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10/8/2008
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Financial Crisis Leaves Bank Branches Open to Social Engineering, Targeted Attacks

Social engineer gained access to branch manager's office while he was out - with no questions asked

Heightened concern over the growing financial crisis is making banks more vulnerable to targeted social engineering and spear-phishing attacks, researchers said this week.

Penetration testers who work with bank clients say the fragile state of the banking community is making it easier for them to dupe understandably anxious bank employees. Bank employees are overly eager or easily coerced into cooperating with “auditors,” or into clicking on links purportedly from the bank about its own financial welfare.

“It’s definitely easier now to do some of these client-side attacks [on banks] because people [bank employees] are paying a lot of attention to their internal emails about the [financial] status of the bank,” says Chris Nickerson, who performs so-called “red team” testing of physical and electronic security as well as social engineering weaknesses for banks and other organizations.

Nickerson says he’s seen an increase in his bank clients’ employees falling for these targeted or spear-phishing attacks in his testing. “It used to be around 60 to 70 percent, and now it’s a 70 percent” rate of users falling for the phony scams he conducts, says Nickerson, CEO of Lares Consulting.

And breaching a bank’s physical security is also easier now, according to Errata Security. In a social engineering ploy for a mid-sized bank last week, Errata CTO David Maynor was mistaken for a federal auditor and allowed access to the branch manager’s unoccupied office. He made off with a computer backup tape containing account transaction data.

“I shaved, wore a suit, and carried a briefcase full of a lot of papers,” says Maynor, who knew through some earlier reconnaissance work that the bank manager would be out of the office at the very same time he arrived at the branch. “I walked in and talked to the teller, who pointed me to the shift manager’s” office so he could "leave a note." But instead, Maynor found the exposed backup tape and walked out of the building with it.

No one asked for Maynor’s auditor credentials -- they merely assumed he was a federal auditor and let him enter the office. “We saw the panic in their eyes when Dave walked into the bank, because of the banking crisis. They panicked, so we could have asked for anything,” says Robert Graham, CEO of Errata.

“There’s a huge danger of anyone walking into a bank now and saying ‘I’m with the FDIC,’ and then [the employees] panic and won’t check credentials,” Graham says.

But fooling bank employees was way too easy even before the banking crisis, Lares’s Nickerson contends. “Usually, I say I’m an auditor, and that gets you into any bank, anywhere."

Nickerson argues that it’s targeted electronic attacks like spear-phishing that are simpler in this nervous financial climate -- his team has duped bank employees with phony emails from the “bank” about the latest news in the financial markets, as well as with links purportedly to information on how their bank is doing better than its competitors in this crisis, he says. It’s not just browser exploits or Web-borne exploits, but also infected spreadsheet, PDF, and Word attachments supposedly providing information on the crisis or the bank itself, he notes.

Some social engineers are worried that the bad guys will soon start preying on bank employees’ fears to wage real targeted attacks. One researcher, for example, has decided to hold off on releasing a powerful open source hacking platform he created for targeted email and phishing attacks that includes payloads for popular Web threats.

“I think phishing and social engineering [are] the highest risk currently faced by the financial industry,” says Joshua Perrymon, CEO of PacketFocus, who’s afraid the bad guys would abuse his so-called Lunker tool for targeted phishing attacks. “I am currently working on a way to release it as a training tool that could be integrated into internal security awareness programs,” he says. (See Hacking Tool Lets You Target Your Own End Users and Free Spear-Phishing Tool on Tap.)

“The problem with spear phishing is that we don’t have the appropriate technology or means to stop it right now. This makes us rely on users’ judgment, which is a bad thing unless it’s been pounded into their head how these attacks work and what to look for,” Perrymon says. “You can be totally anonymous when doing these attacks.”

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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