A $170,000 cyberheist last month against an Illinois nursing home provider starkly illustrates how large financial institutions are being leveraged to target security weaknesses at small to regional banks and credit unions.
An online service boldly advertised in the cyber underground lets miscreants hire accomplices in several major U.S. cities to help empty bank accounts, steal tax refunds and intercept fraudulent purchases of high-dollar merchandise.
A week ago Friday, the U.S. Justice Department announced that MoneyGram International had agreed to pay a $100 million fine and admit to criminally aiding and abetting wire fraud and failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program. Loyal readers of this blog no doubt recognize the crucial role that MoneyGram and its competitors play in the siphoning of millions of dollars annually from hacked small- to mid-sized business, but incredibly this settlement appears to be unrelated to these cyber heists.
The $180,000 robbery took the building security and maintenance system installer Primary Systems Inc. by complete surprise. More than two-dozen people helped to steal funds from the company’s coffers in an overnight heist in May 2012, but none of the perpetrators were ever caught on video. Rather, a single virus-laden email that an employee clicked on let the attackers open a digital backdoor, exposing security weaknesses that unfortunately persist between many banks and their corporate customers.
Last week, security firm RSA detailed a new cybecriminal project aimed at recruiting 100 botmasters to help launch a series of lucrative online heists targeting 30 U.S. banks. RSA’s advisory focused primarily on helping financial institutions prepare for an onslaught of more sophisticated e-banking attacks, and has already received plenty of media attention. I’m weighing in on the topic because their analysis seemed to merely scratch the surface of a larger enterprise that speaks volumes about why online attacks are becoming bolder and more brash toward Western targets.
New data suggests that cyber attacks aimed at smaller businesses have increased markedly over the past six months, a finding that dovetails with my own reporting on businesses that are suffering six-figure losses from sophisticated cyber heists.
According to Symantec, attacks against small businesses doubled in the first six months of 2012 compared to the latter half of 2011. In its June intelligence report, the security firm found that 36 percent of all targeted attacks (58 per day) during the last six months were directed at businesses with 250 or fewer employees. That figure was 18 percent at the end of Dec. 2011.
Last month’s post examining the top email-based malware attacks received so much attention and provocative feedback that I thought it was worth revisiting. I assembled it because victims of cyberheists rarely discover or disclose how they got infected with the Trojan that helped thieves siphon their money, and I wanted to test conventional wisdom about the source of these attacks.
While the data from the past month again shows why that wisdom remains conventional, I believe the subject is worth periodically revisiting because it serves as a reminder that these attacks can be stealthier than they appear at first glance.
It was early October 2011, and I was on the treadmill checking email when I noticed several hundred new messages had arrived since I last looked at my Gmail inbox just 20 minutes earlier. I didn’t know it at the time, but my account was being used to beta test a private service now offered openly in the criminal underground that can be hired to create highly disruptive floods of junk email, text messages and phone calls.
Many businesses request some kind of confirmation from their bank whenever high-dollar transfers are initiated. These confirmations may be sent via text message or email, or the business may ask their bank to call them to verify requested transfers. The attack that hit my inbox was part of an offering that crooks can hire to flood each medium of communication, thereby preventing a targeted business from ever receiving or finding alerts from their bank.
An agency of the European Union created to improve network and data security is offering some blunt, timely and refreshing advice for financial institutions as they try to secure the online banking channel: “Assume all PCs are infected.”
The unusually frank perspective comes from the European Network and Information Security Agency, in response to a recent “High Roller” report (PDF) by McAfee and Guardian Analytics on sophisticated, automated malicious software strains that are increasingly targeting high-balance bank accounts. The report detailed how thieves using custom versions of the ZeuS and SpyEye Trojans have built automated, cloud-based systems capable of defeating multiple layers of security, including hardware tokens, one-time transaction codes, even smartcard readers. These malware variants can be set up to automatically initiate transfers to vetted money mule or prepaid accounts, just as soon as the victim logs in to his account.
A decision handed down by a federal appeals court this week may make it easier for small businesses owners victimized by cyberheists to successfully recover stolen funds by suing their bank.
The U.S. Federal Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has reversed a decision from Aug. 2011, which held that Ocean Bank (now People’s United) was not at fault for a $588,000 cyberheist in 2009 against one of its customers — Patco Construction Co. The appeals court sent specific aspects of the earlier decision back to the lower court for review, but it encouraged both parties to settle the matter out of court.