Phishing & Email Spam

Phishing and email spam is estimated to cost industry more than $1 billion each year, and cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated in the campaigns they launch to try to extract confidential data or passwords from unsuspecting Internet users.

Part of the reason why phishing and email spam continue to work is the language used within the communication. The message to “Act Now” because an account seems to have been compromised, or because a colleague appears to need urgent support, often causes individuals to act before they think.

Even experienced security experts have been caught by phishing and email spam, and the advice provided to every Internet user is:

  • If you are unsure of whether an email request is legitimate, try to verify it by contacting the sender independently of the information provided in the email.
  • Never reveal confidential data or passwords requested in an email or on a web page you have arrived at after following a link in an email.
  • Enable spam filters on your email, keep your anti-virus software up-to-date and enable two-step authentication on all your accounts whenever possible.
  • Always use different passwords for different accounts, and change them frequently to avoid being a victim of key-logging malware downloads.
  • Remember that phishing and email spam is not limited to email. Watch out for scams sent via social media channels.

Phishing in particular has become a popular attack vector for cybercriminals. Although phishing goes back to the early days of AOL, there has been a tenfold increase in phishing campaigns over the past decade reported to the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG).

Phishing is an extension of spam mail and can target small groups of people (spear phishing) or target executive-level management (whale phishing) in order to collect information or gain access to computer systems.

The best way to protect yourself from phishing and email spam is to follow the advice provided above and – most importantly – enable a reputable spam filter to block potentially unsafe emails from being delivered to your inbox.

Solicitor Email Scam Targets Homebuyers and Sellers

In the United Kingdom and Eire, homebuyers and sellers are being targeted by cybercriminals using a new solicitor email scam. The scam, which involves mimicking a solicitor, is costing victims thousands. There have also been some reported cases of cybercriminals sending solicitors emails claiming to be their clients and requesting changes of bank details. Any pending transfers are then made to the criminals’ accounts.

Since funds for home purchases are transferred to solicitors’ accounts before being passed on to the sellers, if cybercriminals are able to change the bank details for the transfers, the funds for the purchase will be paid directly into their accounts.

While email spoofing is commonplace, this solicitor email scam often involves the hacking of solicitors’ email accounts. Once access has been gained, cybercriminals search for emails sent to and from buyers and sellers of homes to identify potential targets.  While the hacking of email accounts is occurring, there have also been instances where emails between buyers, sellers, and their solicitors have been intercepted. When bank details for a transfer are emailed, the hackers change the bank information in the email to their own and then forward the email on.

The solicitor email scam is highly targeted and communications are monitored until the crucial point in the purchasing process when a bank transfer is about to be made. Since the potential rewards are considerable, cybercriminals are willing to put the time and effort into the scam and be patient. Buyers, sellers, and solicitors are well researched and the emails are highly convincing.

Instances of this conveyancing scam have been increasing in recent months and it has now become the most common cybercrime affecting the legal sector. The Law Society, a representative body for solicitors in the UK, has issued a warning about the conveyancing scam due to an increased number of complaints, although it is currently unclear how many fraudulent transfers have been made.

There is of course an easy way for solicitors to prevent such a scam from being successful, and that is to contact the homebuyer or seller before any transfer is made and to verbally confirm the bank details by telephone. Alternatively, policies can be developed requiring bank account information to only be sent via regular mail.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority advises against the use of email for property transactions due to the potential for cybercriminals to intercept and spoof messages. Email may be convenient, but with such large sums being transferred it pays to exercise caution.

While this solicitor email scam is common in the UK and Eire, legal firms in the United States should also exercise caution. Since the conveyancing scam is proving to be lucrative, it will only be a matter of time before U.S. lawyers are targeted.

Anti-Phishing Training Data Show Why an Advanced Spam Filter is Essential

Anti-phishing training can help an organization improve its security posture. However, even with training on phishing email identification, employees still fail to spot many email scams. Anti-phishing training alone is insufficient to prevent successful phishing attacks.

The Threat from Phishing is Growing

Your business is likely to be bombarded with phishing emails, especially at this time of year. Tax season sees millions of emails sent to businesses by cybercriminals who want access to employees’ W-2 Forms. However, phishing is a year-round problem. It has been estimated that an astonishing 156 million phishing emails are now being sent every single day.

As we have already seen this year, phishing scams can be highly convincing. Many businesses have discovered employees have responded to these scams in the belief that the email requests are genuine. The cost of those phishing attacks can be considerable for businesses, their customers and their employees.

Anti-Phishing Training Alone will Not Prevent Successful Phishing Attacks

To ensure employees are prepared, many businesses provide employees with anti-phishing training. They teach staff members how to identify phishing scams and the tell-tale signs that email requests are not genuine.

How effective is anti-phishing training? A recent analysis by Diligent showed that the average score on its phishing test was 76%. That means employees are failing to identify phishing scams 24% of the time and all it takes is one response to a phishing email for an employee’s email account to be compromised, a network login to be handed to cybercriminals, or the W-2 Forms of an entire workforce to be emailed to tax fraudsters.

Fortunately, as PhishMe’s data shows, with practice, employees get much better at identifying phishing emails. Providing training and conducting follow up tests using dummy phishing emails helps to show where training has failed. This allows organizations to provide further training to employees whose phishing email identification skills are poor. However, even with training and testing it will never be possible to ensure that 100% of employees identify 100% of phishing emails 100% of the time.

The Best Phishing Defense is to Prevent Phishing Emails from Being Delivered

Training should be provided and employees’ anti-phishing skills should be tested with dummy phishing exercises, but organizations should ensure that phishing emails are not delivered to end users’ inboxes. That means an advanced, powerful spam filtering solution is required.

SpamTitan blocks 99.97% of spam emails from being delivered. SpamTitan also includes a powerful anti-phishing component to block phishing attacks. However, blocking potentially malicious emails is only part of the story. It is also important to choose a solution that does not prevent genuine emails from being delivered.

Independent tests by VB Bulletin confirm SpamTitan has a consistently low false positive rate. Only 0.03% of genuine emails trigger SpamTitan’s anti-spam filters. The excellent catch rates and low false positives have seen SpamTitan win 36 consecutive VB Bulletin Anti-Spam Awards.

SpamTitan is available as a gateway appliance or a cloud-based solution, with both requiring minimal IT support. To suit the needs of service providers, the cloud-based version is available in a private cloud and is supplied in white-label format ready for rebranding.

The cost-effective solution is easy to implement, use and maintain and can be used to protect a limitless number of email accounts.

If you want to keep your employees’ inboxes free from phishing emails, malware, and ransomware, call the TitanHQ Sales Team today and say a fond farewell to email spam.

School Phishing Email Attack Highlights Need for Powerful Anti-Spam Solution

Another school phishing email attack has resulted in the W-2 Form data of school employees being emailed to tax fraudsters. This time, it was employees of Mercer County Schools in West Virginia whose data have been compromised.

The FBI has been called in to investigate the W-2 phishing scam and the IRS has been notified of the incident, while affected employees have been offered services to help them protect their identities.

The school phishing email attack is just one of many such attacks that have occurred this year. While businesses have been extensively targeted in the past, phishing attacks on schools are now commonplace. The problem has become so severe that the IRS recently issued a warning to schools of the risk of phishing email attacks, saying “This is one of the most dangerous email phishing scams we’ve seen in a long time.”

The Mercer County School District phishing attack was almost a carbon copy of many other tax season attacks this year. Already, there have been more than 29,000 victims of these attacks and there is still two months of tax season remaining.

The school phishing email attack involved the sending of an email to an employee in the HR/payroll department requesting a copy of W-2 Forms for all employees that worked in the previous fiscal year. The email was sent from an email account that was very similar to that used by the chief supervisor.

The email contained a slight variation from the genuine email address, which was enough to fool the recipient into thinking the email had been sent from the supervisor’s account. The employee then sent the W-2 forms of 1,800 staff members to the attackers as requested.

