An analysis of the current cyber threat landscape

Over the last few years, it appears that although certain industries are targeted by cyber attacks more than others, the methods used across the board are usually the same.

Prominent incidents identified over 2016–2017 almost always involved one of the following:

  • Phishing and other email scams
  • Ransomware
  • Botnets
  • DDoS
  • Malware-as-a-Service
  • Supply Chain Security

In this article we investigate what cyber-attacks have been prominent over the last 12 months, what trends will continue for the remainder of 2017, and what can be done to minimise your risk of attack.

Phishing and other email scams

Phishing, spear-phishing (targeted phishing of specific individuals) and other email scams continue to be a major threat to businesses. In an era of large-scale security infrastructure investment, users are consistently the weak link in the chain.

The Symantec Internet Security Threat Report 2017[1] and ENISA Threat Landscape Report 2016[2] state the threat of phishing is intensifying despite the overall number of attacks gradually declining, which is suggestive of an increase in the sophistication and effectiveness of attacks. In all likelihood, this is due to cyber criminals moving away from volume-based attacks to more targeted and convincing scams. This transition is motivated by the higher success rate of tailored attacks, however greater effort is required by way of research into viable targets using open source material such as social media and social engineering.

This shift in approach is consistent with the observed growth of business-focussed email scams in the last 18 months. Cyber attackers begin by conducting extensive research on businesses they wish to target in order to identify key staff members — particularly those with privileged access, a degree of control over the business’ financial transactions, or in a position of authority.

These scams typically involve cyber attackers crafting emails that request an urgent transfer of funds, seemingly from a trusted party such as a senior manager in the business or an external contractor / supplier who is regularly dealt with. Following a global survey of business email scams, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center reported this type of attack continues to surge in prominence, with:

  • US and foreign victims reporting 24,345 cases by December 2016 — a significant increase from only 668 reported cases just six months earlier (the actual number is likely to be much higher as many cases go unreported).
  • Attackers attempting to steal a total of USD$5.3 billion through reported business email scams by the end of 2016, compared to USD$3.1 billion only 6 months earlier.[3]


Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts users’ data in order to demand payment for the purported safe return of files, typically via a decryption key, typically using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The most prominent example of this form of attack was the Wannacry attack of May 2017, in which cybercriminals distributed the ransomware strain via an underlying software vulnerability in the Microsoft Windows operating system.

Due to the relatively low ‘barrier to entry’ and potentially lucrative rewards for even inexperienced cyber attackers, we have continued to see significant growth in the use of ransomware since 2016. In January 2016, ransomware accounted for only 18% of the global malware payloads delivered by spam and exploit kits; ten months later, ransomware accounted for 66% of all malware payloads — an increase of 267%[4].

Not only is ransomware one of the most popular attack vectors for cyber attackers, it is also among the most harmful. The cost of the ransom is only one aspect to consider — system downtime can have a significant impact on sales, productivity and customer or supplier relationships. In some cases (e.g. medical facilities), ransomware infections could potentially cost lives.

The success rate of ransomware is largely attributable to the exploitation of an organisation’s end users who typically have limited training and expertise in cyber security. In addition, once ransomware has infiltrated an organisation, many find it difficult to effectively resolve the effects without paying the ransom demanded by the attackers.

There is no guarantee attackers will provide the key for decrypting files if the ransom is paid however, and relying on payment of the ransom as a ‘get out of jail’ tactic is a risky choice. Further, payment of the ransom further encourages these sorts of attacks, and furthers development of ransomware technology. Hivint’s article ‘Ransomware: a History and Taxonomy’[5] provides an in-depth analysis of the growing problem of ransomware.

Ransomware is likely to be a thorn in the side of organisations for some time to come, and through increasingly diverse avenues. The 2017 SonicWall Annual Threat Report highlights that there is likely to be a greater focus on the industrial, medical and financial sectors due to their particularly low tolerance for system downtime or loss of data availability[6].

Similarly, internetworked physical devices — often referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT) — are also increasingly being targeted due to the fact they are not designed with security as a central consideration at present. While the majority of IoT devices can simply be re-flashed to recover from an attack as they do not store data, organisations and end users may rely on critical devices where any amount of downtime is problematic, such as medical devices or infrastructure. How the design and implementation of IoT devices shifts in response to the growing threat of ransomware will be one of the more interesting spaces to watch for the remainder of 2017 and beyond.

