Social Engineering in Ransomware and Phishing Attacks

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Older Adults and the Authenticity of Emails: grammar, syntax, and compositional indicators of social engineering in ransomware and phishing attacks.

AbstractDespite the variety of global research on theidentification and proliferation of ransomware and other online scams, there is still a relative vacuum of research with respect to the problem of digitally and socially engineered deception in the form of ransomware on an individual. This is particularly problematic for older cohorts, where life experience in many endeavours sits alongside novice understanding and experience in the use of online technology. This paper examines the indicators that characterize authenticity and deception within ransomware and phishing. A survey of older Australian people over the age of 65 reveals markers and patterns that assist the user to determine likely deception using non-cyber skills. The paper outlines a grammar and syntax-derived framework to assist older users in the ability and awareness to recognize fraudulent emails.

Keywords—elderly, grammar, ransomware, seniors, syntax

  1. INTRODUCTION

Older people represent a challenging segment of the online usage demographic in terms of cybersecurity. Older people are developing a growing proportion of the overall population. From 1996 to 2016 the population of people aged 65 and over has increased from 12 % to 15.3% and is predicted to increase rapidly within the next decade, [1]. At the same time, there is an increase in the demand for digital literacy and digital proficiency with older cohorts [2], [3]. Australian citizens over the age of 65 are digitally less knowledgeable and less erudite than other cohorts, with 34% of older men and 30% of older women having only basic digital skills and capabilities [4].

Due to the increase in cyber fraud, scams and financial crimes, it is challenging for older people to fully trust digital technology [5], [6]. Since older people are limited in their online experience in terms of literacy, digital fluency and security, older people can benefit from an authenticity approach that allows older people to use their generationally superior language skills. Such abilities are evident in terms of grammar, syntax, and socially constructed narratives that appear in the form of offers, requests and commonplace styles of email communication. Despite the extended capabilities of older people, they remain vulnerable to a range of socially constructed offers present in the form of phishing and ransomware attacks [7].

This paper examines the responses from older people regarding their ability to recognize phishing and ransomware offers that are distributed through email and social media. A sample of older adults (n=63) reveals two main vectors of concern. The first is in the ability for older adults to differentiate between authentic emails and deceptive emails. This qualitative research considered older adults’ perceptions of authenticity based upon grammar, syntax and the associated authenticity of the context. The study examined the role of grammar and syntax in recognizing fraudulent email communications that relate to phishing and ransomware. The second part uses an analysis of a sample of 21 known ransomware and phishing attacks through the lens of grammatical and syntax-related diversity. In some cases, the syntax and associated context might indicate a fraudulent proposition by means of a title or opening statement. In other situations, the key indicators of deception are more closely associated with an inconsistent use of normalized English language. Alternatively, the deception can be more easily identified where email addresses appear to lack corporate or

XXX-X-XXXX-XXXX-X/XX/$XX.00 ©20XX IEEE

organizational credibility. Rather than examine the method of delivery or analyses the payload of different variations of ransomware, this study examines the contextual and grammatically structural indicators in email-based attacks that can assist older adults to make more accurate judgements when opening email communications.

II.            BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE

Social engineering is well documented as an effective strategy in the deception of novice technology users [8]. Cohorts of older people universally show susceptibility to fraud and deception using online technology [9]. This is particularly observable in variations of phishing and ransomware [10], [11].

Ransomware is a form of malware, which often spreads through email attachments or adware. Once activated the ransomware encrypts the files and essentially ‘locks-down’ the computer and asks for a ransom to be paid to the attacker for the key [12]. Ransomware works by deploying a phishing attack or a social engineering maneuver, typically in the form of an email with a malicious link. The user clicks a link which transfers to a webpage, which downloads the ransomware to the computer, which further encrypts the file [13]. Targeting of ransomware attacks is characteristically opportunistic and is not generally targeted to a specific group [14]. Ransomware is impactful in a variety of industries. IT Security specialist companies such as Delloite, McAfee, and Malwarebytes report that the industry effects of ransomware are particularly challenging on industries such as education, health care, energy and utilities. In the case of the WannaCry ransomware release, more than 300,000 computers were affected across 150 countries within 24 hours of its release [15].

Most perpetrators of ransomware ask for the payment to be paid by Bitcoin; using a crypto-currency that is un-identifiable by formal banking systems [16]. The ransom for an individual is nominally rated between $200 and $800, but can on occasions be greater, which the victims must pay in a specific time given by the countdown timer, after which the victim may lose his or her files [17].

