IBM: Targeted Spear Phishing Attacks on the Rise

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Last week, IBM released its Global Business Security Index Report (link below), revealing that virus-laden emails and criminal-driven security attacks increased in the first half of 2005 by 50%. Of particular note was the warning that these security attacks were not generically targeted at the masses, but were customized for specific targets in the areas of financial services, manufacturing and healthcare, and government.

Hackers: "Gone Phishing!"

IBM's Global Security Intelligence team research revealed that phishing threats against these business and governmental organizations appear to be coordinated and designed to obtain critical data and identity information with the intent to defraud or to extort money.

How does a phishing attack work? A company's email system is bombarded with messages warning the recipient that its information at a particular Web site needs to be verified. These messages spoof the address of the Web site and imitate the look and feel of messages sent routinely by the service or site. Even graphics such as logos and navigation elements from the real Web site may be represented. However, links--including literal links such as hidden HTML or JavaScript code that directs the email recipient to a Trojan Web site. The Trojan site then requests that the recipient fill out information to verify the individual's credentials, passwords, credit card numbers, or other information. Worse, some Trojan sites download code onto the individual's machine that then monitors and gathers more information, routinely sending this information to the perpetrator of the hoax.

Attack Distribution in 2005

According to the report, there were over 237 million security attacks in the first half of 2005, with the government as the leading target (54 million), followed by multinational manufacturing organizations (36 million). Financial services suffered the third-greatest number of attacks (34 million), followed by companies in the healthcare industry (17 million). The combined number of these attacks against these kinds of organizations was 137 million out of the total 237 million attacks reported.

Of the 237 million security attacks, 35 million were phishing attacks launched to steal critical data and personal information for financial gains, according to IBM. These included spawns of phishing threats such as "spear phishing," highly targeted and coordinated attacks on a specific organization or individual designed to extract critical data. According to the report, the number of this kind of focused attack increased by tenfold since January of this year alone.

Evolution of Threats

In previous years, viruses were mainly created and launched to slow down and cripple IT systems. Now, these new "customized" attacks are demonstrating their potential to defraud businesses, steal identities and intellectual property, and extort money, while simultaneously damaging a company's brand image and eroding customer trust.

According to IBM, the perpetrators have begun to focus on these lucrative areas by directing their attacks to specific individuals or organizations. Of particular concern are the unverified rumors that terrorist organizations are offering premium contracting rates of up to 78% of profits to hackers who can obtain the financial information needed to continue funding their terrorist activities.

How bad is it? Back in January of 2004, IBM said that 1 of every 129 emails contained a virus. By December of 2004, this had increased to 1 in every 51 emails. By January of 2005, the number was 1 in every 35 emails. By June of 2005, the number was 1 in every 28 emails. The purpose of most of these viruses was to propagate distributed underground networks, to obtain and move critical data from personal systems, and to anonymously control the attacks against new targets.

Depth of the Phishing Threat

According to IBM, by June, more than 600,000 directed spear phishing attacks had occurred in 2005. In addition, more than 108 million reconnaissance attacks--probes to discover the vulnerabilities of a device or its associated network--have so far occurred in 2005.

Of particular note is the sudden appearance of entirely new realms of threats. For instance, last March, DNS cache poisoning--the proliferation of bogus DNS mapping information through Internet routers--corrupted IP routers and hijacked browsers to Web sites where malicious code was secretly downloaded onto individual personal computers. In addition, in May, a group of hackers began recruiting legitimate business partners through a Web site called This Web site recruited partner Web sites and hosted a variety of malicious code to exploit Internet Explorer browsers, which in turn would then install Trojans, backdoors, and spyware on the computers of visitors.

How to Avoid Phishing Scams

So what can you do to protect yourself, your company, and your users? Here's how to start.

System Lock-Down

The first step to combating hackers is to lock down your users' computers with firewalls, anti-spam filters, and anti-virus software. At the same time, require that your users keep their PC operating systems up to date, as well as their browser software. If your network administration software doesn't provide you with a means of controlling these updates automatically, don't presume that your users (especially remote users) are savvy enough to do it themselves. Send them periodic reminders and require them to respond with a status.

User Awareness

The second step is to continually remind your users of the threat. Instruct them to be extremely wary of any email asking them to provide confidential information, especially of a financial nature. Financial institutions rarely, if ever, request sensitive information via email. If your users receive this kind of request, instruct them to call to confirm the sender's identity and the validity of their request. They should never simply provide the information.

