Our Predictions for the 2021 Cybersecurity Environment

Our Predictions for the 2021 Cybersecurity Environment

2020 was a rough year for all of us, particularly from a cybercrime perspective. As businesses and schools rapidly pivoted to remote work and remote learning, many cybercriminals changed their tactics and adjusted their focus to take advantage of the situation as well as user uncertainty and fear.

As working and learning from home remain the norm for many individuals and businesses around the world, cybercriminals are poised to continue aggressively targeting users specifically using a blend of online and offline tactics

Fortunately, there are many steps your organization can take to better safeguard your digital assets against cyberattacks. As cybercriminals adjust their tactics, businesses of all sizes need to remain agile and stay up-to-date on the latest cybersecurity threats.

2021 Top Cybersecurity News

The Ongoing Fallout from the SolarWinds Attack

The SolarWinds attack, which infiltrated both the US Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security as well as a number of private organizations, rocked the cybersecurity world. Uncovered last December, this wide-reaching, devastating attack is believed to be the work of the Russian Intelligence Agency’s Foreign Intelligence Service and may have been launched as early as March 2020.

This supply-chain attack used malware to infect the networks of most, if not all, of SolarWinds’ customers via a software update. However, because the Russian attackers have had access to a wide number of networks for as long as several months, security experts are still working to determine exactly how widespread the attack was and what sensitive data and systems have been compromised. 

Even once experts know the full extent of the attack, the remediation process will be long and grueling. Entire enclaves of computers, servers, and network hardware across both federal and corporate networks will need to be isolated and replaced even as security teams continue to hunt for evidence of malware, determine what information has been compromised, and create and implement strategies to mitigate loss and damage. 

Number of Cyberattacks Expected to Rise

In addition to dramatically changing how we go about our daily lives, COVID-19 has also provided a convenient cover for cybercriminals as they shift their attack vectors away from large, well-guarded corporate networks to small, potentially vulnerable home networks. One study suggested that, in 2021, a ransomware attack on a business is likely to occur every 11 seconds, up from every 40 seconds in 2016. 

INTERPOL’s assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on cybercrime has shown similar trends, with targets shifting away from major corporations, governments, and critical infrastructure in favor of small businesses and individuals. 

2021 Cyber Attack Trends

User-Targeted Attacks Expected to Rise

As workers swap their cubicles for their kitchens, cybercriminals have changed tactics accordingly. The work from home model has brought with it a rise in successful attacks, at least in part because users are more likely to use personal devices (which are often less secure) for work-related activities.

As users log in from home, they create personal islands of security: a model where each user is effectively following different (often lax) security protocols. When workers are onsite, all of their traffic is routed through your business’s network, which is likely closely monitored by a professional security team. However, without a dedicated security team watching every employee’s home network and personal device, your organization is exposed to increased risk.

Cybercriminals are taking advantage of this increased attack area to create personalized attack chains. While traditional tactics often involved a “spray and pray” approach (where cybercriminals used generalized social engineering attacks, such as the classic Nigerian prince scam, to target a large number of users in the hopes that a few would bite), recent trends have seen a rise in hyper-personalized attacks that target specific uses with privileged access to sensitive infrastructure, data, and systems. 

While this approach is more time-consuming (since attackers need to identify and profile specific individuals to create the targeted attack), this approach is more likely to yield shorter attack-cycles, making it increasingly difficult for organizations to identify and stop attacks in progress.

Another user-focused trend to watch out for is cybercriminals increasingly targeting individuals via their phones.

A Blend of Online & Offline Tactics

The work from home era has forced cybercriminals to adapt their tactics, but unfortunately, many have done so successfully. One tried-and-true cybersecurity attack, the phone scam, has seen a resurgence.  

COVID-19 Scams Continue

According to the FCC, many cybercriminals are taking advantage of the fear and uncertainty around COVID-19 to trick unsuspecting victims into revealing sensitive personal information using social engineering. These include phone calls, emails, or text messages offering “COVID-19 kits”, “Coronavirus packages”, or Medicare benefits related to the virus. Scammers use these promises of assistance to try and convince potential victims to hand over sensitive information such as bank account details, social security numbers, or medicare numbers. 

A similar but related scam involves scammers offering “relief payments” from government agencies. These calls, text messages, and emails typically follow a general format: The caller says you have been approved to receive money, either via a relief payment or a cash grant or even via a low-interest small business loan and then asking for personal information (to “verify your identity”), banking information (so they can charge you a small “processing fee”) or both. Some scammers also ask for payment via cryptocurrencies (such as bitcoin) or gift cards. 

If you are located in the United States and are targeted by scammers, please report your encounter to the FCC.

Fake Tech Support Scams on the Rise

Another twist on the phone scam is the fake tech support scam. This follows a similar format to the scams discussed above but involves cybercriminals asking users to grant access to their computers so they can “conveniently” fix a tech support problem you weren’t even aware you have. 

