Banks Targeted By Hackers Three Times More Than Other Sectors

Active targeted attacks on financial services firms in quest for lucrative data -- and of course, money.

Financial services organizations--traditionally some of the best-fortified against cyber attacks--see three times as many attack attempts by cybercriminals than other industries do, a new study by Raytheon/Websense shows.

The findings, based on real-world targeted attack attempts on Raytheon/Websense customers in the financial and other sectors, also highlight how cybercriminals are upping their game in attacks targeting financial organizations. Among the tricks they're using to try to bypass security at banks: code obfuscation, redirected code, and code injection, says Carl Leonard, principal security analyst for Websense Security Labs, who notes that his team intercepts data-theft incidents but not distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack attempts.

"We’re seeing attacks against the banks for client information, PII [personally identifiable information], entire credit histories, and money," Leonard says.

"We've been working with financial services clients for many years, and know the extent of effort they put into securing" their environments, he says. "Malware authors are trying a lot of techniques against financial services" to infiltrate those defenses, he says.

The financial services industry is considered the gold standard for security as one of the early adopters of the newest security technologies, and with one of the most active cyber threat intelligence-sharing organizations, the FS-ISAC. Regulatory pressure indeed has been a major factor in its maturity in security, but that hasn't stopped money-hungry cybercriminals from continuing to hack away at banks and financial firm's defenses.

Banks are well-aware that their security measures aren't deterring the bad guys. A recent survey by the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC) found that almost half of financial firms consider cyber security the biggest risk to the overall economy. 

Cybercriminals and nation-states are now regularly performing reconnaissance to find employees within financial firms to target, as well as to probe for vulnerabilities via vulnerability scans. Brian Lozada, CSO for Abacus Group, which provides managed IT services and solutions for hedge funds and private equity funds, says his firm has witnessed an uptick in these scans the past few months.

"Scans looking at open ports, protocols being run, services being run, that sort of thing," Lozada says of the recon efforts, which he says mainly come from China and Eastern Europe, including Russia. "They are putting out feelers for our environment, trying to listen and look at opportunities," something that's a common phenomenon for financial services firms today, he says.

Some 33% of all recon and "lure-stage" attacks are targeting financial services firms, according to the Raytheon/Websense study.

Lozada says his biggest worry is a key logger getting planted on the client machine of one its financial services customers. "Nation-states or other organized groups dedicated to hacking do their reconnaissance: what employees work for these financial services firms, and they start to target the employees directly," he says. "This is what financial services firms have to focus on. They have the test technology, and they need to invest in the [security] awareness of their users. The human element is always the biggest risk."

Abacus monitors its customer environments for signs of user account compromises that could occur via a key logger infection, he says.

The bad guys are actively going after credentials from users at banks and other financial firms, as well as data, according to the Raytheon/Websense report. The top three malware families attackers are using for these goals are Rerdom, Vawtrack, and Geodo. Geodo appears to be custom-made for financial firms, according to the report:  Geodo, which includes a credential-stealing email worm, was found 400% more often in the financial sector versus other sectors.

While financial firms hustle to keep shoring up their defenses, attackers are constantly changing up their attacks as needed to stay alive and under the radar. "Obfuscation and search engine optimization poisoning continue to be more prevalent in attacks against financial services than other industries as a whole. Patterns in attack campaigns shift on a month-to-month basis, including huge spikes in malicious redirection and obfuscation detected in a wave of attacks in March 2015," according to the report. "In addition, cybercriminals maintain a constant barrage of low-level attacks to keep security pros occupied dealing with a tremendous volume of background noise while targeted attacks are simultaneously occurring."

Raytheon/Websense's Leonard says typo squatting is a popular technique for fooling users into giving up their credentials via email. "They send an email from a fake domain that looks like" a bank's, for example, to employees in hopes that they will give up credentials. Some quarter of a million dollars has been stolen via this tactic, he says.

Attackers are mostly using servers in the US to wage their hacking campaigns, too. That's because most users and organizations are more likely to trust traffic from the US, he says.

While the top nations hosting malicious servers rotates occasionally, the US has been number one most months this year, the report shows. In May, 61% of attacks targeting financial firms came from servers hosted in the US.

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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