Last summer we launched our first email cloud security test and, while it was very well received by our readers and the security industry as a whole, we felt that there was still work to do on the methodology.
This report shows the results of six months of further development, and a much clearer variation in the capabilities of the services under test.
The most significant change to the way we conducted this test lies in the selection of threats we used to challenge the security services: we increased the number and broadened the sophistication.
Whereas we might have used one fake FBI blackmail email previously, in this test we sent 10, each created using a different level of sophistication. Maybe a service will detect the easier versions but allow more convincing examples through to the inbox?
We wanted to test the breaking point.
We also used a much larger number of targeted attacks. There was one group of public ‘commodity’ attacks, such as anyone on the internet might receive at random, but also three categories of crafted, targeted attacks including phishing, social engineering (e.g. fraud) and targeted malware (e.g. malicious PDFs).
Each individual attack was recreated 10 times in subtly different but important ways.
Attackers have a range of capabilities, from poor to extremely advanced. We used our “zero to Neo” approach to include basic, medium, advanced and very advanced threats to see what would be detected, stopped or allowed through.
The result was an incredibly tough test.
We believe that a security product that misses a threat should face significant penalties, while blocking legitimate activity is even more serious.
If you’re paying for protection threats should be stopped and your computing experience shouldn’t be hindered. As such, services that allowed threats through, and blocked legitimate messages, faced severe reductions to their accuracy ratings and, subsequently, their chances of winning an award.
We pay close attention to how criminals attempt to attack victims over email. The video below shows a typically convincing attack that starts with a text message and ends stealing enough information to clean out a bank account.
SE Labs uses current threat intelligence to make our tests as realistic as possible. To learn more about how we test, how we define ‘threat intelligence’ and how we use it to improve our tests please visit our website and follow us on Twitter.
Forgotten, infected websites can haunt users with malware.
Last night, I received a malicious email. The problem is, it was sent to an account I use to register for websites and nothing else.
Over the years, I’ve signed up for hundreds of sites using this account, from news to garden centres. One of them has been compromised. The mere act of receiving the email immediately marked it out as dodgy.
No one publishes successful phishing and ransomware emails. Jon Thompson thinks he knows why.
The headlines say phishing scams are at an all-time high, and ransomware is growing exponentially, but conspicuous by their absence are examples of the emails behind successful attacks. It’s becoming the cliché in the room, but there may be a reason: embarrassment.
Running an email honeypot network, you receive a flood of malicious email every day. Most is littered with glaring errors that point to lazy, inarticulate crooks trying to make the quickest buck from the least effort. When you do come across a rare, well though-out campaign, it shines like a jewel in a sea of criminal mediocrity.
To the average spammer, however, it’s all just a numbers game. He cranks the handle on the botnet, so to speak, and money comes out.
This poses an important question: why, given the quality of most malicious spam, are new ransomware infections and high profile phishing attacks still making headlines almost every single day? Clearly, we’re massively overestimating the amount of effort and intelligence invested by spammers.
With that in mind, what follows is a short list of 17 mistakes I routinely see, all of which immediately guarantee that an email is malicious. There are others, but these are the main ones. If this list reflects the mistakes found in the spam behind the headlines, then the size yet lack of sophistication of the problem should become apparent.
1. No Subject Header
This error is particularly prevalent in ransomware campaigns. Messages whose payloads have very low VirusTotal scores are being sent with no subject header. Maybe the sender thinks it’ll pique the curiosity of the recipient, but it should also alert spam filters even before they examine the attachment.
2. No Set Dressing
Look at any real communication from a bank, PayPal, a store, etc. It is well formatted, the HTML is clean, the language is clear, and the branding is obvious. Legitimate companies and banks don’t tend to send important messages in plain text.
3. Generic Companies
Generic companies are rare but I do occasionally see them. Who is “the other financial institution” and why has it refused my transaction? Vague, instantiated company names like this, with an accompanying attachment, are clear indicators of spam.
4. Multiple Recipients
This is another example of laziness on the part of spammers. OK, they may have found an open relay to willingly spread messages rather than buy extra time on a botnet, but anything other than a one-to-one sender to recipient ratio should be an instant red flag.
5. Poor Salutation
Much apparently personalised spam doesn’t use a competent salutation, or uses a salutation that is simply the user name part of the email address (i.e.: “Dear fred.smith”). It would take effort to code a script that personalises the messages by stripping off the first name and capitalising the initial. Effort is the enemy of the fast buck.
