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Blog | 3-minute Read

Prevent malicious mailbox rules in business email compromise

Jack Fisher

Threat Detection Engineer

Published: 21 June 2024

With end users persistently targeted by increasingly sophisticated phishing attacks, business email compromise (BEC) continues to be a prevalent menace. Discover the recent trends and prevention tactics that our managed security operations team have identified.

BEC incidents serve as a precursor for various cyber attacks, ranging from payment hijacking to ransomware.

Consider that 80 – 95% of all cyber attacks originate from phishing and that Microsoft reported an average of 156,000 BEC incidents per day in 2023 and you can see why this is a big deal.

In fact, every significant recent ransomware attack would have started with a phishing email.

The evolving face of BEC

While the days of simple email address spoofing have given way to more complex techniques due to improved defences, it’s become increasingly challenging to detect and protect against phishing emails.

Attackers are now sending phishing emails from legitimate domains and sometimes these can be from people who users regularly interact with.

This makes their fraudulent requests for information or actions seem much more believable. Which in turn increases the chances of a successful attack.

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There were an average of 156,000 BEC incidents per day in 2023

Microsoft Digital Defence Report, 2023

Detecting phishing is getting harder. So, what can be done?

At Kocho, our strategy is to detect malicious actors throughout the entire attack timeline. This means that even if an initial access vector, such as stolen credentials, bypasses our initial detections, we have additional analytics in place to identify unusual or suspicious behaviour.

One technique commonly used by adversaries is the creation of ‘Email Hiding Rules’.

These are mailbox rules set up on a compromised mailbox to divert certain emails to hide the attacker’s activities.

By doing this, the attacker can maintain access to the account and continue their operations unnoticed.

Observing recurring tactics

After observing several different BEC incidents, attackers seem to follow the same suit when creating these mailbox rules.

The created rules will often divert emails to default Outlook folders. Typically, these will  be folders never used by the end user.

The folders most commonly abused are:

  • RSS Feeds
  • RSS Subscriptions

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that other default folders are now being used too. We’ve recently noticed that folders such as Conversation History and Junk Email have also been leveraged by attackers.

Detecting malicious email rules

Email hiding rules continue to be a prominent behavioural technique employed by adversaries. Detecting this activity is helping to prevent attacks from escalating, while minimising false positives.

And while it can be a painstaking task, filtering out normal user behaviour and minimising false positives is crucial for any Security Operations team.

Here are some rule properties to be on the lookout for.

Operations

  • New – InboxRule
  • Set – InboxRule

Specifying the following folder names can help pinpoint malicious activity:

  • RSS Feeds
  • RSS Subscriptions
  • Deleted
  • Conversation History
  • Junk Email

Key takeaways

  • BEC is a major threat to organisations with email-targeted phishing a primary tactic for cyber attacks.

  • Modern phishing techniques make it increasingly harder for security teams to detect attacks.

  • ‘Email hiding rules’ are a common tactic used by attackers to divert emails to default Outlook folders, concealing their activities.

  • Effective detection of malicious mailbox rules involves monitoring for specific rule properties and unusual folder usage while minimising false positives.

  • A comprehensive defence strategy, including behavioural analytics and automated alerts, is essential for protecting against BEC and related cyber threats.

Want to know more?

If you’d like to understand more about how Kocho SecOps detects and responds to this behaviour, reach out to our team for a detailed consultation. Our expertise in managing and mitigating BEC attacks can help safeguard your organisation against ever-evolving, always improving cyber threats.

And please join our mailing list for the latest cyber security news, technology updates, and regular tips to keep protected against advanced threats. 

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Author

Jack Fisher

Threat Detection Engineer

Jack is a key member of Kocho’s Security Operations Centre, ensuring we provide excellent detection capabilities for our clients. OSCP certified, he has a passion for both offensive and defensive cyber security.

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