CHICAGO — Quick. Easy. Efficient. Who doesn’t love online banking? Be aware, though, of the danger: Hackers can access your account, drain your funds and threaten the survival of your business.
The risk is growing. Cyber attacks increased some 24% in the first half of 2012 over the same period the previous year, according to a new report from security firm Symantec. Reason? “Any time the economy goes down, white collar crime goes up,” says Bill McDermott, CEO of Atlanta-based McDermott Financial Solutions. “We’re seeing an increase in corporate account takeovers. It’s a huge problem.”
Banks commonly refuse to indemnify companies for funds stolen from commercial accounts. “A lot of people have the misunderstanding that banks offer to business accounts the protection offered to consumers,” says McDermott. “In fact, banks will not hold business account holders harmless for losses from cyber-fraud.”
Think fraudsters only go after big corporations? Not so. “There seems to be a trend toward hackers targeting smaller businesses,” says Brian Krebs, a cyberfraud investigative reporter in suburban Washington, D.C. “Perhaps that’s because larger businesses tend to have protective systems in place so the bad guys have to jump through more hoops.”
The numbers tell the tale: Some 36% of attacks during the first half of 2012 were directed at businesses with 250 or fewer employees, according to Symantec. That’s a big spike from the 18% of the same period previous year.
“There appears to be a direct correlation between the rise in attacks against smaller businesses and a drop in attacks against larger ones,” says Paul Wood, Symantec’s cyber security intelligence manager. “It almost seems attackers are diverting their resources directly from one group to the other.”
Why won’t banks protect business accounts? One reason is legislative: Only consumers are protected by the Federal Electronic Funds Transfer Act, also known as “Regulation E.” If timely notice is given by the victimized consumer, almost all of the stolen money is reimbursed. Here’s another reason: Banks expect business owners to perform due diligence.
“In the area of cybersecurity, banks expect businesses to possess a level of expertise higher than that of consumers,” says McDermott. “For example, businesses are expected to maintain protection against malware and to train employees to avoid Internet sites where they can pick up viruses.”
A cyber attack most often begins when a hacker installs a rogue program on the computer of a targeted business. Called “malware,” this program captures usernames and passwords for the company’s online bank accounts. From there, it is an easy step for the hacker to access the account and wire funds to other financial institutions.
And here’s the really bad news: Computers give little indication they are infected with malware. Programs designed to detect rogue programs are often unable to identify the code written to hack financial data. “Once on your system, sophisticated malware may keep itself patched faster than your antivirus software updates itself,” says Krebs. As a result, the only way to really cure a sick computer is to reinstall the operating system.
What to do? Even small businesses without IT staffs can take basic security steps. “Make sure your computers have virus protection and the appropriate firewalls,” suggests McDermott. “From the business practice standpoint, if you send out ACH [Automated Clearing House] transactions, set up a system of dual control so that one person initiates the transaction and a second person approves it before the bank accepts it. And look at accounts on a daily basis to spot unauthorized transactions quickly.”
Some experts suggest dedicating one computer solely to the task of online banking. Keep infections off the computer by prohibiting its use for e-mail or for web surfing other than bank-related sites. “Strip down the computer to whatever software you need and nothing else,” says Krebs. “And keep it up to date with the latest patches every day; don’t fall behind.”
That last bit of advice, adds Krebs, applies to all your computers. Hackers constantly write new programs that exploit vulnerabilities in software such as the Windows operating system, Java, and the Adobe Acrobat reader of PDF files.
One final thing: Install the most up-to-date computer operating system, because each iteration provides better security. “According to recent reports, 43% of the market is still on Windows XP,” says Stephen Sims, senior instructor at Bethesda, Md.,-based SANS Institute, a security training organization. “We all have to move off these outdated operating systems to take advantage of the much better security features of modern releases.”
Modern operating systems, with their native security features, can only do so much. Employees must be trained on good computing habits. Here are some of the best:
Avoid e-mail attachments — “Three out of four malware attacks come from e-mails with links that are clicked on by recipients,” says Krebs. “If the browser is not fully patched, one click can do it: The computer is infected, and there is no warning.”
Surf safely — Undisciplined surfing can also be dangerous, points out Krebs. “Visit certain web pages with a browser that is not fully patched and you can get infected by code in an ad banner or elsewhere on the page.”
Bank securely — When visiting your bank’s website, use a bookmark that points to the institution’s secure “https” page. In other words, go directly to “https://www.bankname.com.” In contrast, going to “www.bankname.com” can allow attackers to exploit your unencrypted connection, making your data easier to capture.
Review bank statements — Monitor your monthly bank statement closely for unexplained financial activity. “Many attacks involve scraping small amounts from many accounts vs. large amounts from a few accounts,” notes Sims.
Go offline — When finished with a computer for the day, shut it down completely rather than put it in sleep mode. “While a computer is in sleep mode, the encryption keys used for anything from web sessions to hard-disk encryption are likely to be resident in memory,” cautions Sims. “An attacker can use special tools to dump the memory from a system that is not completely shut down and potentially steal this information to gain unauthorized access.”
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion!