Attacking Through Emails

In this post, we’ll discuss phishing (not fishing) and spear phishing as means of attacking through your emails.

Email Scams

I have chosen to include this category because some scams are delivered by email.  They are similar to phishing emails in that they want something.  Many times it is to start a very person correspondence or a series of calls.  Picture a room full of people with computers and they just sent out a scam.  Within MINUTES, someone shouts ‘Got a live one’ and everyone snickers before they begin talking to the person in a very sincere voice.

Think this doesn’t work? Consider that  Nigerian scams, see below, started 20 years ago.  Note the date at the top, when I received it.  IF IT DID NOT WORK, THEY WOULD STOP DOING IT.

This is a lazy one because they just want you to email your bank credentials to them.  Many want you to call or write and then they gradually hook you.  All have a time frame when the wonderful offer will expire if you don’t act.

See the official looking note at the bottom that the email has been scanned by Avast antivirus software.  Ha ha!   Remember, if something is too good to be true, it probably is.

ch 3 - scam


These are sent to all the emails the bad guys can get from buying lists or scraping emails off the web.  Bad Actor: “We hope the potential victim does business with the place of business on the email.  If not, there are lots of other suckers prospective victims just waiting for us.”

I get lots of these, often several times a day.  I present you with some samples herein, minus of course the bad links.  I have made images so the links are not active in this post.  Remember these were NOT sent by the company they appear to be from.

The first one is from Linked In.  Now if the person that gets this is a member of linked in they will be interested.  Note the ‘IMPORTANT MESSAGE’.  Victim: “Dang!  My profile has a situation, I better hurry and click so I won’t miss any of those messages I get from Linked In”.

The mail address at the bottom is a nice touch, don’t you think?

ch 3 - linked in

Coming up is one from Bank of America.  It’s pretty and has their logo and colors and looks very real.  It even has a ‘Security Checkpoint’ on it, whatever that is, so I will believe it is real.    Victim: “Oh man, there’s a multiple IP conflict on my account (whatever that is) and they are going to close it.  I better act fast. Whew!”

Glad to know BOA is an Equal Housing Lender but it makes it look more real.

Oopsie, this is America and the date used in the Security Checkpoint is 18/02 NOT 02/18 as in America.  Still not a bad job.  They are hoping, that when it’s mixed in the 200 other business or personal emails you receive every day you will not think and TAKE ACTION.

ch 3 - boa

Ok, last one.  This one appears to be from the Chase Bank.  This time I have ‘suspicious activity’ on my account.  Victim: “Oh no my account is suspended!  How did… oh they tell me how it got suspended and all I have to do is click on this button to fix it.  How thoughtful.”

The button will take the victim to a website page that looks like a Chase page, complete with logo and asks for them to verify their account by entering their login and password.

This one is a member of FDIC so it MUST be ok.  Bad Actor: “By the time they figure out I got their password, I will have the real bank transfer funds from their accounts to my account in another bank that will only exist temporarily until I can cash out of it, WITH THEIR MONEY.”  This works because they take you to a similar website like  while the REAL bank is at

ch 3 - chase


1) No legitimate company every asks you to click a link and enter your credentials in an email.

2) Pick up the phone and call and verify.  Don’t use ANY number on the suspicious email.

3) Run the cursor over the link and carefully check the lower left of the browser to see if the URL is valid.  Watch for URL’s similar to the real one.

4) Avoid opening attachments until you know the source of the email.

5) Use a different email than your regular email to sign up for things on the Internet.

6) Hire an outside firm to train and test your employees phishing campaign that records who responds to it.

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is simply targeted phishing.  Whereas phishing is more general, for example, all the Bank of America customers, spear phishing often targets some specific person or organization.  For example, you receive an email with your company’s email and name on it – complete with company logo, i.e. looking just like it came from someone in your organization, possibly your boss.  And who wouldn’t reset their boss’s password and give them another or loan them their login if the boss were in a hurry?  Victim: “Darn, the boss has forgotten his password again. That’s three times this month!”  Real Victim – The Boss: “You gave who my password?

