Threat Actors Pivot to Credential Theft in Government Mobile Phishing Attacks

Threat groups are increasingly on the hunt for credentials in their phishing attacks targeting the mobile devices of government employees, with almost half of mobile phishing attacks in 2021 aimed at stealing government credentials in a rise from the previous year.

That’s according to a new report by Lookout, which reviewed data from 2021 and the first half of 2022 specific to its federal, state, and local government user base. The government-specific data is collected from telemetry data of more than 200 million devices and more than 175 million apps. The report found that mobile phishing attacks targeting federal, state and local government staffers’ credentials increased from 31 percent in 2020 to 46 percent in 2021, while those delivering malware decreased slightly from 79 percent in 2020 to 70 percent in 2021.

“Malware delivery continues to represent roughly 75 percent of all mobile phishing attacks across all industries,” according to Lookout researchers in the Wednesday report. “However, when targeting federal, state, and local government entities, threat actors are increasingly using phishing attacks for harvesting credentials rather than delivering malware.”

Overall, researchers saw a steady increase in mobile phishing attempts for state and local governments across both managed and unmanaged devices, with attempts increasing by 48 percent for managed devices and 25 percent for unmanaged devices from 2020 to 2021. Lookout researchers noted that this climb has continued through the first half of 2022.

Phishing attacks targeting the government sector can have a range of malicious purposes. In March, the FBI warned that US election and other state and local government officials in at least nine states received invoice-themed phishing emails, which in some cases were sent from compromised legitimate email addresses. The emails, observed in October 2021, shared similar attachment files and were sent close in time, which the FBI said suggested a “concerted effort” to target election officials. The phishing emails led recipients to a website designed to steal their login credentials.

“There’s a lucrative underground market in the dark web for stolen credentials/stolen information,” said Steve Banda, senior manager for security solutions with Lookout. “We don’t expect this to slow down any time soon. Cybercriminals are financially motivated to steal and sell credentials in these forums. This data is ultimately used by attackers to gain deeper access into government systems. Once authenticated, they can move laterally within an environment often without being detected, exfiltrating sensitive information that can be used in nefarious ways.”

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