Last week, the FBI issued a warning about an increase in spear-phishing attacks targeting multiple industry sectors. Spear-phishing is one of the main tools used by attackers to compromise endpoints and gain a foothold in the enterprise network. The attacker utilizes a specially crafted email message that lures users to perform an action that will result in malware infection, credentials theft or both.

This is often the first step that enables advance persistent threats (APTs) and targeted attacks. As the FBI warning explains, “Often, the emails contain accurate information about victims obtained via a previous intrusion or from data posted on social networking sites, blogs or other websites. This information adds a veneer of legitimacy to the message, increasing the chances the victims will open the email and respond as directed.”

The Consequences of Spear-Phishing

Spear-phishing emails often result in drive-by downloads, a silent malware download that takes place in the background without the user’s knowledge. Drive-by downloads are enabled by vulnerabilities in user applications like browsers or browser plug-ins, Java applications, Adobe Acrobat and others. Exploiting unpatched or unknown zero-day vulnerabilities, attackers can download malware to the user’s machine while the user remains unaware of the download. The attacker can then use a compromised device to gain access to the corporate network, steal intellectual property and compromise operational systems and/or financial assets.

The FBI explains, “In spear-phishing attacks, cyber criminals target victims because of their involvement in an industry or organization they wish to compromise.”

Spear-Phishing Pays Off

Employee endpoints have become the path of least resistance into an enterprise network. In the past, it was believed that proper user education would prevent phishing attacks. Despite the significant time and resources invested in education programs, however, these attacks continue to be successful. This is mainly because attackers use information gained through social engineering to personalize the spear-phishing messages and convince targeted users that the message is legitimate.

Combating Spear-Phishing and Targeted Attacks

It is impossible to prevent enterprise users from opening email attachments or links, since it is a routine part of their everyday activity. As long as we depend on online information, spear-phishing will remain a threat. In order to stop spear-phishing attacks effectively, organizations must prevent drive-by downloads and protect enterprise credentials. IBM Security Trusteer Apex Advanced Malware Protection offers exploit prevention technology that successfully stops drive-by downloads and exploitation of application vulnerabilities that result in malware infections. Exfiltration prevention technology blocks information theft and prevents the attacker from gaining remote control over employee endpoints. Finally, credential protection ensures that enterprise users do not submit and expose their credentials on phishing sites.

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