CARES Act Phishing Scams Target Small Business

Online scammers continue to use the COVID-19 crisis to their advantage. We have already seen phishing campaigns against the healthcare industry. The newest target? Small businesses. This week, the Small Business Administration Office of the Inspector General (SBA OIG) sent out a letter warning of an increase of phishing scams related to the new CARES Act targeting business owners.

CARES Act Loan Scams

The uptick in phishing scams imitating the SBA is primarily linked to the recent stimulus bill the government passed in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The bill, called the CARES Act, includes $350 billion in loans for small businesses. Given the current crisis, many businesses are eager to apply for loans, opening the door to new forms of phishing scams.

In addition, the scale and unprecedented nature of the loan program allows phishers to capitalize on the confusion surrounding the loan services. Last year, the SBA gave out a total of $28 billion, but now has to create a system to provide roughly 12 times that amount over the course of a few months. In order to help with the process, congress allowed the SBA to expand their list of loan venders. While this may help speed up the process, banks with no prior experience with SBA loan programs will now be distributing funds. Speeding up the loan process will help certainly ease the pain of many small businesses, but it also opens the room for errors, errors that scammers can use for personal gain.

What to Look For

Business owners are already seeing this happen.  A small businesses owner recently applied for a loan under the CARES Act to help keep her business running. Shortly after filing her application, her husband received an email stating they would need to fill out and return a tax statement to complete their application.

The email included the SBA logo and looked legitimate. However, on closer inspection, she realized the account number listed in the email did not match the one she received when applying for the loan, and the email address was not from a SBA email account.

Breathe in, Breathe O-U-T

This business owner was savvy enough to not fall for the scam, but others are likely to be tricked into handing over sensitive information or paying money to online scammers. In order to protect people against phishing campaigns, we recommend what we call the Breathe O-U-T Process:

  1. When you first open an email, first, take a Breath. That’s enough to get started because it acts as a pattern interrupt in automatic thinking and clicking (that leads to people biting the bait).
  2. Next, Observe the sender. Do you know the sender? Does their email address match who they say they are? Have you communicated with this sender before?
  3. Then, check Urls and attachments. Hover over the links to see if the URL looks legitimate. Be wary of zip files or strange attachments. If you aren’t sure if a URL is legitimate or not, just go to google and search for the page there instead.
  4. Finally, take the Time to review the message. Is it relevant? Does it seem too urgent? Does the information match what you already know? How’s the spelling? Be wary of any email which tries too hard to create a sense of urgency. In addition, phish are notoriously known for poor spelling and grammar. While we don’t all write as well as our fourth grade teacher, be careful when you see a lot of “missteaks”.

We’re living through strange and confusing times, and there are people out there who will use that to their advantage. Just taking a few extra minutes to make sure an email is legitimate could help save you a lot of extra time, worry, and money — none of which we can spare these days.

If you want to learn more about phishing scams and how to protect yourself, we are now offering the first month of our cyber awareness course entirely free. Just click here to sign up and get started.

Hacks Against Healthcare Industry on the Rise

Hackers are continuing to use the coronavirus crisis for personal profit. We recently wrote about the increase in malicious sites and phishing campaigns impersonating the World Health Organization and other healthcare companies. But now hackers appear to be turning their sights to the healthcare sector itself. Here are two notable cases from the past few weeks.

WHO Malware Attempt

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization confirmed hackers attempted to steal credentials from their employees. On March 13th a group of hackers launched a malicious site imitating the WHO’s internal email system. Luckily, the attempted attack was caught early and did not succeed in gaining access to the WHO’s systems. However, this is just one of many attempts being made to hack into the WHO. The chief information security officer for the organization Flavio Aggio told Reuters that hacking attempts and impersonations have doubled since the coronavirus outbreak.

Similar attempted hacks against other healthcare organizations are popping up every day. Costin Raiu, head of global research and analysis at Kaspersky, told Reuters that “any information about cures or tests or vaccines relating to coronavirus would be priceless and the priority of any intelligence organization of an affected country.”

Ransomware Attack Against HMR

Unlike the attack on the WHO, a recent ransomware attack was successful in stealing information from a UK-based medical company, Hammersmith Medicines Research (HMR). The company, which performs clinical trials of tests and vaccines, discovered an attack in progress on March 14th. While they were successful of restoring their systems, ransomware group called Maze took responsibility. On March 21st, Maze dumped the medical information of thousands of previous patients and threatened to release more documents unless HMR paid a ransom. HMR has not disclosed how the attack occurred, but have stated that they will not pay the ransom.

Four days after the initial attack, Maze released a statement saying they would not target medical organization during the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, this did not stop them from publicizing the stolen medical information a week later. After the attack gained publicity, Maze changed their tune. The group removed all of the stolen files from their website, but blamed the healthcare industry for their lack of security procedures: “We want to show that the system is unreliable. The cyber security is weak. The people who should care about the security of information are unreliable. We want to show that nobody cares about the users,” Maze said.

Conclusion

 Times of crisis and confusion are a hacker’s delight. The staggering increase of hacks against the healthcare industry only help prove that.  The key to mitigating these threats is to ensure that security configurations are set to industry best practices, continuously scan your networks, lock down or close open ports, secure or (preferably) remove Remote Desktop Protocol, and require Multi-Factor authentication for any remote access.  And certainly, make sure you are testing your incidence response plan.

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Creating a Vaccine for Phishing Attacks

Creating a Vaccine for Phishing Attacks

Another day another phishing story.  According to reports a scammer recently sent out emails to a Texas school district posing as one of the district’s vendors and requested a series of payments. One month later, the district realized they had been conned out of $2.3 million. 