Databreaches.net has been tracking this year’s W-2 phishing scams and is maintaining a list of all organizations that have been scammed into revealing W-2 Form data. The list shows that school districts are being extensively targeted.  Successful W-2 phishing attacks have been reported by the following schools and school districts in the past 6 weeks:

  • Argyle School District, TX
  • Belton Independent School District, TX
  • Bloomington Public Schools, MN
  • College of Southern Idaho, ID
  • Davidson County Schools, NC
  • Dracut Schools, MA
  • Lexington School District 2, SC
  • Manatee County School District, FL
  • Mohave Community College, AZ
  • Morton School District, IL
  • Odessa School District, WA
  • Tipton County Schools, TN

The Manatee County School District phishing attack resulted in the W-2 Form data of 7,900 employees being emailed to the scammers: The biggest school phishing email attack of the year to date. The Bloomington Public Schools attack also resulted in thousands of employees’ W-2 Forms being disclosed.

There are a number of measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of phishing attacks such as these. Training should be provided to HR and payroll staff and they should be instructed to carefully check senders’ email addresses to ensure the correct account has been used. Policies should also be developed requiring any W-2 Form requests to be verified with the sender via the telephone. It is also essential to implement a spam filtering solution with a powerful anti-phishing component. This will help to ensure that the emails are not delivered. A spam filtering solution will also block malware and ransomware emails from being delivered. The latter types of malicious emails have also been a major problem for school districts over the past year.

Microsoft Warns Users of Change in Malware Distribution Tactics

Spammers and scammers are constantly updating their malware distribution tactics to ensure their malicious payloads are delivered to unsuspecting end users. However, Microsoft has spotted a major change to malware distribution tactics used by cybercriminals. The change has prompted the software giant to issue a new warning.

Malware, including ransomware, is commonly distributed via spam email. Links to malicious websites are used in an attempt to bypass spam filter controls; however, malicious attachments are the delivery mechanism of choice for many cybercriminal gangs. Malicious links are commonly blocked by web filtering solutions – WebTitan for example prevents all users from visiting websites known to be malicious.

To bypass spam filter controls, attachments rarely include the actual malware or ransomware files, instead the files contain scripts that download the malicious payload.

One of the most common methods of downloading malware is JavaScript code. JavaScript files are typically included in ZIP files. If the files are extracted and opened, the malicious code runs. A connection is opened to the attackers’ servers and malicious files are silently downloaded.

However, JavaScript files are not typically used by the majority of end users. These files are therefore not always opened. Furthermore, spam filters can identify JavaScript files even when they are included in compressed files. Later this month, Google will also start blocking emails with JavaScript attachments and will not allow them to be sent via Gmail.

Due to the ease at which these malicious downloaders are being identified, malware distribution tactics have been changed. Rather than use these suspect files, cybercriminals have switched to file types that are less obviously malicious. Microsoft has noticed a trend for using LNK files and SVG files containing malicious PowerShell scripts.

LNK files are Windows shortcut files which usually point to some form of executable file. SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) files are image files, and are much more innocuous. These files are typically opened with image software such as Adobe Creative Suite or Illustrator.  Double clicking on these malicious LNK and SVG files will launch PowerShell scripts that download malware or ransomware.

Protecting against these types of attacks may seem fairly straightforward. It is possible, for example, to set restrictions on PowerShell commands to prevent them from running. However, even with restrictions in place, those policies can be easily bypassed. Intel Security has recently explained one such method: “PowerShell’s Get-Content can access the content of a .ps2 malware script and pass it to Invoke-Expression (iex) for execution.”

In the case of SVG files, it is relatively straightforward to include obfuscated JavaScript code in the image files. This JavaScript code may not be detected by software solutions and therefore could be delivered to end users’ inboxes.

There is of course an easy way to block these new malware distribution tactics. SpamTitan can be configured to block specific files attached to emails, preventing them from being delivered to end users. By implementing SpamTitan and blocking JavaScript Files, LNK files, and SVG files, organizations will be better protected against malware infections.

Since SVG, JavaScript, and LNK files are rarely sent in legitimate emails, blocking these attachments will not cause major disruption. Any individual or department that does use these files – IT or marketing for example – can be instructed to send the files via Dropbox or another file sharing platform.

Ransomware Attacks on British Schools Prompt Action Fraud to Issue Warning

Ransomware attacks on British schools have soared in recent weeks. The problem has become so serious that the British National Fraud and Cyber Crime Reporting Center, also known as Action Fraud, has issued a new ransomware warning to British schools.

Ransomware has grown in popularity with cybercriminals over the past 2 years, with attacks on organizations around the world soaring in 2016. 2017 may only be a few weeks old, but ransomware attacks are continuing at the high levels seen in 2016. Security experts predict that 2017 will see even more cyberattacks on schools and other educational institutions. Ransomware the attack method of choice.

Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts data on a compromised system. A wide range of file types are locked with powerful encryption and a ransom demand is issued. If payment is made, the attackers claim they will supply the key to unlock the encryption. Without the key – the sole copy is held by the attackers – data will remain locked forever.

Some forms of ransomware have been cracked and free decryptors made available, but they number in the few. The majority of ransomware variants have yet to be cracked. Recovery depends on payment of the ransom or the wiping of the attacked system and restoration of files from backups.

While a standard charge per encrypted device was the norm early last year, ransomware is now more sophisticated. The attackers are able to set their payment demand based on the types of files encrypted, the extent of the infection, and the perceived likelihood of the victim paying up. Ransomware attacks on British schools have seen ransom demands of an average of £8,000 issued.

Ransomware Attacks on British Schools are Targeted, Not Random

Many ransomware attacks are random – Spam emails are sent in the millions in the hope that some of them reach inboxes and are opened by employees. However, ransomware attacks on British schools have seen a different approach used. Recent attacks have been highly targeted.

Rather than send emails out en masse, the spate of recent ransomware attacks on British schools start with a phone call. In order to find their target, the attackers call the school and ask for the email address of the head teacher. The email address is required because sensitive information needs to be sent that should only be read by the head teacher. Information such as mental health assessment forms and teacher guidance forms.

An email is then crafted and sent to the head teacher; addressed to that individual by name. While there are many types of ransomware emails, a number of recent ransomware attacks on British schools involved an email that appears to have been sent by the Department of Education. Other cases have involved the impersonation of the Department of Work and Pensions and telecom providers.

In the text of the email the attacker explains that they have sent some information in an attached file which is important and needs to be read. The attached file, usually in compressed format such as .ZIP or .RAR, contains files that install ransomware if opened.

These ransomware downloaders may be JavaScript files, Word or Excel macros, or a host of other file types.  In some cases, links are used instead of attachments. The links are masked so they appear to be official webpages; on the Department for Education website for example. In the case of links, they direct the recipient to a webpage containing an exploit kit or other form of file downloader. Just visiting that link could infect the user’s computer, mapped network drives, and portable storage devices.

How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware attacks on British schools can be highly sophisticated, although risk can be effectively mitigated.

  • Ensure all staff with computer access are made aware of the risk of ransomware attacks
  • Provide cybersecurity training to all staff, including how to identify ransomware and phishing emails
  • Never open attachments or visit links in emails sent from unknown senders
  • Implement a spam filter to capture and quarantine malicious spam emails
  • Use a web filtering solution to prevent staff members from visiting malicious links and from downloading ‘risky’ files
  • Ensure all software is kept up to date and patches are applied promptly
  • Keep all anti-virus and anti-malware solutions up to date, setting updates to occur automatically
  • Restrict the use of administrator accounts – Only use accounts with high levels of privileges for specific tasks

It is also essential to ensure that backups of all data are made on a daily basis and backup devices are disconnected after backups have been performed. Data should ideally be backed up to the cloud and on a physical backup device. In the event of an attack, data can then be recovered without paying the ransom.

University Phishing Scams on the Rise

University phishing scams targeting students have increased in recent months. Targeting some of the most well educated individuals may not appear to be the most rewarding strategy for scammers, but students are falling for these university phishing scams in their droves.

University Phishing Scams are Becoming Difficult to Identify

Awareness of phishing tactics has certainly improved thanks to educational programs, email warnings, and media coverage of phishing attacks, but in response, cybercriminals have got better at scamming. Today, phishing emails can be difficult to identify. In fact, in many cases, it is virtually impossible to tell a genuine email from a scam.

