Spam Reduced, Targeted Attacks on the Rise: Cisco

Recent activity indicates a significant reduction in spam levels, but no one should find comfort in this news. Spammers are making it personal, a new report from Cisco suggests, and at fault may be the law enforcement community for taking down the likes of Rustock and other botnets.

If email spam is a recurring nightmare from which you cannot seem to wake, read on. At the half year mark of 2011, some seemingly good news has poked its head over the horizon, with the promise of a brighter future. Unfortunately, the news isn’t all good; in fact, like spammers, it’s a little deceiving.

According to a new (June 2011) report published by Cisco Security Intelligence Operations (SIO) entitled “Email Attacks: This Time It’s Personal,” cybercriminals are dumping the ‘throw it against the wall and see if it sticks’ approach of indiscriminate spam, so much so that Cisco’s reports the, “annualized cybercrime business activity caused by mass, indiscriminate email attacks has declined by more than half.” The report goes on to state that the volume of overall random spam in the past year has declined by more than 80 percent, a figure that sounds a little on the high side, but no one can deny that spam volumes have dipped since the Rustock Botnet takedown in March.

Cisco SIO reports that the financial impact of this decline is significant.

“Cisco SIO estimates that the cybercriminal benefit resulting from traditional mass email-based attacks has declined more than 50 percent: from US$1.1 billion in June 2010 to $500 million in June 2011 on an annualized basis.”

The direct impact of spam emails is even greater, down from 300 billion spam messages a day in June 2010 to 40 billion a day in June 2011.

Generally speaking, people continue to be smart enough to recognize a scam when they see one, but interestingly enough, those who aren’t are getting taken for more money. While Cisco SIO reports that the average user continues to be smart enough not to click that link, resulting in low user conversion rates (the amount of people who actually end up getting fleeced), that this figure “is partially offset by increases in the average user spending on conversions.” Cisco SIO attributes this increase in the spam artists using personalization tools, better-crafted scams and more effective malicious attacks, and reports that the level of personal information being divulged has resulted in larger paydays for the scammers.

So how much does an errant click cost? $250, according to the report. Cisco SIO explains the methodology used in arriving at this figure:

“This amount is in line with the low-end estimate of recent publicly disclosed scams and malicious attacks. For instance, in June 2011, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced a scam email directing recipients to send $350 to obtain a Clearance Certificate or else legal action would be taken against the recipient.”

Now for the bad news:  even though random email spam has experienced a large decline, the amount of money being made by the scammers has quadrupled. Using the estimates explained above, Cisco SIO reports that “scams and malicious attacks (as a sub-category of mass attacks) have grown from US$50 million to US$200 million over the last year on an annualized basis.”

Oh, the irony!

In what feels like a ‘why did they kick the hornets’ nest?’ moment, the Cisco SIO report explains how, in the past year, the face of global cybercrime has morphed into something different, and quite possibly, more dangerous.  “Starting in 2010 and continuing into 2011, the criminal ecosystem has been changing dramatically. Law enforcement authorities and security and industry organizations worldwide have been collaborating to shut down or limit the largest spam-sending botnets and their associates. SpamIt, a large spam-sending affiliate network, ceased operations in October 2010 after its database was leaked and Russian police pressed charges against its owner. Major botnets were severely curtailed or even shut down, including Rustock, Bredolab, and Mega-D.” The end result? “By disrupting the financial and technical business models of key cartels,” Cisco SIO reports, “threat volumes have declined in favor of more lucrative activities.”

Oh, the humanity! If what this report states is true (and it sure sounds about right), then by deposing the former ruler – the incessant glut of email-pushing online pharmacies, instant university degrees, Internet casinos, and secret fortunes waiting to be smuggled out of some foreign country – in its place the law enforcement community has established a new despot: the smarter, more focused scammer!

Evolutionary Change and Survival of the Craftiest

In fact, Cisco SIO reports:

“as part of the evolution of the criminal ecosystem, [the growing number of scams and malicious] attacks are becoming highly focused.”

Scammers are taking greater care in their approach as they carry out schemes designed to rob people of their hard-earned Benjamins. They’re taking to other means – such as SMS, social media like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, the tried-and-true telephone scam, and even  eBook readers – and they “are choosing their targets with greater care, using personalized information such as a user’s geographical location or job position.” Examples of these scams, Cisco SIO reports, are:

  • SMS financial fraud scams to specific locales
  • Email campaigns that use URL shortening services
  • Social media scams, where the criminal befriends a user or group of users for financial gain

Spearphishing is on the rise and has experienced its own evolution, Cisco SIO states:

“Spearphishing attacks are aimed at a specific profile of users, often high-ranking organizational users who have access to commercial bank accounts. Spearphishing attacks are typically well crafted; they use contextual information to make users believe they are interacting with legitimate content.”

If the cyber scammers are getting smarter, then it’s imperative that we, too, evolve. Cyber criminals made $150 million this year from spear phishing, according to Cisco, and that kind of return on investment speaks for itself. Spam won’t go away, ever. But like a nasty super virus that evolves and mutates into an antibiotic-resistant strain, spam marches on, even if it’s only to the beat of a new drum.

Written by Malcolm James

0 Comments

  1. Aaron Shuck · July 8, 2011

    I find this report so confusing and insulting to law enforcement agencies that took down several spam HQs. We should thank those officers. What we should blame are the insecure systems applied by most platforms, such as those used by popular social media.

    Social media is on the rise. This is the main reason why spammers are getting more personal with their attacks. With this growth, they should also beef-up their network security.

  2. Ricky Faderland · July 8, 2011

    There’s always going to be those people trying to make the quick buck. And what spammers and spam victims often fail to realize is that they are often both in that group, only the spammers feed off the more gullible and cooperative.

    In that regard, I almost feel like we may be getting to a point where we might reminisce about the good old days of pharmaceutical spam in comparison to malicious, crafted, targeted attacks designed to play against a person’s anxieties or insecurities. When you turn crime into a personal issue, personal lives and vulnerabilties become what’s at stake. Not just money to be gained.

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