Zero day specialists hooked on spear phishing

Complex phishing attacks are targeting financial services firms and government entities -- the very organizations that spend more time and money on security than anyone

At the cutting-edge of IT-based crime, attackers are using a combination of easily sourced technologies and social information to carry out successful assaults on the very organizations that spend more time and money on security than anyone in the world.

While he isn't able to share the names of the companies that have been victimized, or the identities of the people within those organizations who have been exploited, an interview with Kevin Mandia, founder and CEO of security services provider Mandiant, provides a shocking view into the incredibly complex attacks being carried out against financial services firms and government entities.

According to the former United States Air Force special agent and IT intrusion investigator, the savviest criminals in the world -- some of whom may receive support from overseas governments -- are targeting specific individuals throughout the ranks of business and government against whom they are executing multitiered attacks in the name of stealing closely protected information.

The continued discovery of new zero day flaws in popular software products -- most notably Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows and Office platforms -- along with the ever-growing amounts of personal and professional information being published online, have created an environment where criminals and their backers can have their way with organizations that already expend tremendous resources on IT security, Mandia said.

"In a matter of hours someone can identify an employee of a specific organization and create a targeted attack that will allow them to break into that organization's network and steal whatever information they're looking for," Mandia said. "As long as people can still exploit technologies like Microsoft Office, spear phishing will be a very serious problem."

Spear-phishing attacks are the more targeted iterations of the mass-market scam threats that show up in your e-mail inbox every day.

After hacking their way into major organizations by attacking individual employees using the threats, criminals are gathering the data and materials necessary to turn around and carry out successful campaigns against those organizations' customers and constituents, in addition to making off with intellectual property and other valuable information, Mandia said.

For example, an attacker wishing to carry out some form of campaign against a specific company might simply peruse the Web in search of personal Web pages, or profiles of social networking sites such as MySpace until they find the details of an employee of the firm.

Having deduced what types of communications the person might be open to accepting -- such as e-mail from another site member or someone anonymous with similar social interests -- the attacker then creates a threat through which they attempt to exploit the individual's computer to break into break into the targeted employer's network.

These types of attacks are occurring frequently, and taking their toll on everyone from government contractors to online trading firms, according to the investigator, who said his company has been involved in investigations of similar attacks at two large organizations within the last month alone.

In some cases the examples involve the targeting of IT workers at financial services companies from whom attackers seek to steal customer data to use to launch spear-phishing campaigns, some of which involve fraudulent credit card offers that are being sent to consumers via the U.S. Postal Service.

In other cases attackers are finding lists of government employees who attend specific meetings -- often publicized online -- and using the contextual information they can gather to create targeted threats aimed at phishing sensitive information from those parties.

In some of those cases, Mandiant has seen attacks that have been carried out using the real names of participants and attendees of such meetings, with the attacks carried in e-mail attachments using the real materials discussed at the event -- and crafted to appear as if it is coming from the main speaker or organizer of the meeting.

It's hard to blame people for falling prey to the attacks when there is no evidence of fraud, and such deep contextual information being used to target individuals, he said.

"Basically, it would be very hard for anyone to suspect this level of sophistication, and typically when we identify the person, or people, involved, they couldn't be more surprised that the e-mail they opened was an attack," Mandia said. "With the phishing attempts being carried out against customers of financial services companies the materials they e-mail or snail mail to the consumers has been exactly what you would receive in a legitimate communication."

Many attacks also exhibit another extremely-troubling trend, according to the investigator -- the targeting of organizations who employ large numbers of remote employees.

With the increasing sophistication of the perimeter defenses of many large organizations, criminals are finding it easier to target end users who connect to the companies' virtual private networks (VPNs), and carry out their attacks over this trusted channel.

"Companies with large groups of home users who routinely use the VPN are being targeted directly; generally if you're sitting at a desk at work the network has a chance of detecting data theft or other attacks, but virtually no one is monitoring the data going over the VPN tunnel to people's homes, so that's where the criminals are moving," Mandia said.

On the bright side, Mandia said that companies who are at the cutting-edge of IT systems defense and data protection are discovering these attacks because they have created a system of policies and technologies that alert them to potential problems as early as possible.

In a fair number of cases, he said, even the most targeted threats are being sniffed out and blocked by those types of firms.

However, criminals are also figuring out which companies have the most attractive vaults of data, and weaker protections -- such as online retailers -- and constantly shifting their tactics to attempt to exploit those firms.

"What we're seeing is truly a radical change compared to the types of security threats that we've seen over the last fifteen years, as criminals merge physical aspects of crime with technology and social engineering," said Mandia.

"The attackers know these companies' marketing methods and the people who work for them," he said. "They're going to continue with these attacks as long as they are making their money from it, and there don't seem to be any shortage of zero days and opportunities to leverage social engineering."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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