While students may be aware of the risks of clicking links in emails from unknown senders, the same cannot be said when the emails are sent from a contact. Emails from university IT departments, professors and colleagues are likely to be opened. Students’ guard is let down when the sender of the email is known.

When a convincing request is included, students often respond and have no idea that they have been scammed into revealing their login credentials or disclosing other sensitive information. All it takes is for one email account of a student to be compromised to start the process. Emails are then sent to that individual’s email address book. A number of those contacts respond. The same happens with their contacts and so on. Given that there are supposedly six degrees of separation between all individuals on the planet, it is easy to see how fast malware infections can spread and how multiple email accounts can be compromised rapidly.

University phishing scams have been increasing for some time, although the past few months have seen even more scams emails sent.  Recently, the University of Connecticut sent warnings out to students following a spate of phishing scams. Some of those scams involved the impersonation of the University president. Students at the University of Georgia have also been targeted.

In the case of the latter, one student’s email account was compromised after she responded to a phishing email sent from UGA associate. The email did not arouse any suspicions because the contact was known. In the email the student was told that it was important for her to change her password. Failure to do so would result in her being locked out of her email account. She responded by clicking the link and changing her password. However, what she had done was disclose her old password and her new one to the attacker.

The attacker then used those credentials to set up a mail forwarder on the email account. The student only found out after querying why she was no longer receiving emails with the IT help desk. After investigating, the mail forwarder was discovered.

Other students were similarly targeted and their emails accounts were used to send out huge volumes of spam emails. It was only when spamming complaints were received about the compromised accounts that the problem was identified.

These university phishing scams are conducted for a wide range of nefarious purposes. Spamming and mail forwarders may cause limited harm, but that may not always be the case. Malware infections can result in serious financial harm to students and universities. Ransomware installations can occur after students respond to phishing campaigns, and those attacks can cost tens of thousands of dollars to resolve.

How to Protect Students and Networks from the Scammers

Since these phishing scams are now so hard to identify, training on email and cybersecurity best practices is no longer as effective as it once was. Technological solutions are therefore required to prevent emails from being delivered and to stop end users from being directed to malicious websites.

SpamTitan is an ideal spam filtering solution for universities. SpamTitan blocks 99.97% of spam emails and 100% of known malware. The solution is cost effective to install, easy to administer, and no additional hardware is required or any software updates necessary.

When used in conjunction with WebTitan – TitanHQ’s powerful web filtering solution –all attempts to visit malicious links and known phishing websites can be blocked.

Both solutions are available on a 30-day no obligation free trial. If you want to ensure your students and university networks are properly protected, contact the TitanHQ sales team today to register for the trials and discover the difference that each solution can make.

UConn Students Warned of Sophisticated Phishing Emails and Web Attacks

Sophisticated phishing emails and elaborate web-based scams are being used to target students at the University of Connecticut. The extent to which students have been targeted with these scams has prompted UConn Chief Information Officer and Provost for Information Technology to send a warning to all students to be on high alert.

A number of students at the university have received sophisticated phishing emails in recent months that appear to have been sent from University President Susan Herbst. Like many universities and other educational establishments, the email system is protected with a spam filter. The majority of spam and scam emails are filtered out, although some do make it through. If these emails are delivered to students, there is a high probability that they will be opened. After all, the messages do appear to have been sent from the University president.

The emails contain malicious attachments or links to websites that attempt to steal login information and the scam is sophisticated and highly convincing. Many students would be unaware that they have been scammed after disclosing their login credentials.

The same can be said of malware infections, which usually occur silently when a malicious website is visited. Criminals are attempting to install key-loggers that record all sensitive data entered on compromised computers.

These scams are intended to get students to disclose their bank account information, credit card data, or Social Security numbers and personal information. The attackers can then use this information for a wide range of nefarious purposes including identity theft.

Sophisticated Phishing Emails are the New Norm

Email scams of old were quite easy to identify. They often included many grammatical and spelling mistakes and included offers that sounded too good to be true. However, today, sophisticated phishing emails are the new norm and they can be very difficult to identify. Emails are sent from authority figures, are grammatically perfect, and the attackers use wide range of social engineering techniques to get victims to disclose sensitive data or take a particular action.

The scammers are also increasingly sending highly targeted emails. These ‘spear phishing’ emails use personal information unique to the recipient to add credibility. Information is often obtained from social media and professional networking sites.

One of the latest UConn email scams includes information about Blackboard Inc., the Mail Service used by UConn. The attachment has the title “Exclusive Important Announcement from President Susan Herbst.”

Warnings have been issued by email to all students alerting them to this scam and advising them to exercise caution when using email and surfing the Internet. Students have been told not to login on any websites that do not have a valid security certificate.

A Spam Filter and Web Filter in Tandem Offer Greater Protection Against Phishing Attacks

Users should always exercise caution when using email. Attachments from unknown senders should not be opened and links contained in emails from unfamiliar sources should not be visited. However, curiosity often gets the better of students and malicious links are often unwittingly visited.

For this reason, in addition to using an advanced spam filtering solution – such as SpamTitan – universities and other educational establishments should also employ a web filtering solution. The spam filter will block the vast majority of malicious messages. The web filter will ensure that malicious websites and infected webpages cannot be visited. In tandem, a spam filter and web filter will offer far greater protection against phishing attacks and malware/ransomware infections.

Schools Targeted with W-2 Form Phishing Scam

A W-2 Form phishing scam that has been extensively used to con businesses out of the tax information of their employees is now being used on educational institutions. School districts need to be on high alert as cybercriminals have them fixed in their cross-hairs.

Over the past few weeks, many school districts have fallen victim to the scammers and have disclosed the W-2 Form data of employees. Teachers, teaching assistants, and other members of school staff have had their Social Security numbers and earnings information sent to fraudsters. The data are used to file fraudulent tax returns in victims’ names.

At face value, the W-2 Form phishing scam is one of the simplest con-tricks used by cybercriminals. It involves sending an email to a member of the HR or payroll team asking for the W-2 Forms of all employees to be sent via email. Why would any employee send this highly sensitive data? Because the email appears to have been sent from individuals within the school district who have a genuine need for the information. This is why the W-2 Form phishing scam is so effective. In many cases, suspicions are not aroused for a number of days after the emails have been sent. By that time, fraudulent tax returns may have been filed in the names of all of the victims.

It is unknown how many school districts have been targeted to date with this W-2 Form phishing scam, although 10 school districts in the United States have announced that their employees have fallen for the scam this year and have emailed W-2 Form data to the attackers. In total, 23 organizations have announced that an employee has fallen for a W-2 Form phishing scam in 2017, and at least 145 organizations fell for similar scams last year.

Due to the number of attacks, the IRS issued a warning in early 2016 to alert all organizations to the threat. The increase in attacks in 2017 has prompted the IRS to issue a warning once again.  While corporations are at risk, the IRS has issued a warning specifically mentioning school districts, as well as non-profits and tribal organizations.

The IRS warning explains how cybercriminals have started even earlier this year. While the W-2 Form phishing scam emerged last year, many attacks occurred relatively late in the tax season. Cybercriminals are attempting to get the data sooner this year. The sooner a fake tax return is filed, the greater the chance that a refund will be issued.

A variety of spoofing techniques are employed to make the email appear like it has come from the email account of an executive or other individual high up in the organization. In some cases, criminals have first compromised the email account of a board member, making the scam harder to identify.

This year has also seen a new twist to the scam with victims targeted twice. In addition to the W-2 Form scam, the victims are also subjected to a wire transfer scam. After W-2 Forms have been sent, a wire transfer request is made to the payroll department. Some organizations have been hit with both scams and have disclosed employees’ tax information and then made a wire transfer of several thousand dollars to the same attackers.

Protecting against these scams requires a combination of technology, training and policy/procedural updates. The first step for all organizations – including school districts – is to send an email to all HR and payroll staff warning them about these phishing scams. Staff must be made aware of the scam and told to be vigilant.