Botnets and DDoS

As with ransomware, the increased inter-connectivity of everyday devices such as lights, home appliances, vehicles and medical instruments is leading to their increased assimilation into botnets to be used in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

Software on IoT devices is often poorly maintained and patched. Many new types of malware search for IoT devices with factory default or hardcoded user names and passwords and, after compromising them, uses their Internet connectivity to contribute to DDoS attacks. Due to the rapidly increasing number of IoT devices, this is paving the way for attacks at a scale that DDoS mitigation firms may struggle to handle[10]. The Thales 2017 Data Threat Report suggests that 6.4 billion IoT devices were in use worldwide by 2016 and that this number is forecast to increase to 20 billion devices by 2020.[7]

While the growth of interconnected devices is inevitable, we expect that their rate of exploitation will stabilise in the next few years given the emergence of IoT security bodies such as IoTSec Australia and the IoT Security Foundation. It is likely that device manufacturers will also be pushed to comply with security standards and to make security a more central consideration during design.


Hacking toolkits are being made available online, some for free, effectively creating an open source community for cyber criminals[8]. There are also paid business models known as “Malware-as-a-Service” for less experienced attackers, where payment is made for another attacker to run the campaign on their behalf. This reduces the barrier to entry for potential cyber attackers and also facilitates the rapid evolution of malware strains, making evasion of anti-malware end point protection tools more frequent. We expect this trend will continue as sophisticated cyber attackers increasingly move towards the malware-as-a-service business model.

Supply Chain Security

It’s important to be mindful that cyber attackers may also seek to exploit supply chain partners as a way to compromise the security of a business indirectly. The 2013 breach of US company Target is an example of this, as attackers stole remote access credentials from a third-party supplier of services[9]. We have also seen reports of attacks against managed service providers here in Australia, as a way of indirectly compromising the providers’ customers.

What should you do?

The good news is that most of these threats can be mitigated with a small number of relatively basic controls in place — none of which should come as a surprise:


Keeping your systems patched and up-to-date can prevent cyber attackers from being able to exploit the vulnerabilities that allow them to install malicious software on your networks and systems. Unpatched Windows systems were the reason the Wannacry ransomware attack was so prolific.

User Awareness

User awareness training can significantly reduce the likelihood of malware compromising your organisation’s security. Users that can, among other things, confidently identify and report suspicious emails and exercise good removable media security practices can put your security team on the front foot.

Changing default password credentials

The main attack vector for IoT devices is unchanged factory default access credentials after installation. Changing the password, or disabling the default accounts, will prevent the majority of attacks on IoT devices. This is also the case for hardware more generally, such as routers and end-user devices.

Segregate BYOD and IoT devices from other systems on your network

Placing IoT devices and uncontrolled bring-your-own devices (BYOD) on a separate network can isolate the effects of any active vulnerabilities from your critical systems.

Backup and recovery

Having all your critical data regularly backed up both offline and in the cloud can mitigate the risk of malware — particularly ransomware — from causing major damage to your business. It’s also just as important to regularly test your recovery plans to ensure they work effectively, since restoring systems to a previous state without significant downtime or loss of data is the key to damage control.

Security Colony

At we have a variety of resources that can help in strengthening your organisation’s preparedness for cyber attacks, including user awareness materials, incident response templates, security policies and procedures and a vendor risk assessment tool to help assess the security posture of your vendors’ internet-facing presence. Other resources available include an “Ask Hivint” forum for those more esoteric questions and breach monitoring to identify whether your users or domain has been caught up in a previous security incident.




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The Growth of the Business Email Scams Threat

In the last year, there has been a trend towards the commission of payment scams that target employees of companies by attempting to convince them to transfer money to cyber criminals. Commonly referred to as business email compromise (BEC) scams, they generally involve scammers sending emails that appear to come from senior staff at an organisation (hence sometimes being referred to as “CEO fraud”) and requesting that a sum of money be transferred to a third party’s bank account (controlled by the scammers). Brian Krebs has written about these attempts in his blog, here and here. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), these scams have generated reported losses of $1.2 billion internationally between October 2013 and August 2015.

Two recent examples of these scams reported to us by our clients demonstrate the different types of organisations that can be targeted by these scams.

The first scam described below targeted a sporting club and demonstrates how a business email scam can be executed in a relatively simple and innocuous fashion. The second is an example of a slightly more complex version targeted at a financial technology company that required more effort to execute, and which ultimately needed execution of the company’s incident response plan to investigate and resolve the incident.