Criminals then use this access to install malware, add backdoors for future access, or log keystrokes (to capture usernames, passwords, banking details, and other sensitive data). 

SMBs Likely to Invest More in Cybersecurity

As cyber threats continue to rise in 2021, small and medium-sized businesses are, particularly at risk. This is because, unlike large, enterprise-level organizations, many smaller organizations still believe that they are less likely to be targeted.

According to research conducted by Analysys Mason and reviewed in Forbes 2021 cybersecurity predictions, SMBs cybersecurity spending (including services, hardware, and software) is projected to grow by 10% between 2019 and 2024, creating an $80 billion market.

Safeguarding Your Organization in 2021

The best thing you can do to safeguard your organization’s digital assets is be proactive. Make sure you are up to date on all the latest cybersecurity threats and have a well-rounded and up-to-date cybersecurity incident response program in place

You should also assess your current cybersecurity posture regularly to ensure it is continuing to meet your needs, and you may want to consider conducting pen (penetration) tests to stress-test your current defenses. You should also make sure that all new employees receive cybersecurity training as part of their onboarding process and that all workers undergo refresher training regularly. You may also want to consider conducting tabletop exercises to give your team a chance to test their cybersecurity response skills in a no-risk environment. 

Virtual Armour is Here to Help

Safeguarding your organization from cybersecurity threats can be a lot to handle, particularly if you aren’t already a cybersecurity expert. That’s why Virtual Armour is here to help. Our team of experts can review your current practices with you, help you identify weaknesses, and create a plan to strengthen your defenses. We are also able to monitor your infrastructure, firewall, and endpoints 24/7/365 for potential threats and help you mitigate or even avoid damage should an incident occur. 

We have extensive experience working with service providers as well as organizations in a variety of industries and verticals, including healthcare, finance, retail, and energy

For more information about our service offerings or to find out what you can do to safeguard your digital assets best in 2021, please contact us today.

The Digital Partridges in the Cybercrime Pear Tree

The Digital Partridges in the Cybercrime Pear Tree

The holidays may be a time for spending time with loved ones and exchanging gifts, but the gifts cybercriminals bring aren’t jolly at all. 2020 Has been a rough year, and many organizations have felt the strain, particularly when it comes to cybersecurity and adapting to the changing tactics cybercriminals are employing. 

This year, give your organization the gift of a good cybersecurity posture by taking steps to safeguard your digital assets.

The Cybercrime Pear Tree: How the Sudden Shift to Remote Work Has Changed the Workplace Landscape

The sudden pivot to remote work earlier this year left many organizations scrambling to continue daily operations and minimize disruption, which means cybersecurity may have fallen down your list of priorities. 2020 saw an increase in the number of cyberattacks and brought with it new attack surfaces. Paired with a distracted workforce and unanticipated staffing shortages in a multi-stress environment, 2020 created very favorable conditions for cybercriminals that are likely to continue into 2021.

Cyberattacks on the Rise

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FBI has seen a 400% increase in the number of reported cyberattacks, and ransomware attacks (one of the most common forms of attack) are increasingly targeting small and medium-sized businesses.

While key industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, financial services, and public sector organizations such as the WHO remain targets, financial institutions such as banks are now fending off nearly three times as many cyberattacks as they have been in previous years. Many of these attacks originate as phishing emails that either trick workers into handing over sensitive data or contain malware.

Cybercriminals are also increasingly targeting people through their mobile devices.

Shifting Attack Surfaces

The continued shift to remote work has meant that many organizations are relying on new and unfamiliar infrastructure and processes to continue daily operations. This lack of familiarity and the artificially accelerated shift to remote work means your team may not know about existing vulnerabilities in the software they are using to do their jobs. Cybercriminals are continually exploiting existing vulnerabilities in remote work technologies, so you need to ensure all software used has undergone a security audit. 

However, even if your organization has thoroughly vetted all new technologies and processes, you can’t be certain that your business partners, vendors, and other third parties have been as studious, which means you need to be extra vigilant and may need to take additional steps to minimize risk to your organization.

The Human Factor

The pandemic has taken an emotional toll as well, leaving workers distracted and stressed. Personal and financial stressors leave workers more vulnerable to social engineering attacks, and remote workers may not be as vigilant about their cybersecurity posture at home as your internal security team is at the office. 

As more workers call in sick or need to take time off or reduce the number of hours they are available to care for dependents or relatives, many organizations are facing unanticipated staffing shortages. At the same time, while many workers used to find working from home increased their productivity, the forced isolation, limited privacy, loneliness, and new demands brought by the pandemic have decreased productivity dramatically

In the United States, recent data suggests productivity among professional and office workers is down 11%, and manual service and industrial workers are, on average, 17% less productive. In-house security teams have been particularly hard hit as they are forced to operate in an environment where they now face multiple crises on various fronts at any one time, each of which demands significant attention from both management and security teams. Securing a remote workforce is also more difficult than securing an on-site workforce, further adding to security workloads.