Policies and procedures should be updated requiring payroll and HR staff to authenticate any email request for W-2 Form data by telephone prior to sending the information.

An advanced spam filter – such as SpamTitan – can also greatly reduce the risk of W-2 Form scam emails being delivered to end users’ inboxes. Blocking suspicious emails will reduce reliance on training and user awareness of these scams. The spam filter will also be effective at blocking further scams and other malicious emails from being delivered.

New Locky Variant Discovered: Osiris Ransomware

Osiris ransomware is the latest variant of Locky. As with other versions of the ransomware, there is no free way of unlocking encrypted files if a viable backup of data does not exist.

Cybercriminals use a variety of techniques and attack vectors to spread malicious files such as ransomware and malware. Exploit kits are popular as they can be hidden on websites and used to silently probe visitors’ browsers for vulnerabilities in plugins such as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Oracle Java. Those vulnerabilities are leveraged to download malware. Malvertising – malicious web adverts – are often used to direct users to these malicious webpages; however, all too often, links to these websites are sent via spam email.

The rise in malware and ransomware attacks over the past few years has prompted many organizations to start providing security awareness training to staff members. Employees are instructed never to click on a link contained in an email unless they are sure that it is genuine.

However, even with security awareness training, a great many employees inadvertently infect their computers with malware or accidentally download ransomware. One of the biggest problems is not malicious links in spam email but malicious attachments. Cybercriminals have increased the use of malicious file attachments in the last year, especially to infect end users with ransomware.

One of the biggest ransomware threats in the past 12 months has been Locky. Locky has been spread via exploit kits in the past, although spam email is now primarily used to infect users.

Office Macros Used to Infect Computers with Osiris Ransomware

The gang behind Locky frequently updates the ransomware, as well as the methods used to fool end users into installing the malicious file-encryptor. The latest Locky variant – Osiris ransomware – encrypts files and adds the .osiris extension to encrypted files.

Locky is commonly spread via malicious macros in Word documents. Typically, the malicious Word documents claim to be invoices, purchase orders, or notifications of missed parcel deliveries.

However, a recent campaign used to distribute the Osiris ransomware variant switches from .DOC files to Excel spreadsheets (.XLS). Recipients of the emails are told the Excel spreadsheet is an invoice. Opening the attached Excel spreadsheet will not automatically result in an Osiris ransomware infection if macros have not been set to run automatically. The user will be presented with a blank spreadsheet and a prompt to enable macros to view the content of the file.

Clicking on ‘Enable Content’ will launch a VBA script that downloads a Dynamic Link Library (DLL) file, which is automatically executed using the Windows file Rundll32.exe. That DLL file is used to download Osiris ransomware. Osiris ransomware encrypts a wide range of file types and deletes Windows Shadow Volume Copies, preventing the user from restoring the computer to the configuration before the ransomware was installed. The only option for recovery from an Osiris ransomware infection is to pay the ransom demand or to wipe the system and restore files from backups.

Protecting Networks From E-Mail-Based Ransomware and Malware Attacks

An advanced spam filtering solution such as SpamTitan can be used to block the vast majority of email-borne threats. SpamTitan performs a wide range of front line tests to rapidly identify spam email and prevent it from being delivered, including RBL, SPF, Greylisting and SMTP controls.

SpamTitan uses two enterprise-class anti-virus engines to scan for malicious attachments – Kaspersky Anti-Virus and ClamAV – to maximize detection rates.

SpamTitan can also be configured to block specific files attachments commonly used by cybercriminals to infect end users: EXE files and JavaScript files for example. The contents of compressed files are also automatically scanned by SpamTitan.

Host-based tests are performed to examine mail headers, while the contents of messages are subjected to a Bayesian analysis to identify common spam signatures and spam-like content. Messages are also scanned for malicious links.

These extensive tests ensure SpamTitan blocks 99.97% of spam emails, preventing malicious messages from being delivered to end users. SpamTitan has also been independently tested and shown to have an exceptionally low false positive rate of just 0.03%.

If you want to keep your network protected from malicious spam emails and reduce reliance on employees’ spam detection abilities, contact the TitanHQ team today. SpamTitan is available on a 30-day free trial, allowing you to fully test the product and discover the difference SpamTitan makes at your organization before committing to a purchase.

W2 Phishing Scams Aplenty as Tax Season Commences

Its tax season in the United States, which means the start of scamming season. W2 phishing scams and other tax-related email and telephone scams are rife at this time of year. Businesses need to be particularly careful. There have already been a number of victims of W2 phishing scams and the year has barely started.

2016 Saw a 400% Rise in Tax Season Phishing and Malware Incidents

Tax season in the United States runs from the start of January to April 15. It is the time of year when Americans calculate how much tax they need to pay from the previous financial year. It is also a busy time for cybercriminals. They will not be filing their own tax returns however. Instead they are concentrating on filing tax returns on behalf of their victims.

In order for tax refunds to be fraudulently filed, cybercriminals need information about their victims. Given the number of data breaches that have resulted in the theft of Social Security numbers in the past 12 months, 2017 could well be a record year for tax scams.

However, while past data breaches can provide cybercriminals with the information they need to file fraudulent tax returns, tax season usually sees a massive increase in phishing scams. The sole purpose of these scams is to get victims to reveal their Social Security numbers and the other personal information necessary to file tax returns.

Since the IRS started allowing Americans to e-file their tax returns, scammers had a new option for filing fraudulent tax returns. Phishing emails claiming to have been sent by the IRS request the recipients update their IRS e-file. A link is included in the emails for this purpose. Clicking on the link in the emails will not direct the recipient to the IRS website, but a spoofed version of the site. The information entered online is then used to e-file on behalf of the victims and the scammers pocket the tax refunds.

In 2016, the IRS reported a massive increase in phishing and malware incidents. These scams and malware infections increased by an incredible 400%. The massive rise in scams prompted the IRS to issue a warning to Americans about the scams, with the IRS confirming that it does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information.

2017 is likely to be no different. Until April 15, tax-related scams are likely to be rife. All Americans should therefore be wary and must exercise caution.

Tax Season Sees a Massive Rise in W2 Phishing Scams

While consumers are at risk. Businesses in the United States are also extensively targeted at this time of year. The scammers impersonate CEOs, CFOs, and other individuals with authority and make requests for W2 data and other financial information about employees. The requests can be highly convincing and each year many employees fall for these types of scams. The scammers are well aware that some employees would be nervous about questioning a request that has been emailed from their SEO or CFO.

It is difficult to determine how many attempted W2 phishing scams took place last year, but in the first quarter of 2016, at least 41 U.S companies reported that they were the victims of successful W2 phishing scams. Employees were sent email requests to send W2 data by return and they responded. By doing so, employees’ tax information was sent directly to the scammers’ inboxes.

2017 is not yet a month old, yet already W2 phishing scams have been reported. The week, the Tipton County Schools District in western Tennessee reported that it had fallen victim to one of these W2 phishing scams. The attacker had posed as the director of the schools and had requested W2 tax data on all employees. W2 form data were then emailed to the attacker by an employee.

A similar email phishing scam was reported to have been used to attack 8 school districts in Missouri, according to a report by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In this case, only one of the eight school districts responded to the scam: An employee from the Odessa School District was fooled and send the tax details of the district’s employees to the attackers.

It is not only schools that are being targeted. A hospital in Campbell County, Wyoming was attacked this week. According to a Campbell County Health news release, a hospital executive was impersonated in this attack. A 66-year old hospital worker fell for the scam and emailed W-2 information about employees as requested.

Preventing successful W2 phishing scams requires a combination of technological solutions, employee training, and updates to policies and procedures.  All employees with access to sensitive data must be advised of the risk and told to exercise caution. Policies should be introduced that require all email requests for employees’ tax information to be authenticated via telephone or other means. Organizations should also implement a robust spam filtering solution to prevent the scam emails from being delivered to employees’ inboxes.

However, if nothing is done to mitigate risk, 2017 is likely to be another record breaking year for the scammers.

