There is little doubt that cybercrime is becoming more complex, and ransomware and data breach events are becoming more frequent. As a result, many small business owners have become concerned that they will soon be victims. Some have looked to IT solutions providers, like Heliotropic Systems, to help deal with these evolving threats. That is why it is vital for me to understand the current state and emerging trends of that threat landscape and what tools I can use to combat them.

Let’s look at the cybersecurity landscape and analyze the threats, trends, and opportunities.

Protecting Small Businesses from Ransomware Attacks

Cybercriminals are increasingly targeting small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). In 2021, more than 40% of all cyberattacks were against small businesses. Digging deeper into that statistic, researchers have found that of those attacked, approximately 60% will go out of business six months following an attack. The primary reason is that so many SMBs don’t have the resources to support an internal IT and data security operation.

In almost all of my security vendor recent annual reports, the most common threat was ransomware. The second tier threat was data breach. To combat these insidious hazards, I must be proficient in three areas.

Prevention

The primary goal is to eliminate the threat of an attack in the first place. While I fully acknowledge there is no “right” way to do this, there are measures I take to help keep my clients from becoming ransomware victims. I recently added Huntress (a threat detection tool) to my portfolio. You subscribe to SPF+ (for consumers) and SHADE (for small businesses), which enables automated patch management to fix potential vulnerabilities as soon as they are discovered.

Another significant measure is to constantly remind clients that rather than click on a link or respond to a suspicious email, you should call me for confirmation. The other day, someone said they received an invoice for three years of Norton Lifelock. No, they didn’t — they received a scam email. It was de-
signed to obtain sufficient information to make fraudulent charges on their credit card.

Detection

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that ransomware can still get through the protection layer despite my best efforts. That’s why I have measures in place to identify when ransomware is present, rather than assuming an attack will never be successful. The earlier I can detect it, the sooner I can take action to eliminate it.

Response

When ransomware is detected, responding to the attack, and eliminating it must be done with the utmost efficiency. Some of the steps I must take include:

  • Scan the network for confirmation of an attack unfolding.
  • Identify the infected computers and isolate them from the rest of the network.
  • Secure all backup data or backup systems immediately.

I feel good knowing I have a significantly positive affect on my clients’ businesses by optimizing ransomware prevention and detecting and quickly responding to attacks. Ransomware attacks were estimated to cost roughly $20 billion in 2021. My aim is to save my clients from suffering any financial damages that would hurt their business.

Finding the Right Tools to Combat Ransomware

All my small business clients trust me with access to critical systems and data. They feel protected because they know I will act swiftly and effectively when a threat arises. To accomplish this, I have – over the years – sought to obtain the necessary tools that will facilitate quick and decisive action.

For example, remote monitoring and management (RMM) provides me with access to your computers so I can keep them secure, patched, and operational. I can proactively fix any vulnerabilities before you are attacked with automated patching, whether it is from Microsoft or third-party vendors, which helps optimize ransomware prevention efforts.

But, again, the idea is always to be prepared if ransomware attacks are successful. SentinelOne takes the next step of ransomware defense by including native ransomware detection. It constantly monitors for crypto-ransomware and attempts to kill the malicious software, thus reducing the impact of an attack. You (and I) get alerts at the first detection of crypto-ransomware, and I can automatically isolate any infected computer.

The ability to detect ransomware immediately enables me to execute an action plan sooner rather than later. And I know ransomware infections can cause extensive damage, which may prove too costly for many small businesses to overcome.

Of course, no ransomware response plan is complete without a system to protect the most vital company resource – its data. Regularly backing up data can reduce the risk of downtime when a ransomware attack is successful, but the backup system must be secure and reliable. The Datto Vaults I deploy at client sites are designed to protect physical, virtual, and cloud infrastructures and data. The data is well protected and easily accessible, so I can recover it rapidly when needed. The Vaults also have software that detects ransomware within backups, saving me (and my clients) time locating the last clean system restore point.

Leveraging Security Services to Help You Grow Your Business

Most of my colleagues will tell you that they are all focused on security on many levels, whether securing computers and networks, protecting data, or understanding how to be better against the threat of ransomware. Security threats will never go away – we can only keep them at bay. I believe I can effectively protect my clients and ensure their businesses thrive with the multi-layered security tools I have deployed.

