Spam News

Our spam news section provides up to date news on the latest threats that are likely to hit the inboxes of your employees. Cybercriminals are constantly changing tactics with new spam email campaigns, different social engineering techniques and new methods of installing malware and ransomware. By keeping up to date on the latest spam news, organizations can take timely action to mitigate risk.

In that regard, a spam filtering solution is essential. All it takes is for one employee to click on a malicious link or open an infected email attachment for an entire network to be compromised. A spam filter will check all incoming email messages and search for common spam signatures in addition to checking senders’ email accounts against blacklists of known spammers. Email attachments will be checked for virus signatures and hyperlinks compared to blacklists of known malicious domains.

Armed with the latest spam news, information security teams can send email alerts to their employees warning of pertinent threats that they need to be aware of.

This section also includes news on industry-specific attacks, in particular those that are being used to target the healthcare, education, financial services, legal and hospitality sectors.

Southern Oregon University Phishing Attack Nets Criminals $1.9 Million

A recent Southern Oregon University phishing attack has clearly demonstrated why so many cybercriminals have chosen phishing as their main source of income.

Hacking an organization takes considerable planning and effort, typically requiring many hours of hard work and a considerable amount of skill. Phishing on the other hand is easy by comparison, requiring little work. Furthermore, the potential profits from phishing can be considerable.

The Southern Oregon University Phishing Attack Required a Single Email

The Southern Oregon University phishing attack involved a single phishing email. The attackers impersonated a construction company – Andersen Construction – that was building a pavilion and student recreation center at the University.

The attackers spoofed the email address of the construction firm and requested all future payments be directed to a different bank account. The university then wired the next payment to the new account in April. The payment was for $1.9 million.

The university discovered the construction firm had not received the funds three days later. The FBI was contacted as soon as the fraud was discovered and efforts are continuing to recover the funds. The university reports that the attackers have not withdrawn all of the funds from their account, although a sizeable chunk is missing. Joe Mosley, a spokesperson for SOU said, “It’s certainly not all of the money that was transferred, but it’s not just nickels and dimes, either.”

In order to pull off a scam such as this, the attackers would need to know that the construction project was taking place and the name of the firm. Such information is not hard to find and universities often have construction projects taking place.

These attacks are known as Business Email Compromise (BEC) scams. They typically involve a contractor’s email account being hacked and used to send an email to a vendor. It is not clear whether the vendors email account had been hacked, but that step may not be required to pull off a phishing attack such as this.

Rise in BEC Attacks Prompts FBI Warning to Universities

In this case, the payment was substantial but it is far from an isolated incident. Last month, the FBI released a public service announcement warning universities of attacks such as this.

The FBI warned that access to a construction firm’s email account is not necessary. All that is required is for the scammer to purchase a similar domain to the one used by the firm. Accounts department employees may check the email address and not notice that there is a letter different.

By the time the university discovered a payment has not been received, the funds have already been cleared from the scammer’s account and cannot be recovered. Payments are commonly of the order of several hundred thousand dollars.

The FBI informed SOU that there have been 78 such attacks in the past year, some of which have been conducted on universities. However, all organizations are at risk from these BEC scams.

The Southern Oregon University phishing attack shows just how easy it can be for scammers to pull off a BEC attack. Protecting against this time of scam requires employees to be vigilant and to exercise extreme caution when requests are made to change bank accounts. Such a request should always be verified by a means other than email. A telephone call to the construction firm could easily have stopped this scam before any transfer was made.

Restaurants Facing Barrage of Fileless Malware Phishing Attacks

Cybercriminals have been conducting fileless malware phishing attacks and restaurants are in the firing line. Restaurants are being singled out as they tend to have relatively poor cybersecurity defenses and criminals can easily gain access to the credit card details of thousands of customers.

The phishing attacks are used to install fileless malware – malware that remains in the memory and does not involve any files being written to the hard drive. Consequently, fileless malware is particularly difficult to detect. By switching to fileless malware, which most static antivirus solutions do not detect, the criminals can operate undetected.

While fileless malware can be short-lived, only existing in the memory until the computer is rebooted, the latest variants are also persistent. The purpose of the malware is to allow the attackers to install a backdoor that provides access to restaurants’ computer systems. They can then steal the financial information of customers undetected.

The latest fileless malware phishing attacks involve RTF files. Researchers at Morphisec detected the campaign, which has been attributed to the hacking group FIN7; a group that has close associations with the Carbanak group.

The attacks start with a well-crafted phishing email, with social engineering methods used to encourage end users to open the attached RTF file. RTF files have been discovered that are restaurant themed, named menu.rtf and relating to orders. Some emails appear to have been written to target specific restaurant chains.

One intercepted phishing email claimed to be a catering order, with the attachment containing a list of the items required. In the email, brief instructions explaining when the order is needed and how to view the list of ordered items. The email was brief, but it was particularly convincing. Many restaurants are likely to be fooled by these fileless malware phishing attacks, with access to systems granted for long periods before detection.

As with other phishing campaigns, the user is prompted to enable the content in the attached file. Opening the RTF file presents the user with a large image that they must click in order to view the contents of the document. The document is expertly crafted, appears professional and suggests the contents of the document are protected. Double clicking on the image and confirming with a click on OK will launch the infection process, running JavaScript code.

FIN7 has recently been conducting attacks on financial institutions, but Morphisec reports that the methodology has changed for the malware attacks on restaurants. DNS queries are used to deliver the shellcode stage of infection, but in contrast to past attacks, the DNS queries are launched from the memory, rather than using PowerShell commands. Since the attack does not involve files being written to the hard drive, it is difficult to detect.

Further, the researchers checked the RTF file against VirusTotal and discovered none of the 56 AV vendors are currently detecting the file as malicious.

Corporate Phishing Emails Increased by 400% in Q2, 2017

Corporate phishing emails are one of the biggest cybersecurity risks faced by organizations. Cybercriminals are well aware that even companies with robust cybersecurity defenses are vulnerable to phishing attacks.

Phishing email volume is higher than at any other time in history. Employees are being targeted with threat actors now using sophisticated social engineering techniques to maximize the probability of employees clicking on links, opening infected email attachments or disclosing their login credentials. If corporate phishing emails are delivered to end users’ inboxes, there is a high chance that at least one employee will be fooled. All it takes is for one employee to click on a malicious link or open an infected attachment for malware to be installed or access to sensitive data be provided.

The threat from phishing attacks has been steadily increasing in recent years, although this year has seen phishing attacks soar. A recent study conducted by Mimecast has shown that cybercriminals have been stepping up their efforts in recent months. Last quarter, there was a 400% increase in corporate phishing emails according to the study.

A phishing trends & intelligence report for Q1, 2017 from the security awareness training firm PhishLabs showed that in the first quarter of 2017, overall phishing email volume increased by 20% compared to the previous quarter. 88% of phishing attacks were concentrated on five industries: payment services, financial institutions, cloud storage/file hosting firms, webmail/online services and e-commerce companies.

