Cyber Security

Undercover research reveals tactics of phishing hackers

2nd August 2017
Alice Matthews

Provider of cyber security solutions that protect business-critical data and applications, Imperva, has released its research report, Beyond Takeover – Stories from a Hacked Account. The report reveals common patterns in phishing attacks and how hackers find and use data in compromised accounts. To discover details about compromised credentials, Imperva researchers went undercover by creating several fake user accounts, including email and file sharing accounts with Google and Dropbox.

Once the so-called honey pot accounts were active, the researchers deployed techniques to lure in the criminals and tracked them over the span of nine months.

The research report reveals details of hacker techniques and behaviours, including how long it takes from takeover to exploitation, what the attacker looks for in the hacked account, which decoys attract their attention, and what security practices they use to cover their tracks.

Among the most interesting findings are:

  • Business data is highly sought. Twenty-five percent of the phishers looked at email subject lines related to business such as those that included the words financial data, customer database or supplier details.
  • Attackers aren’t quick to act. More than 50% of the accounts were accessed 24-hours or more after the credential takeover. The result is a brief window where if the attack is suspected, a quick password change results in a 56% chance of preventing an account takeover.
  • Attackers access content manually not through automated tools. Seventy-four percent of the first alerts were triggered within three minutes of account penetration. This timing indicates that the attacker accessed bait documents while exploring the inbox.
  • Less than half of the leaked credentials were exploited by attackers. One explanation for this could be that attackers have access to so much data they don’t have enough time to explore it all.

Attacker behaviour
The report revealed common behaviours of cyber criminals by delving into how attackers cover their tracks. For example, to remain anonymous, attackers should destroy evidence of their presence in accounts by erasing contaminated logins and messages. Yet it was surprising that 83% of the attackers did little to cover their tracks. Of those who did cover their tracks, 15% erased new sign-in alerts from the email inbox, but usually forgot to delete them from the email trash container.

The research also demonstrated phishers are no more careful than their victims. The Imperva researchers planted various traps within the accounts and most attackers did not hesitate to click the links and open documents – blithely doing so without taking precautionary measures such as using a sandbox or anonymity service. This also means that with a bit of detective work the cyber criminals can be tracked.

“By studying cyber attackers, we’ve learned many things including that most attackers don’t bother to cover their tracks, which means they leave evidence behind,” said Itsik Mantin, Head of data research at Imperva. “Furthermore, if we can quickly detect an attack, we then know that swift remediation including a simple password change significantly reduces the odds of a successful attack. This lesson proves the value of incorporating threat-intelligence and breach detection solutions that quickly detect and help mitigate this risk.”

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