The Digital Partridges: Threats to Guard Against

Phishing Attacks Leveraging Video Conferencing Software

Many cybercriminals have begun to leverage video conferencing software such as Zoom and Skype to launch phishing campaigns. Criminals create phishing emails made to look like legitimate pending notification emails coming from Skype, Zoom, or a similar platform. When users click on the link in the email, they are asked for their username and password, which are then harvested by unauthorized users for criminal purposes. 

Other groups are sending phishing messages reportedly from Zoom telling recipients they have missed a meeting or their account has been suspended, designed to get users to click on a malicious link to either view the meeting details and reschedule or reactivate their account. Other similar attacks try to trick users into downloading fake video conferencing software installation programs that contain malware.

Social Engineering in the Remote Work Age

We have already discussed in detail how remote work environments make social engineering even more dangerous. Social engineering involves manipulating individuals to infiltrate an organization at the human level by tricking users into revealing sensitive information or granting access to the network. 

Since social engineering attacks often rely heavily on email or other communication types such as phone calls or text messages, remote work environments are particularly vulnerable to this type of attack as users trade in-person meetings for phone calls, video conferencing calls, and text-based forms of communication. 

Social engineering plays on two main factors: our innate desire to help others and emotions such as fear, urgency, or other forms of psychological distress. Cybercriminals trick or scare users into opening malicious files, click on malicious links, or reveal sensitive information. A sense of urgency prompts users to act quickly before they have had a chance to properly weigh the request and consider it rationally. By the time users or their superiors realize something fishy is going on, it may already be too late.

Protecting Your Presents: Steps Your Organization Can take to Safeguard Your Digital Assets

Adjust Your Cybersecurity Strategy

Most cybersecurity strategies were developed with on-site workers in mind, so it is vital to review your cybersecurity strategy in light of remote work and adjust accordingly. You should already be reviewing your security practices at least once per year, but if your next scheduled review isn’t for a while, it might be a good idea to add an additional review to your list of New Year’s Resolutions.

You should also make sure you have a robust yet flexible cybersecurity incident response program in place. If you don’t already, you may want to consider drafting one as soon as possible. You should also review your incident response program and ensure that it takes remote workers into account and is still able to meet your organization’s security needs.

Secure Your Endpoints

An endpoint refers to any device such as a computer or mobile phone that can be used to access your network. While all the endpoints in your physical office may already be secure, you need to ensure that any home devices being used to access your network meet your security standards. Organizations that rely on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies are particularly vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks since organizations don’t have direct and complete control over how those devices are being used, what other programs are installed on them, and other factors that may compromise your network’s security and leave your digital assets vulnerable.

Regular Cybersecurity Training: The Gift that Keeps On Giving

This holiday season, consider giving your workers the gift of cybersecurity training. All employees, from the lowest ranking intern up to the CEO, should receive cybersecurity training as part of their onboarding process and undergo regular refresher training. 

The sudden pivot to remote work has likely affected how workers complete their daily tasks, so you should consider adjusting your current cybersecurity training program to account for these changes. You should also make sure that, as part of this training, you explain to workers why certain steps, procedures, and policies are important and how they contribute to the overall security of your company; When workers understand the “why” behind the “what,” they are more likely to see the value in additional steps and make sure to take them. 

Run More Exercises

Exercises such as pen (penetration) tests and tabletop exercises are incredibly valuable.

Pen tests involve hiring an ethical hacker to stress-test your network and look for vulnerabilities. Your team can then use the insight gained by the hacker to improve your overall security. Running a pen test on your network, with a focus on any new software your remote workers are using, can help ensure that your organization isn’t left vulnerable.

Tabletop exercises act like cybersecurity fire drills: workers are given a hypothetical scenario (such as a hack or data breach) and tasked with responding to it effectively. Tabletop exercises allow workers to apply the knowledge they gain in cybersecurity training in a no-risk environment. Once the scenario is complete, you and your team can sit down and review your response’s efficacy and identify any gaps or problems that need to be addressed.

Know When to Call in the Experts

Not everyone is a cybersecurity expert, and that is okay. After all, even Santa relies on his elves for their skills and expertise. That’s why the experts at VirtualArmour are here to help. From drafting a cybersecurity strategy to monitoring your network 24/7/365 for suspicious activity, our team is here for you. 

Should you experience a breach or hack, our team can help you fend off the attack, identify the root cause of the issue, and identify steps you can take to mitigate or even avoid damage and create concrete plans to help you prevent similar attacks going forward.To learn more about the cybersecurity threats 2021 is likely to bring, and what steps you can take to safeguard against them, please contact our team today.

Identity Management is Really Just Cybersecurity Best Practices With a Fancy (& Expensive) Name

Identity Management is Really Just Cybersecurity Best Practices With a Fancy (& Expensive) Name

Identity management, as a concept, has been around for a while, although many of us are just hearing about it now. It sounds impressive, but what does it really mean, and are there steps your organization should be taking to ensure you have good identity management practices in place?

What is Identity Management?

