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How to Keep Your Bitcoin Safe and Secure from scammers & hackers so Watch These Videos

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Owning cryptocurrency isn’t quite the Wild West experience it was at the beginning of the decade, but investors still face plenty of instability and risk. The threats aren’t just abstract or theoretical; new scams crop up, and old ones resurge, all the time. Whether it’s a fake wallet set up to trick users, a phishing attempt to steal private cryptographic keys, or even fake cryptocurrency schemes, there’s something to watch out for at every turn.

Cryptocurrencies can feel secure, because they decentralize and often anonymize digital transactions. They also validate everything on public, tamper-resistant blockchains. But those measures don’t make cryptocurrencies any less susceptible to the types of simple, time-honored scams grifters have relied on in other venues. Just this week, scams have arisen that divert funds from users’ mining rigs to malicious wallets, because victims forgot to change default login credentials. Search engine phishing scams that tout malicious trading sites over legitimate exchanges have also spiked. And a trojan called CryptoShuffler has stolen thousands of dollars by lurking on computers, and spying on Bitcoin wallet addresses that land in copy/paste clipboards.

A few simple steps, though, can help cryptocurrency proponents—be it Bitcoin or Monero or anything between—guard against a swath of common attacks. Just as you might keep your cash out of plain sight, or stash your jewelry in a safe deposit box, it pays to put a little effort into how you manage your cryptocurrency. The following won’t defend against every conceivable attack on your digital doubloons, but it’s a good place to start.

Cold, Hard (Digital) Cash

A key step to protecting your cryptocurrency is to store anything of significant value in a hardware wallet—a physical device, like a USB drive, that stores your private keys and currency locally, and isn’t connected to the internet. Experts caution against storing large amounts of coins through cryptocurrency exchanges, or in digital wallet apps on your smartphone or computer. The public-facing internet offers an attacker too many inroads to attempt to infiltrate your wallet, or trick you into giving them access.

Secure hardware wallets like Trezor or the Ledger Nano S cost about $100 or less and have a straightforward setup. You just choose a PIN number and a recovery “seed” (usually a set of words and numbers) in case you forget your PIN, or your wallet malfunctions. It’s pretty robust security, so make sure you keep copies of your PIN and seed somewhere accessible to you, but not to home intruders. Recovering currency stored on a hardware wallet after losing both the PIN and the seed is a whole thing. Emin Gun Sirer, a distributed systems and cryptography researcher at Cornell University, goes so far as to suggest that you should “keep a backup of the seed key in a fireproof safe.” This stuff is for real.

Your setup also doesn’t have to be fancy; you can store backups of your coins on any external storage device, like a portable hard drive. Just make sure to encrypt the data in case the device is lost or stolen. You might even consider making a backup to leave in a safe deposit box.

Big Spender

The downside to a hardware wallet is that it makes approving transactions a bit cumbersome. If you want more fluid access to your cryptocurrency, experts suggest storing a small amount in a wallet app to facilitate low-value transactions. The key here: Only keep an amount you would be willing to lose in the app, and never give anyone your private key.

Apps like Mycelium Wallet that are interoperable with popular hardware wallets can make your setup more seamless. And some app-based options like Samourai Wallet are working to prioritize robust encryption and privacy features. Still, don’t trust any app with too much cryptocash right now.

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Additionally, consider where you store your private keys, the secret part of the public-private key set that lets you authorize revisions to a blockchain. Always keep them encrypted, and try to avoid leaving them lying around on devices that you use all the time for a lot of different tasks, like your personal PC.

Also consider your transactions carefully. There are tons of established, reliable institutions, but gimmicky new cryptocurrencies crop up all the time, as well as questionable Initial Coin Offerings that could have nothing behind them but scammers on the move. When the cryptocurrency OneCoin, marketed as a Bitcoin competitor, launched this year people bought about $350 million-worth of the coins—which has since drawn comparisons to a Ponzi scheme. And people are even being scammed during legitimate ICOs when attackers launch phishing attacks around the events, or trick would-be investors into sending money to fake wallets. (The Securities and Exchange Commission is poking hard on this.)

Nail the Basics

It’s also important to remember that all the small things you’re already doing (right?) to protect your general digital life help defend your cryptocurrency as well. “We encourage all customers to take a few foundational, and free, actions to put them on a much more stable security footing,” says Philip Martin, director of security at the cryptocurrency exchange platform Coinbase. “Use a password manager, use two-factor authentication, leverage enhanced security protocols for your email address.”

For the especially concerned, Martin even suggests turning on Gmail’s new Advanced Protection feature, and/or adding defenses like a PIN or password to your phone number to make it harder for attackers to grab control of your accounts by transferring your SIM to their own device.

All of these suggestions bolster your general digital security hygiene, but they are particularly helpful for reducing your exposure to the most simple (sometimes impressively so) cryptocurrency scams that can take advantage of small things, like a reused password and no second authentication requirement, to walk in the front door of one of your accounts.

Take that CryptoShuffler trojan, which originally emerged more than a year ago and has been making the rounds again this week. It shows just how basic cryptocurrency scams can be. The malware works by lurking silently on a victim’s computer and passively monitoring their clipboard, waiting for the victim to copy a Bitcoin wallet address. When it sees a string of numbers that looks right, CryptoShuffler simply starts swapping the wallet ID the victim copied for its own malicious wallet address in payment fields. If the victim doesn’t spot the change, the transaction goes through and the coins go to the crooks.

The best way to defend against an attack like that (if your malware scanner doesn’t detect the intrusion) is simply watching all transactions carefully, and taking steps to safeguard your assets so you know your data hasn’t been exposed.

And once you have the basics in place, make sure your friends adopt the same mindset. The more secure the ecosystem, the less attractive a target it is to bad actors. “Help newcomers to crypto with their security,” Cornell’s Sirer says. “The area is new and we need to support the people who are just finding their way in.”

Luckily, you don’t need to be a cryptography expert to take the basic security steps that will protect you against the majority of attacks. And seriously, if nothing else, don’t lose that wallet seed.

Phishing? How to protect yourself from scam emails and much more

Don’t click on that email! Find everything you need to know in this phishing guide including how to protect yourself from one of the most common forms of cyber attack.

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What is phishing?

Phishing is one of the easiest forms of cyber attack for a criminal to carry out, but one which can provide these crooks with everything they need to infiltrate every aspect of their targets’ personal and working lives.

Usually carried out over email – although the scam has now spread to social media, messaging services and apps – a basic phishing attack attempts to trick the target into doing what the scammer wants. That might be handing over passwords to make it easier to hack a company, or altering bank details so that payments go to fraudsters instead of the correct account.

The aim and the precise mechanics of the scams vary: victims might be tricked into a clicking a link through to a fake webpage with the aim of persuading them user to enter personal information. Other campaigns involve tricking users into downloading and installing malware – for stealthy approach to theft – or inadvertently installing ransomware, providing the attacker with much more immediate profit.

More complex phishing schemes can involve a long game, with hackers using fake social media profiles, emails and more to build up a rapport with the victim over months or even years in cases where specific individuals are targeted for specific data which they would only ever hand over to people they trusted.

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That data can be as simple as an email address and password, to financial data such as credit card details or online banking credentials or even personal data such as date of birth, address and a social security number.

In the hands of hackers, all of that can be used to carry out fraud, be it identity theft or using stolen data to buy things or even selling people’s private information on the dark web. In some cases, it’s done for blackmail or to embarrass the victim.

In other cases, phishing is one of the tools used for espionage or by state-backed hacking groups to spy on opponents and organisations of interest.

