Should Wealth Management Firms Pay Ransomware or Not?

If your wealth management firm suffers a ransomware attack, should the firm pay the ransom or not? This seems like a straight-forward question, but in reality, is anything but. A number of factors have to be taken into account, including what kind of ransomware attack you have suffered, the possible financial costs associated with the attack and the attack aftermath, the possible reputational damage and attendant loss of clients, and also legal and regulatory consequences that may arise from the attack.

Let’s start by looking at the two main types of ransomware attacks your firm might encounter. In the “traditional” ransomware attack, cyber-criminals break into your network and encrypt your important data so that you cannot access it without the key they used. They then demand a ransom payment for this key. This is an attack on only one of the three pillars of information security: availability. If your firm doesn’t have safely stored backups, you must pay or suffer likely permanent loss of your data. If your firm has safely stored backups, all you have to do is restore your system from these backups. The decision to pay or not in this case seems simple for a wealth management firms: if you pay you get your data back quickly. If you don’t pay, you still get your data back, but not so quickly. It may take days to go through the restoration process. If you think your clients will stand for this downtime, you don’t pay. If you don’t think the business interruption will be tolerated, then maybe it is better to pay and take the financial loss.

The other type of ransomware attacks we’re seeing today are not so simple. If your important data is not properly encrypted, the attackers may not only re-encrypt your data, they may also copy it and threaten to release it publicly if they are not paid. This is a much thornier problem because it also affects another pillar of information security: confidentiality. Financial institutions are heavily regulated and are required to adequately protect the confidentiality of their client’s financial and personal private information. If the firm pays the ransom, they may get the key to unencrypt their data and a promise not to post this data publicly. But what level of trust can you put in the word of criminals?! What is to prevent them from publicly releasing the data anyway, or keeping the data and demanding further payments in the future? This complicates the decision to pay or not considerably. If the firm doesn’t pay the ransom, they are in for public scandal that might cause present clients to go elsewhere and prospective clients to choose a different firm. They may also be subject to regulatory sanction if their information security program is judged to be inadequate. In addition, the firm may be sued by affected clients which can lead to even more scandal and reputational loss.

But wait, there is more! Paying the ransomware is actually illegal is some instances. Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act or the Trading with the Enemy Act, U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with individuals or entities that are on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List or with persons from embargoed regions and countries (see the Advisory on Potential Sanctions Risks for Facilitating Ransomware Payments at for more information). And how is the firm to know if the blackmailers they are dealing with are among those on the proscribed list? I would hate to have to be the one to make the decision to pay ransomware or not in these cases. To quote an old cliché, these decision makers are caught between a rock and hard place!

There is no simple, easy or right decision to make if your firm is caught up in this second type of ransomware attack. The real answer is to not be in such a position in the first place. Financial firms should ensure that their information security program is compliant with regulatory and best practices standards at all times. You should ensure that your data is properly encrypted and backed up, patch and update your systems religiously, test and monitor your systems and ensure that your partners and services providers are doing the same. To quote another old cliché: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Preparing for the End of SMS Authentication

Over the last several years, wealth management/asset management firms have been integrating their systems with banking, trading and other financial platforms. One of the largest challenges wealth management firms face, from a technology standpoint, is managing multi-factor authentication when connecting to the accounts of their clients. In the coming year to eighteen months, this is likely to get even more challenging as SMS-based authentication is phased out. 

Today, many financial web sites, applications and phone apps require the use of SMS one-time security verification codes to be sent via text to the user. This usually happens once the user has entered their login and password to the system, after which it triggers the credential to be sent to their mobile phone number on record. The user then inputs this code into a form on the system and it is verified, and if correct, allows the user to proceed to access the application. This is called two factor authentication/multi-factor authentication (“MFA”) and is one of the most common mechanisms for performing this type of user authorization.

The problem with this mechanism for regulating sign ins to applications is that the method of sending the code is insecure. Attackers have a variety of means of intercepting SMS text messages and thus defeating this type of authentication. Just do some quick Google searches and you’ll find plenty of examples of this attack being successful. You’ll also find regulatory guidance about ending SMS authentication from a variety of sources like NIST and various financial regulators around the world. 

