“Trust me.”

Cybercrime has relied on this calling card of trust for years to engage with its victims: “Click on this link to login and renew your account.” “Download the attached document and pay your invoice.” Traditionally, threat actors have socially engineered their emails and phishing websites cleverly to win trust and steal credentials and account information or infect victim systems with malware.

However, lately, we’ve seen a new and growing trend in cyber threats. Rather than “Trust me,” the new calling card of cybercrime is “Fear me — and pay me, or else.” That’s extortion—and we’re seeing a steady increase in these “phishing with fear” campaigns. Why?

Cybercriminals are finding that scareware is an easy way to make a fortune: phishing emails demand payment in Bitcoin and threaten data destruction, or perhaps the release of an embarrassing video, or even physical violence if a demand is not met.

Area 1 Finds a Mother Lode of Bitcoin-Based Cyber Threats

Area 1 recently analyzed 4.3 million bitcoin phishes and identified 48,000 unique bitcoin addresses used by cyber actors to receive funds. Our analysis of the wallets shows over 1,600 transactions totaling 174.042 bitcoins valued at $949,703.45—that’s nearly $600 per victim!

Fear Phishing Stats

How easy is this? Very. For these campaigns, threat actors craft a compelling, threatening email and direct the victim to a bitcoin wallet address to make a payment. These attacks require no technical skills, or creation of sophisticated phishing infrastructure or malware.

When the emails are crafted to effectively bypass cyber defenses and lure victims—which they can easily be, as evidenced by the bitcoin collected in wallets used in recent attacks—threat actors have an easy path to make a fortune.

Why Defenses Don’t Stop Scareware

Email security solutions have added functionality to fortify defenses, including stronger sender validation features with DMARC, time-of-click URL analysis to detect malicious links, and file sandboxing to detect hidden malware. But even these protections aren’t sufficient to protect organizations from these campaigns. Threat actors send bitcoin phishing emails from publicly available accounts such as Gmail or Hotmail, or from compromised email accounts that pass sender validation checks.

And because the campaigns don’t use malicious websites or malware, advanced email analysis techniques such as time-of-click URL analysis and file sandboxing are useless to detect these threats.

Are your people at risk of falling victim to cyber extortion? For information on this trending cyber threat, how it evades current defenses, and what you need to protect your organization, read our new report, “Phishing with Fear.”