Thanks, and safe computing!

So, if you are going to make a presentation about cybersecurity to a group of small business owners, what are some things you would do to prepare for the event? That question came to mind when I attended a webinar co-sponsored by the Chambers of Commerce of Fort Lee and Hackensack earlier in May.

A local IT company offered to have a speaker come in and talk about cybersecurity, but I do not know what kind of homework this speaker did before that session. The answer seemed “minimal” because when the speaker began, he spoke in a language I understand, but not one these attendees would know or use. He was talking about endpoints, EDR, SOC, and SIEM. In English, that means computers, Endpoint Detection and Response, Security Operations Center, and Security Information and Event Management. Those acronyms didn’t help because he had to stop and explain everything. He might have considered preparing a glossary to distribute before the presentation — that would have been helpful.

What else might he have done? As part of the preparation, he might have obtained the list of attendees. He might have looked up their businesses on the internet to focus on topics that may have been pertinent. If there was sufficient time, he might have even called the Chamber’s directors and asked to speak to some of those business owners to get a feel for what they were interested in understanding.

After a 45-minute talk, it was clear that this speaker’s presentation was geared toward much larger organizations than those he was addressing. And he was going to say what he came to say.

I don’t mean for this to become a rant, but it seems that by not preparing, he did a disservice to his audience and the topic of cybersecurity. His intent was to educate so that he could potentially sell his company’s services. But he couldn’t make it clear to the attendees the problems they potentially face.

One person asked: Why would anyone want to ransom my computer? He went off on a long discussion that never really answered the question. Instead, he should have asked probing questions of the person who asked it: What information in your computer is valuable? Do you have a list of all the Hackensack Chamber members? If so, is there contact info on that list? And does it have any other information that someone could use to find detailed data with additional searching and cross-referencing? The attendee would have learned more from those questions — and thinking about her responses — than the answer she got.

There might not be any need to put ransomware software on a computer if it was possible to copy the entire list and leave no trace of the intrusion behind. The data itself is valuable when correlated with other information. Now, if you were the bad actor, you could find some of the larger companies on the list, see if they bank at some of the Chamber’s member banks, and pretend that you’re an employee of one company and send an email like this:

BEC Example

This type of email is called BEC (business email compromise) and is extremely common. Sure, says Joe, and takes a copy of the invoice attached to Taylor’s email, contacts the appropriate individual, and sends the money. It takes training (or perhaps a keen eye) to realize the attachment is a fake invoice, this is a fake email account, and a fake Taylor. Usually there is no recourse to get the funds back.

That’s because it is relatively simple to spoof (pretend) the email address so it appears as if it is legitimately from within a company. Social engineering skills make it easy to convince one person in an organization to go out of their way to help out a co-worker or boss. However, it is only with proper training about the likelihood of this scam that bad actors can be shut down with a quick delete of the fake email.

What about the question one participant asked: What should I do if I see a ransom notice on my computer? The answer they received was not altogether too helpful: Call the police.

My response is: Call your IT support company and find out exactly what to do (at the very least disconnect the computer from the internet). The police department should not be your “go to” strategy when it comes to ransomware attacks. Yes, you’ll need to contact them eventually to file an insurance claim — if that is even possible under the circumstances — but it isn’t the first thing you should do. But what if you don’t have an IT support company? The presenter should have shared the web address or the name of an organization that has a list of steps for small business owners and their staff to take.

It doesn’t take much to cover the three or four critical aspects of cybersecurity for small business owners. It would be best to understand your audience, tailor your presentation by asking about their concerns, and then provide relatable and understandable answers. That approach doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it does give attendees much more information.

Thanks, and safe computing!

If you look at the number of security alerts sent to my Inbox, cybercrime seems to always be on the rise. I certainly know it is here to stay, and near the top of the list of malicious activities are phishing scams. Most believe that only dumb people fall victim to these types of attacks. That is not true. Anyone can fall victim to a phishing scam, making it more critical than ever for me to protect you.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) 2020 Internet Crime Report, phishing was among the top three cybercrimes reported in 2020. Phishing incidents more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. More frightening than that is 90% of incidents that end with a data breach started with a phishing attempt. That FBI report shows US businesses lost more than $1.8 billion last year because of business email compromise (BEC) or spear phishing.

