How traditional malware systems are coming up short

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New WatchGuard research reveals traditional anti-malware solutions miss nearly 75% of threats.

WatchGuard® Technologies’ latest Internet Security Report shows that 74% of threats detected last quarter were zero-day malware, capable of circumventing conventional signature-based antivirus solutions at the time of the malware release. The report also found that network attacks surged, with a 21% increase compared to the previous quarter and the highest volume since early 2018. With WatchGuard appliances detecting more than 4 million network attacks, corporate servers and assets on site are still high-value targets for attackers despite shifting to remote and hybrid work. 

“Last quarter saw the highest level of zero-day malware detections we’ve ever recorded. Evasive malware rates have eclipsed those of traditional threats, which is yet another sign that organisations need to evolve their defences to stay ahead of increasingly sophisticated threat actors,” said Corey Nachreiner, chief security officer at WatchGuard. “Traditional anti-malware solutions alone are insufficient for today’s threat environment. Every organisation needs a layered, proactive security strategy that involves machine learning and behavioural analysis to detect and block new and advanced threats.” 

Other key findings from WatchGuard’s Q1 2021 Internet Security Report reveal how attackers are trying to disguise and repurpose old exploits and the quarter’s top malware attacks.

· Fileless malware variant explodes in popularity 

XML.JSLoader is a malicious payload that appeared for the first time in WatchGuard’s top malware by volume and most widespread malware detection lists. It was also the variant WatchGuard detected most often via HTTPS inspection in Q1. The sample identified uses an XML external entity (XXE) attack to open a shell to run commands to bypass the local PowerShell execution policy and runs in a non-interactive way, hidden from the actual user or victim. This is another example of the rising prevalence of fileless malware and the need for advanced endpoint detection and response capabilities. 

· Simple file name trick helps hackers pass off ransomware loader as legitimate PDF attachments 

Ransomware loader Zmutzy surfaced as a top-two encrypted malware variant by volume in Q1. Associated with Nibiru ransomware specifically, victims encounter this threat as a zipped file attachment to an email or a download from a malicious website. Running the zip file downloads an executable, which to the victim appears to be a legitimate PDF. Attackers used a comma instead of a period in the file name and a manually adjusted icon to pass the malicious zip file off as a PDF. This type of attack highlights the importance of phishing education and training and implementing backup solutions in the event that a variant like this unleashes a ransomware infection. 

· Threat actors continue to attack IoT devices 

While it didn’t make WatchGuard’s top 10 malware list for Q1, the Linux.Ngioweb.B variant has been used by adversaries recently to target IoT devices. The first version of this sample targeted Linux servers running WordPress, arriving initially as an extended format language (EFL) file. Another version of this malware turns the IoT devices into a botnet with rotating command and control servers.

· An old directory traversal attack technique makes a comeback 

WatchGuard detected a new threat signature in Q1 that involves a directory traversal attack via cabinet (CAB) files, a Microsoft-designed archival format intended for lossless data compression and embedded digital certificates. A new addition to WatchGuard’s top 10 network attacks list, this exploit either tricks users into opening a malicious CAB file using conventional techniques, or by spoofing a network-connected printer to fool users into installing a printer driver via a compromised CAB file. 

· HAFNIUM zero-days provide lessons on threat tactics and response best practices 

Last quarter, Microsoft reported that adversaries used the four HAFNIUM vulnerabilities in various Exchange Server versions to gain full, unauthenticated system remote code execution and arbitrary file-write access to any unpatched server exposed to the Internet, as most email servers are. WatchGuard incident analysis dives into the vulnerabilities and highlights the importance of HTTPS inspection, timely patching and replacing legacy systems. 

· Attackers co-opt legitimate domains in crypto mining campaigns – In Q1, WatchGuard’s DNSWatch service blocked several compromised and outright malicious domains associated with crypto mining threats. Cryptominer malware has become increasingly popular due to recent price spikes in the cryptocurrency market and the ease with which threat actors can siphon resources from unsuspecting victims.

WatchGuard’s quarterly research reports are based on anonymised Firebox Feed data from active WatchGuard Fireboxes whose owners have opted in to share data to support the Threat Lab’s research efforts. In Q1, WatchGuard blocked a total of more than 17.2 million malware variants (461 per device) and nearly 4.2 million network threats (113 per device). The full report includes details on additional malware and network trends from Q1 2021, a detailed analysis of the HAFNIUM Microsoft Exchange Server exploits, critical defence tips for readers, and more. 

Read WatchGuard’s complete Q1 2021 Internet Security Report here


About WatchGuard Technologies

WatchGuard® Technologies is a global leader in network security, secure Wi-Fi, multi-factor authentication, advanced endpoint protection, and network intelligence. The company’s award-winning products and services are trusted worldwide by nearly 18,000 security resellers and service providers to protect more than 250,000 customers. WatchGuard’s mission is to make enterprise-grade security accessible to companies of all types and sizes through simplicity, making WatchGuard an ideal solution for midmarket businesses and distributed enterprises. The company is headquartered in Seattle, Washington, with offices throughout North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, and Latin America. To learn more, visit

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Amber Donovan-Stevens

Amber is a Content Editor at Top Business Tech

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