And anyone can be a victim, ranging from the Democratic National Committee, to critical infrastructure, to commercial businesses and even individuals

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Whatever the ultimate goal of the attack, phishing revolves around scammers tricking users into giving up data or access to systems in the mistaken belief they are dealing with someone they know or trust.

How does a phishing attack work?

A basic phishing attack attempts to trick a user into entering personal details or other confidential information, and email is the most common method of performing these attacks.

The sheer number of emails sent every single day means that it’s an obvious attack vector for cyber criminals. It’s estimated that 3.7 billion people send around 269 billion emails every single day.

Researchers at Symantec suggest that almost one in every 2,000 of these emails is a phishing email, meaning around 135 million phishing attacks are attempted every day.

Most people simply don’t have the time to carefully analyse every message which lands in their inbox – and it’s this which phishers look to exploit in a number of ways.

Scams vary in their targets – some are aiming at unwary consumers. Here, their email subject line will be designed to catch the victim’s eye – common phishing campaign techniques include offers of prizes won in fake competitions such as lotteries or contests by retailers offering a ‘winning voucher’.

In this example, in order to ‘win’ the prize, the victims are asked to enter their details such as name, date of birth, address and bank details in order to claim. Obviously, there’s no prize and all they’ve done is put their personal details into the hands of hackers.

A young woman is overjoyed by message on her tablet computer stating she has won a prize, not realizing it is a scam.

A young woman is overjoyed by message on her tablet computer stating she has won a prize, not realizing it is a scam.

Similar techniques are used in other scams in which attackers claim to be from banks looking to verify details, online shops attempting to verify non-existent purchases or sometimes — even more cheekily — attackers will claim to be from tech security companies and that they need access to information in order to keep their customers safe.

Other scams, usually more sophisticated, aim at business users. Here attackers might also pose as someone from within the same organisation or one of its suppliers and will ask you to download an attachment which they claim contains information about a contract or deal.

In many cases the file will unleash malicious software onto the system – in many cases it will harvest personal data, but it in many cases it’s also used to deploy ransomware or rope systems into a botnet.

Attackers will often use high-profile events as a lure in order to reach their end goals. For example, a major campaign used the lure of the 2016 Olympic Games to help distribute malware in the run up to the event.

In many cases the malicious payload will be hidden inside a Microsoft Office document which requires the user to enable macros to run. The payload will trick the victim into enabling them by claiming that an update needs to be installed or permissions need to be given to allow the document to be viewed properly. But if users allows the payload to run they and their company are likely to be in big trouble.

Why is phishing called phishing?

The overall term for these scams — phishing — is a modified version of ‘fishing’ except in this instance the fisherman is the cyber attacker and they’re trying to catch you and reel you in with their sneaky email lure.

It’s also likely a reference to hacker history: some of the earliest hackers were known as ‘phreaks’ or ‘phreakers’ and it’s likely a reference back to that.

When did phishing begin?

The consensus is the first example of the word phishing occurred in the mid-1990s with the use of software tools like AOHell which attempted to steal AOL user names and passwords.

These early attacks were successful because it was a new type of attack, something users hadn’t seen before. AOL provided warnings to users about the risks, but phishing remained successful and it’s still here over 20 years on. In many ways, it has remained very much the same for one simple reason – because it works.

How did phishing evolve?

While the fundamental concept of phishing hasn’t changed much, there have been tweaks and experimentations across two decades as technology and how we access the internet has changed. Following the initial AOL attacks, email became the most appealing attack vector for phishing scams as home internet use took off and a personal email address started to become more common.

Many early phishing scams came with tell-tale signs that they were not legitimate – including strange spelling, weird formatting, low-res images and messages which often didn’t make complete sense. Nonetheless, in the early days of the internet, people knew even less about potential threats which meant that these attacks still found success – many of these are still effective.

Some phishing campaigns remain really, really obvious to spot – like the prince who wants to leave his fortune to you, his one long lost relative, but others have become to be so advanced that it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart from authentic messages. Some might even look like they come from your friends, family, colleagues or even your boss.