Discern the Symptoms

Remind users not to become frightened or pressured into divulging information. Phishers like to use scare tactics, employing urgent language to pressure users into submitting confidential data. They may threaten to disable an account or delay services until the user has updated certain information. Instruct your users to contact the merchant who apparently sent the email to confirm its authenticity.

Ascertain the Threat

Tell your users to watch out for generic-looking requests for information. Fraudulent emails are often not personalized. Again, confirm the authenticity of any suspicious request before responding.

Confirm Authenticity

If a suspicious email contains a link to a Web page, tell your users not to click on it. Instead, ask them to send that email to you, or instruct them to navigate to the Web site by actually typing the company's URL into the browser's address bar.

Avoid Email Forms

Instruct your users to never submit confidential information via forms embedded within email messages. Instead, they should communicate that information over the phone or through a secure Web site.

Secure Transactions

Whenever a user must submit credit card numbers or other confidential information over the Internet, instruct them that they must make sure the site is secure. They should be made aware that just because the site's address begins with "https" doesn't necessarily mean the site is locked down. Sophisticated phishers have begun to use URL masking techniques to mimic the secure address of an authentic company.

So, before submitting information, the user must confirm the URL's authenticity by clicking on the browser's "locked" symbol (the padlock icon). It should show the security certificate, who it was issued to, who it was issued by, and the dates that the certificate is valid. It also shows the certificate path and validates whether the certificate is "OK."
Each time the user comes to a secure site, the server sends the browser the certificate. The browser's configuration then determines if it will accept the security certificate, based upon the configuration parameters (security level) that the user has set up. For instance, if the user's browser security setting is set to Low, the browser doesn't request a certificate verification from the server. If it's set to High, the server sends a certificate, and the configuration of the browser determines if it's acceptable (as set up by the user.)

Check Transactions and Profiles

Users should check their online accounts frequently. They should make certain that all listed transactions are valid, and if not, they should contact the bank or credit card company immediately.

Long-term Viability of Internet Questioned

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of these current Internet security threats is the open-ended nature of the threats themselves. After all, these threats don't exist merely because of some flawed code or some technological oversight: They are endemic to the open, unsecured architecture of the Internet itself. And without an inherently safe and proven security mechanism--based upon accepted international standards--there can be no means to successfully police the millions of network nodes and billions of transactions that occur daily. And without a policing mechanism, tracking down and prosecuting hackers is nearly impossible for law enforcement officials of any country. Consequently, conducting business across the Internet is evolving into a harrowing endeavor, requiring constant vigilance by both the IT staff and every employee with access to the 'net.

Meanwhile, the call for a new, more secure international network--based upon the security lessons learned using current Internet technology--is being stifled by the computing industry itself. Having invested billions of dollars in developing and deploying current security technologies, tech companies like IBM, Symantec, and many others are naturally reluctant to support efforts that move business beyond basic security technologies. Why? Over the past decade, businesses have spent billions of dollars to secure their internal networks against virus infection. Billions more will be spent to retrofit current networks to combat the crop of phishing scams and exploits.

Consider that last year, amid complaints against spammers, Congress passed legislation to punish perpetrators of unsolicited email. Indeed, according to IBM, the incidence of spam has been reduced in 2005, and the rate continues to diminish.

However, the slowdown in spam is less a result of legislation than a realization by hackers that there are newer, better financial opportunities awaiting them. That is the role that phishing plays today. Using the same underground networks of infected zombie machines that once proliferated spam, these criminals can now actively mine their victims' machines for critical financial data in order to extort and defraud individuals and businesses by using advanced Business Intelligence-like techniques.

That's today's financial opportunity for hackers. No one knows what new opportunities await them tomorrow. And without some sort of technological breakthrough in our Internet security mechanisms, it's difficult to see how we'll ever stem the flow of this kind of criminal activity.

The report: Global Business Security Index Report

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.

Thomas Stockwell

Thomas M. Stockwell is an independent IT analyst and writer. He is the former Editor in Chief of MC Press Online and Midrange Computing magazine and has over 20 years of experience as a programmer, systems engineer, IT director, industry analyst, author, speaker, consultant, and editor.  


Tom works from his home in the Napa Valley in California. He can be reached at





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