The likely successor to SMS text message authentication is the authenticator app on user mobile devices and smartphones. These authenticator apps reside in encrypted storage on the user’s phone and when prompted, provide a one-time password (“OTP”) just like the code sent in the text message. The difference is, through a variety of cryptographic techniques, once the application is setup and  the settings configured, it doesn’t need to communicate with the financial platform, and thus is significantly more difficult for attackers to compromise. Indeed, they must actually have the user’s device, or at the very least, access to the data that resides on it. This greatly reduces the risk of interception and mis-use of the codes in question, and increases the security of the user’s account with the financial institution.

This presents a significant problem, and opportunity, for wealth management firms. Transitioning their business processes from integrating with SMS-based authentication to authenticator apps can be a challenge on the technical level. Updates to the user interaction processes, for those firms that handle it manually, usually by calling the user and asking for the code, are also going to be needed. It is especially important, for these manual interactions, that some passphrase or the like is used, as banks, trading platforms and other financial institutions will be training their users to NEVER provide an authenticator app secret to anyone over the phone. Attackers leveraging social engineering are going to be the most prevalent form of danger to this authentication model, so wealth management firms must create controls to help assure their clients that they are who they say they are and train them to resist attackers pretending to be the wealth management firm. 

Technical and manual implementations of this form of authentication will prove to be an ongoing challenge for wealth management firms. We are already working with a variety of our clients, helping them update their processes, policies and controls for these changes. If your organization has been traditionally using SMS message authentication with your own clients, there is even more impetus to get moving on changes to your own processes. 

Let us know if we can be of service. You can reach out and have a no stress, no hassle discussion with our team by completing this web form. You can also give us a call anytime at 614-351-1237. We’d love to help! 

Credential Stuffing: Protection, Detection and Response are all Needed

Credential stuffing is a truly thorny security problem that exploits weaknesses in both human nature and Internet access controls. A credential stuffing attack is using user name/password combinations stolen from one website to try to gain access to other websites. It exploits the tendency of all of us to use the same passwords for multiple websites. Although this is a human weakness, it is also perfectly understandable; it is tedious and difficult to remember many complex passwords. It is also difficult to reliably protect password lists that are in any way accessible over the Internet. I see many articles about password management tools or cryptographic techniques that have been compromised while preparing the MSI Infosec Précis. Even MFA is not invulnerable. Attackers have come up with a number of different MFA bypass attacks lately, and more are certain to follow. Couple all this with the fact that there already are literally billions of user name/password pairs available for sale out there that have already been compromised, and you can see why credential stuffing is such a danger to the security of our private information. It is used constantly by attackers to gain the network foothold they need to launch further attacks such as Ransomware.

How are you supposed to protect yourself and your business from password stuffing attacks? The best solution is for everyone to use strong, unique passwords for each different online account they have. Good luck with that! Even the best of us get lazy or stupid once in a while. Or you can (and probably should) employ strong password managers and MFA. These are good techniques that are largely successful. But as I stated above, even these techniques are not sacrosanct. So, if you can’t stop credential stuffing attacks, you had better be able to detect them quickly and react appropriately.

One way to detect these attacks is through monitoring and analysis. As Scott Matteson, the man who coined the term “credential stuffing,” recommended in a 2019 interview: “Monitor your business metrics for signs that you may already be experiencing credential stuffing or other automation attacks, including poor or declining login success rates, high password reset rates, or low traffic-to-success conversion rates.” Plus: “Analyze the hourly pattern of traffic to your login and other attackable URLs for traffic spikes or volume outside of normal human operating hours for your markets: Real users sleep, automated attacks do not.”

In addition, there are tools and services available that can help you detect password stuffing attacks. As the MSI CEO, Brent Huston, discussed in his blog posted on November 11, MicroSolved’s data leakage detection engine ClawBack™ is one such tool that is useful in detecting stolen credentials that show up on pastebin sites or that have been leaked inadvertently through a variety of ways.

