Security Manager's Journal: Target breach unleashes fresh scams

Scammers are nothing if not innovative. It just goes to show that the best defense is an educated workforce.

The recent Target breach has furnished scammers with fresh victims, tailor-made and prepped for information theft. I've seen several variations of Target-related scams at my company since the breach. For the most part, the scammers' trick of using Target as their scapegoat has backfired around here, because my company's users are mostly aware enough to be skeptical. I've spent a lot of time educating them about the classic characteristics of email scams (like urgent warnings, lack of personalization, poor grammar and spelling, and clickable links that don't go where you would expect them to). Yet the scammers continue to try, and now they are using more than one kind of trick.

The most obvious variation of the Target scam that I've seen lately is the standard phishing email scam (of the "click here" variety). Fortunately, my users are pretty smart about the basics. I've told them enough times to watch out for phishing attempts (and avoid clicking on links sent via email) that 99% of our user base won't click (and about 50% recognize phishing email on sight). Of course, the remaining 1% become victims, setting off my network-based malware alarm systems when they get infected. We get a few infections per week this way, which our desktop team quickly contains by running out to meet the end user as soon as they can and disconnecting the infected computer, the hard drive of which is immediately replaced with a freshly imaged one and the original stored away, never to be reused.

Another scam variation I've been seeing is text-based. Text messages sent to the victims give a phone number to call offering "protection" or investigating the Target security breach. Anyone foolish enough to call that number gets asked for their personal information, including Social Security number, card number and PIN. My company's users have reported a few of these, but nobody has yet fallen for this trick. I think it's just too unusual to fool people. They are not used to seeing urgent messages from retailers and financial institutions in this way, and most people are very suspicious. For example, a common reaction has been "How did they get my text number? I never gave that to Target."

Phone calls have been running the same scam. Random dialing does give the scammers fresh victims. One person at my company was scammed by a person-to-person phone call, although in this case it was not directly related to the Target breach. The scammer told the victim that he was from "technical support" and that the victim's computer had a virus. The victim went to a website the scammer provided, and was immediately infected (in this case, with ransomware that encrypted his hard drive so he could no longer access his data or software). This was on the victim's home computer, not within my company's network. If it had been on the network, the attempt probably would have failed, or would at least have been detected right away. So the poor guy came to me asking what to do, and all I could tell him was that he should give up on recovering his hard drive and start over with a fresh one. Not what he wanted to hear, but in this world of scams, sometimes the truth is hard. One thing's for sure: He won't fall for the same trick again.

I've even heard of actual letters being sent to Target victims with instructions on how to relinquish their personal data. While I haven't seen an example of this myself, I can imagine the letters look a lot like the email scams but with a phone number to call, probably resulting in the same kind of computer takeover that happened to the victim I just described.

The boldness of some of these scammers boggles my mind. No longer are they hiding behind the apparent anonymity of the Internet. By contacting victims directly, person to person, the scammers are showing more confidence and less concern that they will be caught. I think the bolder ones are from countries that don't have strict law enforcement, so they think they can get away with this behavior. Let's hope their confidence is misplaced.

In any case, the holidays are more than just a time for celebration and fellowship. In this digital age, they are also a time to be wary.

This week's journal is written by a real security manager, "J.F. Rice," whose name and employer have been disguised for obvious reasons. Contact him at jf.rice@engineer.com.

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