Unfortunately, stories like these are increasingly common 

Not unlike propaganda, social engineering and phishing campaigns are forms of attack that rely primarily on deception and disinformation. Defending against these attacks therefore requires more than technical defenses. Instead, it’s necessary to look at strategies used to combat disinformation in general.  

A Vaccine for Social Influence

Inoculation theory is one such strategy and has been gaining steam recently. The main premise of the theory is that the best way to defend against manipulation and unwanted influence is through exposure to the influence in a smaller, weaker form. Exactly like a vaccination.  

In general, the application of inoculation theory involves three basic elements: 

Threat 

The first step is so obvious that it’s can be easy to overlook. If you want to defend against a threat, you first need to be aware that the threat exists.  For instance, if your employees don’t know what a phish is, they are far more likely to get tricked by oneOne study found that the simple awareness that a threat exists increases the ability to combat it, even when they weren’t given the tools to fight it.  

Refutational Preemption

Refutation preemption is a fancy phrase, but, in the metaphor of the vaccine, it simply stands for the weak strain of a virus or threat. The idea is to introduce someone to faulty messaging that stands in opposition to what they usually hold to be true. By being exposed to a weaker version of the messaging, the person receiving the message will be able to learn how to argue against it and strengthen their own beliefs. Then, when they encounter a similar but stronger message in real life, they will have already developed the tools needed to combat it.  

Within the context of phishing schemes, this would involve presenting someone with examples of phishing emails asking them to identify the methods used that make the email seem real. Another method is to have participants create their own phishing emails to get them to know what is involved in creating a deceptive message.

Involvement

The final element of the theory simply states that the more someone cares about an issue, the easier it will be for them to defend against a threat to that issue. So, when it comes to phishing, if your employees understand and care about the stakes involved with a phishing attack, they will be in a better position to spot them. Essentially, the more vested interest someone has in defending against an attack, the easier it will be for them to do so successfully.  

Putting Inoculation Theory into Practice

With the rise of socially engineered threats, inoculation theory has seen a bit of a resurgence lately. For instance, researchers at Cambridge University created the simulation Get Bad News, a game that uses inoculation theory to combat false or misleading news articles.  

And it doesn’t take a big leap to see how inoculation theory can be useful for cyber security threats, such as phishing campaigns. By combining education with simulated phishing attacks, businesses can use inoculation theory to: 

  1. Using education tools to raise employees’ awareness of the threat phishing attacks pose. 
  2. Expose employees to simulations of phishing attacks and have them proactively respond to it by reporting potential phish. You can even have employees create their own phish. Like Get Bad News, this will further inform participants of common tactics used in social engineering schemes.  
  3. Create a program that keeps employees engaged in the process. Focusing on positive reinforcement over punishing mistakes, for example, will help encourage participants to take the process seriously. 

Inoculation Theory At Work

Our digital awareness program The Phishmarket™uses inoculation theory in various phases throughout the program. Our phish simulations uses a reporting feature that empowers participants to be actively involved in combating phishing attacks and rewards progress instead of punishing mistakes. 

The Phishmarket™ also includes an online training program that uses daily micro-lessons to teach participants about common and emerging methods used in social engineering schemes. Some of the micro-lessons even asks users to try creating their own phish.  

Want to try it out for yourself? Simply follow this link to test out a preview of the training program and create your very own (fake) phishing campaign.  

Why We Get Phished

Why We Get Phished

Phishing scams continue to be one of the leading forms of cyberattacks experienced by businesses. In fact, a ransomware attack that targeted Quickbooks cloud hosting firm in July is now believed to have started with a phishing campaign. And according to Proofpoints’s 2019 State of the Phish Report, 83% of respondents said they experienced a phishing attack in 2018 — a 7% increase from 2017. These attacks can be costly. Phishing schemes can lead to financial costs such as fraudulent wire transfers and fines but can also damage a company’s reputation. After all, who doesn’t know how to spot a phish? 

Well, real reason phishing is so successful isn’t as simple as all that. Fundamentally, these are a form of attack that focus less on technical vulnerabilities and more on exploiting the weakest link in any security system: us. Phishing scams have been around for a while, so the scammers have had a long time to hone their craft. As such, they’ve developed complex methods that target human behavior and manipulate us into lowering our defenses.  

Recipe for a Successful Phish

One article published by the Open Journal of Social Sciences published and titled A Study of Social Engineering in Online Frauds” dives deep into the human factors that make phishing schemes so successful. In the paper, the authors pinpoint several effective “triggers.” Of these, three of the most prominent are:  

Authority 

One method scammers use is to impersonate a person or institution that has authority. This includes using markers such as government agencies or professional titles. Scammers also use “official” sounding language create legitimacy, trust, and credibility. 

Urgency 

Another successful tactic is to create a sense of urgency. Such emails include urgent language to stress the need for prompt response, and will often say there are negative consequences for no or delayed responses.  

 Fear 

Phishing scams will also try to provoke fear in the victim. Sometimes these emails will leverage current issues such as natural disasters, health epidemics, or economic concerns. Other times, they will threaten the victim with account suspension or deletion if they don’t take action. 

A Case in Point

One real-world example from a few years ago combined all three of these triggers to successfully target their victims. In 2009, during the height of the swine flu scare, a scammer sent out emails imitating Center for Disease Control and Prevention asking people enter their personal information to create a vaccination profile. The scam used the authority of the CDC and played on the public fear and sense of urgency about the swine flu to successfully steal personal information.  

 

We’d like to believe that we’re smart enough to identify fake emails, but the truth is scammers are using social and behavioral techniques to stop us from using our better judgement. The best way to combat this is to train yourself and your employees on the latest phishing tactics and use due diligence when receiving unprompted emails. By taking simple steps like ensuring the sender’s email address is correct, checking the URL of any links before clicking them, and carefully reading the email can save your company money and the public embarrassment that comes with falling victim to such a common form of attack.