6. No Body Text
Sending an email with a tantalizing subject header such as “Overdue – Please Respond!” but no body text explaining what or why it’s overdue is as common in commodity ransomware as having no subject header. The attack again relies entirely on the natural curiosity of the recipient, who can and should simply ignore it. Spam filters should also take a keen interest.
7. Auto-translated Body Text
Machine translation has the amusing habit of mapping the grammar of one language onto another, resulting in errors that no native speaker would ever make. Manual translation by a highly fluent speaker is far superior to machine translation, but the translator must also have knowledge of the subject matter for his text to appear convincing. Again, this is effort.
8. The Third Person
This is a great example of a spam writer trying to distance himself from his crime. “PayPal has detected an anomaly in your account” and “they require you to log in to verify your account” just look weird in the context of a security challenge. This is supposed to be from PayPal, isn’t it?
9. Finger Trouble
I’m fast concluding that some cybercriminals really do wear thick leather gloves while typing, just like in the pictures. Either that or they’re blind drunk. Random punctuation marks and extra characters that look like they’ve been hit at the same time as the correct ones don’t make a good impression. Simply rejecting emails that have more than a certain percentage of spelling mistakes might prevent many of these messages from getting through.
10. Unexpected Plurals and Tenses
Using “informations” instead of “information” is a dead giveaway for spam and should be blocked when in combination with other indicators. Phrases such as “we detect a problem” instead of “we detected a problem” also stick out a mile.
11. Missing Definite Article
Many spam emails stand out as somehow “wrong” because they miss out the definite article. One recent example I saw read: “Access is blocked because we detect credit card linked to your PayPal account has expired.” An associated Yandex.ru return address gave the whole thing a distinct whiff of vodka.
12. The Wrong Word
“Please review the document and revert back to us immediately”. Revert? Really? Surely, you mean “get back”, not “revert back”. It may be difficult for spam filters to weed out this kind of error, but humans should spot it without difficulty.
13. Misplaced Emphasis
Unusually capitalised phrases such as “You must update Your details to prevent Your Account from being Suspended” look weird. Initial capitalisation isn’t used for emphasis in English sentences, and hints at someone trying to make the message sound more official and urgent than it is.
14. Tautological Terrors
“It is extremely mandatory that you respond immediately”. Not just mandatory but extremely mandatory? Wow, I’d better click that link right away! Urgent calls to action like this overplay the importance of the message in ways that mark them out as fake.
Using grand words where normal ones should appear to make a message sound more authoritative are a dead giveaway. Here’s an example from last September when a gang famously tried to distribute malware on the back of a new media player release: “To solemnise the release of our new software”. Solemnise means to mark with a formal ceremony.
What they really meant was: “To mark the release of our new software”. The whole message was also riddled with the most outrageous auto-translate errors that it made difficult reading.
16. Overly-grand Titles
Why would the Microsoft Chief Support Manager be contacting me personally all the way from the US to give me a refund? Wouldn’t he delegate this important work to a local minion? Similarly, the head of the IMF doesn’t usually spend their days emailing strangers about ATM cards stacked high with cash.
17. Obfuscated URLs
If the collar doesn’t match the cuffs, it’s a lie. In other words, if the message contains the name of a high-street bank (for example) and a URL from a shortening service such as bit.ly, spam filters should be blocking the message without question, regardless of the rest of the content.
If phishing sites want data, they’ll get it! Running a honeypot, you soon realise there are four types of spam. The first is basically just adverts. Next comes social engineering spam, which is mostly advanced fee fraud. There’s a ton of cash or a pretty girl waiting if you send a small processing fee. By far the largest category is ransomware, but this is closely followed by that perennial favourite, phishing spam.
Phishing works. Its “product” nets huge profits in two ways. First, by direct use of the stolen data. Second, from sales of that data to other criminals. This got me thinking about how to fight back.
Phishing sites tend to be static replicas of the real thing, with a set of input boxes and a submit button. That is their major weakness. Another is that, though the inputs might be scrubbed to remove the possibility of a sneaky SQL injection, the information being entered might not be checked. Who’s to say that the date of birth, password, bank details etc. that you enter are real? What if you were to enter a thousand different sets of bogus information? How about a million, or even ten million?
What I propose is that when a phishing site is discovered, it would be fun to deploy a script to flood it with random data of the appropriate format for each input field. Finding real data in the collected noise would become nearly impossible, and so would help protect the innocent. If such poor-quality data is sold on to third parties, then Mr Big will soon want his money back and probably a lot more besides.
