Stopping PDF Attacks: 5 Ways Users & Organizations Can Work Together

Leveraging malicious PDFs is a great tactic for threat actors because the file format and file readers have a long history of exposed and, later, patched flaws.

Because of the useful, dynamic features included in the document format, it’s reasonable to assume further flaws will be exposed and exploited by adversaries; these attacks may not go away for some time. Furthermore, there’s no way for the average user to diagnose a benign or malicious PDF as it opens.

Since the average SonicWall customer will see nearly 5,500 phishing and social engineering attacks targeting their users each year, it’s vital to remain vigilant about the dangers of PDFs and deploy advanced security to prevent attacks.

Why are malicious PDFs being used in cyberattacks?

In many kinds of malicious PDF attacks, the PDF reader itself contains a vulnerability or flaw that allows a file to execute malicious code. Remember, PDF readers aren’t just applications like Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat. Most web browsers contain a built-in PDF reader engine that can also be targeted.

In other cases, attackers might leverage AcroForms or XFA Forms, which are scripting technologies used in PDF creation that were intended to add useful, interactive features to a standard PDF document. To the average person, a malicious PDF looks like another innocent document and they have no idea that it is executing code. According to Adobe, “One of the easiest and most powerful ways to customize PDF files is by using JavaScript.”

If you are a threat actor reading this, you are well versed in the above. And your victims are not. If you are an administrator responsible for keeping threats out and their damage to a minimum, it’s time to take some necessary precautions.

Stop PDF attacks with user-side prevention

First, there are a couple of things users can do to help reduce exposure to PDF-based attacks. Most readers and browsers will have some form of JavaScript control that will require adjustment.

  • Change you preferences. In Adobe Acrobat Reader DC, for example, you can disable Acrobat JavaScript in the preferences to help manage access to URLs.
  • Customize controls. Similarly, with a bit of effort, users can also customize how Windows handles NTLM authentication.

While these mitigations are “nice to have” and certainly worth considering, these features were added, just like Microsoft Office Macros, to improve usability and productivity. Therefore, be sure that you’re not disabling functionality that is an important part of your own or your organization’s workflow.

Stop PDF attacks with company-wide protections

Thankfully, SonicWall technology can quickly decode PDFs to see what the malware wants to really do, such as contact malicious domains or steal credentials. Here are three key ways organizations can limit exposure to PDF-based attacks.

  • Implement advanced email security. The first line of defense against malicious PDFs is email security. SonicWall offers cloud, hosted and on-premises email security solutions. SonicWall leverages advanced security controls to examine files, senders, domains and URLs to look for malicious activity.
  • Use endpoint protection. SonicWall recommends using advanced endpoint security, such as Capture Client powered by SentinelOne, to constantly monitor the behavior of a system to scout for malicious behavior. Capture Client stops threats before they execute and has great EDR capabilities to stop them as they do, see where they came from, and remediation steps, such as rollback in case they fully do.
  • Identify new threats. One thing that separates SonicWall from the rest is our patent-pending Real-Time Deep Memory InspectionTM (RTDMI). RTDMI operates in parallel with the SonicWall Capture Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) sandbox service. This is just one of our parallel engines in the sandboxing environment that gives us the ability to quickly get a verdict on any suspicious piece of code as it operates in memory, including malicious PDFs and Office files.

Malicious PDFs will be around for the foreseeable future, but through advanced security and good end-user awareness, your company will be better suited to prevent attacks.

For a more technical view on this, I recommend reading Philip Stokes’ blog from SentinelOne that inspired and supplied part of the content for this story. I also recommend watching our on-demand webinar, “Best Practices for Protecting Against Phishing, Ransomware and Email Fraud.”

Brook Chelmo on Twitter
Brook Chelmo
Sr Product Marketing Manager | SonicWall
Brook handles all product marketing responsibilities for SonicWall security services and serves as SonicWall’s ransomware tsar. Fascinated in the growth of consumer internet, Brook dabbled in grey-hat hacking in the mid to late 90’s while also working and volunteering in many non-profit organizations. After spending the better part of a decade adventuring and supporting organizations around the globe, he ventured into the evolving world of storage and security. He serves humanity by teaching security best practices, promoting and developing technology.
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