Identity management (also called identity and access management or IAM) is just a fancy name with a high price tag that essentially covers all of the cybersecurity best practices you likely already have in place. The goal of any IAM strategy is to define and manage the roles and access privileges of all users on your network, and specify the circumstances under which users should be granted or denied privileges.

IAM Takes Cybersecurity Beyond the Workplace

While most organizations have robust cybersecurity practices already in place, the most significant shift IAM brings to the table is bringing cybersecurity out of the workplace and into the personal sphere.

As hacking and other forms of cybercrime become increasingly common, many individuals have begun to pay cybersecurity companies to protect their personal identity by monitoring their personal data for suspicious activities. Though this approach to cybersecurity builds on basic best practices already in place, this is the first time these practices have been applied to individuals in a non-workplace setting as the concept that individuals need to take cybersecurity steps to protect their personal digital assets continues to gain traction.

Identity & Access Cybersecurity Best Practices: A Brief Refresher

We have discussed cybersecurity best practices in the past. However, you should review your current cybersecurity posture frequently so you can ensure your current protocols continue to safeguard your digital assets and meet your needs.

Knowledge is Power

A lack of data can cripple even the best cybersecurity solution. Make sure your network is being monitored 24/7/365 for suspicious activity, and all activity on the network should be logged. 

From an identity and access standpoint, suspicious activity may include users logging on at strange hours or from strange locations (a sign that their credentials may have been stolen by cybercriminals) or signs of credential stuffing, where cybercriminals try multiple username and password combinations in rapid succession in the hopes that one pairing will grant access.

Not Everyone Needs to Access Everything

Some areas of your network are bound to contain more sensitive systems and data than others. As such, these areas, such as financial records, should be afforded extra protection. While your network likely already has a firewall around its perimeter, you should consider installing internal firewalls around critical or sensitive systems as a second line of defense if your perimeter is breached.

The Importance of Strong Password Guidelines

Choosing a strong, hard to guess password is a simple step all users can take to improve your cybersecurity posture. To help ensure all users are choosing good passwords, you should be enforcing password best practices. NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) offers comprehensive guidelines on choosing secure passwords in section 5.1.1.1 (Memorized Secret Authenticators) of their Digital Identity Guidelines document.

The Benefits of Password Managers

The best passwords are long and truly random, unlikely to be guessed by anyone in a reasonable amount of time. However, long random passwords are also a pain to memorize, encouraging users to write them down or otherwise store them insecurely, defeating their purpose.

To help ensure users are choosing strong passwords, you may want to consider using a password manager. A password manager works like a book of passwords where only the user has the master key. Passwords within the manager can be randomly generated, and many password managers will flag reused passwords so that users know the password they are using isn’t unique and needs to be updated.

The Power of MFA

Physical devices such as computers and smartphones can be stolen or lost, and passwords can be compromised, which is why many organizations and individuals are turning to MFA. MFA (multi-factor authentication, also called two-factor authentication) pairs a strong password with a second form of identification, such as a hardware element or text message confirmation. 

When a user enters their username and password, the system sends them a push notification, often to their smartphone. The push is generated by the MFA app, and the user must acknowledge the push (either by clicking on a link in the message or entering a randomly generated temporary code on the login page) before they are granted access to the network.

Make Sure You Have Offboarding Procedures in Place

While many organizations invest a lot in their onboarding processes to ensure new hires are set up for success, not all organizations invest in offboarding processes. Making sure you have policies and procedures in place for revoking credentials from former employees is vital for good cybersecurity. 

Former employees and cybercriminals alike may act unscrupulously and use their old credentials to gain access to the system. If cybercriminals are successful, their unauthorized access may go unnoticed for a while since the former employee is no longer monitoring their old account. 

Offboarding is also a good policy to have regarding your personal data. Make sure you are completely aware of any other parties that have access to any personal accounts, including bank accounts or even your Netflix account, and know how to have their access removed should the need arise.

Consider a Zero Trust Approach

Zero Trust Security is exactly what it sounds like: Don’t trust any user until they are verified. Like current best practices, traditional cybersecurity approaches included strong perimeter security, such as firewalls. However, one of this model’s main failings was that if an unauthorized user was able to breach the perimeter, there was little to no internal security to prevent them from accessing sensitive areas of the network. 

Zero Trust Security rests on the belief that trust should never be automatically granted either outside or inside a network’s perimeter. All users must verify their identity every time they try and move around the network. This way, even if the perimeter is breached, unauthorized users can be more easily contained to the network’s less sensitive areas. 

Further Reading

Cybersecurity is everyone’s business, from the intern in the mailroom all the way up to the CEO, and this idea has spread beyond the workplace and into the home. To help ensure your cybersecurity posture as a business is as strong as possible, you should be:

  • reviewing your policies regularly
  • including cybersecurity in your onboarding process for new employees 
  • offering frequent refresher training for all employees

On a personal and workplace front, you should make sure that you, your family members, and your co-workers all understand the importance of good cybersecurity and why each policy and procedure is in place.