Seniors use the internet to manage finances, banking online and payment of the bills. Due to an increasing dependency on online banking, coupled with low levels of digital literacy, older adults are primary targets for cyber-attackers due to perceived financial security and trusting nature [18]. It is difficult to prevent older adults from becoming targets of ransomware, which proliferates using social engineering and bogus emails from seeming trusted organizations [19]. There are various fraud methods which entrap elderly people into being victims using the emotions of fear, greed, curiosity, excitement or guilt [20], [21], [22]. Most of the ransomware is spread via emails. Fraudulent emails have many signs which make them look authentic, such as using company logos, valid dates and serial numbers, however, they may have grammatical or spelling mistakes [23]. According to the report by the Age UK, 53% of the elderly people are exposed to financial scams through emails, of which one among 12 responds to the email [24]. The problem with this report is that they have not made the distinction between online and offline scams. This dilutes the veracity of the statistical claims.

The effect of encountering ransomware or other socially engineered cybercrime can have a lasting impression. According to the 2017 Veda Banking report, the effect goes beyond any financial loss, having repercussions in terms of mental and emotional strain, lingering fear of identity loss, and reputational damage [25], [26]. The Australian Crime Commission confirms that some victims never know of the cybercrime they were a victim of, while some do recognize that they are a victim, and are unable to link their circumstances to a cyber environment. The implication is that due to the embarrassment and concern of reputational damage, individuals and businesses do not report a cybercrime incident. The impact of a cybercrime to an individual, which includes ransomware, is their loss of finances, such as life savings, time and effort. Psychological effects may include, depression, anxiety, and relationship damage experienced by victims and their families. In severe cases, the physical or mental distress due to spam emails may be further compounded by damage to the hardware and software of a victim’s computer and network [27], [28], [29].

III.            METHOD

This research came about in two parts. The first part centres on a survey of 63 people (n = 63) and their responses to known examples of phishing and ransomware. The project aimed to examine whether people could recognize examples of phishing and or ransomware as malicious through the recognition of syntax, grammar, spelling, formatting and their associated contextualized irregularities. Participants were shown examples of email-based ransomware and asked their opinion about its validity as a genuine communication.

The second part of the research involved the collection of known images of ransomware and phishing attacks directed at older people. A sample of 21 images was collated and analyzed. The images were examined for the positioning and prominence of irregular markers in the form of grammar, spelling, syntax and associated contextualization. These markers were then further segmented to determine indicators of influence and easy recognition. The markers were divided into four subcategories. as follows: title, the body of text, distinguishing between errors in Titles, in email addresses, in the body of the text, or in closing statements. (Table I)

TABLE I. INDICATOR SEGMENTS WITHIN LIKELY FRAUD AND DECEPTION IN EMAIL CONTEXTS INCLUDING GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX

Indicator segments within Likely Fraud and

Deception

1.

Title

2.

Body of Text

3.

Closing Statements

4.

Email Addresses / URLs

IV.            DISCUSSION AND FINDINGS

A.      Identify the Brand Recognition and Associated Misguided Trust and Acceptance

Older adults over the age of 60 participated in research to reveal their awareness and understanding of ransomware, as well as each participant’s ability to recognize ransomware, phishing, and online deception and fraud. The findings revealed that older adults placed greater trust in an email displaying a well-known brand, than in their own reading of the same email to check for context-based grammar and syntax errors (Table II). In one example, participants reviewed an email containing ransomware that used an Australian trusted brand “Australia Post”. By using a brand that is regarded as trustworthy, cybercriminals can establish a sense of trust that allows some participants to overlook any grammatical or syntax-based errors. In isolation, errors such as spelling, and grammar are useful indicators of likely phishing, often indicating that the composer of the phishing is writing from a second or third language, rather than using their mother tongue. Approximately one third (32%) of participants indicated that they trusted the brand “Australia Post” but were suspicious of grammatical awkwardness within the written text of the email message. Additionally, 46% of older participants acknowledged that they could identify grammar and syntax errors, but still felt that they could trust the email (see Table II).

TABLE II.  INDICATOR SEGMENTS WITHIN LIKELY FRAUD AND DECEPTION IN EMAIL CONTEXTS INCLUDING GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX

 

Concern over Grammar and Spelling mistakes in emails

with a known brand.

