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Bank Fraud: Itís Not Personal, Just Business

Less publicized (but nonetheless costly) incidents of fraud, questions of liability, and mixed success in court complicate the allocation of security resources.

Real network security requires building the capability to monitor a network and respond to attacks. We saw this with the Target breach where, despite spending $1.6 million on FireEye network monitoring software, Target managed to ignore the alerts it generated based on the malware attacking their network. We saw this again with the Neiman Marcus breach where 60,000 alerts were ignored over a three-and-a-half month period. If large companies with multimillion-dollar security budgets can’t protect themselves from malware, then the prospects would seem exceedingly bleak for the small and midsized companies that are being victimized by wire transfer fraud.

In spite of all this, there are low-cost and remarkably simple steps we can take to help significantly reduce the chances of a malware attack compromising a bank account. It can be as simple as isolating the computers used to access bank accounts. Most malware attacks rely on the fact that a single workstation is often used for multiple purposes: If a user is browsing the web he opens his workstation to drive-by download attacks; reading email opens the workstation to malware contained within email attachments; and file-sharing (whether it is a USB memory stick, a corporate shared network drive, or a peer-to-peer network) opens workstations to direct cross-contamination from other infected systems it interacts with.

On the other hand, if a few designated workstations, and these workstations alone, are used solely for the purpose of processing bank transfers to the exclusion of web browsing, email, and all of the other activities that could bring malware onto the system, then the risks of infection would be drastically reduced -- even moreso if these workstations could be firewalled off from the rest of the network or given their own dedicated Internet connections. The cost of a cable modem and a small firewall would almost certainly be a tiny fraction of the potential cost of a single fraudulent transfer.

Phishing attacks serve to illustrate this point further: There is no technical solution that can effectively stop a user who has been duped from sending out passwords; we must instead rely on training and awareness to make sure that individuals who hold the digital keys to a company’s bank accounts are aware of the threats they are facing and how they operate. If more people have the passwords to initiate bank transfers, then there are more people who could potentially leak that information. Keeping the key holders to a minimum allows companies to focus their training and awareness efforts on those few key individuals who matter.

We must also not forget the banks themselves. Many offer enhanced security measures for wire transfers that businesses just aren’t using. In the case of Choice Escrow, mentioned above, the bank offered a system where two passwords would be required, one to approve a wire transfer and another to release the transfer. In this case Choice Escrow chose not to use those dual controls. We have no way to know if using dual controls would have made a difference in the breach or the court case, but it is certainly telling that an easy-to-use security feature was not being employed. There are likely many companies that are not leveraging all the security tools the banks are providing for them, simply for the sake of convenience.

The ultimate liability solution may go beyond technology as well. The ability for hackers to launch fraudulent wire transfers seems to be under the radar of most businesses, as is the lack of liability that the banks accept. At least one bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, does offer insurance on commercial accounts. Perhaps as more businesses become aware of the underlying risks in commercial bank accounts they will move to banks that offer more robust protections and instigate a change in the banking industry. Or perhaps we are just waiting for our “Target” moment when a major publicly traded corporation finds tens of millions of dollars missing from its bank account and makes the front-page news.

Christopher Camejo is an integral part of the Consulting leadership team for NTT Com Security, one of the largest security consulting organizations in the world. He directs NTT Com Security's assessment services including ethical hacking and compliance assessments. Mr. Camejo ... View Full Bio
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