Email is one of the primary vectors by which cyber criminals distribute ransomware. And they often depend on phishing and social engineering to infiltrate an unsuspecting company. Traditional anti-virus software products cannot protect you from these cyber-attacks. Too often, small business owners fail to properly secure their environments because they don’t know any better or because they don’t want to spend money on something they can’t “see.”

One way to mitigate this problem is to increase security awareness. Simply training staff to be alert to what constitutes phishing emails can reduce a business’ chances of having a cybersecurity incident by up to 70%.

Let me give you a theoretical example. Assume there is a dental practice with 15 employees. How many dental practices are willing to pay every three months to certify every employee on security awareness training (which they view as “don’t click on links”)? In real life, the most common response I hear is, “Ah, it’s a pain. I don’t want to do it. No one’s going to come after us. We’re a dental practice.” Well, again, that is not true.

The bad guys know the dental practice is the one that’s probably going to react if threatened, so they’ll ransom them for $10,000 or $20,000. And what makes it hard for someone like me to get that message through to this dentist? I mean, they are probably a wonderful dentist. They’re great at fixing teeth. But they’re like, “Why would these Russians, or these North Koreans, or these people in Silicon Valley who are bad – why would they want to get me?”

The reality is the bad actors are brilliant and relentless. They know if they ransom, or if they attack, a dentist in Fort Lee, New Jersey, for $10,000 or $20,000, no one – other than the local police – is going to investigate. So now, small businesses are being targeted at a much faster rate than large companies. If the bad guys try to ransom ExxonMobil, Walmart, or some other large company, the FBI and Homeland Security will get called in. And they have serious capabilities, and they’re going to get the bad guys. But there are not enough resources to protect small companies down the road who get hit. What I am finding is more small business owners are starting to say, “Oh, maybe I should listen to my IT guy because they’re on to something.” And that thinking helps safeguard their business.

Small business owners must be cautious because cybercriminals constantly adapt their techniques to find a way in. It is an unfortunate way of life in 2022, but maintaining a heightened level of security awareness while reading each email is a requirement of using email to communicate with staff and clients. There is no escaping the threats, so you must remain vigilant and stay alert. Security awareness training can go a long way to ensure your safety.

Thanks, and safe computing!

Let’s start with some basic facts. A crypto miner is a malicious software that uses the resources of your computer to generate cryptocurrency for someone other than yourself. It is, at its most basic level, theft of services.

In 2018, crypto jacking (the practice of using browser-based programs to mine cryptocurrency without your knowledge or consent) and crypto mining (malware that usurps your computer’s CPU to mine cryptocurrency) grew to be major threats. The only way you’d know something was amiss was when you realized your internet browsing was very slow and, after a while, your computer stopped working until you restarted it. After a few days, the malware would cause you to “lather, rinse, repeat.” The biggest player in this arena was Coinhive.

Why did Coinhive target browsers? Because it was relatively easy to slip in as an add-on since the code appeared to be innocuous. It was, until you restarted your browser. At that point, the program would run any time your browser was open, using up electricity and processing power to generate minuscule amounts of the cryptocurrency called Monero.

In February 2019, Coinhive publicly announced it was ceasing operations the following month. The service stated that it wasn’t “economically viable anymore” and that the “crash” (of Bitcoin) had severely adversely affected the business. That pretty much sent a death knell to browser-based crypto coin mining.

So why am I bringing this up at the start of 2022? I recently read two articles and learned that crypto mining is alive and well. And it is not being used solely by cybercriminals. Nope, no, siree. Given the pandemic, it seems marketing types have prevailed at Norton, the eponymous Security 360 product maker. A new feature is the inclusion of crypto mining. Avast, a European maker of security software, has announced it is doing the same.

Apparently we live in an upside-down world when security companies allow their crypto miners but claim they can keep out everyone else’s crypto miners. But what does this mean? Well, for one, you have to opt-in to use this feature; Norton doesn’t install it indiscriminately. Also, your computer has to meet some stringent hardware requirements before you’d even see the option. The critical condition is that your computer has an advanced video card (where the computing will take place) so that you can mine Ethereum.

And then comes the kicker: Norton is going to take a good percentage of the money generated. They get 85% while you get 15%. And if you want to obtain your portion — having donated your computing resources — you are faced with additional fees (one a transaction fee and the other a processing fee to cash it in), which reduce your overall take. But suppose that’s not enough to dissuade you. In that case, this money is considered extra income by the Internal Revenue Service, so you will be responsible for including it on your annual tax return.

