Spear Phishing Fail A Cautionary Tale

As revealing reports add up, credit union CISO relates a success story in social engineering and the fight against cyber fraud.

As we celebrate Independence Day, it might be a good time to think about some of the latest threats from overseas and really, from who knows where else? That would be those cyber thieves seeking to free funds from their rightful owners.

A new FBI alert and a recent report serve here to illustrate. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) says to be aware of ransomware, particularly the CryptoWall variants that have generated 992 complaints to the IC3 in the past year or so.

Those are not idle threats. That ransomware in which the victimized institutions have to pay up to retrieve stolen financial records and other valuable data has netted $18 million for the thieves in the past year from those 992 complaints alone. (No one knows how much goes unreported.)

The report, meanwhile, is the 2015 Cost of Breach Study: Global Analysis from Larry Ponemon and the Ponemon Institute. That report Ponemon’s 10th on this topic found that the average total cost of a data breach last year was $3.79 million, or $154 per each stolen record.

Credit unions feel those costs, from the well-documented tab for replacing compromised cards to the daily tasks of thwarting would be fraudsters. And there are also compliance issues. In fact, the FFIEC has just issued a cybersecurity assessment tool. It follows last year’s much-publicized pilot security assessment at more than 500 credit unions and community banks, and includes a section reiterating regulators’ increased expectations of CEOs and boards of directors.

Also read: FFIEC Recommends Cyber Self Knowledge

Through all this, people continue to be the weakest link, industry experts say, and here’s a cautionary tale:

Dodging The Spear Phishing Point

The chief information security officer at a West Coast credit union says the FBI ransomware report prompted him to ask to present on the topic at an all-team meeting on phishing. The next day, one of the credit union’s vice presidents got an email with a resume attached.

She recalled my briefing and reached out to IT before opening the attachment, the credit union CISO says. Yes, it was malware and she pointed right to the briefing as the reason for her not clicking on the attachment.

You can’t catch them all, but if we can create a culture of healthy awareness, we can take some of the risk away.

However, the very nature of credit unions might make that a bit harder. We train our employees to go over the top to increase member satisfaction. This can open us up to giving up too much or being too trusting towards people looking to take advantage of our culture, says Chris McGee, vice president of IT at Del Norte Credit Union ($494.3M, Los Alamos, NM).

Unfortunately, it only takes one person to click on the wrong thing or someone passing out sensitive information for your member data to be compromised, McGee observes.

Phish In A Barrel

That’s what happened at a client credit union of Security Compliance Associates. Several users opened an email attachment that infected workstations with a particular Trojan associated with abilities to collect credentials and to call out’ and download financial malware, says Brian Fischer, business development manager at the Florida-based provider of security and compliance services.

His company’s CTO is now working with that credit union to clean up the mess, Fischer says, adding that a multi-layered approach that includes social engineering education and regular security assessments is key. For instance, financial malware often times uses automated processes for ACH or balance transfers, Fischer says. Dual controls of these transactions is an effective way to combat this, since two employees are harder to fool than one.

Meanwhile, It’s that ability to target multiple recipients at once that worries Gene Frederiksen, a longtime IT security expert who now serves as CISO at PSCU. Given the sophistication of the criminals and their methods, we will begin to see more incidents of what I refer to as the distributed breach,’ Frederiksen says.

The idea there is that if the message is slick enough, enough members or employees will fall for the bait to create the same net effect as a general breach at a credit union. Unless that credit union has subscribed to a service that specifically monitors traffic to known crime servers, the credit union will not have early warning that the event is taking place, the PSCU CISO warns.

Some Timely Tips

At the risk of preaching to the choir, here are some tips from Frederiksen at PSCU about how to address the breach risk at your credit union.

  • Educate members and employees. Let them know you’ll never ask for account numbers and passwords, Frederiksen says. Encourage them to take an active role in prevention by calling the institution if there is any question. You can never educate too much. Keep at it until you see a culture change.
  • Execute a phishing test with employees. It’s inexpensive and will let managers know just how big of a risk may indeed exist.
  • Consider subscribing to services that monitor crime server traffic for instances of the credit union’s domain name. It will alert you to potential problems early, Frederiksen says.
  • Tell the FBI if something happens. Criminals count on the fact that most people will not report. In fact, reach out before something happens. Your local FBI office can help with awareness training and materials, as well as helping the credit union develop a list of contacts in case you have an issue, Frederiksen says.
July 2, 2015

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