If you could use a refresher, we have included a list of articles for your review below. If you have any questions about cybersecurity or could use some expert advice, please contact our experienced team

Educating Yourself & Your Team

Cybersecurity Awareness is Increasingly Important, Especially With 2020 Around the Corner

The Modern Hacker: Who They Are, Where They Live, & What They’re After

VirtualArmour Academy

Essential Best Practices

Cyber Hygiene 101: Basic Steps to Keep Your Company Secure

Cybersecurity Spring Cleaning: It’s Time to Review Your Security Practices

Creating a Response Plan

Building a Cybersecurity Incident Response Program

Best Practices for Organizations with BYOD Policies

Keeping Your Network Secure in a “Bring Your Own Device” World

Securing Your Website

Basic Website Precautions: Keep Intruders Out With These Fundamental Security Best Practices

Common Cybersecurity Attacks to Prepare For

In a Remote World, Social Engineering is Even More Dangerous

5 Old-School Hack Techniques That Still Work (& How to Protect Your Data)

Everything You Need to Know About Ransomware (2019 Edition)

Don’t Let Phishing Scams Catch You Unaware

Cryptojacking: Because Every Currency Needs to Be Protected

Hackers Are Increasingly Targeting People Through Their Phones

Airports are a Hackers Best Friend (& Other Ways Users Expose Themselves to Risk) 

How Fear Motivates People to Click on Spam

What to Do if You’ve Been Hacked

Hacked? Here’s What to Know (& What to Do Next)

Industry-Specific Resources

Healthcare

The Ultimate Guide to Cybersecurity in the Healthcare Industry 

Case Study: Your Healthcare MSSP

Finance

How the Financial Industry Can Strengthen Their Cybersecurity

Case Study: Your Financial Services MSSP

Retail

Case Study: Your Retail MSSP

Energy

Case Study: The MSSP for the Energy Industry

Service Providers

Case Study: The MSSP for Service Providers

Higher Education

Cybersecurity Basics Every College & University Needs to Have in Place

Manufacturing

Cybersecurity for the Manufacturing Industry, What You Need to Know Now

In a Remote World, Social Engineering is Even More Dangerous

In a Remote World, Social Engineering is Even More Dangerous

Remote work has changed how many of us conduct our day to day work tasks and brought with it new cybersecurity dangers. Though social engineering has been around for decades, the shift to remote work has brought with it a resurgence in this common technique, and many organizations remain unprepared. 

Social Engineering: A Brief Primer

Social engineering refers to the use of psychological manipulation to infiltrate an organization or private network at the human level, tricking unsuspecting users into revealing or providing access to sensitive information. Unlike other forms of hacking, social engineering can’t be guarded against using only technology because it exploits the human desire to help and trust easily as well as a fear of trouble or inconvenience rather than relying on technological vulnerabilities. 

Social engineering typically happens over email or other forms of communication (such as the phone or text messaging) and is used to invoke fear, urgency, or similar emotions in the victim. This psychological distress causes the victim to click the malicious link, open the malicious file, or promptly reveal sensitive information. The psychological nature of this form of attack means they are difficult for organizations to prevent.

The only way to defend against social engineering attacks is to educate your employees about the dangers of social engineering, how to spot suspicious requests and steps they can take to thwart potential attacks. 

How it Works

This attack can take many forms but may go something like this:

The attacker calls or emails your support desk, pretending to be an authorized user. Using this persona, they tell the help desk that they have forgotten their password or are otherwise locked out of their account and concoct a believable story to support this claim. For example, if your organization uses 2-factor authentication, they may claim they dropped their phone in the toilet, so now they can’t receive the necessary verification code. 

Using this story, the attacker will convince your help desk employee to reset the target’s email address, password, or other information, thereby providing the attacker with access to the victim’s account. The attacker now has complete access to the victim’s account and may use this access to either steal sensitive information or launch subsequent social engineering attacks using the victim’s email (adding a layer of believability to future attacks).

Cybercriminals may also use social engineering to try and manipulate employees into handing over sensitive information by posing as an authority figure, such as a manager or client. Good employees want to be helpful and may be tempted to co-operate without verifying the requester’s identity first.

How Remote Work Makes Social Engineering More Effective (& Dangerous) Than Ever

Remote work has brought with it a significant reduction in the number of face to face interactions workers have with one another and with clients. While in the past, an employee could verify a suspicious request from a co-worker simply by heading over to their co-worker’s office and asking, now requests and collaboration are happening almost entirely online.

It’s significantly easier for someone to hide their identity online than in person, and as organizations continue to adjust their policies to reflect the reality of remote work, cybercriminals are taking advantage of the uncertainty around new protocols, procedures, and ways of doing things. 

For example, a cybercriminal can now explain away the fact that they aren’t calling you from an official business phone number because they are working from home and have to use their home phone. Or maybe they need you to do something for them because you are one of the few workers still onsite. Or maybe they ask you to hop on a video call, but they can’t use their video because they have a “poor internet connection”, so you can’t visually verify who you are speaking to.

