Automated Mass Spearsmishing

Phishing is where someone, typically some sort of organized cybercrime gang, sends a malicious email to a large group of people hoping that someone will respond, click a link, open an attachment or something like that. The objective is typically to compromise credentials or the user's computer.

Spearphishing is where such a campaign is conducted in a more targeted way, typically focusing on specific people with more personalized context that would make the campaign more compelling. Whaling is where spearphishing targets executives (think whale == big fish)! A common spearphishing or whaling objective is to get a financial officer or accounting team member to transfer money or change account details so that payments get misrouted.

What we have been seeing lately are campaigns that are conducted at a larger scale that is likely highly automated, but that also have the context required to be compelling and a request that is possible for many tiers of employees (not just finance execs) to do. We also got targeted directly by one of these, so we can share the detail. Let's do it!

The SMiShing

Smishing is where someone is doing phishing (communications with malicious intent) over SMS or text messages. Our particular text looked like this:


In this case, there are a couple of obvious things to note about the Smish.

  1. It is addressed to Keely and obviously sent to her phone.
  2. It claims to be from Matt Konda, who is the CEO of the company Keely works for.
  3. It is from a phone number that is co-located to Matt Konda's typical location. (Texas)

Now in this case, we're lucky, Keely is on the ball and immediately realized that this wasn't real. It might have been the:

I'm excellent with texts ...

Phisher #1

There are some obvious other tells that we should call out:

  1. It was from a new number that is not where Matt typically communicates from.
  2. It is an unusual communication channel for something important.
  3. The urgency but also unavailability to confirm on a call or via a normal channel is to be noted.

Keely didn't respond, so we can't say for sure what would have happened next. However, we have seen this play out with customers with the exact same text (the "I'm excellent with texts" is hard to miss!) but from the customer CEO to an employee. When the employee responded, the campaign asked the employee to purchase Google Play gift cards.

Note that we have also seen other SMS campaigns and even more classic social engineering campaigns (phishing) to get people's phone number that were later used in an SMS campaign like this.


Based on what we are seeing, either this gang is particularly motivated and have time on their hands to do their research, or there are various layers of automation involved.

My guess is that they are using data from a LinkedIn data breach to associate people to companies, grab the company names, the people names, the phone numbers and emails and be able to formulate a programmatic automated but still targeted (contextual) campaign.

A particular interesting characteristic is using the CEO as protagonist in texts. It is common to see this used when an account has been hijacked to do the same thing, but maybe because not everyone has the CEO's real cell phone number it isn't always obvious that it isn't coming from them? SMS doesn't have the context (eg. signature, logo, etc.) that email does. Then again, with the data from LinkedIn (or whatever it is) the attacker could probably make a fake signature that looks pretty realistic substituting title, role, company, logo, etc.

Note that we have also seen other SMS campaigns that are similar in the sense that they use the CEO role but different types of messages - sometimes even targeting NEW employees.

Of course there are also the standby classic social engineering campaigns (phishing) to get people's phone number that were later used in an SMS campaign like this.


Educating employees about social engineering like phishing and smishing is a key part of a security program and can be one of the most important things you can do. We want employees:

  • To be empowered to say "no" to things that don't seem right
  • To have appropriate channels to confirm purchases or information disclosure
  • To be trained to recognize the signs of phishing we see here: new channels, urgency, unusual requests, etc.

SPIO can help provide this training. One of the customers that was targeted said that it was our training that made them stop and not follow through.

... your training was spot on in triggering all of the necessary awareness for me to start varying this exchange


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