The anti-phishing training and phishing simulation platform provider PhishMe also noted a major increase in phishing emails in Q1, 2017. The firm’s Q1, 2017 malware review also showed there had been a 69.2% increase in botnet malware usage in the first quarter of this year.

Business email compromise attacks are also on the rise. Proofpoint’s annual Human Factor report showed BEC email attacks rose from 1% of message volume to 42% of message volume relative to emails bearing Trojans. Those attacks have cost businesses $5 billion worldwide.

These studies clearly show that corporate phishing emails are on the rise, highlighting the need for organizations to improve their defenses. The best defense against phishing emails and ransomware attacks is to ensure messages are intercepted and blocked. It is therefore essential for organizations to implement a robust spam filtering solution to prevent malicious messages from reaching end users’ inboxes.

SpamTitan conducts more than 100 checks of incoming emails, ensuring more than 99.98% of spam and malicious emails are blocked. Dual anti-virus engines are used to ensure 100% of known malware and ransomware is intercepted and prevented from being delivered to end users’ inboxes.

If you have yet to implement an advanced spam filtering solution or you are unhappy with your current provider, contact TitanHQ today to find out more about SpamTitan and how it can be used to protect your business from email attacks. SpamTitan is also available on a no obligation, 30-day free trial, allowing you to try the solution for yourself before committing to a purchase.

MacRansom: A New, Free Ransomware-as-a-Service that Targets Mac Users

Mac users are better protected from ransomware than Windows users, although they now face a new threat: MacRansom. The new ransomware variant may not be particularly advanced, although it is capable of encrypting files.

MacRansom is being offered under a ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) model with the RaaS advertised to cybercriminals on a Tor network portal. In contrast to many RaaS offerings that require payment to be made before the RaaS can be used, the threat actors behind MacRansom are offering the RaaS free of charge.

Any would-be cybercriminal looking to conduct ransomware attacks can email the creators of the ransomware via a secure Protonmail email address and a version of MacRansom will be created according to the user’s specifications.

The authors of MacRansom claim they are professional engineers and security researchers with extensive experience in software development and a thorough understanding of the MacOS. They claim they have previously worked at Yahoo and Facebook.

The authors claim that MacRansom can be installed and will remain invisible to the victim until the scheduled execution time, when it will complete its encryption routine in under a minute. The ransomware variant uses a 128-bit industrial standard encryption algorithm that cannot be beaten unless the ransom is paid. The authors claim the ransomware leaves no digital traces and that it can be scheduled to run at a specific time set by the user. It can even be triggered when an individual plugs in an external drive into an infected machine to maximize the number of files that are encrypted. However, the ransomware is only capable of encrypting a maximum of 128 files.

The Ransomware is capable of checking if it is in a virtual environment, whether it is being debugged or if it has been installed in a non-Mac environment, in which case it will exit.

Security researchers at Fortinet – Rommel Joven and Wayne Chin Low – signed up for the RaaS and obtained a sample, but noted that under some circumstances it may not be possible to decrypt encrypted files even if the ransom is paid. They said, “A remarkable thing we observed when reverse-engineering the encryption/decryption algorithm is that the TargetFileKey is permuted with a random generated number.  In other words, the encrypted files can no longer be decrypted once the malware has terminated.” However, to find out, victims will be required to pay a ransom payment of 0.25 Bitcoin – around $700.

Fortunately, infection requires the victim to run a file with an unidentified developer. They will therefore need to confirm they wish to do that before the file is run. This warning should be sufficient to prevent many end users from proceeding.

University of Alaska Phishing Attack Results in Exposure of 25,000 Individuals’ Data

A University of Alaska phishing attack has potentially resulted in attackers gaining access to the sensitive information of 25,000 staff, students and faculty staff.

The University of Alaska phishing attack occurred in December last year, although affected individuals have only just been notified. The phishing emails were sent to university employees. One or more individuals responded and were fooled into following the threat actors’ instructions.

Details of the exact nature of the phishing emails were not disclosed; however, as with other phishing scams, the emails appeared genuine and looked professional. By responding to the emails, the employees accidentally disclosed their usernames and passwords to the attackers. The attack resulted in ‘several’ email accounts being compromised.

The emails in the compromised accounts contained a range of sensitive information including names and Social Security numbers. In total, around 25,000 staff, students and faculty members had their information exposed.

The investigation into the University of Alaska phishing attack could not confirm whether any of the emails in the accounts were accessed or if information was copied by the attackers, although it remains a distinct possibility.

Due to the sensitive nature of data in the accounts, the University of Alaska had to inform all affected individuals by mail and offer credit monitoring and identity theft protection services. Victims will also be protected by a $1 million identity theft insurance policy.

A forensic analysis had to be conducted to determine the exact nature of the attack and which individuals had been affected – A process that took around 5 months. Staff had to be provided with additional training to improve awareness of credential phishing scams and were retrained correct handling of sensitive information. The notifications and mitigations came at a considerable cost.

The University of Alaska phishing attack was just one of many phishing attacks that have taken place in the United States over the past few months. The phishing attacks all have a common denominator. Employees were targeted, phishing emails reached inboxes, and end users followed the instructions in the emails.

Training staff to be aware of the threat of phishing can reduce susceptibility, although training did not prevent the University of Alaska phishing attack.

Even after receiving security awareness training, employees can make mistakes. A technology solution should therefore be implemented to stop phishing emails from being delivered to end users’ inboxes.

SpamTitan from TitanHQ offers excellent protection against phishing attacks, blocking more than 99.9% of spam, phishing emails and other malicious messages. SpamTitan is quick and easy to install, cost effective to implement and easy to maintain.

With SpamTitan installed, organizations can protect themselves against phishing attacks and avoid the considerable cost of data breaches.

For more information on SpamTitan and other TitanHQ security products, contact the sales team today and take the first step toward improving your defences against phishing attacks.

Beware of WannaCry Phishing Emails

Cybercriminals have started sending WannaCry phishing emails, taking advantage of the fear surrounding the global network worm attacks.

An email campaign has been identified in the United Kingdom, with BT customers being targeted. The attackers have spoofed BT domains and made their WannaCry phishing emails look extremely realistic. BT branding is used, the emails are well written and they claim to have been sent from Libby Barr, Managing Director, Customer Care at BT. A quick check of her name on Google will reveal she is who she claims to be. The WannaCry phishing emails are convincing, cleverly put together, and are likely to fool many customers.

The emails claim that BT is working on improving its security in the wake of the massive ransomware campaign that affected more than 300,000 computers in 150 countries on May 12, 2017. In the UK, 20% of NHS Trusts were affected by the incident and had data encrypted and services majorly disrupted by the ransomware attacks. It would be extremely hard if you live in the UK to have avoided the news of the attacks and the extent of the damage they have caused.

The WannaCry phishing emails provide a very good reason for taking prompt action. BT is offering a security upgrade to prevent its customers from being affected by the attacks. The emails claim that in order to keep customers’ sensitive information secure, access to certain features have been disabled on BT accounts. Customers are told that to restore their full BT account functionality they need to confirm the security upgrade by clicking on the upgrade box contained in the email.

