A CFO at a Fortune 1000 company holds his cursor over an e-mail that appears to be from a direct report. In reality, it's from someone he's never met, a criminal who's targeted and stalked the highly compensated executive, searching through company SEC filings and compiling personal details through corporate and social networking sites.
Now the cybercriminal is in position to launch an attack that will allow him to mine the CFO's hard drive for credit card numbers, passwords to corporate databases or other proprietary information.
In one click, the CFO is going to have himself a big problem. If you're his IT manager, you're going to have one too.
If Viagra-touting spammers and credit card phishers are the carpet-bombers of computer crime, so called C-level attackers are the snipers. They mine information from a relatively small number of wealthy or high-status individuals in positions of power.
The treasure sought is corporate and/or personal data, both of which can be extremely lucrative. The hackers can use the information they garner to wreak further havoc elsewhere or, more likely, they will sell it and resell it for profit through online underground servers.
These types of targeted C-level attacks are rare, but they're on the rise, and they're sophisticated enough to make the average IT manager's blood run cold.
Following the money trail
C-level attacks "started out about a year ago in very low numbers but have been ramping up since," reports Matt Sargeant, senior antispam technologist for MessageLabs, a New York-based security services provider.
Last summer 24-year-old Russian Igor Klopov and four others were indicted by a New York grand jury for stealing US$1.5 million and attempting to steal another US$10.7 million from more than a dozen wealthy victims. Klopov used the Forbes 400 list of the world's wealthiest people to pick his marks. They included Texas businessman Charles Wyly and Anthony Pritzker, president of TransUnion Credit (and member of the prominent Pritzker clan of Hyatt Hotel fame.)
The government charges that Klopov found information on some of his victims' real estate holdings and lines of credit -- much of which was publicly available -- and used it to build dossiers on them. He used Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com and similar employment sites to recruit accomplices.
The gang created and used fake IDs to contact the victims' financial institutions (JPMorgan Chase, Merrill Lynch and Fidelity Investments) to try to gain information on their accounts, get duplicate checkbooks and the like. The institutions flagged the attempts and contacted the authorities.
An IT manager at a Fortune 500 financial institution says his company, too, was recently affected by a C-level attack. In this instance, a bank executive's laptop was hacked while he was working from home. The hacker captured passwords and log-ins and tried to access some of the bank's accounts. The attempt, which was later traced to a Russian IP address, failed, says the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
George Brown, a database and security consultant, says he always tells client CEOs to guard their private information zealously.
"It's the Wild, Wild West out there. Publicly held companies are forced to reveal a lot of information about their executives, so that's already out there. I tell them not to compound that by putting more information up on social networking sites," says Brown, CEO of Database Solutions Inc. in Cherry Hill, N.J. "Don't put anything out there that you don't absolutely have to."
One executive, the CIO of a Boston-area health care organization, hears that message loud and clear. Though she says she hasn't experienced any targeted attacks directly, she is extremely cautious in how she handles e-mail of any kind. "I do not open anything unless I'm absolutely sure I know where it comes from," she notes. "If I miss something important, that person will call."
The CIO -- who says that the percentage of her organization's IT spend that goes to multilevel security increases every year -- doesn't participate in any business social networking sites either, and she recommends that other executives follow suit. And talking publicly about security issues? Definitely a no-no, she says (hence her anonymity), "unless you want to make yourself a target."