Percentage of Participants with Concerns over grammar

16%

and spelling mistakes

Percentage of Participants with No Concerns over

38%

grammar and spelling mistakes

Percentage of Participants who could see the grammar

46%

and Spelling mistakes but decided to ignore the errors.

The results show that older people are capable of misjudging phishing and ransomware deployments through emails. Some older people allow their recognition of a well-known brand to override their normal evaluation of emails, in this case, to reveal grammar and spelling errors, and to subsequently treat the email with a greater level of trust that if it were evaluated in a stand-alone mode. Many of the participants could identify and acknowledge something wasn’t quite right, and that elements of the email seemed awkward and clumsy.

“I’m fairly sure this is a scam. I can’t quite work it out for sure. But it doesn’t seem quite right. The words don’t seem right. The first line that says “thus the receiver was absent” isn’t right. I mean the post office wouldn’t say that. They certainly shouldn’t use the word “thus” – it’s the wrong context.”

B.      Knowledge and Experience by Themselves or Others

The results showed that many participants had either previous knowledge themselves, or they knew of others who had an experience with ransomware or phishing attacks. 30% of participants knew of someone who had been scammed through a “request for update” PayPal email. In contrast, participants were asked to explain what they knew about ransomware. The results indicate a low level of understanding about the danger or recognition of ransomware (see Table III).

TABLE III. AUTHENTIC KNOWLEDGE ABOUT RANSOMWARE

 

Authentic Knowledge about Ransomware

High Level of Knowledge about Ransomware.

5%

Participants with Some / Limited knowledge about ransomware

24%

Participants who had no Idea what Ransomware was, or if

51%

could affect them

Participants who believed that they knew what Ransomware

19%

was, but were incorrect in their understanding.

Participants were also asked to indicate what they thought people should do to deal with ransomware. Some participants gave specific advice explaining the need to delete emails from unknown sources that contained messages that contained errors in spelling, grammar and syntax. Others gave responses that would be of no assistance in identifying, removing, or managing ransomware in email correspondence (see Table 4).

TABLE IV APPLICABLE / USEABLE KNOWLEDGE ABOUT DEALING WITH RANSOMWARE

 

Applicable / Useable Knowledge about dealing with Ransomware

Useful Advice regarding Ransomware

32%

General / Vague advice regarding ransomware

41%

Unhelpful advice (likely to cause severe financial loss

27%

and / or deception

 

C.      Knowledge Location and Evaluation of context, grammar, syntax, and spelling errors in phishing and ransomware attacks.

A review of 21 different previously known images of phishing and ransomware showed many examples of where the message contained spelling and grammar errors and identified different segments within standard email messages where such errors occurred (See Table V). The review showed that many phishing and ransomware threats contained errors in terms of grammar, spelling, syntax, and overall context and awkwardness.

TABLE V.

SEGMENTATION OF GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX ERRORS IN

KNOWN PHISHING AND RANSOMWARE MESSAGES

Type of

Grammar

Spelling

Syntax

Context

Error

Awkwardness

Email

0

3

0

0

Address

identity

Title or

1

0

1

2

message

Body of

4

7

12

1

Text

Closing

2

1

1

2

Statement

A large percentage of older adults were prepared to accept email and ransomware content, even though they could recognize grammar and syntax errors. These errors are prominently recognizable across different segments of a standard email message, yet they consistently exist within the body of the text in most threat messages.

A.      CONCLUSION

From the results, we make three conclusions. The first is that significant numbers of older adults are inadequately capable to recognize fundamental indicators in emails such as grammar, spelling and syntax. People over the age of 60 show the propensity to place greater faith and trust in a known brand, irrespective of whether the known brand is in the form of a copied logo in an email that contains multiple grammatical and spelling errors. Trust and discernment of grammar and syntax are low in adults aged 60 and over. The second conclusion is that participants are poorly educated in the awareness, recognition and treatment of phishing and ransomware emails. Some adults will see and acknowledge errors in emails but accept grammar and syntax errors as normative. The third conclusion is that poor or unusual grammar, syntax, spelling and any associated context within a message can be a useful indicator of likely illegal activity, older people remain less likely to recognize the indicators with enough consistency to expect a mitigation of ransomware and phishing attacks. We conclude that despite the increased proliferation of phishing and ransomware attacks directed at older adults, they continue to remain at high risk of attack.

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