Case Study — A Sports Club is Targeted

The first business email scam targeted a small sporting club that had published the contact details and roles for all of its board members on its website. This meant the scammer had to exercise a minimum amount of effort in order to craft the scam — all the contact details and roles for the board members were clearly available. Initial contact was made by the scammer via email (posing as the President) to the Treasurer, John, to start the conversation.

In this case, the Treasurer became suspicious and was quick-thinking enough to call the President to seek verbal confirmation of the transfer request. This gave the game away and revealed that the club was being scammed.

Hivint was contacted to provide further analysis and advice on the email scam, as the club staff members who were targeted in the scam were unsure if the scam indicated a system compromise or similar. Once the emails were received, a simple check of the email headers (below) of the original email identified the ruse.

As the email headers reveal, the “Authenticated sender” or real scammer’s email was different from the address shown in the actual email. A google search shows to have been used before in scams.

In addition, the “Reply-To” address of did not actually belong to the club’s President, and directed the target’s response to an email address controlled by the scammer. A check of the return email address when responding would also have given this away.

The Second Scam — A Financial Technology Company

The next occurrence of a business email scam that Hivint was made aware of came from a financial technology company we work with. They had received a phishing email similarly requesting money from the financial team.

This attempt took more effort as the scam clearly involved more research and customisation by the scammer.

While the content of the email was consistent with most business email scams (see below), there were some distinguishing features which contributed to the scam almost being successful.

In this case, the attacker registered a domain with a very similar domain to the target business — an extra letter was added to the domain name — e.g. was registered as This meant that the reply-to address closely resembled an email address that belonged to the company’s actual registered domain name, making the scam harder to detect unless anything more than a cursory examination of the reply-to address was undertaken.


There are a number of attacks which are high volume/low value. For example, attempting to force payment through cryptolocker only works if the price is within the victim’s “pain point” or ability to pay. The business email scam, however, has no force behind the request for payment. The scam only works if the victim doesn’t know they’re getting scammed. And this takes effort, which means that the payoff has to be worth it for the perpetrator.

Even spending a few weeks on researching a victim and crafting an attack for a five figure payout would still be highly profitable for a scammer, and a growing $1.2 billion pot of money derived from these scams shows that they can be lucrative.

That there is continuing growth in these scams demonstrates that this threat is worth countering, and there are some fairly basic steps to undertake should you want to reduce the risk of these types of attacks occurring at your company, and the likelihood that they will be successful.


Exercise proper security hygiene to protect your online identity.

Don’t publish the contact details and position names of specific staff on publicly accessible places on the internet; particularly staff with payment-related responsibilities. Instead, use an email form that sends to a generic email address — — and distribute emails to relevant personnel from there.

Separation of Duties

Should a request come to an individual for payment of a sum of money (whether for an invoice or otherwise), a check should be made that the payment is in fact legitimate (e.g. through verbal confirmation, or confirmation there is an associated Purchase Order number or invoice) and approved by a relevant authority.
Basically, no business processes should fundamentally tie the receipt of an email with a money transfer.

Security Awareness

Ensure education on email scams is included in your organisational security awareness program.

Check your registered domains

Andrew Horton’s URLCrazy (included in Kali Linux) can be used to keep an eye on domains registered with similar domain names to your business.
Buy the domains that you can, and consider blocking emails from similar domains already registered, or generating an alert should an email arrive from these domains.

And Finally

Remember, if something about an email doesn’t seem right, making simple checks that you’re corresponding with a legitimate sender will go a long way to ensure you are not defrauded. In particular:

  • Double check whom you’re actually responding to — if the reply address for the email is different once you’ve hit “reply” then it may have been sent by a scammer. If the email looks legitimate, then check the spelling of the email address to ensure the domain name is not misspelt.
  • Contact the purported sender of the email using a known telephone number (i.e. not a contact number given in the email) before executing any money transfers. Even if an attacker has gone out of their way not to just spoof an email address, but has control of your entire IT environment, using an “out-of-band” method to contact the legitimate person can help verify the authenticity of the email.

And finally, should you still fall victim to a payment scam, contact your financial institution as soon as possible.

By Ben Waters, Senior Security Advisor at Hivint. For more of Hivint’s latest cyber security research, as well as to access our extensive library of re-usable cyber security resources for organisations, visit Security Colony