Malware ROI and the Return of Malicious Macros: It's Not Personal, It's Business

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We have written frequently on Threat Insight about the return of malicious macros as an exploit technique in email-borne threats, and while the campaigns have evolved the question has lingered: How and why did this ‘outdated’ technique so quickly become a key part of massive malware campaigns? It’s a truism to say that cybercriminals are a business, but how does that affect their choice of technology?

Attack techniques come and go as technology and user behaviors change and defenses adapt to new threats – and sometimes take their eye off old ones – and the return of malicious macros offers an opportunity to examine and understand the drivers behind these adaptations, an exercise that is equal parts business case and technical analysis. By combining technical analysis of malware samples with investigation on cybercriminal forums, this report exposes the economic and technical drivers behind the recent rise of malicious macros and enables cybersecurity practitioners to better defend their organizations against this and future advanced threats.

Proofpoint research into threats and underground forums finds that, from a cost perspective, malicious macros deliver the most ‘bang for the buck’ because they combine lower up-front and maintenance costs with higher effectiveness to create a ‘killer app’ for cybercriminals.

Technical analysis and threat intelligence allow us to identify the cause behind the explosive return of malicious macros as an exploit technique featuring daily in massive campaigns:

  • Highly successful at evading not only traditional signature- and reputation-based defenses, but also newer behavioral sandboxes
  • Able to be frequently updated easily and at low cost
  • Cross-platform and “unpatchable,” because it is not limited by vulnerabilities on a specific operating system or application version
  • Reliance on end-user interaction leverages social engineering to bypass automated defenses
  • Low up-front and maintenance costs increase return on investment (ROI)

Combined in a single solution, it is no surprise that malicious macro attachment campaigns have grown so rapidly in both size and frequency, and we can expect that they will only begin to subside when this equation changes and either their cost increases or effectiveness decreases to the point that they can no longer deliver the same ROI.

Our new report, “The Cybercrime Economics of Malicious Macros,” examines the technical and business characteristics of malicious macros to provide insights into the behavior of threat actors and other members of the cybercriminal underground through a case study in the way of technical innovation and business value can combine to create a landscaping-changing malware trend. Click here to download the report.