What’s the cost of phishing attacks?

It’s hard to put a total cost on the fraud that flows from phishing scams, but earlier this year the FBI suggested that the impact of such scams could be costing US business somewhere around $5bn a year, with thousands of companies hit by scams every year.

One example of a high profile incident: in July 2017 MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada fell victim to a phishing attack.

“A series of fraudulent emails convinced university staff to change electronic banking information for one of the university’s major vendors. The fraud resulted in the transfer of $11.8 million to a bank account that staff believed belonged to the vendor,” the university said in a statement.

What types of phishing scams are there?

The ‘spray and pray’ is the least sophisticated type of phishing attack, whereby basic, generic messages are mass-mailed to millions of users. These are the ‘URGENT message from your bank’ and ‘You’ve won the lottery’ messages which look to panic victims into making an error — or blind them with greed.

Schemes of this sort are so basic that there’s often not even a fake webpage involved – victims are often just told to respond to the attacker via email. Sometimes emails might play on the pure curiosity of the victim, simply appearing as blank message with a malicious attachment to download. This is the way Locky ransomware is spread and it’s one of the most effective forms of the file-encrypting malware around.

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A simple Locky distribution phishing email – it looks basic, but if it didn’t work, attackers wouldn’t be using it.These attacks are mostly ineffective, but the sheer number of messages being sent out means that there will be people who fall for the scam and inadvertently send details to cyber attackers who’ll exploit the information in any way they can.

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing is more advanced than a regular phishing message and aims at specific groups or even particular individuals. Instead of vague messages being sent, criminals design them to target anything from a specific organisation, to a department within that organisation or even an individual in order to ensure the greatest chance that the email is read and the scam is fallen for.

It’s these sorts of specially crafted messages which have often been the entry point for a number of high profile cyber attacks and hacking incidents.

At a consumer level, it can be designed to look like an update from your bank, it could say you’ve ordered something online, it could relate to any one of your online accounts. Hackers have even been known to seek out victims of data breaches and pose as security professionals warning victims of compromise – and that targets should ensure their account is still secure by entering their account details into this handy link.

While spear phishing does target consumers and individual internet users, it’s much more effective for cyber criminals to use it as a means of infiltrating the network of a target organisation.

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Lure document used in a ransomware attack against a hospital – attackers used official logos and names to make the email and the attachment look legitimate.
This particular type of phishing message can come in a number of forms including a false customer query, a false invoice from a contractor or partner company, a false request to look at a document from a colleague, or even in some cases, a message which looks as if it comes directly from the CEO or another executive.
Rather than being a random message, the idea is to make it look as if it has come from a trusted source, and coax the target into either installing malware or handing over confidential credentials or information. These scams take more effort but there’s a bigger potential payback for crooks too.What is CEO fraud?

CEO fraud is a very specific type of phishing campaign which usually targets staff in the financial or human resources department of a business.

The target receives an email from the attacker which is disguised to look as if it comes from the CEO of the company or some other high level executive and – sometimes after a period of small talk to build up trust – it requests and urgent transfer of money to a particular account.

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CEO fraud sees attackers posing as executives and sending multiple messages back and forth with victims. Image: Trend Micro

Usually some sort of business reason is given such as the funds being required for a new contract or something similar. Of course, this message isn’t from the CEO at all and the account doesn’t belong to anyone within the company, but rather the attacker, who before the victim knows understands what is going on, has made off with a significant sum.

It’s thought that at least $5 billion has been lost as a result of this particular form of phishing scam and law enforcement has warned that it continues to rise.

Other types of phishing attacks

While email still remains a large focus of attackers carrying out phishing campaigns, the world is very different to how it was when phishing first started. No longer is email the only means of targeting a victim as the rise of mobile devices, social media and more have provided attackers with a wider variety of vectors to use for attacking victims.

