Behavioral Conditioning, Not Awareness, Is the Answer to Phishing

BY AARON HIGBEE AND SCOTT GREAUX

You don’t stop phishing attacks by raising user awareness. A recent study conducted by a German university confirms what we at PhishMe have known all along: Focusing on awareness isn’t the point. The real solution is behavioral conditioning.

The study, conducted by Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, used 1,700 students to simulate spear phishing attacks. An August 31 Ars Technica article published preliminary results of the study showing at least 50% of students clicked simulated phishes, even though they understood the risks.

With its headline, “So Much for Counter-phishing Training: Half of People Click Anything Sent to Them,” the article appears to suggest training is pointless. But we see it differently. While the article confirms what our own research has revealed – that awareness isn’t the problem – the proper conclusion to draw isn’t that training is futile. PhishMe tends to agree with this sentiment and encourages organizations to focus on conditioning their employees to identify and report security risks.

We focus our training on conditioning human behavior, and the results speak for themselves. Our customers spend 22 seconds reviewing phishing education, and yet their susceptibility to phishing decreases significantly. Why? It’s the experience we put them through that changes behavior. Even when they are aware of the risks, as studies show, they are susceptible to opening email from unknown users and clicking suspicious links. But conditioned through the real-world examples we provide in our simulations, users are much less likely to click.

Enterprise Relevance

The FAU study focused on students, who were sent emails and Facebook messages with links purporting to be for photos from a New Year’s Eve party held a week before the study. “Links sent resolved to a webpage with the message ‘access denied,’ but the site logged the clicks by each student.”

It’s dangerous to use research results conducted on a student population to Enterprise workers. We have several problems with the approach as described. For starters, it wasn’t created by people in the trenches who understand real-world threats, but by academics in a computer science department. We already know the bait used by the study’s authors works on students, as well as consumers, but is far less effective with enterprise users. Yet, readers of the Ars Technica article are concluding the study’s results apply to enterprise environments.

We know that because we’ve started to get messages with their reactions. So we feel an obligation to point out the study didn’t use a realistic scenario, from an enterprise point of view. Real-world enterprise phishes are more likely to be emails pretending to be files from a scanner, a document with a job evaluation, or a message that someone has signed for a package addressed to the user.

There’s also a difference of perspective between students and enterprise users. Students, whose primary experience with computing revolves around mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, don’t worry about cyber risks. Clicking a link from a smartphone isn’t going to compromise the device because such devices are nearly impervious to attacks. But click the link from a computer, and the story is quite different.

It also appears the FAU study focused only on clicking links, but phishing threats aren’t limited to one vector. Others include data entry, password credentials, clicking attachments, and email conversations that don’t involve links or attachments. Replicating some of these vectors in a real-world simulation is a bigger challenge than the method used by the study.

Focus on Reporting

A PhishMe-commissioned study found 94% of office workers know what phishing is and the risk it presents to organizations. The study also found that 94% of office workers know how to report suspicious emails in their organization. And that’s where the focus of training needs to be – reporting. When users are conditioned to report suspicious email, even if they do so after already clicking on it – maybe they had a lapse – the reporting is still valuable because it helps your security operations teams.

Learning to identify suspicious emails through conditioning is far more effective than general efforts to raise awareness. PhishMe simulator provides customers with templates that include the exact content used by threat actors.  By deriving content from our Phishing Intelligence platform we provide experiences that are relevant to enterprise users.   This method allows customers to condition users to spot potential phishes, avoid interacting with them, and report them to their security teams.

While we appreciate the FAU’s study’s confirmation of what our own research has shown about awareness, we fear it may lead enterprises to make decisions based on the erroneous conclusion that training doesn’t matter. This perspective could lead to the compromise of a network with disastrous results. To avoid such an outcome, we at PhishMe stand ready to work with any academic institution or researcher that could benefit from our experience in the trenches to produce meaningful research about phishing.

Cyber Crime: The Unreported Offense

On July 22, 2016 the UK’s Office for National Statistics released crime details for the year ending March 2016.  For the first time, this data included information about fraud and computer misuse offenses, which was compiled in the National Crime Survey for the first time in October 2015. While the police recorded 4.5 million offenses from March 2015 to March 2016, the survey indicates there were likely 3.8 million fraud instances and 2 million computer misuse instances during that same year, with the vast majority of these crimes being unreported to law enforcement.  The report has caused for a new call for additional cyber crime reporting at all levels.  In the UK, consumers and businesses alike are encouraged to submit suspicious activities and cases of loss to ActionFraud: the National Fraud & Cyber Crime Reporting Center.  ActionFraud also offers a Business Reporting Tool for bulk submissions by businesses of both fraud and scam emails.*

Earlier in July, the UK’s National Crime Agency also released their report “Cyber Crime Assessment 2016.”   The primary point made by the NCA report is the “need for a stronger law enforcement and business partnership to fight cyber crime.”

NCA Cyber Crime Assessment 2016The NCA report called special attention to the sophisticated abilities of international crime groups, making them “the most competent and dangerous cyber criminals targeting UK businesses.”  These groups are behind the most sophisticated financial crimes malware.

“This malware is a substantial source of financial crime in the UK, with three variants: DRIDEX, NEVERQUEST and DYRE /DYREZA, appearing frequently and responsible for many hundreds of thousands of individual crimes in 2015.”

The report also highlights the danger of ransomware and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

While arrests were made in the DRIDEX case, the same botnet is now the leading source of the Locky ransomware family, the focus of more than 50 PhishMe Intelligence reports in the past month alone!