Of course, clicking on the link will not result in a security upgrade being applied. Customers are required to disclose their login credentials to the attackers.

Other WannaCry phishing emails are likely to be sent claiming to be from other broadband service providers. Similar campaigns could be used to silently download malware or ransomware.

Cybercriminals often take advantage of global news events that are attracting a lot of media interest. During the Olympics there were many Olympic themed spam emails. Phishing emails were also rife during the U.S. presidential elections, the World Cup, the Zika Virus epidemic, and following every major news event.

The golden rule is never to click on links sent in email from individuals you do not know, be extremely careful about clicking links from people you do know, and assume that any email you receive could be a phishing email or other malicious message.

A single phishing email sent to an employee can result in a data breach, email or network compromise. It is therefore important for employers to take precautions. Employees should be provided with phishing awareness training and taught the tell-tale signs that emails are not genuine.  It is also essential that an advanced spam filtering solution is employed to prevent the vast majority of phishing emails from reaching end users inboxes.

On that front, TitanHQ is here to help. Contact the team today to find out how SpamTitan can protect your business from phishing, malware and ransomware attacks.

Jaff Ransomware: A New Variant from the Distributors of Locky

A new encryptor – Jaff ransomware – could be heading your way via email. Jaff ransomware is being distributed by the individuals responsible for distributing the Dridex banking Trojan and Locky ransomware. The gang has also previously used Bart ransomware to encrypt files in an attempt to extort money from businesses.

In contrast to Locky and many other ransomware variants, the individuals behind Jaff ransomware are seeking a huge ransom payment to unlock files, suggesting the new variant will be used to target businesses rather than individuals. The ransom demand per infected machine is 1.79 Bitcoin – around $3,300. The WannaCry ransomware variant only required a payment of $300 per infected machine.

The distributors have used exploit kits in the past to spread infections, although spam email is used for the latest campaign. Whether that will remain the only distribution mechanism remains to be seen. Millions of spam email messages have already sent via the Necurs botnet, according to Proofpoint researchers who identified the new encryptor.

The emails have a PDF file attachment rather than a Word document. Those PDF files contain embedded Word documents with macros that will download the malicious payload. This method of distribution has been seen with Locky ransomware in recent weeks.

The change in file attachment is believed to be an attempt to get users to open the attachments. There has been a lot of publicity about malicious Word documents attached to emails from unknown senders. The change could see more end users open the attachments and infect their devices.

Opening the PDF file will present the user with a screen advising them that the contents of the document are protected. They are prompted to ‘enable editing’ by ignoring the security warning and enabling macros. Enabling macros will result in infection. Jaff ransomware will then search for and encrypt a wide range of file types including images and multimedia files, databases, office documents and backups.

There is no known decryptor for Jaff ransomware. Recovery will depend on a viable backup existing that has not been encrypted by the ransomware. The alternatives are to pay the sizable ransom payment or permanently lose files.

To protect against the threat, an advanced spam filtering solution should be implemented to prevent the emails from reaching end users’ inboxes. As a failsafe, employees should be warned about the threat of ransomware and instructed not to open any file attachments from unknown senders. They should also be alerted to the threat from PDF files containing embedded word documents.

Who Conducted the WannaCry Ransomware Attacks? Link Found to North Korea

Who Conducted the WannaCry Ransomware Attacks?

The WannaCry ransomware attacks that started on Friday May 12 rapidly spread to more than 150 countries. While the attacks have been halted, IT security professionals are still scrambling to secure their systems and the search is now on for the perpetrators.

Malware researchers are analyzing the ransomware code and attack method to try to find clues that will reveal who conducted the WannaCry ransomware attacks.

At this stage in the investigation, no concrete evidence has been uncovered that links the attacks to any individual or hacking group, although a Google security researcher, Neel Mehta, has found a possible link to the Lazarus Group; a hacking organization believed to be based in China with links to North Korea.

The Lazarus Group is thought to be behind the attack on Sony Pictures in 2014 and the major heist on the Bangladesh central bank in February this year. While the link between the Lazarus Group and North Korea has not been comprehensively proven, the U.S. government is sure the group has been backed by North Korea in the past.

WannaCry Ransomware Code has been Reused

Mehta discovered parts of the ransomware code from the latest attacks were the same as code in a 2015 backdoor used by the Lazarus Group, suggesting the WannaCry ransomware attacks were conducted either by the Lazarus Group or by someone who has access to the same code.

Mehta also compared the code from the latest WannaCry ransomware variant and the backdoor to an earlier version of WannaCry ransomware from February and found code had been shared between all three. Symantec’s researchers have confirmed the code similarities.

Whether the Lazarus Group conducted the attacks is far from proven, and there is no evidence to suggest that were that to be the case, that the group had any backing from North Korea. The group could have been acting independently.

While some have called this link ‘strong evidence’, it should be explained that comparing code between malware samples does not confirm origin. Code is often reused and it is possible that the actors behind this campaign may have put in a false flag to divert attention from themselves onto the Lazarus Group and North Korea.

While the false flag idea is possible and plausible, Kaspersky Lab believes it is improbable and that the similarities in the source code point the finger of blame at the Lazarus Group.

Many Questions Remain Unanswered

The link with the Lazarus Group/North Korea is now being investigated further, but there are currently many questions unanswered.

The ransomware included a self-replicating function making it act like a worm, allowing it to rapidly spread to all vulnerable computers on a network. The sophistication of the attack suggests it was the work of a highly capable organization rather than an individual. However, the kill switch in the ransomware that was discovered by UK researcher ‘Malware Tech,’ allowed the infections to be halted. Such an ‘easily found’ kill switch would be atypical of such a sophisticated hacking group.

Previous attacks linked with the Lazarus Group have also been highly targeted. The WannaCry ransomware attacks over the weekend were purposely conducted in multiple countries, including China and Russia. The widespread nature of the attacks would be a departure from the typical attack methods used by Lazarus.

There are doubts as to whether North Korea would back an attack on its neighbours and allies, and while financially motivated attacks cannot be ruled out, past state-sponsored attacks have had a political purpose.

At this stage, it is not possible to tell who conducted the WannaCry ransomware attacks, but the latest discovery is an important clue as to who may be responsible.

WannaCry Ransomware Campaign Claims Victims in 150 Countries

On Friday May 12, a massive WannaCry ransomware campaign was launched, with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) one of the early victims. The ransomware attack resulted in scores of NHS Trusts having data encrypted, with the infection rapidly spreading to networked devices. Those attacks continued, with 61 NHS Trusts now known to have been affected. Operations were cancelled and doctors were forced to resort to pen and paper while IT teams worked around the clock to bring their systems back online.

Just a few hours after the first reports of the WannaCry ransomware attacks emerged, the scale of the problem became apparent. The WannaCry ransomware campaign was claiming tens of thousands of victims around the world. By Saturday morning, Avast issued a statement confirming there had been more than 57,000 attacks reported in 100 countries. Now the total has increased to more than 200,000 attacks in 150 countries. While the attacks appear to now be slowing, security experts are concerned that further attacks will take place this week.

