Report: 25 Percent Of Targeted Computer Attacks In October Destined For Retail Sector

Symantec Corp. recently announced the publication of its October MessageLabs Intelligence Report.

Analysis reveals that targeted attacks have increased significantly since they were first discovered five years ago from one to two attacks per week in 2005 to 77 attacks per day in October.

For the first time, targeted attacks hit the retail sector hardest this month where they increased from a steady monthly average of .5 percent of all attacks over the past two years to 25 percent in October characterized by a retail organization that was the intended recipient of three waves of highly targeted spear phishing attacks. In October, 1 in 1.26 million e-mails comprised a targeted attack.

Typically, between 200 and 300 organizations are targeted each month with the industry sector varying. Over time, the same individuals are targeted but using different exploit methods. For example, in October, an average of 5.4 users was targeted within each organization.

“While targeted e-mails by nature are sent in low volumes, they are one of the most damaging types of malicious attacks,” said MessageLabs Intelligence Senior Analyst Paul Wood. “We have seen a constant influx of targeted attacks over the past six months with the type of organization targeted changing on a monthly basis and the number of targeted users increasing each month. Although the number of unique attack exploits being deployed has diminished slightly, the number of attacks used by each exploit has increased.” 

In October, the number of targeted attacks aimed at businesses in the Retail sector rose considerably above the monthly average of 1 in 1.26 million, increasing the likelihood of an attack by a factor of almost 6.3 times. Moreover, the number of attacks against the retail sector jumped to 516 in the last month, compared to just seven attacks per month for much of 2010 marking the first time the retail sector had been the focus of a targeted attack campaign in recent years.

“Of the 516 attacks, only six organizations were the intended targets but two of them were mainly targeted one of which was the target of 63 percent of the 516 attacks,” Wood said. “The spear phishing attacks, launched in three waves each one week apart, used social engineering techniques to distribute legitimate-looking e-mails from HR and IT staff of the targeted organization but in actuality contained malicious attachments.”

Each wave was comprised of one or two different e-mail messages using different themes. The first wave of e-mails targeted 50 recipients and spoofed an e-mail address from the firm’s Senior HR Executive with subjects referring to confidential salary information. The attachment contained a malicious PDF. The second wave also spoofed an HR Executive and targeted 20 recipients with a subject line pertaining to new employment opportunities.

The malicious attachment was an XLS file. The third wave took a slightly different approach and spoofed one of the organization’s Senior IT Security Executives. It targeted 70 employees and requested action with a critical security update. The malicious attachment was a password-protected zip file.

“Examination of the attacks’ timing and techniques suggests a methodical approach on behalf of the attackers,” Wood said. “In the case that the recipient clicked on any of the three malicious attachments, a backdoor Trojan would have been installed onto the computer with the potential for the attacker to gain access to any sensitive personal information or valuable corporate data on the machine.”

Spam: In October 2010, the global ratio of spam in e-mail traffic from new and previously unknown bad sources was 87.5 percent (1 in 1.4 e-mails), a decrease of 4.2 percentage points since September.

Viruses: The global ratio of e-mail-borne viruses in e-mail traffic from new and previously unknown bad sources was one in 221.9 e-mails (0.45 percent) in October, an decrease of .01 percentage points since September. In October, 23.1 percent of e-mail-borne malware contained links to malicious websites, an increase of 15.5 percentage points since September.

Endpoint Threats: Threats against endpoint devices such as laptops, PCs and servers may penetrate an organization in a number of ways, including drive-by attacks from compromised websites, Trojan horses and worms that spread by copying themselves to removable drives. Analysis of the most frequently blocked malware for the last month revealed that the Sality.AE virus was the most prevalent. Sality.AE spreads by infecting executable files and attempts to download potentially malicious files from the Internet.

Phishing: In October, phishing activity was 1 in 488.0 e-mails (0.20 percent), a decrease of 0.06 percentage points since September.

 Web security: Analysis of web security activity shows that 51.3 percent of malicious domains blocked were new in October, an increase of 17.7 percentage points since September. Additionally, 24.7 percent of all web-based malware blocked was new in October, an increase of 2.9 percentage points since last month. MessageLabs Intelligence also identified an average of 2,280 new websites per day harboring malware and other potentially unwanted programs such as spyware and adware, a decrease of 23.9 percent since September.

Geographical Trends:

  • Luxembourg became the most spammed in October with a spam rate of 94.9 percent.
  • In the U.S., 91.6 percent of e-mail was spam and 91.3 percent in Canada. Spam levels in the UK were 91.1 percent.
  • In the Netherlands, spam accounted for 92.3 percent of e-mail traffic, while spam levels reached 91.6 percent in Germany, 93.3 percent in Denmark and 90.8 percent in Australia.  
  • Spam levels in Hong Kong reached 93.3 percent and 90.2 percent in Singapore. Spam levels in Japan were at 89.6 percent and 93.8 percent in China. In South Africa, spam accounted for 91.0 percent of e-mail traffic.
  • South Africa remained the most targeted by e-mail-borne malware with 1 in 113.7 e-mails blocked as malicious in October.
  • In the UK, 1 in 127.1 e-mails contained malware. In the US virus levels were 1 in 425.3 and 1 in 254.5 for Canada. In Germany, virus levels reached 1 in 219.3, 1 in 215.7 in Denmark, 1 in 278.9 for the Netherlands.
  • In Australia, 1 in 474.5 e-mails were malicious and, 1 in 157.0 for Hong Kong, for Japan it was 1 in 738.1 compared with 1 in 576.4 for Singapore.

 Vertical Trends:

  • In October, the most spammed industry sector with a spam rate of 93.5 percent continued to be the Automotive sector.
  • Spam levels for the Education sector were 92.1 percent, 91.8 percent for the Chemical & Pharmaceutical sector, 91.6 percent for IT Services, 91.5 percent for Retail, 91.0 percent for Public Sector and 90.5 percent for Finance.
  •  In October, Government/Public Sector remained the most targeted industry for malware with 1 in 43.2 e-mails being blocked as malicious. 
  • Virus levels for the Chemical & Pharmaceutical sector were 1 in 188.4, 1 in 224.4 for the IT Services sector, 1 in 386.0 for Retail, 1 in 167.7 for Education and 1 in 361.3 for Finance.
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