18 Sep

A bi-annual study by FireEye has found that less than a third of over half a billion emails analysed were considered clean enough not to be blocked from entering our inboxes.

Phishing Problem Evident

The study found that even though 9 out of 10 emails that are blocked by email security / anti-virus didn’t actually contain malware, 81% of the blocked emails were phishing attacks. This figure is double that of the previous 6 months.

Webroot’s Quarterly Threat Trends Report data, for example, shows that 1.39 million new phishing sites are created each month, and that this figure was even as high as 2.3 million in May last year. It is likely that phishing attacks have increased so much because organisations have been focusing too much of their security efforts on detecting malware. Also, human error is likely to be a weak link in any company, and phishing has proven to be very successful, sometimes delivering results in a second wave as well as the first attack. For example, in the wake of the TSB bank system meltdown, phishing attacks on TSB customers increased by 843% in May compared with April.

A recent KnowBe4 study involved sending phishing test emails to 6 million people, and the study found that recipients were most likely to click on phishing emails when they promised money or threatened the loss of money. This highlights a classic human weakness that always provides hope to cyber-criminals, and the same criminals know that the most effective templates for phishing are the ones that cause a knee-jerk reaction in the recipient i.e. the alarming or urgent nature of the subject makes the recipient react without thinking.

Increase In Malicious Intent Emails

The FireEye study also highlighted the fact that there has been an increase over the last 6 months in the emails sent to us that have malicious intent. For example, the latest study showed that one in every 101 emails had malicious intent, whereas this figure was one in every 131 in the previous 6 months.

Biggest Vulnerability

As FireEye noted after seeing the findings of their research, email is the most popular vector for cyber attacks, and it is this that makes email the biggest vulnerability for every organisation.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

It is very worrying that we can only really trust less than one third of emails being sent to businesses as being ‘clean’ enough and free enough of obvious criminal intent to be allowed through to the company inbox. It is, of course, important to have effective anti-virus / anti-malware protection in place on email programs, but phishing emails are able to get past this kind of protection, along with other methods such as impersonation attacks like CEO fraud. Organisations, therefore, need to focus on making sure that staff are sufficiently trained and educated about the threats and the warning signs, and that there are clear procedures and lines of responsibility in place to be followed when emails relating to e.g. transfer of money (even to what appears to be the CEO) are concerned.

Cyber-criminals are getting bolder and more sophisticated, and companies need to ensure that there is no room for weak ‘human error’ links of the front line.