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Spear phishers sharpen skills, craft 'incredible' attacks, say experts

But rash of targeted attacks may also mean more companies coming clean

June 14, 2011 06:44 AM ET

Computerworld - Recent break-ins at high-profile targets like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demonstrate just how proficient hackers have become at "spear phishing," researchers said today.

"Today's spear phishing is not only more prevalent but also much more technically proficient," said Dave Jevans, chairman of the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), an industry association dedicated to fighting online identity theft. Jevans is also the founder and chairman of IronKey, a Sunnyvale, Calif. security company.

"They're not going for a password, anymore, they're getting people to install crimeware on their computers," said Jevans.

Like the more common phishing, spear phishing attacks are launched as emails that try to con the recipient into clicking a link that leads to a malicious Web site. Those sites can take almost infinite forms, from fake account log-in screens to ones that tout a software upgrade to widely-used software, such as Adobe Flash.

In the second scenario, the file is not as advertised, but instead is attack code that infects the computer, giving criminals access to that machine -- and through it, others -- or to confidential information, like account passwords obtained by secretly monitoring the PC's keystrokes.

According to reports by the likes of Bloomberg, the IMF suspected that a phishing attack against one of its workers planted malware on a machine, which was then presumably used to scout the network for data to steal.

But the IMF incident was only the most recent in a series of specialized attacks this year aimed at targets from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the French foreign ministry to Google's Gmail.

All have one thing in common: They relied on spear phishing to fool users into installing malware or revealing account information.

The difference between phishing and spear phishing is while the former floods thousands or even millions of inboxes, the latter targets a small group of previously-identified people, sometimes only a handful who work at the same company or in the same organization.

It's like the difference between two letters asking for a loan: One addressed to "Occupant," the other from a best friend.

A key element of spear phishing is the reconnaissance hackers conduct before they launch their attacks, using the information they find on individuals to personalize the messages or to spoof the sending address of a colleague.

"They're doing a lot more legwork," said Jevans. "There's a lot more data on the Internet, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, that make these emails highly believable. And the malware that they're installing continues to evade antivirus software."

Kevin Haley, director of Symantec's security response team, agreed that cyber criminals have stepped up their spear phishing game.

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