Explosion in ransomware, 0-days driven by cybercriminals' growing professionalism

Online extortionists borrowing from marketing playbook to speed payment as Australia remains world's biggest target

Cybercriminals have become as professional as marketing experts and as well-resourced as nation-state hackers, a Symantec technical expert has warned as new figures suggest Australia remains the APAC region's top ransomware target.

Ransomware authors' growing focus on business targets, a surge in spear-phishing campaigns and a doubling of the number of zero-day vulnerabilities were among the key takeaways from the company's Internet Security Threat Report 2016 (ISTR), which highlights both the diversity and severity of security issues in a climate where victims were being regularly peppered with both insidious new attacks and resurgent older attacks that made a comeback in 2015.

Symantec has seen “an explosion in ransomware” and is currently blocking some 250,000 potential ransomware-loading attachments in Australia alone every year, Symantec security expert Nick Savvides told CSO Australia.

Users were increasingly being pressured to pay ransoms through incentives such as discounts offered for prompt payment.

Ransomware authors are “using skills that marketers have developed to target individuals, and using them for malicious purposes,” Savvides explained.

Businesses were being targeted with increasing regularity, with a business that was attacked once during 2015 likely to be hit three more times before the year's end.

Half of all targeted attacks were focused on small businesses, which comprised a growing proportion of the ransomware targets as cybercriminals set their sights higher.

Competition between ransomware extortionists had ironically improved the quality of the ransomware experience, with some operators setting up call centres to field enquiries and many keeping costs to sub-$500 levels specifically to ensure that individuals and businesses are less likely to try not to pay the ransom.

“This idea of escalating costs creates a sense of urgency – and really speaks to the level of professionalism that has happened in the cybercriminal space.

Rather than being disrupted, the cybercrime ecosystem has matured quite a bit and continues to improve in sophistication with better trading of information, platforms to trade that information, and platforms to facilitate it.”

Cybercriminals were proving equally adept at both creating and disseminating zero-day attacks was pressuring businesses and vendors alike to keep up with ever-changing attack methods, with the ISTR revealing a 125 percent increase in the number of discovered zero-day vulnerabilities during 2015, when a record 54 zero-days were recorded.

In the same time, Symantec discovered some 430 million new pieces of unique malware – 1.179m per day – and blocked some 100 million technical support-emulating scams driven by more focused, more frequent targeted attack campaigns.

Australia's prodigious performance as a ransomware attack target continued from previous years, remaining the most-attacked country for the third year in a row.

The volume of daily ransomware attacks increased by 141 percent over 2014 levels, and Australia was also the second most targeted APAC country and 4th most targeted country globally in terms of spear phishing and targeted attacks.

Australia also ranked second in the APAC region and 7th globally in terms of the number of social-media scams detected.

“Some of the older scams have come back into fashion, and this is a setup for next year as a bigger threat,” Savvides said, noting the surge in fake 'tech support' error messages that had, through increased hacker focus on Internet of Things (IoT) devices, threatened a whole new range of devices.

“The goal is to push people to actually call into those call centres,” he explained, noting that users are still not attuned to be sceptical if an error message pops up on, say, a hacked Linux-based smart TV.

“The message says there is a problem and that you should call in.

It sounds like a fairly lame sort of attack [to technical people] but it is actually quite convincing. Just as in 2013 we were talking about crypto ransomware starting to make a foothold, I think we'll be talking about [IoT attacks] in a little while.”

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Tags Linuxcyber criminalshackattacksspear phishingvendorssymanteccall centresapaczero-day attacksmarketing ITtargeted attack

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