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New study reveals opportunistic behaviour of cyber criminals

By Catherine Knowles
Fri 29 Jul 2022

According to a new report from Palo Alto Networks, the heavy use of software vulnerabilities matches the opportunistic behaviour of threat actors who scour the internet for vulnerabilities and weak points on which to focus.

The 2022 Unit 42 Incident Response Report offers a multitude of insights gleaned from Unit 42 by Palo Alto Networks extensive incident response (IR) work, leveraging a sampling of over 600 Unit 42 IR cases, to help CISOs and security teams understand the greatest security risks they face, and where to prioritise resources to reduce them.

In the report, Unit 42 identified that finance and real estate were among the industries that received the highest average ransom demands, with an average demand of nearly $8 million and $5.2 million, respectively.

Overall, ransomware and business email compromise (BEC) were the top incident types that the Incident Response team responded to over the past 12 months, accounting for approximately 70% of incident response cases.

Wendi Whitmore, SVP and head of Unit 42 at Palo Alto Networks, says, "Right now, cyber crime is an easy business to get into because of its low cost and often high returns. As such, unskilled, novice threat actors can get started with access to tools like hacking-as-a-service becoming more popular and available on the dark web.

"Ransomware attackers are also becoming more organised with their customer service and satisfaction surveys as they engage with cyber criminals and the victimised organisations."

Key trends covered in the report include:

Ransomware

A new ransomware victim is posted on leak sites every four hours. Identifying ransomware activity early is critical for organisations. Typically, ransomware actors are only discovered after files are encrypted, and the victim organisation receives a ransom note.

Unit 42 has identified that the median dwell time - meaning the time threat actors spend in a targeted environment before being detected - observed for ransomware attacks was 28 days.

Ransom demands have been as high as $30 million, and actual payouts have been as high as $8 million, a steady increase compared to the findings of the 2022 Unit 42 Ransomware Report.

Increasingly, affected organisations can also expect threat actors to use double extortion, threatening to publicly release sensitive information if a ransom isn't paid.

BEC

Cyber criminals used a variety of techniques in business email compromise wire-fraud schemes. Forms of social engineering, such as phishing, offer an easy and cost-effective way to gain covert access while maintaining a low risk of discovery.

According to the report, in many cases cyber criminals are simply asking their unwitting targets to hand over their credentials - and getting them. Once they have access, the median dwell time for BEC attacks was 38 days, and the average amount stolen was $286,000.

Affected industries

Attackers follow the money when it comes to targeting industries; however, many attackers are opportunistic, simply scanning the internet in search of systems where they can leverage known vulnerabilities.

Unit 42 identified the top affected industries in incident response cases as finance, professional and legal services, manufacturing, healthcare, high tech, and wholesale and retail. Organisations within these industries store, transmit and process high volumes of monetisable sensitive information that attracts threat actors.

The report also reveals some statistics from IR cases:

  • The top three initial access vectors used by threat actors were phishing, exploitation of known software vulnerabilities and brute-force credential attacks focused primarily on remote desktop protocol (RDP). Combined, these attack vectors make up 77% of the suspected root causes for intrusions.
  • ProxyShell accounted for more than half of all vulnerabilities exploited for initial access at 55%, followed by Log4J (14%), SonicWall (7%), ProxyLogon (5%) and Zoho ManageEngine ADSelfService Plus (4%).
  • In half of all IR cases, our investigators discovered that organisations lacked multifactor authentication on critical internet-facing systems, such as corporate webmail, virtual private network (VPN) solutions or other remote access solutions.
  • In 13% of cases, organisations had no mitigations in place to ensure account lockout for brute-force credential attacks.
  • In 28% of cases, having poor patch management procedures contributed to threat actor success.
  • In 44% of cases, organisations did not have an endpoint detection and response (EDR) or extended detection and response (XDR) security solution, or it was not fully deployed on the initially impacted systems to detect and respond to malicious activities.
  • 75% of insider threat cases involved a former employee.
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