Malicious links are dominating emails all over the world

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Malicious web links are dominating emails all over the world, being used to deliver harmful malware in order to wreak havoc or extort money.

A new research paper by cybersecurity experts Hornetsecurity found that besides malicious web links, hackers are still super interested in phishing. With an increase of almost 4% year-on-year (39.6% - 43.3%), it is still the most common email attack technique. 

Hackers are also constantly evolving their tactics by changing email formats and attachments to best sneak around spam filters.

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Impersonating major brands

According to its Cyber Security Report 2024, based on an analysis of 45 billion emails sent last year, Hornetsecurity found the percentage of emails containing harmful web links rose by 144%, rising from 12.5% of all threats last year, to 30.5% this year.

Last year, when Microsoft disabled macros by default in Office, hackers quickly pivoted from Word and Excel files (down 9.5% and 6.7% respectively), to HTML files (37.1% of files analyzed), PDFs (23.3%), and Archive files (20.8%). Of all the new additions, HTML files seem to be the most popular, rising by 76.6% in the last year alone.

When sending malicious emails, hackers are usually impersonating popular brands. DHL takes up 26.1% of all impersonations, Amazon 7.7%, and FedEx 2.3%. Other notable mentions include LinkedIn, Microsoft (both 2.4%), and Netflix (2.2%).

Threat actors also don’t seem to be particularly interested in a specific vertical, or business. While some endpoints may be attacked more frequently, there isn’t a single industry that’s safe from email-borne attacks. 

“If an organization can pay a ransom, it’s a target to cybercriminals,” the researchers said. Notable mentions include the research industry, entertainment companies, and the manufacturing sector.

“Many organizations are too reactive, only responding to specific threats or acting after they have fallen victim," commented Daniel Hofmann, Hornetsecurity CEO.

"This approach leaves them vulnerable to attack. Businesses need a zero-trust mindset to protect themselves and should adopt all-encompassing security services to set their minds at rest.

"Our research highlights the adaptability of cybercriminals, and the rapid shifts that have taken place in the last year.”

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Sead is a seasoned freelance journalist based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He writes about IT (cloud, IoT, 5G, VPN) and cybersecurity (ransomware, data breaches, laws and regulations). In his career, spanning more than a decade, he’s written for numerous media outlets, including Al Jazeera Balkans. He’s also held several modules on content writing for Represent Communications.