[Updated for 2020] – “The Russians Have Hacked into Our Computer…” – Human Behavior and Cybersecurity

Sneaky Human

Anderson Technologies reports on a wide variety of topics to help keep you and your business’s technology safe from harm. But sometimes preventing trouble isn’t about the hardware or software you deploy—it’s about the people you employ.

The year 2020 has been host to worldwide climate disasters, a global pandemic, and political and social upheaval. Bad actors take advantage of chaotic times and prey on those most vulnerable. Whether you consider yourself tech-savvy or not, it’s more important than ever to be vigilant about your digital communications.

We all know someone who has fallen victim to a phone or email scam. Some of us might have received a desperate call from a friend or family member trying to undo an unknowingly self-inflicted intrusion on their personal or financial information. Members of the Anderson Technologies team have received such calls, one of the more memorable being, “The Russians have hacked into our computer, and we’ve been on the phone for a half an hour or so with India. The guy’s helped me reestablish my password, but he thinks we should do some further work and maybe take the modem to the Apple store.”

This is so common that it’s become part of our cultural understanding, and it’s likely that you have even joked about “Nigerian princes” or romance scams that target people just looking to connect with others. Why would the Russian government want to hack your personal home computer? Why would a Nigerian prince choose you to receive their inheritance? Thankfully, in many cases, experts are involved before permanent damage is done.

What you might not know, however, is that even the corniest scam could have a network of planned, patient individuals behind it. Scammers target unsuspecting users and gather data publicly available on the web or sold in data breaches to build trust and elicit the missing pieces needed to access private account information. But how do these choreographed schemes apply to your business?

It’ll Never Happen to Me

Who do you picture when you hear the words “scam victim”? Several stereotypes may come to mind: blue collar workers, bored housewives, or older folks, to name a few. But if you don’t fall into those categories, it’s too soon to consider yourself safe! Thinking scammers won’t attack because you’re an improbable target leaves you exposed and off guard.

For this, we can blame optimism bias, which is the tendency for individuals to believe they are less likely than others to be vulnerable to negative events. Even when the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) releases accounts and warnings about the thousands of scams reported each day, in-the-know readers might react by thinking these threats don’t apply to them. Aren’t you too smart to be fooled? What would you have that a hacker would want anyway?

Money and data are the driving forces behind nearly every cyber scam. Whether that scam affects an individual or an entire business, any instance of a bad actor getting past cyber security safeguards runs the risk of damaging your business. And when you consider the inaccurate stigmas surrounding scam victims that is pervasive in our culture, it’s even more difficult to stop the problem at its source.

“We often don’t want to acknowledge to ourselves that we’ve been conned. It’s crazy how often you have people who, even when you present them with evidence that they’ve been the victim of a scam, refuse to believe it. The other thing is even if we do realize we’ve been scammed, we often don’t want to let other people know, because we’re embarrassed.” – Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time, in an interview with The Cut

But We Have a Firewall!

Personal consumer or romance scams may not seem like they’re much of a threat to your business. Like any physical crime, cyber criminals can’t gain access to your business unless there is a vulnerability or breach of some sort, such as when someone opens an email or answers the phone. Who your employees share information with on their own time may not seem to be your concern as a business owner, but good personal practice translates into a stronger, safer business.

Phishing and spear-phishing campaigns are some of the most commonly-encountered scams, and they’re now more dangerous than ever. Business email compromise (BEC) has consistently been one of the leading dangers to cyber security infrastructure in nearly every sector. No business, large or small, is safe.

Hacking into your business’s hardware systems or networks is only one way to gain unauthorized information. Dedicated spear-phishing tactics use data mined from public accounts and web activity to target specific departments or employees. The only thing that separates personal consumer scams from business scams are the lies the criminal uses to try to break down your barriers.

Scammers often take advantage of brand familiarity and emotional response. Unexpected messages from a random email address or blocked phone number are much easier to ignore than a seemingly safe communication from Microsoft or UPS.

