Big Blue security report highlights ‘spear phishing’ threat

A report published this week from IBM Corp. suggests that phishing schemes are growing in sophistication, allowing would-be Internet criminals to target their victims by name.

A targeted or “spear phishing” attack is designed to extract data from a specific individual or organization,

maximizing damage caused and financial gain. IBM estimates that these types of attacks have grown ten-fold this year alone. According to the company, they can be used for identity theft, extortion, fraud and to steal specific intellectual property.

“We’re seeing it as a targeted security threat within financial institutions as well as government regulatory bodies,” said Michael Small, security practice leader for IBM Canada. “It’s very targeted with a specific purpose to ensure that they try to get access to privileged information for, usually, profit. Its concerns are linked to cyberterrorism as well as obviously organized crime.”

Until now, the most common form of phishing attacks were those that attempt to disguise themselves as e-mail from banks or common consumer Internet services like eBay or its payment arm PayPal. They aren’t addressed to a specific person but are sent out as widely as possible in an attempt to snare a few unfortunates who are willing to part with bank account information or their eBay identities.

Mary Kirwan, CEO of Toronto-based security firm Headfry Inc., said that these types of attacks may be on the decline but agreed with IBM that spear phishing is a growing concern.

“These are higher payoff crimes, so it’s in their interest to follow the money, essentially,” she said. “There’s no real consensus among the global banks as to how to deal with that right now. Some of the banks are acknowledging that you don’t have to be a dummy to fall for these scams.”

This isn’t the first time banks have been identified as a lucrative target. In 2003, Symantec Corp. noted that a virus called Win32.Bugbear.B was sent by likeminded criminals to financial institutions such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Citibank and American Express. Security experts believed that Bugbear was designed to scan an inbox for any indication that it belonged to a bank employee.

Recovery from targeted attacks and malware in general costs a Canadian organization an average of $30,000 to $40,000, said Small. He added that IBM is sharing its research with customers, partners and vendors to help them prevent such attacks.

Nuisance e-mail like spam appears to be leveling off, according to the IBM report. In January of this year, spam accounted for 83 per cent of global e-mail. That number had fallen to 67 per cent by June.

There are new problems on the horizon, however. In March, a new threat called Domain Name Service (DNS) cache poisoning was discovered. Cache poisoning can hijack a user’s browser and direct them towards a specific site or advertisement by corrupting a DNS server’s ability to map machine host names to a correct IP address. Variations of these types of attacks have been around for years, but cache poisoning is becoming more sophisticated and a DNS server that isn’t configured properly is particularly susceptible.

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