Diluting phished data to homeopathic strengths is one thing, but the general idea could be applied in other ways. One of the main tasks in running a spam honeypot is “seeding”. This involves generating email addresses to accidentally-on-purpose leave in plain sight for later harvesting by spammers. If someone were to set up a honeypot with a huge number of domains pointing to it, and with a huge number of active login accounts, those accounts can be leaked or even sold (with all profits going to charity, naturally!) as being demonstrably live and real. If the buyer tests any of them, they’ll work. Set up the honeypot in enough interesting detail, and Mr Big won’t be able to tell he’s been duped for quite some time.
Phishing is popular because it’s easy, relatively safe for the perpetrator, and highly profitable. Frustrating the efforts of criminals, casting doubt on the phished data being sold, and hopefully causing wars between cybergangs is certainly one potentially very entertaining way of fighting back.
Of course, flooding phishing sites with bogus data may already be quietly happening. I certainly hope so…
Pundits pontificating about online fraud is all well and good, but what do the banks think, and how do they protect us?
To find the truth, we talked candidly to a branch manager from UK bank NatWest.
SE: First of all, what’s the scale of the online fraud problem from the bank’s perspective?
I won’t lie. It’s massive. We’re always being told about phishing emails, and you can report them to us online. Scam phone calls pretending to be the bank and asking for your account details and passwords are also huge. Just to be sure, we never ask for passwords. No one does Well, no one legitimate anyway.
SE: If you’re scammed can you get your money back? It all depends. The basic thing is if it’s not a transaction you’ve made, its fraud and we can help. If it’s something you’ve done yourself that’s it, the money’s gone. Where it gets tricky is when you think you’re signing up to a one-off payment but the small print says it’s every month and you don’t realise. It might be cleverly worded, but it’s up to you to read what it is you’re buying. If there’s any doubt, don’t do it or bring it in for us to check.
SE: How do you protect people’s money in general? The monitoring systems now are really good. They put blocks on cards when something suspicious happens, and block dodgy transactions while we find out if they’re legitimate. Tell us you’re going to France for the week and we’ll know not to block your cards if we see a cash withdrawal from Paris. If you tell us you usually go to France about now then we can keep the card active for you. It’s just when we see things out of the ordinary that the system will react. A lot of the time people get their cards blocked on holiday because they forgot to tell us. It’s a pain for them, but if you tell us what you’re doing it’s usually fine.
We see a lot of “Make $2000 a month from home”-style spam. What’s the scam there? It’s usually money laundering. A foreign gang wants your bank details to put money into your account, then you send it on to someone either at home or abroad but keep an agreed percentage as commission. It’s an old one, that. Sometimes, they want you to physically receive and send on stolen bank cards as well, or ones that have been obtained fraudulently. But you’re being used. Basically, if you’re caught acting as a money mule, then you’re as guilty as the bloke who gave you the money to carry. We have a legal obligation to report anything over a certain amount transferred from abroad into people’s accounts. Again, it’s one of the things the system looks for that’s out of the ordinary. Can the banks stop people being duped into sending money to scammers abroad?
You mean like rich Nigerian princes and lottery wins that need a processing fee? At the end of the day, it’s their money. We can only advise. We can say: look, we think this looks like a scam. But if they want to send it abroad then we have to do it for them. If it’s a large amount, we’ll ask them in to sit down and think is this really what they want. [We try to] find out how well they understand what they’re doing and where they’re sending it. We have had cases where people have lost considerable amounts because they’re convinced it’s real.
What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve seen?
I was asked to look at the cash machine outside the branch I was managing once, and there was a piece of wire hanging out of the card slot. That’s all it was. But it prevented the card from being returned, so people walk off thinking the machine’s swallowed it. You pull on the wire and the card pops out. It’s called a Lebanese Loop. Simple and easy. Once you’ve got the card you’ve got the expiry date and the CVV number on the back and you can go shopping. What’s your personal message to customers? Basically, it’s always a scam. If it looks like something where you think you can get one over on the sender, it’s still a scam. These people aren’t stupid. No one wants to give you free money. You haven’t won a foreign lottery, either. There’s no pot of gold. They may only want a small processing fee, but if they get a lot of fees, it’s very profitable for them. Start with the idea that everything’s a scam, ask us to confirm anything you get that you don’t understand and you’ll be alright.
What other guidance is there for people?
There’s lots about but it’s a bit scattered. Barclays did a good TV advert about phone scams. We’ve published a really comprehensive leaflet about online scams in conjunction with the police that covers all the different frauds. You can download that, and we have a web site for reporting scams. But if you have any questions the best thing is to just call the bank or walk into a branch and ask. That’s the best thing.
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