However, detection is not enough. You also need to be able to react quickly and surely when a leak has been detected. This means incorporating credential stuffing into your incident response (IR) plan. The incident response team as a whole should discuss response methods, incorporate them in the written IR plan and include them in their periodic IR training sessions. The combination of awareness of the credential stuffing problem, implementation of rational protection and detection mechanisms and documented response measures are a combination that can help your organization protect itself to best effect.

Getting ROI with ClawBack, our Data Leak Detection Platform

So, by now, you have likely heard about MicroSolved’s ClawBack™ data leakage detection engine. We launched it back in October of 2019, and it has been very successful among many of our clients that have in-house development teams. They are using it heavily to identify leaks of source code that could expose their intellectual property or cause a data breach at the application level.

While source code leaks remain a signficant concern, it is really only the beginning of how to take advantage of ClawBack. I’m going to discuss a few additional ways to get extreme return on investment with ClawBack’s capabilities, even if you don’t have in-house developers.

One of the most valuable solutions that you can create with ClawBack is to identify leaked credentials (user names and passwords). Hackers and cyber-criminals love to use stolen passwords for credential-stuffing attacks. ClawBack can give you a heads up when stolen credentials show up on the common pastebin sites or get leaked inadvertantly through a variety of common ways. Knowing about stolen credentials makes sense and gives you a chance to change them before they can be used against you. 

We’ve also talked a lot about sensitive data contained in device configurations. Many potentially sensitive details are often in configuration files that end up getting posted in support forums, as parts of resumes or even in GITHub repositories. A variety of identifiable information is often found in these files and evidence suggests that attackers, hackers and cybercriminals have developed several techniques for exploiting them. Our data leak detection platform specializes in hunting down these leaks, which are often missed by most traditional data loss prevention/data leakage prevention (DLP)/data protection tools. With ClawBack watching for configurations exposures, you’ve got a great return on investment.

But, what about other types of data theft? Many clients have gotten clever with adding watermarks, unique identity theft controls, specific security measures and honing in on techniques to watch for leaked API keys (especially by customers and business partners). These techniques have had high payoffs in finding compromised data and other exposures, often in near real time. Clients use this information to declare security incidents, issue take down orders for data leaks and prevent social engineering attackers from making use of leaked data. It often becomes a key part of their intrusion detection and threat intelligence processes, and can be a key differentiator in being able to track down and avoid suspicious activity.

ClawBack is a powerful SaaS Platform to help organizations reduce data leaks, minimize reputational risk, discover unusual and often unintentional insider threats and help prevent unauthorized access stemming from exposed data. To learn more about it, check out today.

Example of Pole Mounted Device Threats Visualized

As a part of our threat modeling work, which we do sometimes as a stand-alone activity or as part of an deeper assessment, we often build simple mind maps of the high level threats we identify. Here is an example of a very simple diagram we did recently while working on a threat model for pole mounted environments (PME’s) for a utility client. 

This is only part of the work plan, but I am putting it forward as a sort of guideline to help folks understand our process. In most cases, we continually expand on the diagram throughout the engagement, often adding links to photos or videos of the testing and results. 

We find this a useful way to convey much of the engagement details with clients as we progress. 

Does your current assessment or threat modeling use visual tools like this? If not, why not? If so, drop me a line on Twitter (@lbhuston) and tell me about it. 

Thanks for reading! 

Pole Mounted Environment Threats

Utilities Need to Harden Their Systems Against the Exploding IoT Threat

As the complexity of a computer system increases so does the difficulty of securing it against cyber-attack. In fact, difficulty of protection rises at a more than one-to-one ratio with complexity. This is one of the reasons we at MSI so highly tout extensively segmenting complex networks into “enclaves” with individual firewalls and access controls, as well as strict trust rules on how each enclave can communicate with each other and the outside world. Although this process is complex to develop and implement, once in place it greatly simplifies the protection of critical assets such as industrial controls systems and administration networks.

