog post: http://blogs.rsa.com/rivner/anatomy-of-an-attack/ . A couple of issues highlighted in this article really caught my attention.
The article states – “These companies deploy any imaginable combination of state-of-the-art perimeter and end-point security controls, and use all imaginable combinations of security operations and security controls. Yet still the determined attackers find their way in. What does that tell you?“. That tells me that technology by-itself is not the answer to combating spear phishing attacks, it’s also about training the end user to get better at how to be suspicious. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think education is a silver bullet, but it’s more effective than filters and shiny, blinking boxes. I like technologies that give the human another piece of trusted information they can use to evaluate the authenticity of an email. One example is Iconix’s SP Guard. We trained over 1.5 million (using PhishMe). The results show that perioidic training that immersed the subjects in the concept through mock phishing was successful in bringing down susceptibility rates in excess of 60% on average within a few months.
The article aslo discussed how the attackers targeted employees that ” you wouldn’t consider…particularly high profile or high value targets.” There’s a lesson here; security awareness programs should not focus only on executives and systems administrators, but on the entire organization. “Low profile” employees can severely undermine the organization’s assets too, just through a couple of clicks.
Oh yes, and finally, the phishing email was caught by the email client’s junk filter; the victim went out of their way to retrieve the email into the inbox and act on it.
IMHO, end-point security technologies are to phishing attacks (or *APTs) what radars are to a stealth bomber.
*APT term used facetiously 😉
Have a spear phishing problem? You are not alone. Spend some time at the excellent contagio malware dump blog: http://contagiodump.blogspot.com/
So how is the multiple racks of endpoint security malware detection equipment protecting you today?
If namelist.xls was emailed into your organization, how would you fare?
In past years I never attended the RSA conference; it always came across as too much of a vendor show to me. This year I didn’t think I would go, until rsnake convinced me otherwise. So I bought myself an Expo Only pass. I had a lot of fun, meeting old time buddies from Foundstone and Mandiant, a bunch of clients, and partners. But I had the most fun just watching the show on the Expo floor. Must have been 300 booths and a gazillion sales people swarming them with those annoying mics trying to outspeak each other like barkers outside a souvenir store at a tourist destination. Companies doing raffles at their booths – I’ve seen that, but arcade car racing games like those at Dave & Busters, security “Jeopardy” shows every hour being hosted by “slick” sales people, cheesy whack-a-fraudster, wannabe Houdinis showing off card tricks and free beer made the cut too. I wondered, do clients actually walk the floor to learn about new products? I think not. They do so for the free entertainment, adulation, and giveaways. Makes one wonder, are the RSA booths worth their price tag? The smallest, and furthest ones, which you would see if you were really looking for, are worth an arm and leg. VC money well spent? Oh what a circus it was!
I was adding a little special sauce to Phishme.com this past week and thought this might be fun to share. We have a few different ways a user can craft their phishing links. If he/she chooses the IP address option, then there is also the choice of encoding options. This lets you mask the IP address in an attempt to trick the user into thinking part of the sub directory is perhaps the host name. Or as in the case with my mom… she thinks it is just the phone number so the computer knows where to call. And it’s hard to blame her when you see a decimal encoded IP address.
If you’ve been noticing a little silence on the blog recently, it’s been because a lot of the ranting has been going into developing what we think is a great anti-phishing user awareness tool. Take a peek at our main site at www.PhishMe.com
Conducting ethical phishing attacks has never been easier. User awareness will be improved, enforced, and for the first time for many users, easy to measure and trend over time. You can sign up for the mailing list right now that will let you know when the full blown service is launched. We will be offering free trial accounts that will allow you to get a taste of the features and test out if a few of your users will bite.
Another key feature of PhishMe is the built in templates to make your job of crafting phishing attacks simple yet effective and modern. How do you think your employees would respond to a message about a “virus outbreak”. Will they just follow the instruction in an email without verifying any of the information? What about a message to update their HealthCare information on a new third party site? The number of people that fall victim to these types of attacks will make you wonder why hackers even bother with anything that isn’t social engineering.
There is more to come in the future but for now, check out www.PhishMe.com