Or it could be from a friend or loved one.  Spear Phishers attempt to make you drop your guard just a little bit.  They may use information you post on Facebook or elsewhere to figure out what to put in the email.  It also could reference a recent purchase you made, for example iTunes, if your Facebook post shows you with an iPhone.  Or how about a photo you posted two years ago with you and another person you tagged.  They, the bad actor, write you and include the photo with some comment like, ‘those were some good times huh?’  They are trying to associate themselves with you to get you to trust them.

Increasingly, the board of directors is the target.22


1) Use a different internal email signature than you use outside the company.

2) Add something extra to any emails that contain a link.

3) Run the cursor over the link and carefully check the lower left of the browser to see if the URL is valid.

4) A company policy to NEVER ask for credentials through an email.

5) Have your friends use your middle initial when they address you or a nickname.

6) Call the person to verify it’s from them before clicking on a link or opening an attachment.

Spear Phishing for a Fund Transfer Scam

There is a variation of spear phishing that goes like this.  Suppose you are the person in charge of funds, say the CFO.  While your CEO is on a trip, you get an email from her that may even sound like her directing you to wire some funds to an account as she is about to go to a meeting and she needs it sent now.  What do you do?

If you think this is small stuff, think again.  The FBI1 reports that between 2013 and mid 2016 that $2 billion was lost to this scheme worldwide with 12,000 reported company victims.  This was just updated to $3.1 billion with over 22,000 victims.24


1) Company policy that all fund transfers over $1000 must be verified by phone call with the requesting individual.

2) Company policy that prevents the CEO from authorizing fund transfers while on a trip.

3) Create a place to request fund transfers after login to the network and only authorize certain individuals to do this.




Threat Vectors – Part I – Internal

This is the first in a two part series to look at the various threat vectors.  A threat vector is a way that a hacker can get to your computer and it’s data.  This first part of the series will examine INTERNAL ways that the hacker can get in and the 2nd part will examine the EXTERNAL ways they can get into your computer.

To begin, this is an outline of the internal threats.  Each item will be explained in detail below the outline:

Insider Threat

  • Sale of credentials
  • Planted malware
  • Theft of Data, IP etc.
  • Scams

User Error

  • Click on Bad Link
  • Phishing
  • Downloading infected apps
  • Installing plug-ins/modules that have malware
  • Accidental transmission of data/msg to the wrong target

Bad Device

  • BYOD
  • USB

Physical Theft/Loss


Insider Threat

This is someone who works for you and has access to at least one computer and the company network.  This is not accidental.  This is malicious.

Sale of Credentials – The going rate on the market for stolen credentials varies but is mostly less than $200.  Since this is from an insider you will need at a minimum two factor authentication but keep in mind that they could temporarily change the phone to that of the person they sell the credentials to.  The insider may also choose to use the their login for their own gain.

This can be countered via a policy about the use of employee computers and the penalty if found in areas not related directly to their job.  Two factor authentication will help with stolen credentials and access control will limit where in the network the insider or their credentials will take them.

Planted Malware – This is where the insider deliberately plants malware on their computer which may propagate throughout the company.  Remember this person can temporarily disable their virus protection on their computer while they plant the malware.  This is difficult to defend against.  The best defense is to put a camera (working or not) filming each computer or software that snaps a copy of the screen at intervals.  Both these defenses will help catch the perpetrator but will not prevent their actions.

Theft of Data, IP Etc. – This is where the insider downloads copies of company information and exfiltrates (removes) it from the company via email, USB, or upload to a website.  Software that monitors downloads and alarms when over a daily limit will be helpful here.

Scams – This is where the insider uses their inside knowledge of the company to pull a scam on the company via computer, in person, or via the phone.  Training is a good defense against scams.


User Error

Click on Bad Link – The user clicks on a website or a link in an email that downloads malware or attacks their computer through a web page.  This can be prevented by employee training and by white listing sites that are allowed.

Phishing – A compelling email is sent to the user to trick them to click on a link which often asks for their credentials under one guise or another.  Again user training will help with them as well as white listing sites that are allowed.

Downloading Infected Apps – The user downloads and installs an app on their computer which contains malware.  The best prevention are computer policies that prevent the user from installing on their computer.

Installing Plug-ins/Modules that Have Malware – This is the case where the downloaded software is ok but a module to be downloaded to ‘enhance’ it is not.  Again the best prevention are computer policies that prevent the user from downloading and installing anything on their computer.

