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Successful phishing attacks were up in 2021: Report

The number of phishing attacks in all of their guises – email, text and voice – jumped significantly in 2021, according to the annual State of the Phish report from Proofpoint.

And if the survey is accurate, the reason why is likely because they work: More than 80 per cent of survey respondents said their organization suffered a successful email attack last year, up from 57 per cent in 2020.

The report, released Tuesday, suggested three reasons why employees are increasingly falling for phishing:

  • Pandemic fatigue. “People are not at their best” after two years of COVID-19 restrictions, the report says, “and that’s likely leading to more mistakes in the inbox;”
  • Attackers are exploiting legitimate services, like Google and Microsoft infrastructure, to host and send threats. Because these messages mimic standard business processes, it can be hard for employees to tell the difference between malicious and safe messages;
  • Use of trending content. Increasingly, phishing campaigns are built not only around COVID lures but also the latest popular online games, concerns, and controversial economic issues.

The report is based on a survey of 600 IT and cybersecurity professionals in seven countries (Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the U.K. and the United States) and a poll of 3,500 working adults in the same countries.

Among other findings:
  • reports of phishing attacks were up across the board. So-called bulk phishing attacks were up 12 per cent over 2020, while spearphishing/whaling attacks (targeting specific individuals) were up 20 per cent, and business email compromise attacks (such as getting a staffer to change the bank where an invoice is paid) jumped 18 per cent;
  • nearly 60 per cent of respondents said their if their organizations were infected by ransomware they paid up. Of those, nearly 70 per cent had more than one infection in 2021 (slightly more than the year before). Nearly two-thirds suffered more than three separate infections. Nearly 15 per cent of respondents said their firm was hit more than 10 times;
  • of those that paid, 54 per cent regained access to data and systems after the first payment, 32 per cent had to pay an additional ransom demand but eventually got access, while four per cent paid but got nothing. Ten per cent refused to pay;
  • among workers surveyed, 42 per cent admitted they took a dangerous action (clicked on a malicious link, downloaded malware or exposed personal data or login credentials) last year.

The annual survey also tries to make a rough guess at employees’ cybersecurity awareness by testing their knowledge of terms like phishing, smishing, vishing, ransomware, and malware. There was a drop in accurate responses last year compared to 2020. “I’m not sure,” responses were up by 30 per cent. Perhaps, the report says, these results are part of pandemic fatigue, or people are overloaded by news reports about data breaches.

“Whatever the case,” the report adds, “this year’s results make it clear: it is never safe to assume workers recognize security lingo,” says the report. This is especially true if your formal security awareness training sessions – apart from phishing simulations – happen infrequently. Reminders and reinforcement are critical to knowledge and skill development.”

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