Hacker Personas Explained: Know Your Enemy and Protect Your Business

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In today’s rapidly evolving cybersecurity landscape, the battle for privacy and security is relentless. Cybercriminals are masters at using technology and psychology to exploit basic human trust and compromise businesses of all sizes. What’s more, they often hide in plain sight, using both covert and overt tactics to cause disruption, steal money and data, and wreak havoc with MSPs and SMBs.

While cybersecurity advice is often focused on technology like endpoint protection, firewalls and anti-virus, it’s important to remember that behind every breach is a human. Knowing who they are and why they target your business is essential to remaining cyber resilient.

As we mentioned in a previous blog, hackers come in many forms, but their methods can generally be classified into three distinct types of cybercriminals:

  • The Impersonator – Hackers that pretend to be others, often using social engineering and human psychology to trick users.
  • The Opportunist – Hackers that exploit public events and socio-political crises for disruption or personal gain.
  • The Infiltrator – Hackers that target specific organizations and work to breach systems using a variety of tools and tactics.

Each one has their own methods and protecting against them requires a multi-layered approach. Let’s look at a few primary examples.

Who is the Impersonator?

An impersonation attack recently made headlines with the 2020 Twitter/Bitcoin scam, in which 130 high-profile Twitter accounts were compromised by outside parties to steal bitcoin. The perpetrators gained access to Twitter’s administrative tools in order to pose as legitimate CEOs and celebrities to trick users into sending bitcoin with the promise of doubling their investment. Unfortunately, attacks like this work, and the hackers received $121,000 that was never paid back. This is a scam that’s been around for years and since no one can reverse a cryptocurrency transaction, it’s very likely here to stay.

This type of cybercriminal manipulates victims into opening doors to systems or unwittingly sharing sensitive information by pretending to be someone you would inherently trust. The most notable attack is the “Nigerian prince” email scam, also known as “foreign money exchange” scams. These typically start with an email from someone overseas claiming to be royalty, offering to share a financial opportunity in exchange for your bank account number. Nowadays, you’re more likely to receive an email from your boss’ boss asking for gift cards or money, but these scams are still active in many forms, as the Twitter attack shows.

Impersonators are known to use phishing, Business Email Compromise (BEC) and domain spoofing to lure victims, and they’re always looking for new ways to innovate. In fact, our 2020 Threat Report found that impersonators are now imitating legitimate business websites to release malicious payloads or steal data, and a shocking 27% of phishing sites use HTTPS to trick the user into clicking phishing links, which makes these attacks even more dangerous. It’s easy to assume an official-looking website with an HTTPS address is safe, but hackers can also use HTTPS sites to launch phishing emails and distribute BEC scams as obtaining SSL certificates is trivial now. This is why a multi-layered approach that can block phishing sites (including HTTPS) in real time, is key for staying safe.

What Does the Opportunist Want?

While attacks of opportunity are nothing new, the tactics of the opportunist have gone to a new level with the recent coronavirus pandemic. According to our COVID-19 Clicks report, at least one in three people have fallen for a phishing email in the past year. This year has been all about the pandemic and the fear surrounding it. These phishing attempts often appear in the form of articles about the best ways to avoid coronavirus or links to documents that have lists of people with COVID-19 “in your area.” These documents will ask users to enable an embedded macro that then delivers malware, usually in the form of ransomware. Over 90% of malware campaigns used the pandemic in their initial phishing email this past year.

Opportunists wait for the right opportunity to strike, and just as impersonators take advantage of trust, opportunists also rely on trust and familiarity to deceive users into downloading malicious payloads. Unlike other hackers, however, they don’t have specific victims in mind. The opportunist capitalizes on urgency, fear and unpreparedness to catch as many victims in their net as possible.

As we point out in a popular Hacker Personas podcast, other opportunist attacks like those exploiting U.S. government stimulus payments are also on the rise. Business leaders in particular should watch out for these tactics, as phishing emails can compromise company devices. With the increase of remote workers using unsecured systems and personal devices to access corporate networks, all businesses are at risk from opportunists who bait remote employees.

How Do Infiltrators Breach Systems?

One of the best examples of an infiltration attack is the 2020 SolarWinds breach, in which a foreign state hacked the SolarWinds supply chain to infiltrate at least 18,000 government and private networks including over 425 of the fortune 500. Nation-state hackers took advantage of   SUNSPOT malware to insert the SUNBURST backdoor into software builds of the Orion platform, and unbeknownst to SolarWinds developers, they released it as a normal update to their customers. Several significant US agencies, including parts of the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Treasury were attacked. What’s more, the fallout of this attack is still ongoing and we may never know the full damage.

The Infiltrator is the opposite of an opportunist in that they target specific victims and have a clear-cut approach to getting what they want. Rather than casting a wide net and hoping for the best, they usually know the system they want to infiltrate, and they use stealthy measures to breach systems, often coming away with a large payout in the form of a costly ransom to criminal enterprises or valuable intel to nation states.

What Steps Should MSPs and SMBs Take to Stay Cyber Resilient?

If knowing your enemy is the first step to protecting your business, the next step is to develop a strong cyber resilience posture that protects against their attacks. Part of that is understanding that cyberattacks are often a matter of “when, not if.” Even if you’re not the target of an infiltrator, for example, your business or employees may be the unknowing victims of an opportunist or impersonator.

Protecting your business includes:

  • Implementing a multi-layered cybersecurity approach that includes complete endpoint protection, firewalls, real time anti-phishing as well as Security Awareness Training
  • Continuously educating and training employees, staff and customers to follow cybersecurity best practices and to stay up to date on cyberattack news
  • Using a backup and recovery solution that can restore critical files after an attack and keep the business up and running during a crisis.

To learn more about hacker personas and strategies to protect against their various attacks, check out our eBook, Hacker Personas: A Deeper Look Into Cybercrime. You can also follow our Hacker Files and Lockdown Lessons series that include a variety of guides, podcasts and webinars covering these topics and more.

Tyler Moffitt

About the Author

Tyler Moffitt

Security Analyst

Tyler Moffitt is a Security Analyst who stays deeply immersed within the world of malware and antimalware. He is focused on improving the customer experience through his work directly with malware samples, creating antimalware intelligence, writing blogs, and testing in-house tools.

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