Top 5 Spear-Phishing Attacks Targeting Executives

Twice a year, KnowBe4 publishes the Top 5 spear-phishing attacks that are used to lure executives into clicking on links or open infected attachments. We recommend sending this list to your executives and give them a heads-up.

The bad guys do not discriminate, they attack businesses but also non-profits like governments and even churches. They are using increasingly sophisticated spear-phishing scams on executives with access to corporate financial accounts and other high-level proprietary information. Some organizations are under constant, 24-hour attack by foreign hackers that are after their intellectual property, this is known as an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT).

These hackers do their research and spend time customizing their spear-phishing emails; as a result, many recipients are fooled by the level of detail and authentic-looking messages and websites. Here are the most recent spear-phishing attacks that are currently making the rounds nationwide, and which pose a significant threat to your data-and financial security. Note that some of these attacks are used for years, because they continue to work on uninformed people.

Number 5

The Better Business Bureau Complaint – In this scam, executives will receive an official-looking email that is spoofed to make it appear as if it comes from the Better Business Bureau. The message either details a complaint that a customer has supposedly filed, or claims that the company has been accused of engaging in identity theft. A complaint ID number is provided, and the recipient is asked to click on a link if they wish to contest or respond to the claim. Once the link is clicked, malware is downloaded to the system.

Number 4

The Smartphone ‘Security App’ – This is a 2-step attack. With minimal research cybercriminals can find the name and email addresses of a company’s CFO and social engineer them to click a link. That link infects the PC of the CFO with a keylogger. This way the hacker obtains bank account data and passwords. In case the bank uses two-factor authentication, the attacker spoofs an email from the bank asking the CFO to install a smartphone security app, which is actually malware giving them access to the phone. And with that, the cybercriminals have full access to the CFO’s bank account login credentials and at the same time control any two-factor text messages sent to or from the CFO authorizing money transfers.

Number 3

The Watering Hole Attack – Hackers do their research on a targeted executive, and find out which websites the executive frequents, sometimes to discuss industry related topics with their peers, or perhaps a hobby site the hackers learned about through the exec’s social media postings. Next, the bad guys compromise that website, and inject a zero-day exploit onto public pages of the website that they hope will be visited by their targeted

executive. Once the exec does, their PC is infected with a keylogger and the network penetrated.

Number 2

Free Dinner in Return for Feedback – By reviewing an executive’s social media profiles, cybercriminals are able to determine what charities that individual supports or does business with, as well as his or her favorite local restaurants. The scammer will then spoof an email from a representative of that charity, asking the exec to download a Word Doc that supposedly contains details on an upcoming campaign or event, and promises free dinner at their favorite restaurant as an incentive for providing feedback. When the Word doc is downloaded the user’s password is stolen – and gives hackers direct access to the network. Here is a short video of Kevin Mitnick showing how this type of exploit works. Take these two minutes, it’s worth seeing:

Number 1

‘We’re Being Sued’ – In this scenario, attackers dig up the email addresses of a company’s executives and also their legal counsel (in-house or external). They will then spoof an email from the legal counsel to the executive team, and attach a PDF that claims to contain information about new or pending litigation. When the recipients download and open the attachment, their system becomes infected and the entire network is compromised.

While savvy Internet users realize they should not click links or download attachments from unknown senders, spoofed emails and official-looking websites trick recipients into letting their guard down. When executives receive a time-sensitive email that appears to be sent by the Better Business Bureau, a fellow exec, their legal counsel or an organization they support, most won’t think twice before clicking because they trust the person they believe is the sender. That’s what cybercriminals are counting on, and why they’re willing to invest the time to create realistic-looking messages from familiar sources. They’ve discovered just how effective these types of spear-phishing scams can be.

Stepping execs through high-quality security awareness training is a

"> must these days!


Related Pages: Spear Phishing

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