Accidental Transmission of Data/Msg to the Wrong Target – Even sent an email to the wrong person.  What if it contains important company data which then gets into the wrong hands.  The solution is to limit the amount of data available to a given employee and to have information graded as to level of security.  Don’t allow certain levels to be emailed or emailed out of the company.


Bad Device

BYOD – As a society we are addicted to our phones and tablets.  We bring our device to work and plug it into the wireless network.  The night before we installed a new app which has malware and when it sees a network begins to infect the company.  A variant of this can infect a computer that the device is plugged into just for power to recharge.  The best defense against this is a policy of no BYOD, company phones on each desk and a set of lockers outside the security entrance where an employee can lock away their device for the day.  Expect resistance and withdrawal symptoms.  Some will not want to work at your company if you do this but you have to wonder how much of the day would have been lost to use of a personal device during the company workday.

USB – A computer consultant told me that before he met with the cyber security defending team he would scatter USB devices that looked high-tech in the parking lot.  Each had malware that rang a bell on his website.  He generally got a 20% response before he even got to his meeting with the security people in the company.  The solution is to disable USB ports and to provide company training.  A variation of this ploy is to scatter brightly colored USB devices at your children’s school or the sidewalk in front or even in front of your home.


Physical Theft/Loss

A device is taken off premises and gets stolen.  The best prevention is to have the hard drive encrypt the data so the only loss is the device.


In part TWO, we will examine the various threat vectors from outside your computer.


Why do I Care about Cyber Security?

Good cyber security is tedious and expensive.  The alternative is loss of customer goodwill and potential closing of the business. On the personal side, the inconvenience of identity theft, data loss, invasion of privacy etc. exact a toll both financially and time wise.   The result is an unfair burden on small businesses and individuals.  It is important to recognize this is the way it is, the world we live in, and accept a personal, even if limited, role in being a good data steward and protector.  To that end, this post discusses a select few of the cyber security incidents of the last couple of years in various categories.

By being aware of the targets, attacks, and defensive tools you have, you can diminish the hacker’s perceived relative gain for the time spent.  For example, if a hacker determined that he/she was only making a few cents/hour for the time spent, they would find something more lucrative to do. In time, this will reduce the sheer number of hackers and attacks, and make it easier to track down and defend against the remaining bad guys.


Ransomware is the software that encrypts all the contents of a hard drive and then extorts payment, usually in bitcoins in order to get the unlock code.  Some ransomware will also encrypt any attached backup drives.  Ransomware can and has happened to many individuals and recently to several hospitals.  This a very lucrative area for the bad actors.  Some bad actors (bad guys/gals) even run ransomware help desks.   To pay or not to pay, that will be the dilemma when ransomware strikes you or your company.  Recently Atlanta, Georgia in the US chose not to pay.  The cost of recovery was over $2 million dollars.

Medical Records

Medical records are worth about 10x what credit card numbers are on the black market.  This is because the medical records can be used to file fraudulent claims. It takes much longer to realize your medical records have been compromised than for credit card numbers.  Combine this with the relatively poor cyber security of hospitals and hackers have a very lucrative market.

Note that medical records fall under HIPAA.  HIPPA is the Healthcare Information Privacy Protection Act and you probably signed a form at your doctor’s office acknowledging their collection of data about you.  Health providers are legally obligated to take reasonable steps to protect your healthcare information. Penalties are based on the level of negligence and can range from $100 to $50,000 per violation.  This is capped at $1.5 million per year for violations of each HIPAA provision.

HR Records

The largest HR records breach (break in with theft/manipulation of data) in history occurred in 2015 at the US government Office of Personnel Management or OPM for short.  This involved the theft of 21.5 million records along with 5.6 million fingerprint records.  It is rumored that the Chinese are using the information from these records to put together a “Facebook” of US government and military personnel that can be used to put pressure against them or co-opt them.  Keep in mind that these records contained the contents of the SF-86 which include information about more than the applicant, and include information about their extended families and neighbors.

This was a classic case of risk versus reward.  Enough golden eggs (records) existed in one place with the potential for enough damage that they were highly sought after and justified the expenditure of almost any effort to obtain them.