Social media phishing

With billions of people around the world using social media services such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, attackers are no longer restricted to use one means of sending messages to potential victims.

Some attacks are simple and easy to spot: a Twitter bot might send you a private message containing a shortened URL which leads to something bad such as malware or maybe even a fake request for payment details.

But there are other attacks which play a longer game. A common tactic used by phishers is to pose as a person – often an attractive women – using photos ripped from the internet, be it stock imagery or someone’s public profile. Often these are just harvesting Facebook ‘friends’ for some future nefarious means and don’t actually interact with the target.

However, sometimes plain old catfishing comes into play, with the attacker establishing a dialogue with the (often male) target – all while posing as a fake persona.

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The ‘Mia Ash’ social media phishing campaign saw attackers operate a fake social media presence as if the fake persona was real. Image: SecureWorks

After a certain amount of time – it could be hours, it could be months – the attacker might concoct a false story and ask the victim for details of some kind such as bank details, information, even login credentials, before disappearing into the ether with their gains.

These campaigns can be completely random, but some are specifically targeted with hackers running an entire online persona of a fake person across multiple social media sites in order to look like an authentic, real living person.

One campaign of this nature targeted individuals in organisations in the financial, oil and technology sectors with advanced social engineering based around a single, prolific social media persona that was absolutely fake.

Those behind ‘Mia Ash’ are thought to have been working on behalf of the Iranian government and tricked victims into handing over login credentials and private documents.

SMS and mobile phishing

The rise of mobile messaging services – Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp in particular – has provided phishers with a new method of attack, with the fact that smartphones are now in the pocket of the victims making them almost immediately accessible.

Attackers don’t even need to use emails or instant messaging apps in order to meet the end goal of distributing malware or stealing credentials – the internet connected nature of the modern way phone means text messages are also an effective attack vector.

A SMS phishing – or Smishing – attack works in much the same way as an email attack, presenting the victim with a fraudulent offer or fake warning as a malicious incentive to click through to a malicious URL.

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Text messages offer another attack vector to criminals. Image: Action Fraud

The nature of text messaging means the smishing message is short and designed to grab the attention of the victim, often with the aim of panicking them into clicking on the phishing URL within. A common attack by smishers is to pose as a bank and fraudulently warn that the victim’s account has been closed, had finances from it withdrawn or is otherwise compromised.

The truncated nature of the message often doesn’t provide the victim with enough information to realise the message is fraudulent, especially when text messages don’t contain tell-tale signs such as a sender address.

Once the victim has clicked on the link, the attack works in the same way as a regular phishing attack, with the victim duped into handing over their information and credentials to the perpetrator.

How to spot a phishing attack

The whole point of attackers carrying out phishing attacks is to use deception in order to trick victims into compromising themselves, be it by installing malware onto the network, handing over login credentials or parting with financial data.

While at its heart phishing remains one of the most basic forms of cyber attack, the simple fact of the matter is that it works – and it’s been working for over two decades.

While many in the information security sector might raise an eyebrow when it comes to the lack of sophistication of some phishing campaigns, it’s easy to forget that there are billions of internet users – and everyday there are people who are only accessing the internet for the first time.

Large swathes of internet users therefore won’t even be aware about the potential threat of phishing, let alone that they might be targeted by attackers using it – why would they even suspect that the message in their inbox isn’t actually from the organisation or even friend it says it’s from?

But while some phishing campaigns are so sophisticated and specially crafted that the message looks totally authentic, there are some key give-aways in less advanced campaigns which can make it obvious to spot an attempted attack.

Signs of phishing: Poor spelling and grammar

Many of the less professional phishing operators still make basic errors in their messages – notably when it comes to spelling and grammar.

Official messages from any major organisation are unlikely to contain bad spelling or grammar, let alone repeated instances throughout the body – so poorly written messages should act as an immediate warning that the message might not be legitimate.