But the biggest question (and complaint) from security-conscious netizens is: Why would any security company think of doing this? The answer is simple: They want more money from consumers than they get from the annual subscription to their products. Consumers have learned that when subscribing to Norton 360 for the first year, they get a terrific discount. Norton sets the subscription to auto-renew and keeps your credit card on file. Savvy users realize they can turn off the auto-renewal and remove the saved credit card. The day after the current subscription expires, they can purchase a new discounted subscription with a different email address (e.g., larry2022@gmail.com for the current year because it was larry2021@gmail.com for last year’s subscription). It seems Norton is simply fighting back in a very unusual manner.

Do I think this is a good idea? Absolutely not! Is it well-intentioned? Undeniably no. Should all consumers be extremely wary about this? Resoundingly yes! Are you (my clients) affected by this? Not at all, because your computer is running SentinelOne Vigilance, part of your SPF+ or SHADE subscription. But if you know of someone who thinks Norton has a terrific security product, I would urge you to let them know that’s not necessarily the case.

Thanks, and safe computing!

Imagine receiving an email, delivered to your business email address, offering a “Partnership Affiliate Offer.” Would you open it? Oh, come on, of course you would! Your curiosity invariably gets the better of you all the time. But when you read this email, you pause and then shudder. What the heck? Here’s the offer:

If you can install and launch our Demonware Ransomware in any computer, company main Windows Server, physically or remotely, (there’s) 40 percent for you, a million dollars for you in Bitcoin.

A researcher at Abnormal Security engaged with the bad actor behind this poorly written email offer for several days. The researcher documented how he tied the email back to a young man in Nigeria who acknowledged he was trying to save up money to help fund a new social network he was building.

Funny, right? Unfortunately, Business Email Compromise (BEC) or CEO Scams in which crooks, mainly based in Africa and Southeast Asia, spoof communications from executives at the target firm in a bid to initiate unauthorized international wire transfers are bigger business than the blitz of ransomware attacks that have made headlines recently.

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports that BEC scams increased to more than $1.8 billion in 2020. These extortion attempts have proven to be highly profitable for cybercriminals.

And, of course, it is incredibly humorous that this latest cyber scam is authored by a Nigerian because the classic email scams began decades ago. Referred to as the “419 scam” (because of the area code), the “Nigerian prince” emails requested your assistance because of a will or lottery win. If you were willing to engage in helping the email author obtain the funds, you’d be rewarded with a percentage of the total amount.

What I found amazing while researching this article is that these 419 emails continue in only slightly modified formats to this very day. That someone has taken the initiative (albeit warped) to reboot this for the Bitcoin era is not surprising — but enterprising.

Bottom line: Be extremely careful of unsolicited email offers!

A home user client forwarded an email requesting that I read it and advise him about the contents.

With the subject, “Important: Don’t lose access to your email account,” the email, purportedly from AOL Broadband Member Services, contained a reminder about a change in how the parent company, Verizon Media, was going to handle data. The email urged the recipient to review the new rules and went on to warn, “otherwise you will not [sic] longer have access to new email.” The center of the email contained a bold link to “Review and agree now.”

Of course, this email was a classic phishing attempt; however, anyone would have thought that the page was a legitimate AOL page upon clicking the link. The coding behind that web page was identical to AOL’s own. The only subtle difference would happen after a person entered an email address or user name and a password.

I didn’t take my experiment any further because I could see from the website URL that this was not a valid AOL page. The address was https://aolmaildomain.weebly.com. That was the final clue that convinced me this was not a legitimate email.

Weebly is a web-hosting service that lets you develop your own website. Because it is owned by Square, the payments processing company (Heliotropic Systems uses Square), it is designed to let people build e-commerce sites quickly and easily.

It did not take me long to discover the appropriate division to submit a complaint about this particular abuser’s website. I included a brief description of the problem and sent back a copy of the original email after receiving a confirmation of my case. The good news is, less than 24 hours after receiving the request from my client, the bogus website had been removed from Weebly.