So far, in addition to the NHS, victims include the Spanish Telecoms operator Telefonica, Germany’s rail network Deutsche Bahn, the Russian Interior ministry, Renault in France, U.S. logistics firm FedEx, Nissan and Hitachi in Japan and multiple universities in China.

The WannaCry ransomware campaign is the largest ever ransomware attack conducted, although it does not appear that many ransoms have been paid yet. The BBC reports that the WannaCry ransomware campaign has already resulted in $38,000 in ransom payments being generated. That total is certain to rise over the next few days. WannaCry ransomware decryption costs $300 per infected device with no free decryptor available. The ransom amount is set to double in 3 days if payment is not made. The attackers threaten to delete the decryption keys if payment is not made within 7 days of infection.

Ransomware attacks usually involve malware downloaders sent via spam email. If emails make it past anti-spam solutions and are opened by end users, the ransomware is downloaded and starts encrypting files. WannaCry ransomware has been spread in this fashion, with emails containing links to malicious Dropbox URLs. However, the latest WannaCry ransomware campaign leverages a vulnerability in Server Message Block 1.0 (SMBv1). The exploit for the vulnerability – known as ETERNALBLUE – has been packaged with a self-replicating payload which can spread rapidly to all networked devices. The vulnerability is not a new zero day however. In fact, Microsoft patched the vulnerability in its MS17-010 security bulletin almost two months ago. The problem is many organizations have not installed the update and are vulnerable to attack.

The ETERNALBLUE exploit was reportedly stolen from the National Security Agency by Shadow Brokers, a cybercriminal gang with links to Russia. ETERNALBLUE was allegedly developed as a hacking weapon to gain access to Windows computers used by enemy states and terrorists. Shadow Brokers managed to steal the tool and published the exploit online in mid-April. While it is not known whether Shadows Brokers is behind the attack, the publication of the exploit allowed the attacks to take place.

The exploit allows the attackers to drop files on a vulnerable system, with that file then executed as a service. The dropped file then downloads WannaCry ransomware, which searches for other available networked devices. The infection spreads before files are encrypted. Any unpatched device with port 445 open is vulnerable.

The WannaCry ransomware campaign would have resulted in far more infections had it not been for the actions of a security researcher in the UK. The researcher –@MalwareTechBlog – found a kill switch to prevent encryption. The ransomware attempts to communicate with a specific domain. If communication is possible, the ransomware does not proceed with encryption. If the domain cannot be contacted, files are encrypted.

@MalwareTechBlog discovered the reference to the nonsense domain, saw that it was unregistered and bought it. By doing so, the ransomware attack was thwarted. The domain checking mechanism was presumably added to prevent the ransomware from running in a sandbox environment.

However, a new version of the ransomware without the kill switch has reportedly already been released, which could see the victim count increase substantially over the next few days. Organizations that have not applied Microsoft’s patch are advised to do so as a priority to block the attack.

The massive ransomware attack should serve as reminder to all organizations of the importance of applying patches promptly. That will be a particularly painful reminder for many organizations that fell victim to this preventable ransomware attack.

Sabre Corporation Data Breach: PII and Payment Card Data Potentially Exposed

A Sabre Corporation data breach has potentially resulted in the theft of credit card details and PII from the SynXis Hospitality Solutions reservation system. The Sabre Corporation data breach was acknowledged in Sabre Corp’s Q2 10-Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Few details about the security incident have been released as the incident is currently under investigation.

What is known is the incident affects SynXis, a cloud-based SaaS used by more than 36,000 independent hotels and global hotel chains. The system allows employees to check room availability, pricing and process bookings.

Sabre Corporation recently discovered an unauthorized third party gained access to the system and potentially viewed the data of a subset of Sabre Corp’s hotel clients. Information potentially compromised as a result of the Sabre Corporation data breach includes the personally identifiable information and payment card information of hotel guests.

At this stage, Sabre Corporation is still investigating the breach and has not disclosed how the individual gained access to the payment system or when access was first gained. Sabre Corp is currently trying to determine exactly how many individuals have been affected, although affected companies have now been notified of the incident.

Sabre Corp has confirmed that the security breach only affected its SynXis Central Reservations system and unauthorized access has now been blocked. Law enforcement has been alerted to the incident and cybersecurity firm Mandiant contracted to conduct a full forensic investigation of its systems.

The Sabre Corporation data breach is the latest in a string of cyberattacks on hotel chains. Hyatt Hotels Corp, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, Omni Hotels & Resorts, Trump Hotels, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hotels, HEI Hotels & Resorts and InterContinental Hotels Group have all experienced data breaches in recent months that have resulted in the attackers gaining access to their card payment systems.

While the method used to gain access to Sabre’s system is not yet known, similar cyberattacks on hotel reservation and payment systems have involved malware and compromised login credentials.

If malware is installed on systems it can be used to monitor keystrokes and record login credentials. The sharing of login credentials and poor choices of passwords can also allow attackers to gain access to login credentials.

To protect against cyberattacks, hotels and their contracted SaaS providers should use layered defences including multiple systems to prevent the downloading of malware and multi-factor authentication to reduce the risk from compromised login credentials being used to gain access to POS systems.

Web filters should be used to control employees’ Internet access and downloads, an antispam solution used to prevent malicious emails from reaching end users’ inboxes and anti-virus and anti-malware solutions should be kept up to date and set to scan networks regularly.

Organizations in the hospitality sector must also ensure they have the basics correct, such as changing default passwords, using strong passwords and employing good patch management policies.

IC3 Issues Warning About Business Email Compromise Scams

The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has issued a new alert to businesses warning of the risk of business email compromise scams.

The businesses most at risk are those that deal with international suppliers as well as those that frequently perform wire transfers. However, businesses that only issue checks instead of sending wire transfers are also at risk of this type of cyberattack.

In contrast to phishing scams where the attacker makes emails appear as if they have come from within the company by spoofing an email address, business email compromise scams require a corporate email account to be accessed by the attackers.

Once access to an email account is gained, the attacker crafts an email and sends it to an individual responsible for making wire transfers, issuing other payments, or an individual that has access to employees PII/W-2 forms and requests a bank transfer or sensitive data.

The attackers often copy the format of emails previously sent to the billing/accounts department. This information can easily be gained from the compromised email account. They are also able to easily identify the person within the company who should be sent the request.

Not all business email compromise scams are concerned with fraudulent bank transfers. IC3 warns that the same scam is also used to obtain the W-2 tax statements of employees, as has been seen on numerous occasions during this year’s tax season.

Phishing scams are often sent out randomly in the hope that some individuals click on malicious links or open infected email attachments. However, business email compromise scams involve considerable research on the company to select victims and to identify appropriate protocols used by the company to make transfer requests.

Business email compromise scams often start with phishing emails. Phishing is used to get end users to reveal their login credentials or other sensitive information that can be used to gain access to business networks and perform the scam. Malware can also be used for this purpose. Emails are sent with links to malicious websites or with infected email attachments. Opening the attachments or clicking on the links downloads malware capable of logging keystrokes or provides the attackers with a foothold in the network.