It’s common for attackers to use a service like Google Translate to translate the text from their own first language, but despite the popularity of these service they still struggles to make messages sound natural.

Shortened or odd URLs in phishing emails

It’s very common for email phishing messages to coerce the victim into clicking through a link to a malicious of fake website designed for malicious purposes.

Many examples of phishing attacks will invite the victim to click through to an official-looking URL. However, if the user takes a second to examine the link more closely, they can hover the pointer over it and often find that while the text seems like the legitimate link, the actual web address is different.

In some instances, it can simply be a shortened URL, whereby the attackers hope the victim won’t check the link at all and just click through. In other instances, attackers will take a minor variation on a legitimate web address and hope the user doesn’t notice.

"Minsk, Belarus - October 27, 2011: Official website Blizzard. Photo taken from the monitor."

“Minsk, Belarus – October 27, 2011: Official website Blizzard. Photo taken from the monitor.”

Attackers tried to take advantage of the Blizzard data breach by sending phishing emails claiming to be from Blizzard about account security

For example, a campaign once targeted online gamers after game developer Blizzard was hacked. Attackers spammed messages claiming that the victim had their World of Warcraft account compromised in the breach and asked them to click on a link and enter their details in order to secure it. The malicious link had only one minor difference to the real URL – the L in ‘World’ had been switched to a 1.

Ultimately, if you are suspicious of a URL in an email, hover over it to examine the landing page address and if it looks fake, don’t click on it. And check that it is the correct URL and not one that looks very similar but slightly different to that which you’d usually expect.

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A strange or mismatched sender address

You receive a message that looks to be from an official company account. The message warns you that there’s been some strange activity using your account and urges you to click the link provided to verify your login details and the actions which have taken place.

The message looks legitimate, with good spelling and grammar, the correct formatting and the right company logo, address and even contact email address in the body of the message. But what about the sender address?

In many instances, the phisher can’t fake a real address and just hope that readers don’t check. Often the sender address will just be listed as a string of characters rather than as sent from an official source.

Another trick is to make the sender address almost look exactly like the company – for example, one campaign claiming to be from ‘Microsoft’s Security Team’ urged customers to reply with personal details to ensure they weren’t hacked. However, there isn’t a division of Microsoft with that name – and it probably would it be based in Uzbekistan, where the email was sent from.

Keep an eye on the sender address to ensure that the message is legitimately from who it says it is.

The message looks strange and too good to be true

Congratulations! You’ve just won the lottery/free airline tickets/a voucher to spend in our store – now just provide us with all of your personal information including your bank details to claim the prize. As is the case with many things in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

In many cases, phishing emails with the aim of distributing malware will be sent in a blank message containing an attachment – never clicking on mysterious, unsolicited attachment is a very good tactic when it comes to not falling victim.

Even if the message is more fleshed out and looks as if it came from someone within your organisation, if you think the message might not be legitimate, contact someone else in the company – over the phone or in person rather than over email if necessary – to ensure that they really did send it.

How to protect against phishing attacks

Training, training and more training. It might seem like a simple idea, but training is effective. Teaching staff what to look out for when it comes to a phishing email can go a long way to protecting your organisation from malicious attacks.

Exercises such as enabling staff to make errors – and crucially learn from them – in a protected sandbox environment or carrying out authorised penetration testing against employees can both be used to help alert users to potential threats and how to spot them.

At a technical level, disabling macros from being run on computers in your network can play a big part in protecting employees from attacks. Macros aren’t designed to be malicious – they’re designed to help users perform repetitive tasks with keyboard shortcuts.

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Documents dropped by phishing attacks often ask the victim to enable Macros so as to enable the malicious payload to work. Image: Digital Guardian

However, the same processes can be exploited by attackers in order to help them execute malicious code and drop malware payloads.

Most newer versions of Office automatically disable macros, but it’s worth checking to ensure that this is the case for all the computers on your network – it can act as a major barrier to phishing emails attempting to deliver a malicious payload.

