Some of the most sophisticated attacks don't start with malware; instead, they start with a spear phishing email.
In Symantec's latest Internet Security Threat Report, the company revealed that targeted attacks aimed at small businesses (1-250 employees) accounted for 30 percent of targeted spear-phishing attacks detected in 2013. One in five small business organizations were targeted with at least one spear-phishing email. News was not much better for large enterprises. According to Symantec, 39 percent of targeted spear-phishing attacks were sent to enterprises with more than 2,500 employees. One out of two large enterprises was targeted with at least one such attack.
"While the total number of emails used per campaign and the number of those targeted has also decreased, the number of spear-phishing campaigns themselves saw a dramatic 91 percent rise in 2013," according to the report.
"The frontline in these attacks is moving along the supply chain and large enterprises may be targeted through Web-based watering hole attacks should email-based spear-phishing attacks fail to yield the desired results," the report continued.
Roughly one in three organizations in the mining, government and manufacturing sectors were hit by at least one spear-phishing attack during 2013. The government sector alone was the target of 16 percent of spear-phishing blocked last year, Symantec reported.
"Traditionally, manufacturing and mining companies have not had to worry about information security threats as much as say, financial services, as the primary adversaries were cybercriminals," said Rohyt Belani, CEO and co-founder of PhishMe. "However, with the rise of the nation-state actors these industries are under constant attack as the proverbial ‘pot of gold’ of proprietary information and intellectual property is very lucrative. The lack of an IT savvy workforce and appropriate budgets to fund cyber-security efforts further exacerbate the problem."
Overall, the number of spear-phishing emails detected by Symantec fell from 116 a day in 2012 to 83 a day in 2013. Two of the most common words in those emails were order and payment.
"One mega breach can be worth 50 smaller attacks,” said Kevin Haley, director of Symantec Security Response, in a statement. “While the level of sophistication continues to grow among attackers, what was surprising last year was their willingness to be a lot more patient – waiting to strike until the reward is bigger and better.”
There was more than a 62 percent increase in the number of data breaches compared to 2012, resulting in more than 552 million identities being exposed.
"Security incidents, managed well, can actually enhance customer perceptions of a company; managed poorly, they can be devastating,” noted Ed Ferrara, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, in a statement. “If customers lose trust in a company because of the way the business handles personal data and privacy, they will easily take their business elsewhere."