Satan Ransomware: A Particularly Worrying New RaaS

You have no doubt heard of Locky and Cryptolocker, but what about Satan ransomware? Unfortunately, you may soon be introduced to this new ransomware variant. No matter where your organization is based, if you do not have a host of cybersecurity defenses to block ransomware attacks, this nasty file-encryptor may be installed on your network.

Satan Ransomware is being offered to any would-be hacker or cybercriminal free of charge via an affiliate model known as ransomware-as-a-service or RaaS. The idea behind RaaS is simple. Developers of ransomware can infect more computers and networks if they get an army of helpers to distribute their malicious software. Anyone willing to commit a little time to distributing the ransomware will receive a cut of any profits.

Ransomware authors commonly charge a nominal fee for individuals to participate in these RaaS schemes, in addition to taking a percentage of any ransomware payments that are generated. In the case of Satan ransomware, the developers offer RaaS totally free of charge. Anyone who wants to distribute the malicious software is free to do so. In exchange for their efforts they get to keep 70% of the ransom payments they generate. The remaining 30% goes to the ransomware authors. The gang behind the RaaS also offers higher percentages as infections increase as a reward for effort. All that is required to get started is to create a username and password. Access to the ransomware kit can then be gained.

What is alarming is how easy it is to participate in this RaaS scheme and custom-craft the malware. The gang behind the campaign has developed an affiliate console that allows the malware to be tweaked. The ransom amount can be easily set, as can the time frame for making payments and how much the ransom will increase if the payment deadline is exceeded.

Help is also offered with the distribution of the malware. Assistance is provided to make droppers that install the malware on victims’ systems. Help is offered to create malicious Word macros and CHM installers that can be used in spam email campaigns. Help is also offered to encrypt the ransomware to avoid detection. Even multi-language support is provided. Any would-be attacker can craft ransom demands in multiple languages via the RaaS affiliate console.

Satan ransomware performs a check to determine if it is running on a virtual machine. If it is, the ransomware will terminate. If not, it will run and will search for over 350 different file types. Those files will be locked with powerful encryption. File extensions are changed to. stn and the file names are scrambled to make it harder for victims to identify individual files. The ransomware will also wipe all free space on the hard drive before the ransom demand is dropped onto the desktop.

There is no decryptor for Satan ransomware. Recovery without paying the ransom will depend on organizations being able to restore files from backups. Since the ransomware also encrypts backup files, those backups will have to be in the cloud or on isolated devices.

RaaS is nothing new, but what is so worrying about Satan ransomware is how easy it has been made for affiliates. Next to no skill is required to run a ransomware campaign and that is likely to see many individuals take part in the RaaS program.

Spate of Gmail Phishing Attacks Detected

A spate of Gmail phishing attacks has hit the headlines this week. While the phishing scam is not new – it was first identified around a year ago – cybercriminals have adopted the campaign once more. The phishing emails are used to obtain Gmail login credentials are highly convincing,. A number of different tactics are used to evade detection, some of which are likely to fool even the most security aware individuals.

The Gmail phishing attacks start with an email sent to a Gmail account. Security aware individuals would be wary about an email sent from an unknown source. However, these attacks involve emails sent from a contact in the target’s address book. The email addresses are not masked to make them look like they have come from a contact. The email is actually sent from a contact’s account that has already been compromised.

Email recipients are far more likely to open emails sent from their contacts. Many people do not perform any further checks if the sender is known to them. They assume that emails are genuine solely from the source.

However, that is not the only technique used to fool targets. The attackers also use information that has been taken from the contact’s sent and received messages and add this to the email. An screenshot of an attachment or image that has already been included in a previous email between the contact and the target is included in the message. Even if the target is slightly suspicious about receiving an email, these additional touches should allay concern.

The aim of the email is to get the target to click on the image screenshot. Doing so will direct them to a Gmail login page where the target is required to sign in again. While this is perhaps odd, the page that the user is directed to looks exactly as it should. The page exactly mirrors what the user would normally expect.

Checking the website address bar should reveal that the site is not genuine; however, in this case it does not. The address bar shows the site is secure – HTTPS – and the web address includes accounts.google.com. The only sign of the scam is the inclusion of ‘data.text/html’ before accounts.google.com in the address bar.

Entering in account credentials will send that information directly to the attackers. The response is lightning quick. Account credentials are immediately used to log into the victim’s account. Before the victim even suspects they have been scammed, the entire contents of their Gmail account could be stolen, including sent and received emails and the address book. Contacts will be subjected to these Gmail phishing attacks in the same fashion.

Google is aware of the scam and is currently developing mitigations to prevent these types of attacks from occurring. In the meantime, however, users of Gmail should be particularly wary. Many users just glance at the address bar and look for the HTTPS and the web address. Failure to very carefully check the address bar and protocol before entering login credentials can – and certainly will in this case – result in the user’s account being compromised. Gmail accounts contain a huge amount of personal information. Information that could be used in future spear phishing attacks, extortion attempts, and other scams on the target and their contacts.

Spora Ransomware: A Highly Professional New Ransomware Variant

A new ransomware variant – Spora ransomware – has been identified by Emisoft which features a new twist. Victims have a wide range of their files encrypted as with other forms of file-encrypting malware, but they are given the option of preventing future ransomware attacks if they pay up.

The attackers would not be able to prevent attacks performed by other gangs – with other ransomware variants – although if the attackers can be believed, victims would only be attacked with Spora once. That is, if they choose the more expensive option of ‘Spora immunity’ rather than just paying to unlock the encryption.

The bad news for the victims is that payment will be required to unlock the infection if a viable backup of data does not exist. At present, there is no decryptor for Spora.

Emisoft reports that the encryption used is particularly strong, and even if a decryptor was developed, it would only be effective against a single user due to the complex method of encryption used – a combination of AES and RSA keys using the Windows CryptoAPI.

In contrast to many ransomware variants that communicate with a command and control server, Spora ransomware does not receive any C&C instructions. This means that files can be encrypted even if the computer has no Internet connection.

The authors have also not set a fixed ransom amount, as this depend on the ‘value’ of the encrypted data. The ransom payment will be set based on who the user is and the files that have been encrypted. Before files are encrypted, a check is performed to see who has been infected. Encrypted files are sorted based on extension type and the information is combined into the .KEY file along with information about the user. The .key file must be supplied in the payment portal. An HTML file is also created on the desktop with details of how payment can be made.

The ransomware is being spread via spam email. Infection occurs when an email recipient opens the infected attachment. The attached file appears to be a genuine PDF invoice, although it includes a double file extension which masks the fact it is actually a .HTA file. Infection occurs via JScript and VBScript contained in the file.

Opening the file launches a Wordpad file which displays an error message saying the file is invalid. In the background, the ransomware will be encrypting data.

Emisoft reports that the ransomware is slick and appears highly professional. Typically, the first versions of ransomware invariably contain multiple flaws that allow decryptors to be developed. In this case, there appear to be none. Spora ransomware also tracks infections via different campaigns. The information will likely be used to determine the effectiveness of different campaigns and could be used to direct future attacks.

The slick design of the HTML ransom note and the payment portal show considerable work has gone into the creation of this new ransomware. Emisoft suggests that Spora ransomware has been developed specifically for the ransomware-as-a-service market.

Prevention remains the best defense. Since Spora ransomware is spread via spam email, blocking malicious messages is the best defense against infection, while recovery will only be possible by paying the ransom demand or restoring data from a backup.

Barts Health Malware Attack: NHS Computers Taken Offline

A Barts Health malware attack forced the shutdown of hospital IT systems on Friday last week as the UK NHS Trust attempted to limit the damage caused and contain the infection.

Barts Health is the largest NHS Trust in the United Kingdom, operating six hospitals in the capital: Mile End Hospital, Newham University Hospital, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, The London Chest Hospital, The Royal London Hospital, and Whipps Cross University Hospital.

The Barts Health malware attack occurred on Friday 13, 2016. Given the number of ransomware attacks on healthcare organizations in recent months, rumors started to quickly circulate that this was another healthcare ransomware attack.

