Phishing email nets two thirds of staff at one company

A new IT security penetration testing service has given an alarming glimpse at the ease with which cyber adversaries can compromise companies and government agencies.

FireEye’s newly launched Mandiant Red Team Operations has revealed that it was able to use a phishing email to fool two thirds of 600 staff at a Silicon Valley company into divulging their passwords to a spoofed login portal.

It said it was also able to use a similar technique to “compromise a foreign government” by creating a more secure version of the administration’s self-service web portal.

Marshall Heilman, FireEye’s vice president and executive director of incident response and red team operations, said that the trend showed no sign of abating.

“As we have seen over the last 12 years, determined threat actors will find a way into networks to carry out intellectual property theft, destroy systems, ransom or steal data, or conduct espionage and ultimately maintain their presence for as long as possible,” Mr Heilman said.

The revelations underscore a growing trend toward socially engineered cyber attacks on senior staff within large organisations.

IT security provider BAE systems said that it was facing a continuing trend in which its clients were facing so-called “whaling attacks” – social engineering attacks aimed at senior executives with the ability to authorise large cash transfers.

Rajiv Shah, General Manager of BAE Systems Australian and New Zealand said that while attacks could involve the loss of large sums of money it was a largely an invisible problem because victim companies were often embarrassed about disclosing them.

“Certainly we’ve seen more cases of it in the last year or so. It’s difficult to get accurate information on this because it’s not openly reported – if something happens then they try to keep it quiet,” Mr Shah said.

Attackers could typically cover their tracks within a few days making it difficult for law enforcement authorities act to recover lost funds, Mr Shah explained.

In particular, he said that cyber attackers were getting better at cloaking attribution and misdirecting investigators.

Companies and large organisation needed to do more to investigate for weaknesses in their business process and arm employees with information that can help them detect suspicious transactions, Mr Shah said.

“They have to make sure that those with authority to authorise these sorts of transactions are aware of these sorts of scams. It could just be asking a couple of questions like ‘that looks a bit unusual, we’ve never done that before’. Maybe I should pick up the phone and talk to someone,” he explained.

Read more: What is a Hack?

BAE declined to reveal how many of its clients had been exposed to whaling attacks.

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Tags social engineeringcyber attacksIT SecuritythreatFireEyesilicon valleyBAE Systemsphishing emailweb portalspoof sitewhaling attackMandiant Red Team

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Andrew Colley

CSO Online
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