Statements made in March by Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the police commissioner of the Metropolitan Police of London, received mixed reviews when he said that banks that refunded their customers after cyber incidents were “rewarding them for bad behavior” instead of teaching them to be safer online.  The GCHQ suggested that 80% of consumer-facing cyber crime could be stopped just by choosing safer passwords and keeping one’s systems updated with current security patches.

The NCA report points out, however, that it isn’t just consumers who are not pulling their weight in the fight against cyber crime.  Businesses also have a responsibility to do more.   The report urges corporate board of directors to make sure that their information technology teams are not merely checking the boxes required of compliance regulations, but taking an active role in assisting the cause by ensuring that their businesses are reporting cyber crime incidents.  As widely seen in the United States, one may be compliant with PCI, Sarbanes Oxley, HIPAA, and other regulatory standards yet still be extremely vulnerable to the type of sophisticated cyber attacks presented by these sophisticated international crime groups.Moving beyond Box-Ticking cyber security

“Directors also have an important role in addressing the under-reporting of cyber crime which continues to obscure the full understanding of, and hence responses to, cyber crime in the UK. In particular, we urge businesses to report when they are victims of cyber crime and to share more intelligence, both with law enforcement and with each other.”

– NCA Strategic Cyber Industry Group

Dridex, NeverQuest, Dyre, Ransomware – Meet PhishMe Reporter & Triage

At PhishMe, we are intimately familiar with the prevalence of the malware families discussed in the UK government’s reports.  We provide detailed intelligence reports to our customers about all of those malware families, which are among the most common email-based threats that we encounter as we scrub through millions of each emails each day to identify the greatest threats and get human-driven analysis about those threats back out to our customers.

We support the security strategy and defense posture recommended by the NCA Strategic Cyber Industry Group.  Our industry must move from reactive, check-box security mentality to a proactive method of gathering and analyzing security incident reporting.  PhishMe customers not only have the ability for every employee to become part of the solution to “under-reporting” with a click of the mouse on the “Report Phishing” button, but also to share that information back to PhishMe to allow us to provide indicators that help protect ALL customers and to help inform our law enforcement partners.

PhishMe Reporter

The PhishMe Reporter Button

PhishMe Triage provides a single place for all of those employee reports to be integrated, if your business would like to answer the call to do more information sharing about these top malicious threats. By providing a dashboard-driven interface to all employee-reported malicious emails, the security team can quickly spot the most dangerous trends, confirm the facts, and report to law enforcement, as recommended in the UK’s National Crime Agency report.

In addition, PhishMe Intelligence customers received over 2,500 malware email campaign reports in addition to more than 600,000 individual phishing reports that can be used as an intelligence feed to strengthen your corporate defenses against these malicious actors.

We look forward to partnering with our UK-customers, and all of our customers, who choose to take an active stance in the fight against cyber crime by answering the call for increased vigilance and reporting.

 

* – U.S. businesses are encouraged to report cyber crime and fraud to the FBI’s Internet Crime & Complaint Center, IC3.gov.

 

RockLoader Delivers New Bart Encryption Ransomware

Another ransomware tool has been added to the ever-growing encryption ransomware market with the introduction of the Bart encryption ransomware. Named by its creators in its ransom payment interface as well as in the extension given to its encrypted files, the Bart encryption ransomware has leveraged some distinctive mechanisms for delivery during its early deployments. Furthermore, this ransomware shares some interface elements that evoke the same look and feel used by the Locky encryption ransomware ransom payment interface. In many ways the Bart encryption ransomware is a very mainstream encryption ransomware in both the files it targets for encryption (a full list of these file extensions is included at the end of this post) as well as its demand for a sizable Bitcoin ransom. However, a number of elements related to this encryption ransomware are noteworthy when viewed through the lens of recent developments in the phishing threat landscape.

PhishMe Ranked #1 ‘Best Place to Work’ by Washington Business Journal

PhishMe is proud to announce it has been honored as the best large company to work for in the Washington D.C area, following a prestigious annual employee engagement survey. The Washington Business Journal ranked PhishMe #1 in the ‘large companies’ category, the first time the organization has been honored with the title, having surveyed 85 local firms.

PhishMe Launches New ‘Active Threats’ Phishing Simulations To Help Combat Ransomware

Global leader in enterprise phishing defense and intelligence unveils highly anticipated update to help organizations resist Ransomware, Business Email Compromise (BEC) and other timely threats 

LEESBURG, VA – London, UK – June 8 2016 – PhishMe Inc., the leading provider of human phishing defense solutions, announced today the integration of critical content into PhishMe Simulator™ to help prepare employees for trending phishing attacks and damaging payloads. The Active Threats update allows operators to quickly utilize phishing templates based on current real-world attacks that are targeting organizations, such as Business Email Compromise (BEC) and Ransomware. Simulating these types of attacks ensures users are aware of the new techniques used by phishers and empowers operators with a resource to combat new threats early on.

New Tactic Bypasses Existing Security Controls – Most Recent PayPal Phish Reveals Stealthy HTML Attachment

Incident response is always a cat and mouse game.  Organizations spend heavily on people and technology to help protect their enterprise, while threat actors continue to find new and unique ways to bypass those controls.  We’ve seen this trend continue over time, whether it be with the shift to MHTML files by Locky or the delivery of malicious PowerPoint show files.  The PhishMe intelligence team has noticed another change, this one by the actors who are phishing for login credentials, and their tactics reveal that they are actively working to bypass security controls.