A statement was released on Friday claiming the Trust had experienced an ‘IT attack,’ and that as a precaution, a number of drives were taken offline to prevent the spread of the infection. The type of malware that had been installed was not known, although the NHS trust did say in its statement that it did not believe ransomware was involved.

Multiple drives were shut down following the discovery of the malware including those used by the pathology department, although patient data were unaffected and the NHS Trust’s Cerner Millennium patient administration system remained operational, as did the systems used by the radiology department.

Today, Barts Health reports that all of its systems are back online and the infection has been removed. Medical services for patients were not affected, although Barts Health said due to the need for requests to be processed manually, it may take a few days for the pathology department to deal with the backlog.

Barts Health also reiterated that at no point were patient medical records compromised. No mention has been made about how the malware was installed and the type of malware involved was not announced. However, the Barts Health malware attack involved a form of malware that had not previously been seen and was a ‘Trojan Malware.’

The Trust said “whilst it had the potential to do significant damage to computer network files, our measures to contain the virus were successful”.

Ransomware Attacks on UK Hospitals

In November last year, the Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Trust was attacked with ransomware which resulted in IT systems at three hospitals being crippled. As a result of that attack, the NHS Trust was forced to cancel 2,800 operations and appointments while the infection was removed and systems restored. The majority of IT systems had to be taken offline, hence the major disruption to medical services.

While Locky and Samas have been used extensively in attacks on U.S. hospitals, the Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Trust ransomware attack involved a ransomware variant known as Globe2 – A relativity new variant that was first identified in August 2016.

Globe ransomware has been spread primarily via spam email and malicious file attachments. Opening the file attachment triggers the downloading of the ransomware. As with other ransomware variants, the attachments appear to be files such as invoices or medical test results.

Malicious links are also used to spread ransomware infections. Clicking a link directs users to malicious websites where ransomware is automatically downloaded. Fortunately for organizations attacked with Globe ransomware, a decryptor has been developed by Emisoft, which is available for free download.

However, relatively few ransomware variants have been cracked. Recovery can also take time resulting in considerable disruption to business processes. Ensuring backups of all critical data are regularly made will ensure that files can be recovered without giving in to attackers’ demands.

Preventing malware and ransomware attacks requires multi-layered defenses. Since many infections occur as a result of infected email attachments and links, organizations should employ an advanced spam filtering solution such as SpamTitan. SpamTitan has been independently tested and shown to block 99.97% of spam email. SpamTitan will also block 100% of known malware.

Risk of Spear Phishing Attacks Must Not be Ignored

Research conducted by the anti-phishing training company PhishMe has shown a worrying increase in phishing attacks in 2016 and has highlighted the importance of taking steps to reduce the risk of spear phishing attacks.

Unfortunately, cybercriminals are becoming much more adept at crafting highly convincing spear phishing campaigns. A wide range of social engineering techniques are used to fool employees into responding to the emails and the campaigns are becoming much harder to identify.

Unfortunately responding to these emails can result in email and network credentials being compromised, malware and ransomware being installed on corporate networks, and sensitive data being emailed to the attackers.

The study of phishing attacks in 2016 showed attacks increased by 55% year on year. PhishMe research shows that out of the successful data breaches in 2016, 90% started with a spear phishing email.

In 2016, business email compromise attacks rose by an incredible 1300%, while ransomware attacks increased 400%. Cybercriminals are attacking companies with a vigor never before seen and unfortunately many of those attacks have been successful.

The figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights – which tracks U.S. healthcare data breaches – show that 2016 was the worst ever year on record for healthcare data breaches. At least 323 breaches of more than 500 records occurred in 2016. Undoubtedly many more breaches have yet to be discovered.

Cybercriminals and hackers have employees firmly in their crosshairs. Unfortunately, employees are easy targets. A recent survey conducted by cybersecurity firm Avecto showed that 65% of employees are now wary about clicking on links emailed to them by strangers. Alarmingly, that means 35% are not.

The same survey showed that 68% of respondents have no concerns about clicking on links sent by their friends and colleagues. Given the extent to which email addresses and passwords have been compromised in the last year, this is incredibly worrying. 1 billion Yahoo accounts were breached and 117 million email addresses were compromised as a result of the LinkedIn breach. Gaining access to email accounts is not a problem for cybercriminals. If those accounts are used to send spear-phishing emails, the chance of links being clicked are very high.  Unfortunately, all it takes is for one email account to be compromised for access to a network to be gained.

The risk of spear phishing attacks was clearly demonstrated in 2015 when the largest ever healthcare data breach was discovered. 78.8-million health plan members’ records were stolen from Anthem Inc. That breach occurred as a result of an employee of one of the insurer’s subsidiaries responding to a spear phishing email.

Anthem Inc., is the second largest health insurer in the United States and the company spends many tens of millions of highly complex cybersecurity defenses. Those multi-million dollar defenses were undone with a single email.

Organizations must take steps to reduce the risk of speak phishing attacks. Unfortunately, there is no single solution to eradicate risk. A multi-layered defense strategy is required.

An advanced anti-spam solution is essential to prevent the vast majority of spam and phishing emails from being delivered to end users. SpamTitan for example, blocks 99.97% of spam email and 100% of known malware.

Employees must be trained and their training must be tested with phishing exercises. Practice really does make perfect when it comes to identifying email scams. Endpoint defenses should also be employed, along with anti-virus and antimalware software.

The risk of spear phishing attacks will increase again in 2017. Doing nothing to improve cybersecurity defenses and combat the spear phishing risk could prove to be a very costly mistake.

L.A. County Victim of One of the Largest Phishing Attacks in the United States

Last month, L.a. County reported one of the largest phishing attacks in the United States. A single phishing campaign directed at Los Angeles County employees saw an incredible 108 individuals fall for the scam. Each employee that responded to the campaign inadvertently divulged their email credentials to the attacker. 108 email accounts were compromised as a result of the one phishing campaign.

While it is not known whether the individual behind the campaign successfully retrieved any data from L.A County email accounts, the compromised email accounts were a treasure trove of sensitive information. The email accounts contained the sensitive information of more than 750,000 individuals.

While the announcement of the phishing attack was only made in December, the actual incident occurred on May 13, 2016. In contrast to the phishing and spam email campaigns of old that contained numerous spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and bordered on the unbelievable, this campaign was expertly crafted. The attacker used realistic text and images, hence the reason why such a large number of employees fell for the scam.

Fortunately for L.A. County, the phishing attack was identified promptly – within 24 hours – therefore limiting the damage caused. A detailed forensic investigation revealed that 756,000 individuals had their sensitive information – including Social Security numbers and protected health information- exposed as a result of the attack.

There was further good news. The lengthy investigation confirmed the identity of the attacker, a Nigerian national – Austin Kelvin Onaghinor. A warrant has been issued for his arrest. Bringing that individual to justice may be another matter. Extraditing foreign nationals to the United States can be a difficult and long winded process. However, L.A District Attorney Jackie Lacey has vowed to “aggressively to bring this criminal hacker and others to Los Angeles County, where they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Phishing attacks on this scale are unfortunately not that rare. Cybercriminals are becoming much better at crafting convincing emails and gaining access to corporate email accounts. All too often, the phishing attacks are not identified quickly, giving criminals plenty of time to exfiltrate data from compromised accounts. Many phishing campaigns are conducted to obtain network credentials and other information that can be used to gain a foothold in corporate networks. Once access is gained, all manner of nefarious activities take place.

This L.A. County phishing scam clearly demonstrates that employees are the weakest link in the security chain, which is why cybercriminals are committing more time and effort into phishing attacks. It is far easier to compromise an email account or gain access to a network if an employee provides their login credentials than attempting to find a chink in advanced cybersecurity defenses.

Protecting against phishing attacks requires an advanced spam filtering solution. Without such a solution in place, organizations have to rely on employees identifying emails as malicious. Something which is becoming much harder to do as cybercriminals perfect their social engineering techniques.

Blocking phishing emails and preventing them from being delivered to inboxes is the single-most effective solution to counter the phishing threat. Along with staff anti-phishing training and anti-phishing exercises, organizations can mount a defense against such attacks and avoid the not inconsiderable mitigation costs. Providing credit monitoring and identity theft protection services to 756,000 individuals is a sizeable cost for any organization to absorb.