One reason why it behooves utilities to consider cyber-protections at this level is the exponential rise in the availability and use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. It seems like every kind of device there is now has a computer in it and can be accessed and administered over a network of some kind. And usually this network is the Internet or is routable to the Internet.

Systems at threat include industrial control systems and the enterprise networks that administer them; they employ more remote access devices every day. IoT devices that are connected to enterprise networks can be just about anything. Smart light bulbs, cameras, heat sensors, voice controllers, televisions, robots… the list is daunting and grows constantly.

Exacerbating this problem for most of the last year has been the pandemic emergency. The need for social distancing and remote working has exploded because of it. And as we all know, in an emergency functionality trumps security every time. Concerns have set up remote conferencing and remote administration systems at a record pace. And even if they have performed some form of risk analysis before, during or after implementation, chances are that they may not have been holistic in their threat and risk analysis.

This brings me back to the enclave computing scheme I mentioned above. To set up proper network segmentation, the first things you need to know are what data/devices are on the network, how data flows between these entities and what trust relationships are implemented in their setup. Until you have a grasp on all of these factors, there is no way you can gauge the full range of negative security effects hooking IoT devices to your enterprise network can have.

So, my advice to Utilities and other users of industrial controls systems is this: do a thorough business impact analysis (BIA) of your enterprise network and all of its connections. The BIA will reveal the factors I mentioned above. It reveals what devices and data are there and their relative criticality. It shows you how data moves and what trusts what. This information is the necessary precursor to accurate risk and threat assessment, and can be the beginning of a new level of information security at your enterprise.

Wealth Management Firms Need Quick Communications and Responses During Data Breach

Data breaches are happening every day, and presently, they are often accompanied by ransom demands. It used to be that most ransomware simply encrypted a firm’s data and wanted to get paid for the key to decrypt it again. The answer to this kind of attack is pretty simple: make and securely store backups of your data so that you can reload your systems without paying ransom. This works, but some concerns still pay the ransom to avoid downtime while backups are accessed and systems restored. Unfortunately, the bad guys have a worse trick up their sleeves: threatening to publish your data on the Internet if you don’t pay the ransom.

This is a very thorny problem. If you don’t pay, you are going to have private personal and financial data of your clients exposed, which is going to lead to regulatory scrutiny and loss of business. If you do pay, you are out the expense and you have no guarantee that the cybercriminals won’t publish your data anyway.

Besides ensuring that your data doesn’t get compromised in the first place, the only thing that wealth management firms can do to thwart this problem is ensure that their incident response plan is complete and ready to invoke at a moments notice. This takes good communications, especially internally. This is the responsibility of the CISO in most firms.

The first thing the CISO should do once the incident is validated is to notify the incident response team and get them working on containing the incident and researching how it was perpetrated. From there, the CISO should handle communications. All incident-related communications should go through the CISO. The team should communicate their findings with the CISO, and the CISO in turn should communicate pertinent information with the Board of Directors. They are primarily responsible for the information security program at the firm, and decisions on further communications with regulators, law enforcement and clients should come from them. It is also their responsibility to decide how ransomware demands are to be addressed.

To perform all these functions quickly and efficiently, communications methods and responses to incidents should all be pre-planned and included in the incident response plan. It is also important to practice responses to various likely incident scenarios (table-top exercises are generally used for this). These practice sessions help to speed up actual incident responses and expose holes in the plan that could cripple the response if not corrected.

Take Advantage of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month

As I’m sure most of you know, October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. The point of this yearly event is to stimulate awareness of the importance of cybersecurity in the workplace and at home. Every year, it seems, cybersecurity becomes more important in the lives of all of us. Identity theft, ransomware, denial of service attacks and a plethora of other cyber-dangers are running rampant and becoming more sophisticated every day. Awareness of these problems and following a few simple security rules can go a surprisingly long way in keeping your networks safe. So why not take advantage of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month to bring awareness to your own personnel and families?

The number one tip I wish to emphasize is this: be wary, think and make sure before you click on a link or answer questions posed by unknown telephone callers. We are all human which means we get in a hurry, we get bored, we lose focus, we get preoccupied and a dozen other frailties. Cybercriminals rely on these human weaknesses to make their cash, and very successful they are at it. As an addendum to this advice, I want to emphasize caution when clicking on links or accessing websites having to do with the Covid-19 emergency or the impending national election. These two subjects are the subjects of more than half of all current phishing attacks.

Next tip: ensure that all of your devices, software applications, operating systems and firmware applications are included in your security maintenance program. Relying solely on WSUS and patching Windows vulnerabilities just doesn’t do the job. All your non-Windows network entities should be updated and patched as well. Also, updating and patching should be applied as soon as possible. You can bet that cybercriminals will not be slow in attacking vulnerable systems.

Tip number three: be very wary of social media use. The amount of private information that we blithely upload to social media sites is astounding! Having been in the intelligence field myself, I know how much information analysts can glean and infer from seemingly harmless business or family facts. You should remember that the information you provide your friends or colleagues on social media is only as private as their own security settings and habits. A good rule of thumb is to not post anything you wouldn’t want a stranger to see. Once again, think before you post!

The last tip I’ll provide here is to use very strong access controls and encrypt every connection and bit of private information you can. With so many of us working from home now, web conferencing is at an all time high. Make sure you use a service that will allow you to encrypt communications. If at all possible, employ multi-factor authentication for web conferences and other sensitive communications as well. If MFA is impossible, use a nice long passphrase instead of some weird nonsensical eight-digit password you can’t remember anyway. Entropy is where it’s at!

Automobile Dealerships Need Strong Wireless and Physical Network Security

Automobile dealerships have problems when it comes to information security. One of these problems is that, being relatively small organizations, they have limited resources to expend on information security. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that dealerships are difficult to secure and are juicy targets for cyber-criminals and identity thieves.

What do I mean by “juicy targets?” Dealerships of necessity must collect a great deal of personal private information about their customers in order to do business. This not only includes names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, but also potentially includes information such as Social Security Numbers, credit ratings and other financial information. Criminals can exploit this level of information to cause all sorts of mischief and make lots of money.

What do I mean by difficult to secure? Dealerships typically have various sales departments (i.e. new, used, fleet), service departments, finance departments and body shops. All of these departments employ computers and most of these departments are also accessible to customers. In addition, dealership personnel are often called upon to leave customers and computers unattended while they perform various tasks away from their areas. This means that there are lots of “attack surfaces,” both physical and cyber, for cyber-criminals to try to exploit.

One  inexpensive and effective way for dealerships to fight these problems is to ensure that access to your computer networks is well secured. There are basically two ways for attackers to access your computer networks: through a physical connection or a wireless connection. If your dealership still uses wired connections for workstations (many don’t), you should ensure that these connections are secure from tampering. You don’t want unattended customers to be able to successfully plug their devices into an open port and get access to your network. Access via these ports should be limited to approved MAC addresses, or should employ some other access controls to prevent casual network access.

Even more important than this, though, is ensuring that your dealership wireless networks are properly configured and secured. On top of having the same vulnerabilities as wired networks, wireless networks have the added weakness of working via electromagnetic signals that can be accessed by anybody in range. To secure your wireless networks, you should follow best practices advice including:

  • Use strong access controls to limit access to wireless networks to only authorized users. Multi-part authentication is strongly recommended for this.
  • Ensure that your wireless network employs strong protocols like WPA2 and is fully encrypted.
  • Ensure that wireless access points and other networking equipment are fully secured. It is preferable to have this equipment secured in locked rooms or cabinets. It’s even better if access to this equipment is logged to individuals.
  • Ensure that your wireless systems are securely configured. Change all vendor default passwords, and ensure other device settings conform to best practices recommendations.
  • Ensure that your wireless devices and software applications receive proper security maintenance, and are well updated and patched.
  • Separate your wireless networks into segments and ensure that only those with a business need to know can access each segment.
  • Ensure that guest networks are available and properly secured. Each user of the guest network should have separate access control to prevent other guest network users from illicitly spying and compromising others on the network.
  • If you are allowing your employees to use their own devices to access the production wireless networks, ensure that these devices are secured according to best practices recommendations. Also ensure that users are fully educated in their responsibilities for maintaining wireless security.
  • Monitor your wireless networks with an eye for anomalies and misconfigurations.

