People 'n' Issues

Cyber crooks ramp up for holidays as consumers relax

December 21st, 2015
As consumers slow down for the year-end break, cybercriminals are entering their biggest time of the year yet, writes DOROS HADJIZENONOS.
Security concept: Cyber Crime on computer keyboard background

As consumers wind down for a much-needed year-end break, cybercriminals are entering their busiest time of year. A time when consumers are quick to snap up festive season savings and when they use their devices more for entertainment and less for work.

While most people will be reading books or letting their children play games on their devices, some will still access their work emails and documents at the beach. It is therefore crucial that businesses adopt robust, user-friendly security technology that protects users when they’re not in the office.

Ideally, all business-sensitive information should be stored in a capsule on devices that is separate from the user’s personal information. The password-protected capsule should only be accessible by authorised users and should encrypt all information stored within it so that the data remains secure if the device is lost or stolen.

Ignorance is not bliss

Information security cannot only be the responsibility of the IT department, especially when users access private and business information on one device. Not only should users take steps to protect their devices but they should also be aware of the tactics used by cybercriminals to trick people into downloading malicious apps or visiting harmful websites. They should also use common sense when granting apps permission to access information on their devices – a photo editing app does not need access to a phone’s contacts list, for example.

Festive season cybercrime tactics often involve “discounts” when shopping online or through a retailer’s app. What consumers are often unaware of is that, even though the app or URL look legitimate, they are not have been designed with the sole purpose of stealing information.

The fact that users can often bypass app stores and download apps directly from publishers’ websites has made it easier for cybercriminals to trick people. By simply sending an email that appears to come from a trusted retailer, prompting the user to download its app to receive a R200 discount voucher, hackers take advantage of unsuspecting shoppers looking to save money on their festive expenses, simply by directing them to a link that downloads a fake app.

All it takes is one click and the app will have access to a user’s camera, microphone, GPS location, contacts, calendar and anything else the user allows it to, because let’s face it, no one reads the list of permissions when downloading apps; we blindly accept the terms and conditions without a second thought. And hackers know this.

Apps behaving badly

Hackers may create an app that looks legitimate but has malware installed in it.

Consider a traveller who has arrived in a new city and wants to download a local city guide application. These are readily advertised in tourist locations with a QR code. A hacker could stick his own QR code over the poster advertising the application and the unsuspecting tourist would then be directed to the hacker’s application that looks exactly the same as the original city guide application.

Once a user has downloaded what he thinks is an app to help him find interesting city information, he will be oblivious to the fact that a hacker is monitoring his every move. And because he gave the app permission to access many parts of his phone (including photos, camera, microphone, GPS location, etc), it is possible for the hacker to view this information as well as send screen captures of whatever is displayed on the screen, which can put company information at risk even though a secure container may be used to store this information.

Multi-layered security

Just as we protect our houses with security bars, electric fencing, alarm systems, beams and guard dogs, companies also need a multi-layered security approach, so that if a hacker breaches one system, there’s a good chance he’ll be tripped up by another.

While anti-virus solutions are good at blocking known malware, they are less effective against unknown malware. Hackers can also turn known malware into unknown malware in minutes using freely available online modification tools. Security should therefore be bolstered by sandboxing and other security monitoring tools.

Once an app bypasses the anti-virus system, a sandboxing solution will emulate how the app will perform if a user were to open it and will either alert the user if it is malicious or prevent the user from downloading it.

The next level of control involves monitoring the app for suspicious behaviour once it does execute, for example, if the device’s camera still records even though it is turned off. The software will either alert the user to the suspicious behaviour or quarantine the app for further investigation.

It’s tempting to agree to download an app in exchange for 25% off a shopping cart, but users should exercise caution and investigate not only the link they are being directed to but also the information the app asks to access before installing it. It’s safer to go directly to the retailer’s website and follow the download links, or to download the verified app from an app store, than to blindly trust a link in an email or SMS.

Businesses should assume that consumers are not protecting their devices or following due diligence when downloading apps and should implement multi-layered security systems that make it difficult for malicious apps to enter the network.

Hackers will continue to prey on network vulnerabilities and human error to steal information. As long as we stay one step ahead, we can afford to relax this festive season knowing our information is secure.

* Doros Hadjizenonos, Country Manager of Check Point South Africa

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