Lesson to be learned: If you think the email you received is suspicious, don’t click anything. Forward it to me for review, and I’ll let you know if it is safe to proceed or delete. Please don’t think, for one minute, that you are bothering me when you do this. I’d rather take a few moments as a precaution than to take hours (or more) later to clean up a mess.

In this case, the consequences for someone who depends on AOL for email would have been a new “silent partner,” diligently reading their emails to harvest personal information — the first step towards identity theft.

I don’t know how technologically inclined you are, so I will ask this simple, rhetorical question: What is ransomware?

The answer is: Ransomware is a form of cyber-attack in which criminals take control of your computer’s files and block access to them until you pay a fee to release them.

Cybercriminals gain control of your files by placing malicious software on your computer. They can accomplish this goal in several ways; however, these are the two most common methods:

  • You open an attachment in an email, either a Microsoft Word document or an Adobe PDF file that contains a worm or a Trojan.
  • You click on a link in an email.

Here’s a summary of what happens next.

Once the malicious software is downloaded to your computer, one element will contact a “command and control” server on the internet to obtain a unique key. Another element then executes and uses that key to encrypt your files. To accomplish that task, it takes the contents of your files and turns each one into a mass of numbers and letters that your computer’s programs cannot read. After all that mayhem is complete, one of the rogue software elements sends a confirmation to the cybercriminal.

In some cases, before your files are encrypted, the cybercriminals will copy them to the internet. Part of the extortion message you receive may include a statement that they will release your confidential information to the public. This message is designed to be an added incentive to make you pay “full freight” to get the decryption key. In some reported instances, victims have been known to bargain for a lower fee and have successfully reduced the amount of the ransom.

How Does All This Happen?

Two of the main components that allow ransomware to run wild are Emotet and Trickbot.

Emotet is malicious software that is categorized as a Trojan, which means it appears as something innocuous; however, it carries an undesirable harmful payload. Initially, it was designed to steal banking credentials. Later iterations added features including money transfer and evasive functions.

Emotet arrives primarily in phishing attacks via emails that contain malicious links or Microsoft Word files that contain macros.

Once Emotet is on a computer, it attempts to establish persistence on the computer and then propagates through the local network via spreader modules. When it is activated, it will connect to the command and control server to report a new infection. It receives configuration data, downloads and runs files, receives instructions, and then uploads the requested data to the command and control server. The instructions it receives can launch other forms of malware based on the criminals’ intent and goals.

The fact that Emotet is easily released on an unsuspecting victim makes it a very serious threat. Bad actors can send a phishing email to millions of email accounts. Probability theory dictates that someone, somewhere, will click on the link or download the file and thus become infected. For any business – large or small – all it takes is one email to reach its target, and all the computers in the company could become compromised.

The Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) reports that Emotet “can evade typical signature-based detection.” It is virtual machine aware and “can generate false indicators if in a virtual environment.” This means that the typical “sandbox” features used by some advanced security software may not be able to identify it.

Trickbot is another Trojan that uses various modules to attack a computer. These attacks include obtaining banking credentials and exfiltrating data.
The primary way in which Trickbot establishes persistence is by creating a scheduled task that runs with System privileges. The task is set to run at startup and repeatedly after that. The malware extracts and executes its code before contacting the command and control server. Trickbot’s program contains an initial encrypted list of servers to contact. Once a connection is established, it receives an updated list, and those servers have various modules and configuration files.

After it has started, Trickbot will steal passwords, steal email information, deploy web injections, and spread to other devices on the network.

What Does This Mean To You?

By now, I’m sure your eyes are glazing over, and you are wondering why I am subjecting you to this discourse.

We live in a world of coronavirus now, and unfortunately, the threat and associated risk of COVID-19 is everywhere — and equally, unfortunately, it is not going away any time soon. Cybercriminals will soon be counting on the turmoil and rampant misinformation about vaccines to lure the unwary into dangerous territory.

Wearing a mask, keeping your distance, and washing your hands will help lower your risk of getting the virus. For similar reasons, if you receive an email with an attachment, especially from someone you don’t know, you must always exercise caution!

The steps these malicious programs take on your computer occur extraordinarily fast — usually in less than a minute. You may not know that something terrible has happened until you see the ransom demand on your desktop.

It is because of programs like Emotet and Trickbot, along with others, that you must make sure you use next-generation advanced endpoint solutions to protect your computers and networks.