How to Recognize Potential Social Engineering Attacks

Be Suspicious

Be wary of unsolicited advice or help, particularly from sources you can’t immediately verify with absolute certainty. This particularly holds true if the person making the request is asking you to do something, such as click a link, download a folder, or re-set a “compromised” password. Any requests for personal information (such as a password, credit card info, or Social Security number) is likely an attack. 

Do not provide any personal or sensitive information, and do not click on any links or open any files. If you have been contacted by phone, hang up and contact the company directly using a method you can independently verify (such as an email address or phone number from their website).

Don’t Be Hasty

Social engineering attacks are designed to elicit one of two reactions: total lack of suspicion (so you don’t realize you are handing over access to sensitive information) or panic and fear (to prevent you from thinking rationally). Be cautious if you receive a call from anyone claiming to be from tech support. Tech support personnel are busy enough that they aren’t likely to reach out to check if everything is going fine and instead typically wait for users to contact them with specific problems. They may pretend they are following up with you, but unless you remember putting in a request ticket or can verify that you did (by, say, checking your sent emails), don’t engage.

If the person contacting you is trying to make you act quickly, they may be trying to override your better judgment. You should also be aware of sob stories or any other stories designed to manipulate you. When in doubt, ignore the email or hang up the phone.

Always Double Check

The best thing you can do when you suspect someone has tried to social engineer you is to cross-reference the information they provide and double-check with trusted sources. If your “boss” asks you to do something that seems suspicious or out of character, pick up the phone and call them directly to verify the request before proceeding. 

If someone contacts you and asks you to disclose information or perform a task, always verify that the request is legitimate before taking action.

Steps You Can Take to Safeguard Your Organization

There are many steps you can take to help keep your organization secure.

Educate Yourself

You can’t create good policies and educate your employees on best practices if you don’t know what threats to look for. Stay up to date on the latest cybersecurity threats and pay particular attention to new phishing or social engineering scams that are making the rounds. If you don’t know what types of attacks are out there, you won’t be able to prepare your organization to defend against them.

You should also be aware of common “pretexts” social engineers may use, such as posing as an internal employee with computer problems or an external consultant hired to take a survey or perform an audit. In cases like this, employees should know to always verify with their manager before divulging any information or providing any assistance. It’s better for an employee to cause a slight delay by verifying a request then comply without question and potentially compromise your organization’s security.

Write Good Policies & Invest in Employee Training

Having clear cybersecurity policies is great, but for them to be truly effective, employees need to understand why these policies are important. It’s vital that all team members realize the important role they play in safeguarding the organization’s digital assets. Make sure you review and update your cybersecurity policies regularly so that they continue to meet your needs

Cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility; make sure all new hires undergo rigorous cybersecurity training and that all employees, from the most junior intern to the CEO, are undergoing regular refresher cybersecurity training. 

Make sure you provide employees with a clear set of guidelines on how to respond to common situations. You can’t plan for every possible scenario, but without guidelines, employees may revert to actions they perceive as helpful, causing them to reveal sensitive information inadvertently. Make sure all employees know that if they are unsure about a request or feel it might be suspicious, they should hold off on responding or taking action until they have contacted their boss or another decision-maker and verified that the request is legitimate.

You also need to ensure you are creating a company culture that values security. Telling your employees something important is one thing, but unless your company leadership is leading by example, the message won’t stick.

Keep Your Software Up to Date

Out of date software poses a lot of security threats, which is why hackers frequently use social engineering attacks to determine whether your company is running the latest version of a program or an older, un-patched version that they can exploit. Keeping your software up to date cuts off potential avenues of access to hackers, making it more difficult for them to access your systems even if they are able to sweet talk their way in.

Pause & Reflect Before Sharing

If someone asks you for personal or sensitive information, make sure you pause and reflect before answering. Ask yourself if they actually need the information they are asking for. If it seems unlikely or you aren’t sure, politely decline to provide the information. If the requester persists, escalate the request to your superior or contact your cybersecurity team before you consider responding.

While most individuals try to be helpful and friendly, employees need to understand that this great attitude needs to be tempered with restraint.

Be Stubborn

If you suspect someone is asking for information you shouldn’t release, verify the request with your manager before responding, and make sure all employees know to do the same. This pause and verify approach may cause the social engineer to back off, but if they redouble their efforts, calmly explain that you need to verify their request with your manager before complying. This can be difficult to do on the phone since most people don’t want to be rude, but in this situation, it is better to step away and verify than give in and potentially compromise your organization’s security. 

Make sure employees understand that in this scenario, it is better to potentially be perceived as rude and take the time to double-check then blindly offer assistance in the name of good manners.

The Modern Hacker: Who They Are, Where They Live, & What They're After

The Modern Hacker: Who They Are, Where They Live, & What They're After

Hacking, the act of gaining unauthorized access to or otherwise compromising digital devices and networks, is an evolving and ongoing threat. When many of us imagine a hacker, we think of a lone mischievous teenager writing malicious code in a dark basement, but the modern reality is much more diverse and sophisticated.

