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ISF warns against the rise in profit-driven attacks

October 2008 by isf

Targeted and organised, profit-driven attacks are replacing random individual hacker attacks and presenting increased threats for businesses and government, says the Information Security Forum (ISF). This new breed of attack, designed to steal valuable and sensitive information or customer data for major financial gain is being orchestrated by criminal networks that bring together specialist skills and expertise. Many even place sleepers within organisations to provide inside knowledge and access.

According to the ISF, profit-driven attacks have five phases:

Reconnaissance to identify targets; Development to plan the attack and write malware; Extraction of the data; Exploitation by advertising and selling stolen information; and finally Laundering of the profits. Normally, there is a different person or team running each phase, often operating from different parts of the world, making it extremely difficult to track and trace. Each group takes a slice of the profits with the criminal ringleaders reaping the largest rewards - that can run into millions.

"It’s not dissimilar to the process of robbing a bank," says Nick Frost, senior research consultant at the ISF. "The difference is that this cybercrime is more sophisticated and harder to trace. Most attacks are able to circumvent generic security controls, while anti-forensic techniques are used to remove traces such as deleting system logs and advanced attack kits such as Limbo 2 Trojan are available online with non-detection-warranties."

"Most organisations do not have the necessary controls in place to deal with these attacks and the financial profits from successful breaches are simply used to fund more sophisticated and malicious attacks, creating a vicious cycle," adds Frost.

Typically, profit-driven attacks are targeted at high value organisations or individuals. Spear phishing is a common social-engineering technique used to seek out data such as bank details or access credentials from groups of customers or employees that can then be sold online. So called Whaling targets hand-picked individuals, such as wealthy billionaires and CEOs or those with privileged access rights like database administrators. The results of the last ISF Security Status Survey in 2007 showed a 50% increase in social engineering attacks in two years.

Cybercrime is the fastest growing type of crime and is considered by the US Treasury to have exceeded the profits of illicit drug sales. Credit card fraud alone was estimated at $3.6 billion last year but in addition, companies failing to put in place the correct security procedures are also subject to penalties from financial institutions including the SEC, FSA and EEA. Not to mention civil lawsuits and unforeseen costs to implement emergency procedures.

"To reduce the risks from profit-driven attacks, organisations need to focus on three key areas," says Nick Frost. "Fundamental security measures such as patch management and access control need to be strengthened, along with often underutilised controls such as analysing event logs and implementing network sniffer tools. But in addition, organisations should consider using third parties that monitor hacking forums to understand who is being targeted, the types of information in demand and current developments of sophisticated attack kits."

The ISF’s Profit-Driven Attacks report is one of a series of briefing papers designed to give up-to-date knowledge and advice and is one of over 200 authoritative reports available exclusively to its Members. The ISF is a not-for-profit association of some 300 leading international organisations, which fund and co-operate in the development of practical, business driven solutions to information security and risk management problems.

It has invested more than US$100 million in leading-edge research and reports, along with information risk methodologies and tools that are available free of charge to ISF Members.

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