SonicWall, a leading perimeter security vendor, issued a mid-year update to its annual threat report in July. Amid the global disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic some threat trends are surprising:

  • The number of malware attacks is down by 33%.
  • The instances of ransomware are up globally by 20%, but over 100% in the US.
  • Office files (Word, Excel, and PDF) continue to be used primarily for malicious intent.

There was a huge spike of IoT malware — up as much as 50%.
Also noted, but not at all surprising: Cybercriminals are increasingly targeting the large number of employees who are working from home.

Cybercrime has increased since the start of the pandemic, and the latest targets now include medical facilities, hospitals, and research labs. These focused attacks have two purposes: First, to disrupt normal business and day-to-day activity; second, to obtain research data related to potential vaccines and coronavirus solutions. Nation states – most likely China, Russia, and North Korea – are very interested in obtaining intellectual property. Based on these attacks, it appears to be far easier for these cybercriminals to steal someone else’s work than to do their own.

New, never-before-seen malware variants found in the first half of 2020 increased by more than 60%. This occurred despite the overall decline in the number of malware attacks. From this, we surmise cybercriminals are experimenting to see what version can effectively get through normal defenses.

In the first half of 2020, Office files and PDFs comprised one third of all new malicious files. One of the key takeaways from the analysis of these files is that “threats are becoming more evasive and more nefarious.”

However, ransomware is on the rise. By way of contrast, global ransomware rose 15% in all of 2019. In the first half of this year, despite a global pandemic that constrained most business activity in the second quarter, it is up 20%.

The report notes a very strong correlation between where the coronavirus hit and when ransomware attacks occurred. Looking closely at the numbers, I believe this trend will continue, and the United States is going to experience more cybercrime during the next few months until the rest of the country (particularly the South and West) reduce the number of infections.

One of the scariest aspects of these recent attacks is summarized as follows:

“To make matters worse, many ransomware operators have taken to selling or otherwise releasing company data if the organization refuses to or cannot pay.

“Even for companies that cooperate with the criminals’ demands, the trouble often doesn’t stop when the ransom is paid. Many organizations pay the ransoms, only to find their files are irretrievably corrupted or have been wiped out altogether. Ransomware attacks are so devastating that they’ve forced a number of companies out of business.”

Here is an analogy to put that in perspective. A stranger breaks into your house, steals some of your belongings, and contacts you, offering to sell them back. You agree, and after the items are returned, you find they are damaged beyond repair. Worse, some of the personal documents you kept in your desk drawer have been published on the internet so that everyone can see your financial position. You, as an individual, would be mortified. When this happens to a small business, the consequences are enormous.

In terms of IoT – devices that connect to the internet to provide various services – the first six months of 2020 saw twice the number of attacks as 2019. The report forecasts that the end of the year may show numbers surpassing the combined values of 2018 and 2019.

In the consumer space, IoT devices include: Amazon Echo, Nest smoke alarm, Ring doorbell, various home security systems, smart TVs, and even smart refrigerators. http://iotlineup.com has an extensive list.

In the business environment, IoT devices include: smart locks, smart video cameras, and smart lights and energy management. These components comprise all the security elements of typical building management functions.

What’s the motivation of cybercriminals to attack these devices? They are looking for a “back door” into networks with lower chances of detection so they can deploy other forms of malicious software to compromise the computers on that network. It is essential for both the IoT device manufacturers and people who use them to insist that security considerations should be top of mind for all new devices (older ones are unlikely to be retrofitted).

I don’t think have made any mention of Coinhive in recent editions because I knew it had been shut down in early 2019. But just to recap: Coinhive was a cryptocurrency mining service that installed software in a computer’s web browser to exploit that computer’s resources to mine bits of the cybercurrency, Monero.

In 2020, as if there wasn’t enough anguish, there is a replacement called XMRig, another Monero cryptominer. In June, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) announced that XMRig was among the three signatures that make up 90% of potential threats.

So, there you have it. From SonicWall’s perspective, we were not even half-way through the year and things were already looking pretty dicey from a security standpoint. There is general consensus among security companies that attacks will only increase, and as the coronavirus continues to beat down United States businesses, along with the disruption from the upcoming presidential election, the cybercriminals are not going to stand idly by. They are going to take full advantage of the turmoil, and they will exploit it to the best of their ability.