IC3 warns that business email compromise scams are a major threat for all businesses, regardless of their size. Just because your business is small, it doesn’t mean that you face a low risk of attack.

Between January 2015 and December 2016, IC3 notes there was a 2,370% increase in BEC scams. While funds are most commonly sent to bank accounts in China and Hong Kong, IC3 says transfers have been made to 103 countries in the past two years.

The losses reported by businesses are staggering. Between October 2013 and December 2016, more than $5 billion has been obtained by cybercriminals. United States businesses have lost $1,594,503,669 in more than 22,000 successful scams. The average loss is $71,528.

IC3 lists the five most common types of business email compromise scams as:

  1. Businesses receiving requests from frequently used suppliers requesting transfers be made to a new bank account.This is also known as a bogus invoice scam.
  2. An executive within the company (CFO or CTO for example) requests a transfer be made by a second employee in the company. This is also known as a business executive scam.
  3. A compromised email account is used to send a payment request/invoice to a vendor in the employees contact list.
  4. The attackers impersonate an attorney used by the firm and request the transfer of funds. These scams are common at the end of the week or end of the business day. They are also known as Friday afternoon scams.
  5. A request is sent from a compromised email account to a member of the HR department requesting information on employees such as W-2 Forms or PII. These scams are most common during tax season.

There are a number of strategies that can be adopted to prevent business email compromise attacks from being successful.

IC3 recommends:

  • Using a domain-based email account rather than a web-based account for business email accounts
  • Exercising caution about the information posted to social media accounts. This is where the attackers do much of their research
  • Implement a two-step verification process to validate all transfer requests
  • Use two-factor authentication for corporate email accounts
  • Never respond to an email using the reply option. Always use forward and type in the address manually
  • Register all domains that are similar to the main domain used by the company
  • Use intrusion detection systems and spam filters that quarantine or flag emails that have been sent with extensions similar to those used by the company – Blocking emails sent from xxx_company.com if the company uses xxx-company.com for example
  • Be wary of any request that seems out of the ordinary or requires a change to the bank account usually used for transfers

Millions Affected by Google Phishing Scam

A Google phishing scam has been spreading like wildfire over the past couple of days. Emails have been sent in the millions inviting people to edit Google Docs files. The emails appear to have been sent by known individuals, increasing the likelihood of the messages being opened and the links being clicked.

In contrast to many email scams that include a link to a spoofed website, this scam directs the recipient to Google Docs. When the user arrives at the site they will be presented with a legitimate Google sign-in screen.

The Google phishing scam works within the Google platform, taking advantage of the fact that individuals can create a third-party app and give it a misleading name. In this case, the app has been named ‘Google Docs.’

This makes it appear that Google Docs is asking for permission to read, send, delete, and manage emails and access the user’s contacts. However, it is the creator of the app that is asking to be granted those permissions. If users check the developer name, they will see that all is not as it seems. Many individuals will not check, since the permission screen also includes Google logos.

Signing in will give the attacker access to the user’s Google account, including their emails, Google Docs files, and contact list. Further, signing in on the website will also result in the victim’s contact list being sent similar invitations. Unsurprisingly, many have fallen for the Google phishing scam and countless emails are still circulating.

The scam appears to have started at some point on Wednesday. Google has now issued an official statement saying it is taking action to protect users and has disabled the accounts that are being used to conduct the scam.

Google confirmed the actions it has taken in response to the phishing scam, saying “We’ve removed the fake pages, pushed updates through Safe Browsing, and our abuse team is working to prevent this kind of spoofing from happening again. We encourage users to report phishing emails in Gmail.”

Anyone who receives a request to edit a Google Doc should treat the request with suspicion, even if it has been sent from someone known to the recipient.

If you think you may have fallen for this phishing scam it is likely that emails will already have been generated and sent to your contacts. However, you can take action to block the threat by revoking the access rights you have given to the app through the Connected Apps and Sites page.

The Google phishing scam is highly convincing and clearly shows how sophisticated cybercriminals are getting in their attempts to gain access to sensitive information and why it is imperative that email users be permanently on their guard.

58% of UK Office Workers Open Email Attachments from Unknown Senders

Training employees on basic cybersecurity is essential. Conventional cybersecurity solutions such as antivirus software are no longer as effective at blocking threats as they once were and employees are targeted by cybercriminals.

Cybercriminals are well aware that employees are easy to fool. Social engineering techniques are used to create highly convincing phishing scams. Those emails contain images of well-known brands and text that would not look out of place in an official communication. Believable reasons are given for the need to disclose login credentials, click on hyperlinks or open email attachments. The emails are effective.

Email is now the number one attack vector for cybercriminals and the biggest cybersecurity threat for businesses.

Employees Still Lack Security Awareness

Even though the threat from phishing has been widely reported in the media, many employees still take major security risks at work.

A recent survey conducted by Glassdoor on UK office workers highlights how serious the risk of email cyberattacks is. 1,000 office workers from mid to large-sized businesses in the UK were asked questions about cybersecurity. 58% of respondents said they usually opened email attachments sent from unknown individuals.

Cybercriminals often mask email addresses to make the emails appear as if they have been sent from someone in the recipient’s contact list. Those tactics are even more effective at getting an end user to take the desired action – clicking on a hyperlink or opening an email attachment. The former directs the end user to a malicious website where malware is silently downloaded. Opening the email attachment results in code being run that downloads a malicious payload.

When asked how often email attachments from known senders were opened, 83% of respondents said they always or usually opened email attachments. Office workers were also asked whether their organization had experienced a cyberattack. 34% of respondents said it had.

How often are malicious emails getting past organizations security defenses? 76% of respondents said suspicious emails had been sent to their work email inboxes.

The survey suggests cybersecurity training is either not being conducted or that it is in effective and email security solutions are not in place or have not been configured correctly.

20% of respondents said their organization had no policy on email attachments, or if it did, it had not been communicated to them. 58% said they would feel much safer if their organization had the appropriate technology in place to protect them from email attacks.

How to Improve Defenses Against Email Attacks

Organizations must ensure appropriate technology is in place to block malicious emails and that employee cybersecurity training programs are developed to raise awareness of the risks of cyberattacks via email.

Policies should be developed – and communicated to staff – covering email attachments and hyperlinks. If staff are unaware of the risks, they cannot be expected to be able to identify an email as suspicious and take the appropriate action. It must also be made clear to employees what actions should be taken if suspicious emails are received.

Cybersecurity training programs should also be evaluated. If those programs are not tested, employers will not know how effective their training is. Sending dummy phishing emails is a good way to determine whether training programs are effective.

A powerful spam filtering and anti-phishing solution should also be employed to prevent malicious emails from reaching end users’ inboxes. SpamTitan, for instance, is an advanced antispam solution for SMEs that blocks over 99.7% of spam emails and 100% of known malware. By preventing malicious emails from reaching end users’ inboxes, employee cybersecurity training will not be put to the test.