The future of phishing

It might have been around for almost twenty years, but phishing remains a threat for two reasons – it’s simple to carry out – even by one-person operations – and it works, because there’s still plenty of people on the internet who aren’t aware of the threats they face. And even the most sophisticated users can be caught out from time to time.

For seasoned security personnel or technologically savvy people, it might seem strange that there are people out there who can easily fall for a ‘You’ve won the lottery’ or ‘We’re your bank, please enter your details here’.

But there are billions of people in the world who don’t regularly use the internet or are just unaware that the internet is something which criminals might use to target them. Unfortunately, criminals are there looking to scam and deceive people and it’s easiest to do it to people who are naive or overly trusting. And the low cost of phishing campaigns and the extremely low chances of scammers getting caught means it remains a very attractive option for fraudsters.

Because of this, phishing will continue as cyber criminals look to profit from stealing data and dropping malware in the laziest way possible. But it can be stopped and by knowing what to look for and by employing training when necessary, you can try to ensure that your organisation doesn’t become a victim.

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Henry Sapiecha

Losses from reported Australian hacking victims quadrupled in 2016: ACCC

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has reported a four-fold increase in hacking scams, with AU$2.9 million lost to such activity in 2016, up from AU$700,000 in 2015.

According to Targeting scams: Report of the ACCC on scams activity 2016, businesses bore the brunt of these scams, with over half — AU$1.7 million — being attributed to businesses.

“While the digital economy presents many opportunities and efficiencies for businesses, it also presents significant risks,” ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard says in the report’s foreword.

“Scams targeting businesses are becoming increasingly sophisticated using modern technology to make fake emails, invoices and websites appear legitimate to even the astute business person.”

While the digital age is hitting businesses in Australia, the report [PDF] highlights that consumers are also being affected by scammers, with digitisation providing the opportunity for scammers to try new tricks.

Online scams — those executed via the internet, email, social networks, and mobile apps — outnumbered phone-based scams in 2016, with an increase of 130 percent over 2015.

Elsewhere in the report, losses to online scams accounted for 58 percent — AU$48.4 million — of total losses, while social media was a particularly busy platform used by scammers to lure victims, netting losses of AU$9.5 million in 2016 compared with AU$3.8 million in 2015.

Of the social media scams, the most prevalent were related to online dating and sextortion, a form of blackmail in which compromising images of the victim are used to extort money.

How to tackle cyber crime before people even know they’re a victim

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What if the police told you that you were being scammed – would you continue to send money?

An estimated A$75,000 is lost by Australians everyday to online fraud, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Given that this is based on reported crime, the real figure is likely to be much higher. It is well known that fraud, particularly online fraud, has a very low reporting rate. This also doesn’t even begin to encompass non-financial costs to victims. The real cost is likely to be much, much higher.

There are many challenges to policing this type of crime, and victims who send money to overseas jurisdictions make it even harder, as does the likelihood of offenders creating false identities or simply stealing legitimate ones.

But despite these challenges police have started to do something to prevent the impact and losses of online fraud.

By accessing financial intelligence, police are able to identify individuals who are sending money to known high-risk countries for fraud. They then notify these people with their suspicions that they may be involved in fraud. In many cases the people don’t even know they may be victims or involved in online fraud.

Project Sunbird

This proactive approach was originally pioneered by Queensland Police Service. Another example is Project Sunbird, a collaborative project between the West Australian Police (WAPOL) and the West Australian Department of Commerce (Commerce) which first started in 2012.

Project Sunbird focuses on people who are sending money to five known high-risk countries in West Africa: Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Togo and Sierra Leonne. This is not to say that these are the only countries involved in fraud, rather it recognises that a large amount of money is transferred to these “hot spot” countries.

There are five stages to Project Sunbird: identification; intervention;‘ interruption; intelligence; and investigation.

