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Staying a Step Ahead of the Hack

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by Steven Jurczak

Hackers, never at a loss for creative deception, have engineered new tactics for exploiting the weakest links in the cybersecurity chain: ourselves! Social engineering and business email compromise (BEC) are two related cyberattack vectors that rely on human error to bypass the technology defenses businesses deploy to deter malware.

Social Engineering

Social Engineering is when hackers impersonate trusted associates or acquaintances to manipulate people into giving up their passwords, banking information, date of birth or anything else that could be used for identity theft. As it turns out, it’s easier to hack our trust than our computers. Social engineering covers a range of tactics:

  • Email from a friend or family member – A hacker gets access to the email password of someone you know. From there, they can send you a malicious link in an email that you’re more likely to click on because it came from someone you trust.
  • Compelling story (pretexting) – This includes urgently asking for help. This can read like, “Your friend is in danger and they need your help immediately – please send me money right away so they can get treatment!”
  • Standard phishing tactics – Phishing techniques include website spoofing emails appearing to come from an official source asking you to reset your password or confirm personal data. After clicking the link and entering the info, your security is compromised.
  • “You’re a winner” notifications ­– Whether a lottery prize or a free trip to Cancun, this tactic catches many off guard. It’s known as “greed phishing” and it takes advantage our fondness for pleasure or weakness for the word “free.”

Business Email Compromise

Business email compromise is a targeted attack against corporate personnel, usually someone with the authority to request or fulfill a financial transaction. Victims execute seemingly routine wire transfers to criminals impersonating legitimate business associates or vendors.

This form of fraud relies on a contrived pretext to request a payment or purchase be made on the attacker’s behalf. According to the FBI, BEC attacks resulted in more than $26 billion (you read that right) between June 2016 and July 2019. Here are a few tips for protecting users and businesses from BEC attacks:

Slow down – BEC attacks combine context and familiarity (an email from your boss) with a sense of urgency (I need this done now!). This causes victims to lose their critical thinking capabilities.

Don’t trust, verify – Never use the same channel, in this case email, to verify the identity of the requester. Pick up the phone and call, or use video chat.

Prepare for the inevitable – Use all the technology at your disposal to ensure a BEC attack doesn’t succeed. Machine learning-enabled endpoint security solutions can help identify malicious sites.

Address the weakest link – Train users to spot BEC attacks. Webroot testing shows that phishing simulations can improve users’ abilities to spot attacks.

Perfecting Your Posture

Webroot Security Intelligence Director, Grayson Milbourne, offers several suggestions that companies can do to increase their security posture. First, he says, “Whenever money is going to be sent somewhere, you should have a two-factor verification process to ensure you’re sending the money to the right person and the right accounts.”

Milbourne is also a big advocate of security awareness training. “You can really understand the security topology of your business with respect to your users’ risk factors,” he says. “So, the engineering team might score one way and the IT department might score another way. This gives you better visibility into which groups within your company are more susceptible to clicking on links in emails that they shouldn’t be clicking.”

With the increase in scams related to the global COVID-19 pandemic, timely and relevant user education is especially critical. “COVID obviously has been a hot topic so far this year, and in the last quarter we added close to 20 new templates from different COVID-related scams we see out in the wild,” Milbourne says.

“When we look at first-time deployment of security awareness training, north of 40% of people are clicking on links,” Milbourne says. “Then, after going through security awareness training a couple of times, we see that number dip below 10%.”

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