Thanks, and safe computing!

Some phishing campaigns work by impersonating well-known organizations or brands. If cybercriminals send an email that looks just like one that comes from a company you are familiar with – and possibly even doing business with – then their hook is set. You can either take the bait or delete the email.

Microsoft is a tempting target for cybercriminals to spoof because it has a large number of subscription-based products, like Office, OneDrive, Outlook, and even Windows.

In mid-July, Abnormal Security, which specializes in preventing email fraud, discovered two different attacks designed to trap unsuspecting victims with subscription renewal. The crooks impersonated actual email notices from Microsoft. Their goal was to steal sensitive information from the recipients by convincing them that they need to renew their Microsoft Office 365 subscription.

The first campaign consists of an email telling the recipient that Office 365 is now called Microsoft 365 and that they should renew their subscription by a specific due date. The email contains a “Click to Renew” link that takes the recipient to a submission form requesting certain sensitive data, such as name, address, and credit card number.

In the second campaign, the email warns the recipient that their Microsoft 365 subscription has already expired and that by a particular date, they must renew it. A “Renew now” link takes the person to a PayPal page that prompts them to enter their PayPal payment details. (I had to look this up, but I learned that Microsoft does accept PayPal.) Typically, the transaction is processed directly, but in this case, it goes to the criminal’s PayPal account.
In both cases, anyone who took the bait will eventually find their PayPal payment information misappropriated and their Microsoft credentials compromised by the attackers.

Why These Attacks Work

A convincing phishing attack incorporates a variety of elements to trick its recipients. These two campaigns adopt several familiar tactics.

  • Official source. By pretending to look like an automated notice from Microsoft, the email gives the appearance of coming from an official source. As such, the recipients may be more likely to follow the instructions in the email.
  • Sense of urgency. Like any effective marketing campaign, the emails conveyed a sense of urgency by warning the recipient that their Microsoft 365 subscription needs to be renewed or has already expired. Further, both emails gave the recipient only a couple of days to renew before the deadline was up. Because Microsoft Office is considered an essential service by many individuals and small businesses, people may overlook the suspicious signs and quickly click on the link to try to renew.
  • Convincing landing page. Hosted on a web site called “office365family.com,” the landing page for the first campaign uses the Microsoft Office 365 name and branding to appear legitimate. The page also borrows images, links, and a website footer from Microsoft’s actual site. However, there are telltale signs that the page is not legitimate. The fonts are inconsistent and many of the header links are broken.
  • Real URL. The second campaign links to an official PayPal page. Yet, there’s no verification as to the product being purchased, no specific entity or individual as the payee, and no guaranteed transfer of goods.

How to Protect Yourself

To guard yourself against these types of phishing campaigns, take the following steps:

  • Double-check the sender’s name and email address to ensure that they’re coming from legitimate sources – don’t just trust the display name.
  • Double-check the webpage’s URL before signing in. Attackers will frequently hide malicious links in redirects or host them on separate websites that can be reached by safe links. This technique allows them to bypass link scanning within emails by traditional email security solutions.
  • If the web site name looks suspicious, do not enter your credentials! Instead, contact me if you have any questions.
  • Verify the information with your office administrator or IT solutions provider for cloud-based subscriptions.

Analysis

If you ask why anyone would do this, the answer is simple: these campaigns generate significant revenue for little effort. One result is straight-forward, because PayPal provides funds directly to the cyber criminal’s account. The one that gains access to a business’ email account is another way. How? Well with those credentials, they now have a list of all of their contacts. They can see who works for which business and can then craft a third, and more disconcerting scam: Business Email Compromise (BEC) or CEO fraud.

A follow-up campaign will be sent to those contacts attempting to claim missing accounts, or asking for wire transfer payments, or various “we need this funding by this time” emails that use social engineering to convince office administrators and in-house bookkeepers to send money to the stated claimant. Only, these emails are not from who they say they are. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), businesses in the United States lost more than $1.7 billion in 2019 to BEC scams.

Protecting your business from this kind of malicious email threat follows similar rules to those I stated above. And I’ll add one more factor to keep yourself and your business safe: If you get an unexpected email that asks you to send funds, CALL the person who is requesting it to confirm they sent it. It takes one minute to make a call. It could save you and your business tens of thousands of dollars.