The Cost of Hacking

Hacking is a billion-dollar growth business. According to Forbes, hackers stole $4 billion from victims in the first half of 2019 alone, making hacking incredibly tempting for individuals with few scruples. We discussed the most costly cyber attacks of 2019 in our blog post The 8 Most Expensive Cyberattacks of 2019.

Who is the Modern Hacker?

While there are still loners breaking into secure systems from their basements, hacking is becoming much more professional and organized.

State Sponsored Hacking

Modern hackers are state-sponsored actors; unlikely soldiers conscripted in wars between nations. Russia, in particular, has been accused of using state-sponsored hacking in many instances, including allegations that they interfered in America’s 2016 federal election. However, governments aren’t the only targets: state-sponsored hackers are increasingly targeting private businesses as well. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and the owner of the Washington Post, was targeted by the Saudi Arabian government in 2018 in an attempt to influence how the newspaper covered the kingdom in an attempt to limit or prevent criticism and cast the country in a more flattering light.

And state-sponsored hacking may be on the rise. Only last July, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom announced that hackers associated with Russian intelligence had attempted to hack government systems in order to steal information related to COVID-19 vaccine development. That same month, the United Kingdom also accused Russia of interfering in their general elections.

Non-State Groups of Hackers

Hacking is becoming a team sport both within government and outside of it, with hundreds or even thousands of individual hackers banding together to pull off Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) and other widespread attacks.

The most notable groups of non-government sponsored hackers are currently Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and LulzSec, who use their hacking skills for activism purposes.

The Tools of the Modern Hacker

More than Just Writing Code

While there is a technical aspect of hacking (such as creating malware or breaking into networks), psychology also plays a role in this illegal activity. Social engineering, where hackers use psychology to trick unsuspecting victims into complying with their requests, plays a vital role in many cybersecurity attacks. This use of psychology takes many forms, from using phishing to trick users into revealing their usernames, passwords, or other sensitive information or using spam to scare them into handing over money or sensitive information.

Malware for Sale

In the modern world, hackers don’t need technical skills to wreak havoc, just a connection to the dark web. Criminal enterprises are increasingly offering malware for sale, so non-technical hackers (known as “script kiddies”) can carry out devastating and sophisticated attacks. This business of selling malware saw one group of hackers to sell backdoor access to PCs for as little as $10. In addition to selling the program necessary to hack these computers, the sellers also offered tips for how hackers could avoid detection. These groups are rarely concerned with who they are selling their product to, or what the buyers intend to do with their newfound malware.

Where Does the Modern Hacker Live?

Though hackers come from around the world, it isn’t easy to track down this elusive group that works hard to stick to the shadows and cover their tracks. However, recent research suggests that the majority of the world’s hackers are from within the United States, followed by China and finally Russia.

What Are Hackers After?


Hackers are a diverse group, and as such, are motivated by a variety of factors.

Criminal Financial Gain

One of the most common goals of hacking is financial gain through illegal means. This category includes credit card credential theft as well as defrauding banks.

Corporate Secrets

Corporations are increasingly using hackers for corporate espionage. While some organizations rely on outside hackers to break into secure networks and steal corporate secrets and IP, these threats are increasingly originating from within organizations themselves.

National Secrets

Much like corporate espionage, governments are also turning to hackers to target other governments or private businesses, such as the Russian hack examples against the American, Canadian, and British governments mentioned above. Another famous example of governments using hackers to gain intelligence and sow chaos is Stutnex, which was developed jointly by the American and Israeli governments and used to wreak havoc on the Iranian nuclear facility Natanz.

The Rise of Hacktivism

Some hackers are socially or politically motivated. These hacker-activists (or hacktivists) use their skills to draw the public’s attention to social and political issues by shining an unflattering light on their targets, typically by making sensitive or damaging information public.

Fame

Some hackers are motivated by fame and the drive to gain the respect of their fellow hackers. In these cases, hackers often deface or otherwise leave identifying marks on the websites and systems they infiltrate as a way to show their skills off to other hackers.

Additional Reading

For more information about hacking, and what steps you can take to protect yourself and your business, please consider reading more of our blog posts, including:

Hackers Are Increasingly Targeting People Through Their Phones

Hackers Are Increasingly Targeting People Through Their Phones

We do so many things on our smartphones: We stay in touch with friends and colleagues, we do our banking, we look for work, and so much more. Unfortunately, while phones have made it easier than ever to go about our everyday lives, they also offer another way hackers can reach us by gaining access to our money and private files. While hacking may look different than it did when home computers first became commonplace, some old school tactics are still in use alongside the new and insidious approaches hackers use to gain unauthorized access to our devices. Even if you are pretty tech-savvy, you may be inadvertently exposing yourself to risk.

