It’s Back to Basics for Hackers

A new trend in the cybersecurity landscape is hackers reverting to basic, simple methods of attack. After all, why waste time finding and exploiting complex zero-days when a good old-fashioned phishing e-mail is just as (if not more) effective?

Kaveh Waddell writes, “Last year, one in every 131 e-mails sent were malicious, according a new report from Symantec, the computer-security company. That’s a marked increase from the 2 previous years, when the rate was one in 230, on average.

“The rise in e-mail-delivered attacks is a reflection of a pattern that Symantec’s research team calls ‘living off the land.’ It’s essentially a return to basics: Rather than hoarding complex ‘zero-days’—attacks that exploit security holes for which no patches currently exist—or coding web-based malware, hackers are turning to more straightforward methods.

“Macros embedded in Word or Excel documents, for example, saw a surprising comeback in 2016. Macros are mini-programs that automate tedious tasks inside a document, like formatting a table in a certain way, or filling out a long form with personal information. But since they’re designed to execute a series of commands—and aren’t confined to the document they live in—they can be maliciously repurposed. In the late ’90s, a macro virus called Melissa caused $80 million in damage by e-mailing the first 50 contacts in each victim’s address book.

“The popularity of macro viruses plummeted in the early 2000s, when new versions of Microsoft Office came with more restrictive security settings for macros. But in the last few years, they’ve surged again. That’s because attackers have started using social engineering: tricks that convince victims to help the cyberattack along. A Word document with a malicious macro might say, ‘Please click “Enable content” to view this password-protected document.’ When the user does so, the macro is free to do fulfill its destructive instructions.”

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