Targeted and organised profit-driven attacks - planned like bank raids - are replacing random individual hacker attacks and presenting increased threats for businesses and government, says the Information Security Forum (ISF).
This new breed of attacks, designed to steal valuable and sensitive information or customer data for major financial gain are being orchestrated by criminal networks that bring together specialist skills and expertise, the ISF said.
Many criminal networks even place sleepers within organisations to provide inside knowledge and access.
According to the ISF, profit-driven attacks have five phases: reconnaissance to identify targets, development to plan the attack and write malware, extraction of the data, exploitation by advertising and selling stolen information, and finally the laundering of the profits.
Normally there is a different person or team running each phase, often operating from different parts of the world, making it extremely difficult to track and trace.
Each group takes a slice of the profits with the criminal ringleaders reaping the largest rewards, that can run into millions.
"It's not dissimilar to the process of robbing a bank," said Nick Frost, senior research consultant at the ISF. "The difference is that this cybercrime is more sophisticated and harder to trace. Most attacks are able to circumvent generic security controls, whilst anti-forensic techniques are used to remove traces, such as deleting system logs."
Advanced attack kits such as Limbo 2 Trojan are available online with "non-detection-warranties", said Frost.
He said, "Most organisations do not have the necessary controls in place to deal with these attacks, and the financial profits from successful breaches are simply used to fund more sophisticated and malicious attacks, creating a vicious cycle."
Typically, profit-driven attacks are targeted at high value organisations or individuals.
"Spear phishing" is a common social-engineering technique used to seek out data such as bank details or access credentials from groups of customers or employees that can then be sold online.
So called "Whaling" targets hand-picked individuals, such as wealthy billionaires and CEOs or those with privileged access rights like database administrators.
The results of the last ISF Security Status Survey in 2007 showed a 50% increase in social engineering attacks in two years.
"To reduce the risks from profit-driven attacks, organisations need to focus on three key areas," said Frost. "Fundamental security measures such as patch management and access control need to be strengthened, along with often under-utilised controls such as analysing event logs and implementing network sniffer tools.
"But in addition, organisations should consider using third parties that monitor hacking forums to understand who is being targeted, the types of information in demand and current developments of sophisticated attack kits."
More information from the security forum
Stuart King's blog: Information security in China