Improve your Defenses Against Email-Borne Threats in 2017

2016 was a particularly bad year for data breaches. A large number of huge data breaches from years gone by were also discovered in 2016.

The largest breach of 2016 – by some distance – affected Yahoo. The credentials of more than 1 billion users were obtained by the gang behind the attack. A massive cyberattack on MySpace was discovered, with the attackers reportedly obtaining 427 million passwords. 171 million vk.com account details were stolen, including usernames, email addresses, and plaintext passwords. 2016 also saw the discovery of a massive cyberattack on the professional networking platform LinkedIn.  The credentials of more than 117 million users were stolen in the attack. Then there was the 51-million iMesh account hack, and 43 million Last.fm accounts were stolen….to name but a few.

The data stolen in these attacks are now being sold on darknet marketplaces to cybercriminals and are being used to commit a multitude of fraud.

One of the biggest threats for businesses comes from business email compromise (BEC) scams. BEC scams involve an attacker impersonating a company executive or vendor and requesting payment of a missed invoice. The attacker sends an email to a member of the accounts team and requests payment of an invoice by wire transfer, usually for several thousand dollars. All too often, even larger transfers are made. Some companies have lost tens of millions of dollars to BEC fraudsters.

Since the email appears to have been sent from a trusted email account, transfer requests are often not questioned. Cybercriminals also spend a considerable amount of time researching their targets. If access to corporate email accounts is gained, the attackers are able to look at previous emails sent by the targets and copy their writing style.

They learn about how transfer requests are usually emailed, the terms used by each company and executive, how emails are addressed, and the amounts of the transfers that have been made. With this information an attacker can craft convincing emails that are unlikely to arouse suspicion.

The scale of the problem was highlighted earlier this year when the FBI released figures as part of a public awareness campaign in June. The FBI reported that $3.1 billion had been lost as a result of BEC scams. Just four months earlier, the losses were $2.3 billion, clearly showing that the threat was becoming more severe.

This year also saw a huge increase in W-2 scams in the United States. W-2 data is requested from HR departments in a similar manner to the BEC scams. Rather than trying to fool email recipients into making fraudulent transfers, the attackers request W-2 data on employees in order to allow them to file fraudulent tax returns in their names. The IRS issued a warning earlier this following a huge increase in W2 attacks on organizations in the United States.

Companies large and small were targeted, with major attacks conducted on Seagate, Snapchat, Central Concrete Supply Co. Inc, and Mainline Health. Between January and March 2016, 55 major – and successful – W-2 scams were reported to the IRS.

Attackers do not even need email account passwords to conduct these attacks. Email addresses of CEOs and executives can easily be spoofed to make them appear that they have been sent internally. The sheer number of stolen email addresses – and in many cases also passwords – makes the threat of BEC and W-2 attacks even greater. Security experts predict next year will be even tougher for businesses with even more cyberattacks than in 2016.

Improve Your Defenses Against Email-Borne Threats in 2017

Reducing the risk of these attacks requires multi-layered defenses. It is essential that all employees authorized to make corporate bank transfers receive training on email security and are alerted to the risk of BEC scams. Policies should be introduced that require bank transfer requests to be authorized by a supervisor and/or authenticated by phone prior to the transfer being made.

All employees should be instructed to use strong passwords and never to share work passwords anywhere else online. Many employees still use the same password for work as for personal accounts. However, if one online platform is breached, it can give the attackers access to all other platforms where the same password has been used – including corporate email accounts.

Organizations should also implement controls to block phishing and spear phishing attacks. Blocking phishing emails reduces reliance on the effectiveness of anti-phishing training for employees.

SpamTitan is a highly effective tool for blocking malicious spam emails, including phishing and spear phishing emails. SpamTitan uses a range of techniques to identify spam and scam emails including Bayesian analyses, greylisting and blacklists. SpamTitan incorporates robust anti-malware and anti-phishing protection, as well as outbound email scanning to block spam and scams from corporate email accounts. SpamTitan is regularly tested by independent experts and is shown to block 99.97% of spam email with a low false positive rate of just 0.03%.

2016 may have been a particularly bad year for data breaches and the outlook doesn’t look good for 2017, but by taking affirmative action and implementing better defenses against email-borne attacks, you could ensure that your company is not added to the 2017 list of data breach and scam statistics.

How Do Spam Filters Block Spam Email?

How do spam filters block spam email? Spammers are constantly adapting their strategies to bypass spam filters and deliver more malicious messages to corporate users’ inboxes, so how do antispam solutions keep pace and block these annoying and often malicious messages?

Many anti-spam solutions rely on blacklists to identify spammers’ email addresses and IP addresses. Once a spammer’s IP address has been identified, it is added to a global spam blacklist.

Antispam solutions check incoming messages against these blacklists. As soon as an IP address is blacklisted, any email sent from that IP address is automatically marked as spam and will be deleted or quarantined.

Spammers are aware that the lifespan of an email address for spamming is short. As anti-spam solutions have improved, the time delay between an email address being used for spamming and it being added to a global spam blacklist has reduced considerably. Whereas spammers used to be able to use an email address for weeks before it was identified by anti-spam solutions and blacklisted, now the lag has been reduced to days or even hours.

Spammers therefore have a very small window of opportunity to use email addresses and mail servers for spamming before they are detected and blacklisted.

Snowshoe and Hailstorm Spam Tactics to Get Messages to Inboxes

Spammers have attempted to increase the timespan for using email addresses using a number of methods, the most common being conducting snowshoe campaigns. This tactic involves sending out very low numbers of spam email messages from each IP address. If spam email volume is kept low, there is less chance of the IP address being recognized as used for spamming. To ensure sufficient numbers of messages are sent, spammers use millions of IP addresses. Even using this tactic will not allow the spammers to conduct their activities undetected for very long. Spammers therefore need to constantly add new IP addresses to their spamming networks to enable them to continue conducting their campaigns.

Snowshoe tactics are now widely used and the technique is highly effective, although a new tactic has recently been uncovered that is referred to as hailstorm spamming. Hailstorm spam campaigns similarly involve extremely large numbers of IP addresses, yet they are used very briefly and intensely. Rather than trying to stay under the radar, the spammers use those IP addresses to send huge volumes of messages very quickly.

Researchers at Cisco Talos recently analyzed both tactics and determined that the DNS query volume from a typical snowshoe campaign involved around 35 queries an hour. A hailstorm spam campaign involved around 75,000 queries an hour. The snowshoe campaign would continue at that rate for many hours, whereas the hailstorm spam campaign spiked and then fell to next to nothing. Hailstorm campaigns can therefore be used to deliver huge volumes of emails before the IP addresses are added to blacklists.

How do Spam Filters Block Spam Email?

How do spam filters block spam email when these tactics are used? Snowshoe and hailstorm spam campaigns are effective against antispam solutions that rely on blacklists to identify spammers. Only when an IP address is added to a blacklist will the spam email messages be blocked.  Advanced spam solutions offer far greater protection. Blacklist are still used, although a number of other methods of spam detection are employed.

Conducting a Bayesian analysis on all incoming spam email messages greatly reduces the volume of spam email messages that are delivered to end users. A Bayesian analysis involves reading the contents of a message and assessing the words, phrases, headers, message paths, and CSS or HTML contained in the message. While scoring, messages based on content can be effective, Bayesian spam filters also learn as they go. They constantly compare spam emails to legitimate emails and build up the range of spam characteristics that are checked. As spammers change tactics, this is picked up by a Bayesian spam filter and spam messages continue to be filtered.

The use of greylisting is also important in a spam filter. There will be some messages that pass all of the checks and some that monumentally fail. Categorizing these messages as genuine or spam is therefore simple. However, there is a sizeable grey area – messages that could potentially be spam.

If all of these messages are blocked, many genuine emails would not be delivered. If they are all allowed, many spam messages would get through. This would result in poor catch rates or extremely high false positive rates. Greylisting helps in this regard. Suspect messages are returned to the sender’s mail server and a request is made for the message to be resent. Since spammers mail servers are typically constantly busy, these requests are either ignored or they are not dealt with promptly. The time it takes for the message to be resent is therefore a good indicator of whether the message is genuine.