One scam that aims directly at businesses is the “Directory Scam.” Employees receive a call from a well-known or non-existent agency requesting business information to update their directory. When your employee provides them with your business’s address and contact information, they send a fake invoice for the “service” and, if questioned, often fire back with edited audio from their previous call that “proves” your employee accepted the charges.

Another targeted hustle that’s gained steam over the last couple of years is known as the “Grandparent Scam.” In the linked case study, the victim receives a call from a scammer who claims to be his grandson needing bail money. This scam may seem ridiculous, but many have fallen victim to it because the caller knows the names of the grandparent and child as well as other personal information that would encourage one to believe they’re telling the truth. The scariest part about this scam is that the scammer called this victim at his place of work, further illustrating that public data on the web is available to anyone with the knowledge to find it.

The “Nigerian prince” scams that often get joked about really did happen in the 90s, but this grift now encompasses a more extensive network than traditional romance scams of the past. Previously, organized groups known as Yahoo Boys would target susceptible victims and forge an online “relationship” with an individual. The fraudsters, named after the popular search engine, spend weeks or months keeping these scams going, until the scammer creates a convincing story about needing money from their online partner.

Now, COVID-19 has blurred the line between BEC and individual-targeted scams like those from the Yahoo Boys. Many people currently feel lonely, isolated, and desperate to make connections during what may be one of the scariest and most stressful periods of their lives. Higher numbers than ever have transitioned to permanent or semi-permanent remote work situations. This means that your business networks are now at risk in new ways, such as if an employee accesses a business connection from their home office and uses it to check their personal email. A bad actor can potentially find a weakness in the remote work environment that leads them right into your business.

“People who are going through times of extreme life change, for instance, are very vulnerable to con artists because you lose your equilibrium.” – Maria Konnikova

Scammers who’ve spent time learning about their target may have information that allows them to guess passwords or use public data available to anyone with the knowledge to find it. A simple personal scam can become the first step in a BEC attack that affects your entire business.

What Steps Can I Take to Protect My Business?

Bolstering the human side of your cyber security strategy is your business’s best shot at breach prevention. BBB is one of many organizations to provide a checklist of ways to educate yourself against common scams. While most of the lists aren’t geared towards business owners, many of the habits suggested can perform double-duty in both your professional and personal life. Anderson Technologies has a few tips for applying that knowledge specifically to your business networks:

  • Keep an open dialogue with your employees and vendors about cyber security practices. Educating employees protects their well-being as well as your business’s. Anderson Technologies has covered employee cyber security education in the past and takes it very seriously.
  • Educate yourself about what kinds of scams you or your business might encounter. The BBB has compiled a thorough list here.
  • Be wary of email attachments. If you didn’t request it, you probably shouldn’t open it.
  • Use technology to your best advantage. Know how firewalls, anti-malware software, secure browsing, and network safety can benefit your business.
  • Secure your remote connections. Make sure all employees understand and follow best practice guidelines while working from home. Provide company-owned and -protected devices for remote work.
  • Ask your IT provider about resources that can keep you safe. There are many programs that do some of the background work for you: NoMoRoboLastPassHTTPS EverywhereProofpoint, and so many more! Some of them are even free. Talk to a professional to determine the best investment for your business.
  • Question everything. Zero-trust practices can be employed over time, making universal authentication easier for everyone involved.
  • Any accounts with access to sensitive data need to be protected with MFA. Multi-factor authentication is a key method for stopping criminals in their tracks.
  • Never grant users administrative access. Only qualified IT professionals should have administrative powers and these should be used only when required.

The Yahoo Boys example mentioned earlier in this article is only one of hundreds of scams permeating every demographic, consumers and businesses alike. This is only one part of a concerning trend in 2020, in which cyber criminals and organized groups are taking advantage of global turmoil to target new vulnerabilities. Countless COVID-19 scams continue to emerge and threaten businesses, so it’s more important than ever to stay on top of every potential vulnerability, including employees you may not see every day.

For more information on avoiding scams in the time of COVID-19, download our free Work From Home Checklist or contact our team today.