Healthcare Ransomware Attacks Accounted for 50% of All Security Incidents

Hackers are continuing to attack healthcare organizations, but healthcare ransomware attacks are the biggest cause of security incidents, according to the NTT Security 2017 Global Threat Intelligence Report.

Healthcare ransomware attacks accounted for 50% of all security breaches reported by healthcare organizations between October 2015 and September 2016 and are the largest single cause of security breaches.

However, healthcare is far from the only sector to be targeted. Retail, government, and the business & professional services sector have also suffered many ransomware attacks during the same period. Those four sectors accounted for 77% of global ransomware attacks. The worst affected sector was business & professional services, with 28% of reported ransomware attacks, followed by the government (19%), healthcare (15%) and retail (15%).

NTT Security reports that phishing emails are the most common mechanism for ransomware delivery, being used in 73% of ransomware and malware attacks. Poor choices of password are also commonly exploited to gain access to networks and email accounts. NTT says just 25 passwords were used in 33% of all authentication attempts on its honeypots, while 76% of authentication attempts used a password known to have been implemented in the Mirai botnet.

Zero-day exploits tend to attract considerable media attention, but they are used in relatively few attacks. Web-based attacks have fallen but they still pose a significant threat. The most commonly attacked products were Microsoft Internet Explorer, Adobe Flash Player, and Microsoft Silverlight. Exploit kit activity has fallen throughout the year as cybercriminals have turned to phishing emails to spread malware and ransomware. There was a steady decline in exploit kit attacks throughout the year.

With phishing posing the highest risk, it is essential that organizations ensure they have adequate defenses in place. Phishing attacks are sophisticated and hard to distinguish from genuine emails. Security awareness training is important, but training alone will not prevent some attacks from being successful. It is also important to ensure that training is not just a one time exercise. Regular training sessions should be conducted, highlighting the latest tactics used by cybercriminals and recent threats.

The best form of defense against phishing attacks is to use anti-phishing technologies such as spam filters to prevent phishing emails from reaching end users. The more phishing emails that are blocked, the less reliance organizations place on end users being able to identify phishing emails. Solutions should also be implemented to block users from visiting phishing websites via hyperlinks sent via email.

Web-Based Attacks Fall: Ransomware Attacks on Businesses Soar

There was some good news in the latest installment of the Symantec Internet Security Threat Report. Web-based attacks have fallen year on year, but ransomware attacks on businesses have sky rocketed. Sabotage and subversion attacks have also risen sharply in the past 12 months.

The Internet Security Threat Report shows that exploit kit and other web-based attacks fell by 30% in 2016, but over the same period, ransomware attacks on businesses increased by 36%.

Ransomware has proved popular with cybercriminals as attacks are easy to perform and money can be made quickly. If an attacker succeeds in encrypting business data, a ransom must be paid within a few days. In the United States, where the majority of ransomware attacks occur, 64% of businesses pay the ransom.

Web-based attacks on the other hand typically take longer and require considerably more technical skill. Cybercriminals must create and host a malicious site and direct end users to the site. Once malware has been downloaded, the attackers must move laterally within the network and find and exfiltrate sensitive data. The data must then be sold.

Ransomware attacks on businesses are far easier to conduct, especially using ransomware-as-a-service. All that is required is for criminals to pay to rent the ransomware, set their own terms, and distribute the malware via spam email. Many ransomware authors even provide kits with instructions on how to customize the ransomware and conduct campaigns. The appeal of ransomware is clear. It is quick, easy and profitable to conduct attacks.

The Symantec Internet Security Threat Report charts the rise in popularity of ransomware. Symantec detected 101 separate ransomware families in 2016. In 2014 and 2015 the count was just 30. Symantec’s ransomware detections increased from 340,665 in 2015 to 463,841 in 2016. Ransomware as a service has played a major role in the increase in attacks.

Ransom demands have also increased in the past year. In 2015, the average ransom demand was $294 per infected device. In 2016, the average ransomware demand had increased to $1,077.

Fortunately, good data backup policies will ensure businesses do not have to pay to unlock their data. Unfortunately, even if data can be recovered from backups, ransomware attacks on businesses are costly to resolve. Cybersecurity firms need to be hired to conduct analyses of networks to ensure all traces of ransomware (and other malware) have been removed. Those firms must also check to make sure no backdoors have been installed.

Ransomware attacks on businesses typically see computers locked for several days, causing considerable loss of revenue for companies. Customer breach notifications may also need to be issued. Ransomware attacks can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to resolve, even if no ransom is paid.

Since ransomware is primarily distributed via spam email, businesses need to ensure they have appropriate email defenses in place. An advanced spam filter with an anti-phishing component is essential, along with other endpoint protection systems.

Symantec’s figures show that spam email volume has remained constant year on year, with spam accounting for 53% of email volume in 2016.

In 2016, one in 2,596 emails involved a phishing component, down from one in 965 in 2014. Phishing attacks may be down, but malware attacks increased over the same period.

Malware-infected email attachments and malicious links to malware-infected websites accounted for one in every 131 emails in 2016, up from 1 in 220 in 2015 and 1 in 244 in 2014. In 2016, 357 million new malware variants were detected, up from 275 million in 2014.

The decline in web-based attacks is certainly good news, but it doesn’t mean the threat can be ignored. Last year there were 229,000 web-based attacks tracked by Symantec. While that is a considerable decrease from the previous year, web-based attacks still pose a significant threat to businesses.

Web-based attacks could also increase this year. The Symantec Internet Security Threat Report indicates 9% of websites have critical bugs that could be easily exploited by cybercriminals allowing them to hijack the websites. Worryingly, Symantec reports that 76% of websites contain bugs that could potentially be exploited.

The Symantec Internet Security Threat Report shows data breaches have remained fairly constant over the past two years. In 2014, widely reported to be ‘the year of the data breach’, Symantec recorded 1,523 data breaches. The following year that fell to 1,211 breaches. Last year, there was little change, with 1,209 breaches reported.

The halt in the rise in data breaches suggests organizations are getting better at protecting their networks and data. However, large data breaches are increasing. Last year there were 15 data breaches that involved the theft of more than 10 million records, up from 11 in 2014.

Protecting against data breaches and cyberattacks requires comprehensive, multi-layered security defenses. TitanHQ offers a range of cybersecurity solutions for SMEs to help them improve their security posture and protect against web-based and email-based security threats.

For more information on how you can improve your security posture, contact the TitanHQ team today.

Cerber Becomes the Biggest Ransomware Threat

2017 was the year when Locky Ransomware first arrived on the scene, with the ransomware variant fast becoming the biggest ransomware threat. Locky infections rose rapidly following its release in February and continued to rise in the first half of the year. The ransomware variant was initially installed via exploit kits, although as exploit kit activity fell, the developers switched to spam email as the primary attack vector.

As 2016 progressed, Locky activity declined. While Locky infections continue, it is no longer the biggest ransomware threat. Locky now accounts for just 2% of infections. A new report from Malwarebytes has revealed that the biggest ransomware threat – by some distance – is Cerber ransomware.

