First of all, millions of usernames, passwords, and credit card details have already been stolen this year. The data may not have been used and, therefore, may not have triggered any counter actions by banks, retailers, or card owners. However, such data could be used, perhaps more effectively, during this busy time of the year. With people purchasing more online, they may not pay as close attention to their credit card statements: An action that may allow the use of stolen card data to continue for longer than normal. But that’s just the beginning of the problem.
An effective breach, from a hacker’s standpoint, is well-planned. With good malware, hackers can get on a device, which may be connected to a retailer’s network, and hide until an appropriate time, and what better time than during the holiday season when many people may be making purchases. The malware can then be remotely activated and begin its information gathering duties. The amount of purchasing traffic may overwhelm a retailer’s cyber security, making it difficult to differentiate between normal activity and suspicious activity. In addition, because good malware is so good at hiding itself, this year’s breaches may not even be discovered for months after the holiday season. By this time, card information has been used, fake cards have been manufactured, or gift cards have been purchased on Amazon or, as was the case with Target, from the attacked retailers themselves. This last strategy is very effective in that it may deflect detection. After all, hackers know that the cards must have been used at that retailer and so any further transactions would not trigger any alarm bells.
Now, I don’t want to give the idea that credit card information is what all breaches are about. In fact, the most dangerous breaches simply steal a lot of your personal information and, possibly, your social security number. If criminals get this information, they can, in effect, become you and get their own credit cards in your name or do other things that you can be responsible for. Most consumers are protected from credit card fraud, but other types of fraud may leave you vulnerable.
So how does an attacker use the data on millions of credit cards? Well, they don’t. They sell this information on to others who will test it out to see if the cards are active, usually by making small, insignificant purchases, and then use the active cards to make online purchases of either gift certificates/cards or electronic goods that can later be resold on the deep web.
Notice that there have been no recent big retail hacks. This is normal. Stolen card information works on supply and demand, just like any other business. If too many hacks are occurring, credit card information floods the market and lowers profits. The fact that things have been a bit quiet recently indicates that some big retail hacks are waiting in the wings. Data must be collected as discretely as possible to avoid detection and, then, must be sold off as quickly as possible. Prices will fall for card information that is considered outdated. Normally, by the time the breach has been identified, the hackers have already cashed in.
Although most shoppers are concerned about security, they plan to continue to shop as usual this holiday season. Although retailers have increased security expenditures, breaches have increased by 25% since the Target hack. It appears as if attackers are staying one step ahead of those trying to protect their networks. One reason for this is that company networks continue to grow in size as more mobile devices are connected to them. Remember that Target wasn’t directly breached. Attackers used a subcontractor with a connection to the firm’s network to penetrate the defenses. Another problem is that most security software is reactive. Once a threat is known, measures can be built to counter it. Unfortunately, major attacks tend to be zero-day attacks; attacks that have never been seen before and against which there are no countermeasures.
Maybe you think you’re safe from these big retail breaches. That’s their problem, not yours. After all, your biggest problem after such a breach may be simply getting a new credit card. But if you’re thinking this way, think again. Individuals may also be targeted during this holiday season. You have to take more precautions when doing any online shopping or opening emails. In fact, emails are now the main line of attack. Don’t think of these emails as the old, “I’m a Nigerian prince” scam. They can be made to look like they come from a company that you’ve been dealing with (which is how J.P. Morgan was hacked) or even from a friend who asks you to take a look at some attachment or look at something on a website. Don’t think you can’t be fooled. You can. Amazon gives some good advice on how to tell if an email is from Amazon and even gives this in a short animated video. Earlier this month, about a million Amazon users in the UK were attacked with order confirmation emails which seemed to be from Amazon. There were two versions: One that had a Word attachment that, if opened, would install a Trojan on your computer that would eventually obtain all your banking information, among other things, and the other would give you a false link to a site which, when clicked on, would do much the same. (for a more detailed look at phishing emails, see my post on How to Write a Spear Phishing Email).
In the end, it’s best to think of online shopping this season as walking into a mine field. You could get lucky and make it through the season without any problems or….
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