Hackers target our phones for a wide variety of reasons, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself. If you think you have been hacked, please read our blog post: Hacked? Here’s What to Know (& What to Do Next). To help safeguard your smartphone as well as any networks it connects to, you and your team should be reviewing your security practices regularly.

Why Hackers Target Phones

Blonde woman reading her phone while holding coffee
According to the Pew Research Center, 81% of Americans use smartphones. This ubiquity partnered with the fact that many shopping apps (particularly Android apps) contain high-level security vulnerabilities. Many apps also transmit unencrypted user data, making smartphones easy targets for hackers.

To Steal Your Money or Financial Information

Ransomware attacks aren’t limited to desktops and laptops. A ransomware attack could paralyze your phone, keep you from accessing critical files, and allow unauthorized users to access sensitive personal data. The basic anatomy of a ransomware attack involves hackers tricking users into downloading malicious software (malware), which they use to take control of the device and lock users out. The hacker then threatens to delete critical files or release private information unless the user agrees to pay the ransom. While some users may be tempted, paying the ransom doesn’t guarantee you will regain control of your device or your data.

In one case, a third-party Android app promised users it would optimize their system, but instead stole money from their PayPal accounts. This wasn’t technically a phishing attack, since the login process was legitimate, but once users logged in malware initiated the automatic PayPal transfer. Other hackers target victims’ wallets by tricking them into downloading fake mobile payment apps. Once victims have entered their payment information, the hacker can do things like empty your bank account or charge purchases to your credit card.

To Eavesdrop on Your Phone Calls

While phone calls may seem old fashioned to some people, the truth is we talk about a lot on the phone. Even if you don’t use your phone to stay in touch with loved ones or discuss sensitive business information with colleagues or clients, you may have to call your bank or the government to access services. During calls with your bank, you will likely discuss your banking details, and calls to the government will inevitably require answering verification questions and confirming your social security number.

There is currently a flaw (called SS7) in the US cellular exchange that allows hackers who know a target’s phone numbers to listen to calls, read text messages, and view user’s locations. Even though US agencies have known about this issue for some time, they have yet to take action to address it, leaving American’s phone privacy at risk.

To Blackmail You

Blackmail is nothing new, but the tiny computers we carry around in our pockets contain more personal information than our desktops and laptops do, making them tempting targets for hackers.

A typical blackmailing hack may go something like this: The hacker obtains some personal information on the victim that is already available on the black market, likely as a result of a previous, unrelated breach. They use this information to trick the victim’s phone company into believing they are the user and convince the company to transfer the victim’s number to a new phone owned by the hacker. When phone companies transfer numbers, they often transfer all the information on the old phone as well, which hackers can then use to blackmail their victims. In order to regain access to their personal files, victims may feel pressured to give in to the hacker’s demands or pay a ransom.

To Mine Cryptocurrency

Any computing device, including smartphones, can be hijacked by hackers and used to mine cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. This attack is referred to as cryptojacking. For more information on cryptojacking, and what steps you can take to safeguard yourself, please read our blog post Cryptojacking: Because Every Currency Needs to Be Protected.

To Gain Access to Your Company

Even if hackers target your phone, you may not be their primary target. A large percentage of office workers are currently working from home, which means many of us may be using our personal smartphones for business purposes. While working in a BYOD (bring your own device) exposes companies to risk providing work laptops and work smartphones for every employee may be cost-prohibitive. Fortunately, there are steps companies and workers can take to safeguard their devices and the company network. For more information, please read our blog post, Keeping Your Network Secure in a Bring Your Own Device World.

Just For Fun & Fame

While many hackers are motivated by financial gain, some hack others for entertainment or to gain fame in hacker circles.

Cybersecurity Steps You Can Take to Protect Yourself

Combination lock sitting on a cell phone

Stay Away From Third-Party App Stores

One of the easiest things you can do to protect yourself is to avoid third-party app stores; only download apps from trusted sources such as the Apple app store or the Android app store. However, hackers and other malicious actors have been able to penetrate these platforms as well, and some rogue apps have slipped through, so while this rule will reduce your odds of downloading a malicious app, it doesn’t completely eliminate risk.

Keep an Eye on Your Settings

Checking your phone’s settings can help you spot suspicious behavior. If your phone seems to be chewing through its battery more quickly than usual or appears to be running more apps than you currently have open, it may indicate a hacker has downloaded and is running a malicious app on your device without your knowledge.

Wait Before You Download

While you may be tempted to download that shiny new app as soon as it launches, waiting can help you ensure that new apps are free of serious security flaws. Waiting also gives developers a chance to issue patches to address any issues that do come to light.

When in Doubt, Don’t Click

Whether you are using your smartphone, desktop, or laptop, if you:

  • Encounter a suspicious site
  • Are sent a suspicious link
  • Stumble across a sketchy looking popup
  • Notice that there are apps on your phone you don’t remember downloading

You should stop using your phone until you can get some answers. If you think you may have been hacked, you should contact your MSSP right away for advice and next steps.