Cerber ransomware is now behind 90% of all global ransomware infections, with those attacks performed using many different variants of the ransomware. Cerber has even surpassed TeslaCrypt; a previously highly prevalent ransomware variant that dominated attacks in 2015 and early 2016. At the start of 2017, Cerber’s ‘market share’ stood at 70%, although that increased to 90% by the end of Q3.

The secret of the success of Cerber lies not only in the sophistication of the ransomware, but how it is being used and distributed. Cerber ransomware has become the biggest ransomware threat because it is not only the authors that are using it to attack organizations. There is now an army of affiliates using the ransomware. Those affiliates do not need programming experience and neither much in the way of technical skill. Their role is simple. They are simply distributors who get a cut of the profits for any ransoms they manage to generate.

Ransom payments are likely with Cerber infections. There is no decryptor for the ransomware as no flaws have been discovered. Files locked by Cerber cannot be unlocked without the decryption keys, and only the attackers have access to those. The encryption used is of military-grade, says Malwarebytes. Further, a computer does not even need to be connected to the Internet in order for files to be encrypted. The latest variants also include a host of new defenses to prevent detection and analysis.

The primary attack vector used is email. Cerber is distributed in spam email, with infection occurring when a user opens an infected email attachment. That triggers the downloading of Cerber from the attacker’s Dropbox account.

With the new defenses put in place by its authors and no shortage of affiliates signing up to use the ransomware-as-a-service, Cerber looks set to remain the main ransomware threat throughout Q2. Attacks will continue and likely increase, and new variants will almost certainly be released.

All organizations can do is to improve their defenses against attack. Cybersecurity solutions should be employed to prevent spam emails from being delivered to end users. Staff should be trained how to identify malicious emails and not to open email attachments sent from unknown senders. Organizations should also use security tools to detect endpoint infections.

Since even with advanced security defenses infections are still possible, it is essential that all data are backed up and those backups tested to ensure they will allow encrypted data to be recovered.

Phishing Attacks on Schools Spike – Is Your School Doing Enough to Prevent Attacks?

In the United States, phishing attacks on schools and higher education institutions have soared in recent months, highlighting the need for improvements to be made to staff education programs and cybersecurity defenses.

Phishing refers to the practice of sending emails in an attempt to get the recipients to reveal sensitive information such as logins to email accounts, bank accounts, or other computer systems.  Typically, a link is included in the email which will direct the user to a website where information must be entered. The sites, as well as the emails, contain information to make the request look genuine.

Phishing is nothing new. It has been around since the 1980’s, but the extent to which sensitive information is stored electronically and the number of transactions that are now conducted online has made attacks much more profitable for cybercriminals. Consequently, attacks have increased. The quality of phishing emails has also improved immeasurably. Phishing emails are now becoming much harder to identify, especially by non-technical members of staff.

No organization is immune to attack, but attackers are no longer concentrating on financial institutions and healthcare organizations. The education sector is now being extensively targeted. Phishing attacks on schools are being conducted far more frequently, and all too often those attacks are succeeding.

Such is the scale of the problem that the IRS recently issued a warning following a massive rise in phishing attacks on schools. Campaigns were being conducted by attackers looking for W-2 Form data of school employees. That information was then used to submit fraudulent tax returns in school employees’ names.

Recent Phishing Attacks on Schools, Colleges, and Universities

Westminster College is one of the latest educational institutions to report that an employee has fallen for the W-2 Form phishing scam, although it numbers in dozens of schools, colleges and universities that have been attacked this year.

Phishing emails are not only concerned with obtaining tax information. Recently, a phishing attack on Denver Public Schools gave the attackers the information they needed to make a fraudulent bank transfer. More than $40,000 intended to pay staff wages was transferred to the criminal’s account.

This week, news emerged of a listing on a darknet noticeboard from a hacker who had gained access to school email accounts, teacher’s gradebooks, and the personal information of thousands of students. That individual was looking for advice on what to do with the data and access in order to make money.

Washington University School of Medicine was targeted in a phishing attack that saw the attackers gain access to patient health information. More than 80,000 patients potentially had their health information stolen as a result of that attack.

Last week, news emerged of an attempted phishing attack on Minnesota schools, with 335 state school districts and around 170 charter schools potentially attacked. In that case, the phishing attack was identified before any information was released. The attack involved an email that appeared to have been sent from the Education Commissioner. The attackers were trying to gain access to financial information.

How to Improve Defenses Against Phishing Attacks

Fortunately, there are a number of technological controls that can be implemented cheaply to reduce the risk of phishing attacks on schools being successful.

An advanced spam filtering solution with a powerful anti-phishing component is now essential. A spam filter looks for the common spam and phishing signatures and ensures suspect messages are quarantined and not delivered to end users.

It must be assumed that occasionally, even with a spam filter, phishing emails may occasionally be delivered. To prevent employees from visiting phishing websites and revealing their information, a web filtering solution can be used. Web filters can be configured to block end users from visiting websites that are known to be used for phishing. As an additional benefit, web filters can stop individuals from accessing websites known to contain malware or host illegal or undesirable material – pornography for instance.

Those solutions should be accompanied by training for all staff members on the risk from phishing and the common identifiers that can help staff spot a phishing email. Schools should also implement policies for reporting threats to the organization’s IT department. Fast reporting can limit the harm caused and prevent other staff members from responding.

IT departments should also have policies in place to ensure thwarted attacks are reported to law enforcement. Warnings should also be sent to other school districts following an attack to allow them to take action to protect themselves against similar attacks.

Any school or higher educational institution that fails to implement appropriate defenses against phishing attacks will be at a high risk of a phishing attack being successful. Not only do phishing attacks place employees at risk of fraud, they can prove incredibly costly for schools to mitigate. With budgets already tight, most schools can simply not afford to cover those costs.

If you would like further information on the range of cybersecurity protections that can be put in place to prevent phishing attacks on schools and other educational institutions, call TitanHQ today for an informal chat.

Microsoft Patches Actively Exploited Zero-Day Vulnerability in Microsoft Word

Microsoft has finally patched a zero-day vulnerability in Microsoft Word that has been exploited by cybercriminals for months. Recently, the vulnerability has been exploited by the gang behind the Dridex banking Trojan.

The remote code execution vulnerability (CVE-2017-0199) affects the Windows Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) application programming interface. The vulnerability is a logic flaw rather than a programming error, which makes defending against attacks difficult.

The bug affects RTF files. The spam email campaigns use RTF files containing an embedded OLE2Link object, which downloads an HTA (HTML Application) file containing malicious code when the document is opened. No user interaction other than opening the file is required to infect the end user’s device.

There is some debate as to how long the vulnerability has been actively exploited in the wild. Attacks may have been occurring as early as November 2016 according to SophosLabs, although certainly since the start of 2017. Over the past two months, the vulnerability has been extensively exploited to deliver the Dridex banking Trojan.

