Call it a case of locking the back window while leaving the front door wide open. A year into the pandemic and amid successful attacks on GoDaddy1, Magellan Health², and a continuous stream of revelations about the SolarWinds “hack of the decade,” cyber-attackers are proving all too successful at circumventing the elaborate defenses erected against them³. But despite billions spent on perimeter and endpoint security, phishing and business email compromise (BEC) scams continue to be the primary attack vectors into organizations, often giving threat actors the toehold they need to wreak havoc. In addition to nearly $7.5 billion in direct losses each year, advanced email threats like the kind implicated in the SolarWinds case⁴ suggest the price tag could be much higher. As corroborated in this analysis from the Agari Cyber Intelligence Division (ACID), the success of these attacks is growing far less reliant on complex technology than on savvy social engineering ploys that easily evade most of the email defenses in use today.
Credential phishing accounted for 63% of all phishing attacks during the second half of 2020 as schemes related to COVID-19 gave way to a sharp rise in payroll diversion scams, as well as fraudulent Zoom, Microsoft and Amazon alerts targeting millions of corporate employees working from home. Meanwhile, the state-sponsored operatives behind the SolarWinds hack were just a few of the more sophisticated threat actors moving into vendor email compromise (VEC) and other forms of BEC. Emerging “capital call” payment scams, for instance, have targeted more than $800,000 in wire transfers—seven times the average $72,000 sought in most BEC attacks.
Amid the pandemic, a blistering threat landscape extending to each remote worker has Security Operations Centers (SOCs) buried under more employee-reported phishing emails than they can possibly handle. As our H1 2021 ACID Phishing Response Survey of aggregated client data reveals, the time-intensive tasks required to analyze, triage, and remediate these incidents are exacerbated by a staggering 61% false positive rate—even as more legitimate threats hit home. A welcome bright spot: Organizations leveraging advanced phishing response workflows report detecting and remediating 88X more verified malicious emails similar or connected to those submitted to employees.
Global adoption of Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) leapt 32% during the second half of 2020. But during a six-month period that saw 5.8 billion malicious emails spoof corporate domains, the number of Fortune 500 companies to deploy DMARC rose only modestly—including a 4% increase in domains with DMARC set at its most aggressive level of enforcement. While any rise in that number is encouraging, it means 76% of the nation’s most prominent companies remain at risk of impersonation in phishing attacks targeting their customers and the general public. Far more promising: The 82% rise in the number of brands adopting Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI) at a time when the email channel is more crucial than ever.
The intelligence presented in this report reflect data captured via the following sources from July through December 2020:</P
Agari Cyber Intelligence Division (ACID) is the world’s only counterintelligence research group dedicated to business email compromise (BEC) investigation and cybercrime abatement. Since May 2019, ACID has conducted more than 12,000 active defense engagements with threat actors. ACID works closely with CISOs at global enterprises, law enforcement, and other trusted partners to stop identity-based phishing and socially-engineered cybercrimes.