Access was obtained through a breach of a contractor, with less security, who had access.  Our side failed to encrypt the records, disperse the records, keep non-current records offline, and failed to detect the intrusion for a long period of time.

Customer Records

Target, the major retailer, was hacked on Black Friday in 2013.  Over 40 million debit card accounts were scooped up.  The data was not encrypted.  Groups of target customers filed suit claiming that “Target failed to implement and maintain reasonable security procedures and practices”.  Roll forward to 2015 and Target paid out $10 million to customers as a result of lawsuits.  This does not include the costs to notify, legal costs, and loss of good will among existing customers and their reputation in the marketplace.

US Infrastructure

The chief of the NSA (National Security Agency), Admiral Michael Rogers, said that it was a matter of when, not if a foreign nation-state launches a cyber attack on the US critical infrastructure.  This would include things like the electric grid, water, sewage, and traffic.  Even dams can be hacked.

In December, 2015 Ukraine suffered an electricity blackout of 225,000 customers.  It has been attributed to cyber attack via a Russian group.  In March, 2016 the US Justice Department indicted seven Iranian hackers.  Among their targets was a small dam, the Bowman Avenue Dam in New York.  If a gate had not been disconnected for maintenance, the hackers would have been able to manipulate it, dumping water downstream.

The US Power grid has been hit with an average of one cyber or physical attack every four days between fiscal 2011 and 2014.  The Pentagon estimates that a major cyber attack on the electric grid could take weeks to fix.

Is your business such that you need power from more than one utility?  Perhaps it would be wise to create another company location in another section of the power grid, unlikely to be affected by a regional disruption and able to take over the business should the need arise?


To the kid at the top who is yawning, hackers are stealing children identities because, based on age, they will be valid longer.  Better have your parents lock down your identity for you.  And, I hate to break this to you so early, but you are on the front line of the battle over cyber security — like it or not.



Football and Hacking

Think football.  The hackers are the other team.  The one wanting your data or to do damage to you.    They have different plays they run such as: denial of service (DDos) attacks, phishing / spear phishing, malware, social engineering, software / hardware flaws and/or insider threat.

You or your team (the home team, the good guys) need to stop the offensive or the bad guys win.  These are the things that can be done to prevent a cyber security breach.  They include: training/education, policies, law enforcement agreements, information sharing, threat intelligence, hardware/software, current patches and techniques to improve security, encrypted data and hard drives and phones, and counter intelligence.  Many of these will be covered in future posts. The reason defense is so hard is that the bad guys need to find a single opening while you have to defend hundreds or thousands of points in your network.

After an successful attack (post game), these are the things that must be addressed: forensics, legal, insurance (hopefully purchased before the attack), damage assessment, and target cleanup/validation.  In addition, one must examine policies and defenses to figure out what went wrong and how to do a better job next time.



The Hacker’s Objectives

There are reasons why people hack computer powered devices.  There are many but they all boil down to data.  Steal Data! Change data! Destroy data!  Render the device useless for accessing data.

A hacker’s motivations vary widely.  They range from idle curiosity to criminal intent. Perhaps they want to just brag that they can do it, proving one’s cyber manhood (or womanhood). Perhaps they were paid by a nation state for political and military benefit. Maybe they were hired as an industrial spy for competitive and personal gain.  The objective can be simple as proving that the hacker could “log in” or complex as in stealing information for years without being noticed in someone’s network.  Most of the time, the motivation has nothing to do with you personally, except that your data was valuable enough to merit the risk.

As examples, the objectives may include:

  • Denial of data access (blocking someone from access their storage device)
  • Intellectual Property (IP) theft (such as the top secret formula for a soft drink)
  • Inflicting loss of reputation through exposure of sensitive information (revealing a political candidate’s tax returns)
  • Loss of trust (such as in a bank, or credit card institution)
  • Extortion: Payment of a ransom to get one’s data access restored or to keep sensitive data from becoming public.
  • Kinetic, i.e. to have something happen in the real world such as shutting off a power grid, controlling a patient drug infusion device, or controlling an airplane.
  • Data diddling (changing) to remove trust in the data.
  • Blackmail such as threatening to release stolen videos unless…