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Cybercriminals count on human interaction in 99% of attacks, research shows


September 10, 2019

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Cybercriminals count on human interaction in 99% of attacks, research shows

Cybercrooks exploit human flaws in about 99% of their attacks, using social engineering across email, cloud applications and social media to gain a foothold in a targeted infrastructure, new research shows. Almost all cyber-attacks begin with luring employees into clicking on malicious content.

Cybercriminals target mainly people, rather than systems, to install malware, steal data or initiate fraudulent transactions, according to Proofpoint”s 2019 Human Factor report.

“Cybercriminals are aggressively targeting people because sending fraudulent emails, stealing credentials, and uploading malicious attachments to cloud applications is easier and far more profitable than creating an expensive, time-consuming exploit that has a high probability of failure,” says Proofpoint”s chief of threat operations.

More than 99% of threats require human interaction to execute, such as enabling a macro, opening a file, following a link, or opening a malicious document. This means social engineering plays a crucial role in a successful attack.

Nearly 1 in 4 phishing emails sent in 2018 were associated with Microsoft products, and the top phishing lures focused on credential theft, creating feedback loops, lateral movement and internal phishing.

Hackers are refining tools and techniques while the top malware families over the past 18 months have consistently included banking Trojans, information stealers, RATs, and malware designed to remain undetected on infected devices and exfiltrate data to help in future attacks.

Other findings include:

  • Imposters mimic business routines to evade detection (message delivery closely mirrors legitimate organizational email traffic patterns)
  • Malware actors are less likely to follow expected email traffic (i.e. campaigns that began on Sundays)
  • Click times show significant geographic differences, reflecting differences in work culture and email habits between major global regions
  • Education, finance and advertising/marketing topped the industries with the highest average Attack Index
  • The Chalbhai phish kit was the the third-most-popular lure in the first half of 2019
  • The most effective phishing lures in 2018 were dominated by “Brainfood,” a diet and brain enhancement affiliate scam that harvests credit cards, which had click rates over 1.6 clicks per message, indicating that attackers also leverage human insecurity with great success

The results underscore the importance of conducting thorough cybersecurity audits as well as staff training, as employees remain the weakest link in targeted cyber threats.




Filip has 15 years of experience in technology journalism. In recent years, he has turned his focus to cybersecurity in his role as Information Security Analyst at Bitdefender.

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