Proofpoint’s 2023 State of the Phish Report: Threat Actors Double Down on Emerging and Tried-and-Tested Tactics to Outwit Employees
Australian organisations experiencing direct financial loss from phishing up 60% while increasingly complex threats including ransomware, BEC and insider compromise call for company-wide security culture
SYDNEY, Australia., February 28, 2023 – Proofpoint, Inc., a leading cybersecurity and compliance company, today released its ninth annual State of the Phish report, revealing attackers are using both emerging and tried-and-tested tactics to compromise organisations. Nine in 10 Australian organisations (90%) experienced at least one successful email-based phishing attack in 2022, with almost half (48%) reporting direct financial losses – a 60% increase year over year. And while brand impersonation, business email compromise (BEC), and ransomware remained popular tactics among threat actors, cyber criminals also scaled up their use of less familiar attack methods to infiltrate global organisations.
This year’s State of the Phish report provides an in-depth overview of the real-world threats, as sourced by Proofpoint’s telemetry encompassing more than 18 million end-user reported emails and 135 million simulated phishing attacks sent over a one-year period. The report also examines perceptions of 7,500 employees and 1,050 security professionals across 15 countries, including Australia, revealing startling gaps in security awareness and cyber hygiene that propagate the real-world attack landscape.
“While conventional phishing remains successful, many threat actors have shifted to newer techniques, such as telephone-oriented attack delivery and adversary-in-the-middle (AitM) phishing proxies that bypass multifactor authentication. These techniques have been used in targeted attacks for years, but 2022 saw them deployed at scale,” said Ryan Kalember, executive vice president, cybersecurity strategy, Proofpoint. “We have also seen a marked increase in sophisticated, multi-touch phishing campaigns, engaging in longer conversations across multiple personas. Whether it’s a nation state-aligned group or a BEC actor, there are plenty of adversaries willing to play the long game.”
Some of this year’s key findings include:
Cyber Extortion Continues to Wreak Havoc
86% of Australian organisations experienced an attempted ransomware attack in the past year, with 58% suffering a successful infection; yet only half (54%) of Australian organisations regained access to data after making an initial ransomware payment.
Most infected organisations paid up, and many did so more than once. Of the organisations impacted by ransomware, the overwhelming majority (92%) had a cyber insurance policy in place for ransomware attacks, and most insurers were willing to pay the ransom either partially or in full (82%). This also explains the high propensity to pay, with 90% of infected organisations paying at least one ransom – a 10 point increase year over year.
End Users Fall Prey to Bogus “Microsoft” Emails
In 2022, Proofpoint observed nearly 1,600 campaigns involving brand abuse across its global customer base. While Microsoft was the most abused brand name with over 30 million messages using its branding or featuring a product such as Office or OneDrive, other companies regularly impersonated by cyber criminals included Google, Amazon, DHL, Adobe, and DocuSign. It’s worth noting that AitM attacks will display the organisation’s real login page to the user, which in many cases will be Microsoft 365.
Considering the volume of brand impersonation attacks, it’s alarming that 39% of Australian employees indicate they think an email is safe when it contains familiar branding, and 53% think an email address always corresponds to the matching website of the brand. It’s no surprise to see that half of the 10 phishing simulation templates most used by Proofpoint customers were brand-impersonation related, which also tended to have high failure rates.
Business Email Compromise: Cyber Fraud Goes Global
On average, 9 in 10 (90%) of Australian organisations reported an attempted BEC attack last year, higher than the global average. BEC phishing attempts involve threat actors posing as legitimate business contacts, such as a boss, colleague or supplier to send fraudulent emails to customers, clients or employees. With the new technologies like ChatGPT making it easier for threat actors around the world to create communications that are clear and coherent, cybercrime is becoming more accessible to criminal and putting all Australian businesses at risk.
Pandemic-related job mobility, coupled with post-pandemic economic uncertainty, has resulted in large numbers of workers changing or leaving jobs to the tune of one in four employees globally in the past two years. This job market trend makes data protection more difficult for organisations, with 78% of Australian organisations reporting they have experienced data loss due to an insider’s action. Among those who have changed jobs, more than a third (37%) admitted to taking data with them.
Threat Actors Scale Up More Complex Email Threats
Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of telephone-oriented attack delivery (TOAD) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) bypass phishing messages were sent each day—ubiquitous enough to threaten nearly all organisations. At its peak, Proofpoint tracked more than 600,000 TOAD attacks—emails that incite recipients to initiate a direct conversation with attackers over telephone via bogus ‘call centers’—per day, and the number has been steadily rising since the technique first appeared in late 2021.
Cyber attackers now also have a range of methods to bypass MFA, with many phishing-as-a-service providers already including AitM tooling in their off-the-shelf phish kits.
Room for Improvement with Cyber Hygiene
Threat actors always innovate, and once again this year’s report shows that most employees suffer security awareness gaps. Even basic cyber threats are still not well understood—more than a third of survey respondents cannot define “malware,” “phishing,” and “ransomware.”
“In addition, just two thirds (67%) of Australian organisations with a security awareness program train their entire workforce (versus the global average of 56%), and only 37% conduct phishing simulations—meaning a critical component to building an effective security awareness program is being missed.
“In Australia, lax security behaviours, awareness gaps and a labour market that’s seen a lot of movement in recent years, have culminated to create substantial security risks that could cause significant financial harm to local businesses,” said Jennifer Cheng, director, cybersecurity strategy, Asia Pacific and Japan, Proofpoint. “As email remains the favoured attack method for cyber criminals and they branch out to techniques much less familiar to employees, there is clear value in building a culture of security that spans the entire organisation.”
To download the State of the Phish 2023 report and see a full list of global and regional comparisons, please visit: https://www.proofpoint.com/au/resources/threat-reports/state-of-phish.
For more information on cybersecurity awareness best practices and training, please visit: https://www.proofpoint.com/au/product-family/security-awareness-training.
About Proofpoint, Inc.
Proofpoint, Inc. is a leading cybersecurity and compliance company that protects organisations’ greatest assets and biggest risks: their people. With an integrated suite of cloud-based solutions, Proofpoint helps companies around the world stop targeted threats, safeguard their data, and make their users more resilient against cyber attacks. Leading organisations of all sizes, including 75 percent of the Fortune 100, rely on Proofpoint for people-centric security and compliance solutions that mitigate their most critical risks across email, the cloud, social media, and the web. More information is available at www.proofpoint.com.
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