The zero-day vulnerability in Microsoft Word has been exploited for espionage purposes in Russian speaking countries, while FireEye observed the exploit being used to distribute Latentbot malware. Latentbot is an information stealer with the ability to corrupt hard drives.

Many security companies have been tracking the vulnerability, although it was McAfee that announced the existence of the actively exploited flaw on Friday last week. The flaw exists in virtually all Microsoft Word versions and does not require macros to be enabled in order for malicious code to run.

Employees are advised never to enable macros on documents unless they are 100% certain that a document is legitimate; however, this zero-day exploit does not rely on macros. Simply opening the Word document on an unpatched Office installation is likely to result in infection.

This makes the vulnerability particularly dangerous. Any end user that opens a specially crafted Word document would automatically run the code which would see the Dridex Trojan (or another malware) downloaded. One protection that can prevent the malicious code from running is to enable Protected View mode. However, the code will run when Protected View is turned off.

The malicious emails sent out in at least one campaign have the subject line “scanned data” with the RFT file attachments containing the word ‘scan’ followed by a random string of numbers, according to Proofpoint.

To protect against this exploit, the patches for both Office and Windows that were released by Microsoft on Tuesday April 11, 2017 should be applied. However, in order to apply the security update, Service Pack 2 for Office 2010 must be installed.

If it is not possible to apply the Microsoft updates immediately, you can configure your spam filter to block RTF files or add RTF files to the list of documents to block in the Microsoft Office Trust Center.

Kelihos Botnet Takedown: Spam King Arrested

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that one of the leading email spammers has been arrested as part of an operation to disrupt and dismantle the infamous Kelihos botnet.

The Kelihos botnet is a network of tens of thousands of computers that are used to launch massive spamming campaigns comprising millions of emails. Those spam emails are used for a variety of nefarious purposes including the distribution of ransomware and malware. The botnet has been extensively used to spread fake antivirus software and spread credential-stealing malware.

Computers are added to the Kelihos botnet using malware. Once installed, Kelihos malware runs silently and users are unaware that their computers have been hijacked. The Kelihos botnet can be quickly weaponized and used for a variety of malicious purposes. The botnet has previously been used for spamming campaigns that artificially inflate stock prices, promote counterfeit drugs and recruit people to fraudulent work-at-home schemes.

Pyotr Levashov is believed to operate the botnet in addition to conducting a wide range of cybercriminal activities out of Russia. In what turned out to be an unwise move, Levashov left the relative safety of his home country and travelled to Barcelona, Spain on holiday. Levashov was arrested on Sunday, April 9 by Spanish authorities acting on a U.S. issued international arrest warrant.

Levashov is suspected of playing a role in the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, although Levashov is best known for his spamming activities, click fraud and DDoS attacks.

Levashov, or Peter Severa as he is otherwise known, is heavily involved in distributing virus spamming software and is believed to have written numerous viruses and Trojans. Spamhaus lists Levashov in seventh place on the list of the 10 worst spammers.

Levashov is believed to have run multiple operations that connected virus developers with spamming networks, and is suspected of running the Kelihos botnet, the Waledac botnet – which was taken down in 2010 – and the Storm botnet.  Levashov was indicted for his role in the latter in 2009, although he managed to avoid extradition to the United States. At the time, Storm was the biggest spamming botnet in operation and was used to send millions of emails every day. Levashov also moderates many spamming forums and is well known in underground circles. Levashov is believed to have been extensively involved in spamming and other cybercriminal activities for the past 20 years; although to date he has avoided prosecution.

A statement released by the U.S. Department of Justice reads, “The operation announced today targeted an ongoing international scheme that was distributing hundreds of millions of fraudulent e-mails per year, intercepting the credentials to online and financial accounts belonging to thousands of Americans, and spreading ransomware throughout our networks.”

The DOJ operation also involved the takedown of domains associated with the Kelihos botnet starting on April 8, 2017. The DOJ says shutting down those domains was “an extraordinary task.”

While it is certainly good news that such a high profile and prolific spammer has been arrested and the Kelihos botnet has been severely disrupted, other spammers are likely to soon take Levashov’s place. Vitali Kremez, director of research at Flashpoint said his firm had seen chatter on underground forums indicating other major spammers are responding to the news of the arrest by taking acting to secure their own operations. There may be a blip in email spam volume, but that blip is only likely to be temporary.

Denver Public Schools Phishing Scam Sees Employees Wages Stolen

The importance of anti-phishing training for staff members has been highlighted this week following a major incident in Denver. A targeted Denver Public Schools phishing scam saw at least 30 members of staff divulge their usernames and passwords to scammers.

The Denver Public Schools phishing scam enabled attackers to gain access to accounts, which allowed information to be gained to access to the school district’s payroll system. The attackers changed the routing numbers for payments to employees and directed the payments to their own accounts. More than $40,000 that had been set aside to pay staff wages was stolen.

Staff members have now been paid and efforts are continuing to recover the stolen funds. At least 14 direct deposits were made and have not been recovered. The school district is hoping that the payments will be covered by an insurance policy. The incident has been reported to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the incident is being investigated to try to identify the individuals behind the scam.

The Denver Public Schools phishing scam was highly convincing; however, questions will be asked about how so many employees fell for the scam and disclosed their login credentials. The school district has confirmed that efforts were made to educate its employees on the risk of phishing prior to the attack taking place.

Denver Public Schools employs 13,991 members of staff. The response percentage was therefore very low, but it can only take one individual to respond to such a scam for serious financial harm to be caused.

A Bad Year for Phishing Attacks on Schools

Phishing attacks on schools are commonplace, but this year has seen attacks soar. For instance, in 2017, there have been 141 reported W-2 phishing scams, 33 of which affected schools, colleges and universities.

While phishing scams used to be fairly easy to detect, now they are becoming much more sophisticated. It is now not easy to tell a phishing email from a real email request. The attackers use spoofing techniques to make the emails appear as if they have been sent from within the organization. Genuine email accounts may even be compromised and used for phishing attacks. Last month, the Digital Citizens Alliance reported finding millions of .edu email addresses listed for sale on the dark web. Those email addresses are often used for phishing scams as they are trusted.

Phishing emails are often free from the spelling and grammatical errors that were commonly seen in spam emails in years gone by. The emails often contain lifted branding, images and formatting, which makes them highly convincing. The requests for information may also seem reasonable.

How to Prevent Phishing Attacks

Providing anti-phishing training for staff is now an essential cybersecurity defense; however, it is also important to ensure that training has had the desired effect and has been taken onboard. Schools should therefore conduct dummy phishing exercises to identify the effectiveness of their training programs. Research has shown that with practice, employees get much better at identifying phishing scams.

Technological solutions should also be implemented to prevent spam emails from reaching end users’ inboxes. Advanced anti-spam solutions such as SpamTitan do not rely on blacklists to identify emails as spam. Blacklists are used along with a host of front end controls and emails are subjected to Bayesian analyses to identify common spam signatures. Rules can be set to reduce the risk of email spoofing.

If you are interested in finding out more about the range of technological solutions that can be employed to reduce the risk of phishing attacks, contact the TitanHQ team today.