SpamTitan – Keep Your Inboxes Spam Free

SpamTitan uses a range of methods to identify spam emails including blacklists, Bayesian analyses, and greylisting. These checks ensure that more spam emails are identified and blocked, even if IP addresses have yet to be added to spam blacklists. This makes SpamTitan highly effective, even when spammers use snowshoe and hailstorm spamming tactics. By using a range of methods to identify spam emails, spam detection rates are improved and false positives are reduced.

SpamTitan is independently tested every month to determine its effectiveness. SpamTItan is consistently verified as capable of blocking more than 99.97% of spam emails, with a false positive rate below 0.03%.

If you want to find out the difference that SpamTitan makes to the volume of spam messages that are delivered to your employees’ inboxes, why not take advantage of our free, no-obligation 30-day trial. You can implement the solution quickly, evaluate its effectiveness, and you will receive full customer and technical support for the duration of the trial.

To find out more about SpamTitan and the difference it can make to your business, call the TitanHQ sales team today.

Why Should Businesses Perform Outbound Email Scanning?

All antispam solutions and spam filters check inbound messages for common spam signatures; however, it is also important to choose a solution that performs outbound email scanning. Outbound email scanning ensures spam emails, or emails containing malware, are not sent from an organization’s email accounts or domains.

Your employees would be unlikely to knowingly use their corporate email accounts to send spam emails, but malware infections can allow cybercriminals to gain access to email accounts and use them to send high volumes of spam email messages. Cybercriminals could also compromise email accounts and use an organization’s domain to send malware and ransomware to clients and customers.

Should this happen, it can have a seriously detrimental effect on an organization’s reputation and may result in corporate email accounts or an entire domain being blacklisted.

Blacklists are maintained by a number of organizations – spamhaus.org for example. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), web servers, and antispam solutions check these blacklists before allowing emails to be delivered to end users. If a particular IP address, email account, or domain is listed in one of the blacklist databases, emails sent from the domain, IP address or email account will not be delivered.

Blacklists are updated in real-time and contain many millions of blocked domains and email addresses that have been reported as having been used for unwanted activity such as the sending of spam emails. If emails are sent from a blacklisted account, domain, or IP address those emails will either be directed to a quarantine folder, deleted, or will simply be rejected.

If a business has its domain added to a spam blacklist important emails to clients and customers will not get through. This can prove costly, as real estate firm Keller Williams has recently discovered.

Blacklisted Domains and Email Accounts Can Prove Costly for Businesses

Over the past few days, email messages sent from the kw.com domain used by Keller Williams have been rejected by AOL. Yahoo has been blocking emails from the kw.com account for some time. The problem appears to be the addition of the kw.com domain to spam blacklists.

If a Keller Williams real estate agent needs to send an email to a customer who has an AOL or Yahoo account, it will not be delivered. Agents have therefore been forced to get customers to open Google email accounts in order to send online paperwork or documents requiring e-signatures.

The issue also affects online paperwork sent via the transaction management software program Ziplogix, with one Keller Williams agent also claiming Dotloop is also affected. Some agents at Keller Williams have reportedly had to send important paperwork for listings and sales via personal email accounts to ensure emails are delivered.

The AOL website explains that when domains have been flagged as being abusive, the server will be temporarily blocked until the spamming stops. Until a domain is removed from its blacklist, AOL account holders will be prevented from receiving emails from the blocked domain. Removing the domain from the blacklist can take up to a week.

Removing a domain from the 80+ commonly used spam blacklists can be a time-consuming task; furthermore, if spam emails are sent from the account again, the domain will simply be added to the blacklists once more.

Outbound Email Scanning Prevents the Blacklisting of an Organization’s Domain

Unlike many third-party antispam solutions, SpamTitan checks incoming email messages for spam signatures as well as performing outbound email scanning. If an email account has been compromised and is being used to send spam emails, if malware is sending spam, those messages will be blocked and will not be sent. Outbound email scanning is an important protection that will prevent an organization’s domain or email accounts from being used to send spam or malware.

Organizations can therefore avoid the embarrassment and reputation damage that results from being suspected as engaging in spamming or malware delivery. They can also rest assured that in addition to blocking 99.97% of inbound email spam, their domains and email accounts will not be added to spam blacklists.

Holiday Season Malware Infections Increase Again

‘Tis the season to be jolly, although ‘tis also the season to be infected with malware. The holiday season is an annual highlight for cybercriminals. Holiday season malware infections are to be expected as cybercriminals increase their efforts and try to infect as many users with malware as possible.

Malware is an ever-present threat, but the increase in online activity in the run up to the holiday season means easy pickings for cybercriminals. Consumers are starting to prepare for the holidays earlier, but not as early as the scammers. As consumers head online in their droves, scammers and other cybercriminals are lying in wait.

The advent of Black Friday and Cyber Monday – days where shoppers are offered amazing deals to prompt early Christmas purchases– see a frenzy of online activity. There are discounts aplenty and great deals to be had.

However, not all of those discounts are genuine. Many are scams that are used to phish for sensitive information or spread malware infections. As is the case every year, the holiday season sees a spike in malware infections, with the biggest spike over Thanksgiving weekend. This year has been no exception. Holiday season malware infections have increased significantly year on year.

Holiday Season Malware Infections Rise 118% Above Normal Levels

This year, over the first official shopping weekend of the holiday season, malware infections increased by 106% according to data compiled by the Enigma Software Group. On Cyber Monday, when even more great deals on online purchases are made available, malware infections were 118% higher than normal.

Those figures are only for Windows users. Add in smartphones and Apple devices and the figures would be higher still. The problem is also getting worse. Last year there was a spike of 84% over normal levels during the Thanksgiving weekend.

There have been a number of suggestions put forward as to why the figures are so high this year. One of the main reasons is simply due to the number of shoppers heading online. Each year sees more individuals choosing to go online shopping over Thanksgiving weekend. More online shoppers mean more opportunities to infect users with malware.

However, there are also more actors involved in online scams, malware-as-a-service and ransomware-as-a-service has also grown in popularity, and many cybercriminals have started up affiliate schemes to get more help spreading their malicious software. Individuals who succeed in infecting computers with ransomware are given a cut of the profits and there is no shortage of people willing to try the affiliate schemes to boost their own earnings.

Cybercriminals are also getting better at developing convincing scams and malicious email messages. The grammatical and spelling mistakes that were common in phishing emails in years gone by are largely gone. Now, almost perfect emails are sent and scammers are using a wide range of social engineering techniques to lure end users into clicking on malicious links or opening infected email attachments. Spoofed retail sites are also now commonplace – and extremely convincing.

The growth of social media has also helped boost cybercriminal activity. Malicious posts are being shared online offering discounts, special offers, and unmissable deals. However, all end users get is a malware download.

Avoiding a Bad Start to Holiday Season

To avoid becoming a victim of a scam or having to deal with a malware or ransomware infection, shoppers must be vigilant and exercise more caution. Offers that sound too good to be true usually are. Unsolicited emails should always be treated as suspicious and extra care should be taken when clicking on any link or visiting a retail site.

Businesses should also take extra precautions. A malware or ransomware infection can prove extremely costly to resolve. While warnings should be sent to end users about the risks of holiday season malware infections, technological solutions should also be in place to prevent malicious file downloads.

Antispam solutions are highly effective at blocking malicious messages such as phishing emails and emails containing malware. SpamTitan blocks 99.97% of spam messages, contains a powerful anti-phishing module, and blocks 100% of known malware.

Malicious links on social media sites and on third-party ad networks (malvertisting) are a very real risk. However, a web filter can be used to control access to social media sites, block malicious third-party adverts, and prevent end users from visiting websites known to contain malware.

If you want to keep your network free from malware this holiday season, if you have not already used these two solutions, now is the time. They will also help to keep your network malware free around the year. And with security experts predicting a massive increase in ransomware and malware attacks in 2017, there is no better time to start improving your defenses.