Following these and other good network security recommendations can greatly increase information security at your dealership without having to expend inordinate amounts of money and employee time.


3 Steps To Increase Cyber Security At Your Dealership

Car dealerships and automotive groups are juicy targets for cybercriminals with their wealth of identity and financial information. Cyber security in many dealerships is lax, and many don’t even have full time IT teams, with even fewer having cybersecurity risk management skills in house. While this is changing, for the better, as dealerships become more data-centric and more automated, many are moving to become more proactive against cybersecurity threats. 

In addition to organized criminals seeking to capture and sell personal information,  global threats stemming from phishing, malware, ransomware and social engineering also plague dealerships. Phishing and ransomware are among the leading causes of financial losses tied to cybersecurity in the dealership space. Even as the federal regulators refine their focus on dealerships as financial institutions, more and more attackers have shifted some of their attention in the automotive sales direction.

Additionally, a short walk through social media doesn’t require much effort to identify dealerships as a common target for consumer anger, frustration and threats. Some of the anger shown toward car dealerships has proven to turn into physical security concerns, while it is almost assured that some of the industry’s network breaches and data breaches can also be tied back to this form of “hacktivism”. In fact, spend some time on Twitter or chat rooms, and you can find conversations and a variety of information of hacking dealership wireless networks and WiFi cameras. These types of cybersecurity incidents are proving to be more and more popular. 

With all of this cybersecurity attention to dealerships, are there any quick wins to be had? We asked our MSI team and the folks we work with at the SecureDrive Alliance that very question. Here’s the best 3 tips they could put forth:

1) Perform a yearly cybersecurity risk assessment – this should be a comprehensive view of your network architecture, security posture, defenses, detection tools, incident response plans and disaster recovery/business continuity plan capabilities. It should include a complete inventory of all PII and threats that your dealership faces. Usually this is combined with penetration testing and vulnerability assessment of your information systems to measure network security and computer security, as well as address issues with applications and social engineering. 

2) Ensure that all customer wireless networks and physical security systems are logically and physically segmented from operations networks – all networks should be hardened in accordance with information security best practices and separated from the networks used for normal operations, especially finance and other PII related processes. Network traffic from the customer wireless networks should only be allowed to traverse the firewall to the Internet, and may even have its own Internet connection such as a cable modem or the like. Cameras and physical security systems should be hardened against attacks and all common credentials and default passwords should be changed. Software updates for all systems should be applied on a regular basis.

3) Train your staff to recognize phishing, eliminate password re-use among systems and applications and reportcybersecurity attacks to the proper team members – your staff is your single best means of detecting cyber threats. The more you train them to identify and resist dangerous behaviors, the stronger your cybersecurity maturity will be. Training staff members to recognize, handle, report and resist cyber risks is one of the strongest value propositions in information security today. The more your team members know about your dealership’s security protocols, service providers and threats, the more effective they can be at protecting the company and themselves. Buidling a training resource center, and setting up a single point of contact for reporting issues, along with sending out email blasts about the latest threats are all great ways to keep your team on top of the issues.

There you have it, three quick and easy wins to help your dealership do the due diligence of keeping things cyber secure. These three basic steps will go a long way to protecting the business, meeting the requirements of your regulatory authority and reduce the chances of substantial harm from cyber attacks. As always, remaining vigilant and attentive can turn the tide. 

If you need any assistance with cybersecurity, risk management, penetration testing or training, MicroSolved and the SecureDrive Alliance are here to help. No matter if you’re a small business or a large auto group, our risk management and information security processes based on the cybersecurity framework from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will get you on the road to effective data security. Simply contact MSI via this web form, or the SecureDrive Alliance via our site, and we will be happy to have a no cost, no hassle discussion to see how we can assist you.