Thanks, and safe computing!

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently released the annual report from their Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). The 2019 Internet Crime Report contains some rather remarkable and sobering statistics recorded on the IC3 website during 2019.

One of the techniques I’ve learned about making a presentation to an audience is to engage with them physically. For example: “Please raise your hand if you’ve been a victim of some form of internet-based scam or fraud in the past 12 months.” Invariably some people in the audience will raise their hand. I’d continue by asking, “Now keep it raised if you went to the IC3 website to report it.” I would be very hard-pressed to convince you that any hands remained in the air. And with that little bit of background, let’s take a look at the numbers. I hope that after you read this newsletter you would contact the IC3 if you inadvertently fall victim to one of these scams.

In 2019, the IC3 received over 467,000 complaints with reported losses that exceeded $3.5 billion. That is approximately 1,300 reports per day and represents a 33% increase in the number of complaints from 2018 with a corresponding increase of 30% in losses. Those numbers reflect both the sheer volume of threats that are taking place and an enhanced effort by the FBI to let people know they should report scams to the IC3.

What accounted for the most substantial loss last year? 23,775 victims reported Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks, which cost them over $1.7 billion in damages. BEC occurs when a bad actor compromises a legitimate business email account and requests a form of funds transfer. The FBI reports that a new variant of this scam appeared in 2019: diverting payroll funds. In this scheme, a human resources or payroll department would receive an email looking like it came from an employee with a request to update their direct deposit account information. The new account would generally route to a pre-paid card account. The likelihood of recovering those lost assets is extremely low.

Another high yielding scam from 2019 was Tech Support Fraud. The IC3 received over 13,000 complaints that amounted to more than $54 million in lost funds — a 40% increase from 2018. What is missing from this report is the number of victims who fell for the scam but who did not know to contact the IC3 to report their loss. Also missing is the total number of victims who didn’t succumb to the fraud in the first place. (I’d like to give a “shout out” to Rhea Hess for having received and faithfully ignored more of these fake tech support phone calls than anyone I know.)

Also on the list was the Ransomware category, comprised of 2,047 victims who lost $8.9 million. Now I have to admit, that is quite surprising given the high profile ransomware cases involving several cities, government agencies, and the health care industry last year. Again, that goes towards the question of who reports their victimhood to the IC3.

The final category is one that is significant yet frequently overlooked: Elder Fraud. Overall, the majority of losses and incidents occurred to victims who indicated their age was 60 years or over. That amounted to more than 68,000 individuals for a total of over $835 million in losses. Targeting this group is widespread because cybercriminals will invariably go to where they think the money exists.

The most treacherous scams for the over 60 age group involved Romance Fraud, Grandparent scams, and Family/Caregiver scams. The bad actor deceives the victim into believing there is a trusting relationship. The victim is persuaded to send money, or provide personal and financial information, to the bad actor. This situation frequently leads to Identify Theft or Account Takeover, where the criminal has sufficient personal identifying information that they can commit fraud against the victim’s financial accounts.

Steps You Can Take to Avoid Falling Prey — And What to Do If You Are a Victim

One of the best ways to avoid a lot of grief and heartache from these scams is to exercise a moment’s caution every time you encounter someone who is calling you for any personal information.

Similarly, if you need to contact any company for support, DO NOT search for their phone number! Scammers have already rigged the search results list on Google so that their fake phone numbers appear before the real ones. Those links go to fraudulent websites that will try to obtain personal or credit card information. If you need to contact any company, go directly to their website and look up the phone number.

If you think you’ve fallen victim to a scam, the first thing you should do is call me so that I can assess what has occurred. As appropriate, I will help you file a report with the local police, and work with you to contact your financial institutions.

I am going to insist that you log the case with the IC3 (https://www.ic3.gov). Your complaint must contain all of the required data, including banking information.

In terms of BEC fraud, there are more specific actions to take. These include:

  • Contact the originating financial institution as soon as fraud is recognized to request a recall or reversal as well as a Hold Harmless letter or Letter of Indemnity.
  • Never make any payment changes without first checking in with the intended recipient. Verify that email addresses are accurate when checking email on a cell phone or other mobile device.
  • And for heaven’s sake, call someone if there’s a significant amount of money involved, or if the request differs from your usual business process or procedures.

Thanks and safe computing!