While the government is focused on the dangers of ransomware, phishing campaigns can circumvent the usual protections placed on its networks.
Over the past couple years, ransomware has become one of the top threats on the minds of most people struggling to protect their agencies and organizations. For the most part, ransomware gangs have steered clear of directly confronting the federal government, although critical infrastructure, schools, state and local governments and even hospitals have become frequent targets. And most of the highest profile attacks in recent years, like the one made against Colonial Pipeline, were based on ransomware.
Ransomware will continue to be a serious threat for many years to come. However, in terms of attacks directly targeting federal agencies, it may soon be supplanted by another dangerous threat: phishing.
At the most basic level, an attacker using a phishing attack sends an email supposedly coming from a co-worker or a boss asking an employee to take some kind of action or provide information. If the victim falls for the ruse, they might end up sharing their password, which could lead to secondary attacks. Or they might even do something like transfer money directly to an attacker, thinking they are doing a favor for their boss or a colleague.
Because the initial phases of a phishing attack do not mess with a victim’s computers or network, attackers seem more willing to target the federal government. In fact, some phishing attacks never actually touch a victim’s network at all, which helps to keep them away from many of the cybersecurity defenses that might stop a more heavy-handed intrusion.
For example, one extremely successful—at least initially—phisher was able to trick the government into sending them millions of dollars. According to news reports, a California man set up the dia-mil.com domain as a phishing base of operations. The domain is extremely close to the dia.mil one used by the Defense Intelligence Service (DIA). It was close enough that the attacker was able to trick the government into sending over $23 million to their personal account. The money was supposed to go towards buying jet fuel, and the phishing attacker’s victims thought that was what they were doing. But instead of interacting with a legitimate government partner, they were sending the funds to the attacker.
Ronnie Tokazowski, the principal threat advisor with Cofense, a security firm that studies this issue, explained why nobody, even government agencies, are safe from phishing campaigns these days. “Everyone around the globe uses email for business, which makes them a ripe target for attackers and scammers. To make it more likely that a victim will click a phishing email, attackers go to great lengths to make phishing emails look as legitimate as possible, through techniques such as impersonating a brand,” Tokazowski said. “In addition, many scams exploit human emotions to make things seem more urgent or relative.”
The attacker in California was eventually caught and convicted of wire fraud and other crimes, but it’s interesting that they were able to get so far into their scheme without having to actually compromise any federal networks. A phishing email campaign was all that was needed. Had they been able better hide their bank account, or had it been located somewhere outside of the reach of law enforcement, they might have gotten away with it.
Sean McNee, the chief technology officer for DomainTools, said that the DIA incident was an excellent reminder of why phishing attacks are becoming the tool of choice for criminals looking for money or information. “These kinds of phishing attacks from a dedicated actor show how important it is for an organization to monitor communications with its supply chain as part of a healthy security practice,” he said. “If you receive an unsolicited email from someone appearing to be a partner, make contact via an established channel which can be verified in order to establish the legitimacy of an email, avoid clicking on unsolicited links, and do not provide any financial information until the communication has been verified.”
As pointed out by McNee, although many phishing threats are able to get around traditional defenses, agencies are not without protection. According to many experts, good defenses rely on both technology and training, as well as having good checks and balances in place for critical or highly-targeted functions, like transferring money.
Tokazowski agrees, stressing that technology needs to work with people in order to thwart phishing. “Email gateways are excellent at mitigating against known threats and campaigns, however, attacks will still land in a user’s inbox, leaving a company vulnerable,” Tokazowski said. “Training users what phishing emails look like and teaching them to report the email is critical, so the security team can mitigate a potential threat and reduce the overall risk of the campaign. Bolstering a culture around reporting phishing emails is key, because at the end of the day this is a problem plaguing every organization. Also, to help lower the risks associated with compromised accounts, organizations should ensure that users have two-factor authentication enabled.”
Unfortunately, many experts say that the DIA attack is probably not an outlier. Cofense recently released its Cofense 2022 Annual State of Phishing Report, which paints a pretty grim picture. Compared with something like ransomware, which requires that attackers actually infiltrate networks and go toe-to-toe with cybersecurity defenses and defenders, most phishing attacks only need to touch networks using email—a technology that no agency, company or organization can live without. Technology can filter out a lot of those threats, but the chance that a phishing email will eventually land inside a user’s inbox at some point is pretty high. As such, it will require both technology and user training to fully defeat.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys