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Report finds email is the go-to weapon in hackers’ arsenals

By Ashton Young
Thu 5 Oct 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

A new report from Symantec has revealed that not only is email the most common form of infection for hackers, but it is the most common by a long way.

Email has been around for more than 40 years and in that time has become one of the most omnipresent electronic technologies to date with billions of messages sent every day.

This popularity only adds to its attack surface, with email by far the most popular method for attackers to spread malicious code.

A user is almost twice as likely to encounter malicious code through email than being impacted by an exploit kit. Furthermore, they are many more times as likely to encounter a malicious email than see their devices fall prey to a worm or encounter a malicious banner ad with one out of every nine email users having encountered email malware in the first half of 2017.

And it’s not just malicious code either. Business email compromise (BEC) scams are undoubtedly one of the more potent email attacks surging in size with their heavy reliance on social engineering and urgent nature.

Essentially, a scammer impersonates someone along the lines of an executive within your company or another person of power within the supply or admin chains, and then attempts to get users to wire money or share sensitive information with them.

It may sound obvious but it’s an attack that’s proven quite lucrative for scammers, with the FBI estimating more than US$5 billion has been stolen through these scams in the three years to late 2016.

BEC attacks are growing in prominence, with around 8,000 businesses reporting attacks in a given month where they receive on average more than five BEC scam emails.

Spam continues to claim the vast proportion of email traffic, representing 54 percent of all emails in the first half of 2017.

According to Symantec, the importance of filtering spam has never been more important. When looking at spam on an email-by-email basis, its impact seems trivial at best. As an individual user in a corporate environment, you may spend no more than 5-10 minutes a day clearing out spam (assuming your company has no spam filters in place).

“However, these costs add up when looking at the organisation as a whole. Based on median salary data from the U.S. Census Bureau, spending 10 minutes managing spam adds up to $4.51 per employee each day,” the Symantec report states.

“That’s $1,177.42 spent annually for one employee to filter spam. For every 100 employees a business has, this comes out to $117,741.67 per year. That’s the equivalent of having two full-time employees dedicated to simply managing spam—a far less trivial figure.”

And interestingly, the spam rates are unique to each industry. For example, the wholesale trade industry can see twice as much spam as the average user, while manufacturing, retail trade, construction and mining were all 1.5 times above the average.

While most of these threats do come from outside an organisation, it’s still vitally important to protect outgoing email as Symantec found a lot more can be done in this area to ensure sensitive data sent by email is protected.

While email plays a vital role in our everyday lives, Symantec stresses it’s also important to remember it plays a vital role in the distribution of threats too.

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