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Cybercriminals: Taking The Road Less Traveled

If you were a criminal, what data would you be looking for? The most obvious answer is to look for the types of data that give you direct access to cash: bank accounts, brokerage accounts, credit cards. Like Willie Sutton, you'd go where the money is, right? And that's why some of the stiffest security defenses surround this sort of account data.
If you were a criminal, what data would you be looking for? The most obvious answer is to look for the types of data that give you direct access to cash: bank accounts, brokerage accounts, credit cards. Like Willie Sutton, you'd go where the money is, right? And that's why some of the stiffest security defenses surround this sort of account data.Just last week, however, we saw a classic example of cybercriminals getting creative in data theft. Eight individuals were indicted on charges that they stole some $22 million in wireless equipment and services from AT&T and T-Mobile during the course of several years, paving several new attack strategies in the process.

If they did what they're accused of, then the defendants broke new ground in the world of cyberscams. In a nutshell, they first established themselves as authorized dealers in the AT&T and T-Mobile retailer network, becoming "insiders" with access to sensitive customer data. Then they used their authorized access to customer data, stealing customer information and using it to act on those customers' behalf. Then they used the stolen identities to fraudulently purchase wireless equipment, which they routed to "insider" delivery people at FedEx and DHL, who rerouted the equipment to storage locations, where it could be resold at a large profit.

If you're keeping score at home, then that's insider data theft, unauthorized database access, identity theft, theft of telecommunications services, violation of laws on shipping and interstate commerce, physical equipment theft, and fraud (on about five different levels).

Twenty-two million dollars. And it was all done without directly violating a single bank, brokerage, or credit card account.

So what do we learn from this, class? First, it means that all customer data is both sensitive and valuable, even if it doesn't give the criminal direct access to funds or credit. Whether you sell pizza, widgets, or the ShamWow, you could be a target for cybercrime. A creative criminal can find ways to turn that data into cash.

Second, it means that your data is only as secure as its weakest access point. You can have the world's greatest technology, but if you don't vet those who have access to your data -- employees, resellers, contractors, and suppliers -- then you run the risk of fraud on a massive scale. AT&T and T-Mobile each have hundreds of resellers, but it took only one to cause a major breach.

Third, every company should know who's accessing its database information -- and why. Just because a user is authorized to access a database doesn't mean that everything he/she does is on the up-and-up. Monitor your database activity and be sure you have the ability to trace that behavior to a specific user.

Finally, the entire security industry should keep an eye out for the "next logical target" in the cybercrime game. When criminals began to be blocked by the largest companies, they quickly found easier pickins at smaller companies that didn't have the same defenses. Now that banks and brokerages are developing better methods for protecting their users' account data, the bad guys are moving on to the next-most lucrative targets -- ISPs and telecom service providers. What other industries collect extraordinary amounts of personal information? Doctors, lawyers, and realtors seem likely targets -- heck, our local youth sports league collects more data on potential coaches than I filed in my last mortgage application.

The shortest and most direct paths to the money might be closing off, but creative cybercriminals know this doesn't mean there aren't other means -- other roads -- to wealth and fortune. Those of us who are dedicated to building an adequate defense against these wily warriors should take heed of what happened at AT&T and T-Mobile -- and try to think and plan with a similar level of cunning.

--Tim Wilson, Editor, Dark Reading

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