Identifying potential victims is conducted by WAPOL, who access financial intelligence of individuals who are sending money to these five specific countries. They screen this list to formulate a list of individuals they suspect are fraud victims.

This list is passed to Commerce, who send a letter to each person, notifying them that they may be victims of fraud. The letter encourages the individuals to stop sending money and invites them to contact Project Sunbird staff to discuss.

If they continue to send money, they will receive a second more targeted letter, which outlines further details of their likely involvement in fraud and provides a fact sheet for fraud victims.

The third stage is focused on the interruption of payments and funds transferred to West Africa and is primarily undertaken by Commerce.

The fourth stage is the gathering of intelligence from letter recipients from both agencies which feeds into the fifth stage, being the investigation, which is led by WAPOL and can focus on local offenders if relevant, or make the appropriate referrals to an overseas law enforcement agency.

Sunbird shows promising results

Initial results from Project Sunbird have been very positive. Between March 2013 and July 2014, 1,969 first letters were sent to individuals.

Financial intelligence indicates that approximately two thirds (66%) stopped sending money, with a further 14% reducing the amount of money transferred (transactions are examined three months prior and three months subsequent to the month the letter is received). Of those who continue to send money and receive a second letter, 44% stopped sending money and a further 33% reduced the amount being sent.

While these early results indicate the success of Project Sunbird, the displacement effect of this approach is unknown. Analyses are currently unable to determine if victims stop sending money altogether, or if they simply stop sending money to the five countries currently targeted, and continue to send money to other countries.

The types of fraud uncovered by Project Sunbird are many and varied. These include romance, investment, lottery and inheritance fraud to name a few. The reach of offenders and their ability to manipulate and exploit victims is endless.

Individual reactions to receiving this letter are generally positive. For some, it was literally a lifesaving letter, with two individuals contacting WAPOL to advise that they were on the verge of suicide prior to receiving the letter.

While many are unaware that they are being defrauded, others have suspicions and the letter may be an important step in helping them to recognise and confirm their fraud involvement. It also provides a non-threatening means of discussing this with police, which is vital given the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with this type of victimisation.

The intelligence advantage

The use of financial intelligence provides an important shift in the way police deal with online fraud, to a proactive, victim oriented approach, compared to the more traditional reactive, offender based methods.

Australia is fortunate to have infrastructure in place whereby the financial intelligence needed by police to identify potential fraud victims is available to them. Not all countries have this information available to them, which limits their ability to implement a similar approach.

This approach also recognises online fraud as a legitimate crime type, which can have devastating consequences for its victims. By intervening in such a proactive manner, it is attempting to reduce and limit the losses incurred by unsuspecting victims. It is much easier for police to interact with a victim early on who has only lost a small amount of money, compared to picking up the pieces further down the track when the victim may have lost everything.

The South Australian Police have now launched a similar project based on the Sunbird model. In addition, the ACCC launched the National Scam Disruption project in August 2014, taken from the Sunbird approach which targets potential victims in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

In December 2014, the ACCC reported that it had contacted 1,500 potential victims, of which 60% had stopped sending money (similar results to Project Sunbird).

At this stage however, no other jurisdiction in Australia or overseas has implemented the collaborative approach used in Project Sunbird, with either police or a consumer protection agency taking sole ownership in their jurisdiction. There is currently no national, coordinated approach in Australia.

Some still send money

Despite its initial success, this approach is not foolproof and there are individuals who continue to send money overseas despite police intervention.

For these people, their journey to the realisation of their true circumstances will take a little bit longer (if at all). There is also the possibility that some will continue to send money to countries outside the five currently targeted.

There is still much work to be done, including the obvious potential to expand this approach to all Australian jurisdictions and encompass a wider number of countries.

But Project Sunbird represents a small light in what can seem like a never ending tunnel on tackling cyber crime.

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Henry Sapiecha

www.intelagencies.com

www.crimefiles.net