Internet Security

Warning – TV Licensing Scam Operating

Action Fraud, the UK’s Cybercrime reporting centre, has warned that fake TV licence payment scam emails have generated 5,247 complaints between 1st October and the end of December, with 1,983 complaints in December alone.

What Emails?

According to Action Fraud, the highly convincing scam involves sending people emails that use headlines such as “correct your licensing information” or “your TV licence expires today”.  In some cases, the email title and contents suggest that the recipient is eligible for a TV Licensing refund.  On opening the email, recipients are encouraged to click on a link to a fake version of the TV Licensing website.

When the victim visits the fake site, they are asked for their personal payment details – account number, sort code, and card verification value (CVV) code.

There have also been reports that victims who have submitted personal details to the fraudsters via the website are contacted a week or two later by the fraudsters who claim to be from the fraud department of the victim’s bank, claim that the victim’s bank account has been compromised, and ask the victim to transfer their money to a new, so-called ‘safe account’.

Some media reports put the amount of cash stolen by fraudsters using this scam in the region of £230,000+.

Official TV Licensing Never Email Customers Unprompted

The spate of fraudulent emails has prompted the real TV Licensing authority to confirm that they never email customers unprompted to ask for personal or payment details or to inform customers of eligibility to any refunds.

Real Glitch Last Year

Some of us may remember that a real security risk involving the genuine TV licensing website was identified back in September 2018 when an Infosec blogger noticed that Google Chrome was flagging the TV Licensing website as insecure.  The blogger estimated that as many as 130,000 people may have been affected by the breach.  TV Licensing then notified customers who accessed its website between 29th August and 5th September 2018 that their personal details may have been stolen but maintains that there was a very small risk of the information having been accessed. 

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

This latest scam is one of many convincing scams that use phishing to steal payment details and other personal information. Phishing is one of the most popular cybercrime methods.

Action Fraud advice for avoiding falling victim to this scam includes:

  • Check the sender’s email address – does it look like one TV Licensing would use?
  • Check the subject line and treat any requests such as “action required” or “security alert” with suspicion.
  • Check the spelling and grammar, as grammatical errors are often signs of scam emails.
  • Look at the style of the emails.  If it appears too familiar or casual, this could be a sign that it is a scam.
  • Check where the link goes – is it the official TV Licensing website?  It is worth remembering that the official TV Licensing authority never emails customers unprompted to ask for personal or payment details.

If you think that you may have fallen victim to this scam, the advice is to report it to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or report it through the website here: https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/report-phishing.

Ways to help protect your company against the threat of phishing attacks include education and training of staff to help them spot and deal with phishing, and even using phishing attack simulator tools (such as ‘Attack Simulator’ in Office 365) to help sharpen your organisation’s defences.

Concerns Over Huawei and ZTE Equipment and Software

A statement from the Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NCISA) has warned network operators that using software or hardware made by Chinese telecom equipment suppliers Huawei and ZTE could represent a security threat.

Why?

Huawei, which the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment, is based in China, and according to the NCISA, private companies residing in China are required by law to cooperate with intelligence services.  This could mean that the products and services of those companies could, in theory, become part of the Chinese state security systems e.g. Huawei and ZTE could be used for spying on behalf of China.

Global Suspicion & Action

According to the Wall Street Journal, espionage chiefs from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. (the so-called ‘Five-Eyes’), agreed at a meeting in July this year to try to contain the global growth of Chinese telecom Huawei because of the threat that it could be spying for China.

The US, Australia and New Zealand have barred Huawei Technologies Ltd. as a supplier for fifth-generation networks, and Japan also looks set to ban government purchases of equipment from Huawei and ZTE.

The U.S. government is also reported to have been putting pressure on Deutsche Telekom, the majority owner of T-Mobile US, to stop using Huawei equipment, although the head of Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) Arne Schoenbohm is reported to have told German news outlet Der Spiegel that proof is required to substantiate the accusations.

Detained

Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, was recently detained in Vancouver at the request of U.S. authorities for violating US sanctions on Iran. The arrest of Meng Wanzhou happened on the same night that President Trump was dining with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Argentina.  China’s state-run media, and some other commentators have suggested that Meng’s detention appears to be politically or economically motivated.

Response

The response by a Huawei spokesperson to the NCISA warning has been to deny any suggestion that a national security threat is posed by Huawei to the Czech Republic, and to call for NCISA to provide proof of its claims.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If the ‘Five-Eyes’ are to be believed, Huawei’s products and network software could have backdoors built-in to them which could, in theory, allow covert surveillance or control, or destruction of phone networks (which are accessible via the internet).  The fear is that those acting for the Chinese state could gain access to the data stored / routed through Huawei devices, telecoms equipment and software, and could even, perhaps, monitor the conversations on mobile phones.

There does, however, appear to be a lack of clear proof for the allegations, and bearing in mind that Huawei is the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment, and that its products are popular (this year it overtook Apple in terms of the number of handsets it was shipping worldwide) and that UK stores are still stocking and selling its handsets, the warnings of various governments look unlikely to be heeded for now.  It is worth noting that BT uses Huawei systems as part of its network, but is now is removing Huawei systems from the core of the mobile network EE, which it purchased in 2016.

The advice as part of the recent Czech warning is that system administrators in critical information infrastructure should take ‘adequate measures’ against the threat.  This advice appears a little vague, and until conclusive proof can be produced, many people and businesses will feel that they can decide for themselves what, if any, action to take.

Warnings of Printer Chip-Frying

Swedish YouTube vlogger, PewDiePie, is reported to have inspired some of his 77 million followers to hack 50,000 printers to promote his YouTube channel, and to draw attention to vulnerabilities in their printer firmware that could even be exploited by hackers to ‘fry’ a printer chip.

Messages Sent Through Printers

The vlogger, PewDiePie, primarily wanted to make a point that popular printer firmware has vulnerabilities in it that could leave people open to hacks that could disable and even permanently damage their printer. Also, there is the risk that a printer hack could enable attackers to see and alter potentially sensitive information as it’s printed out.

Thankfully for printer owners, the chosen method of raising awareness by some followers of PewDiePie was to send messages through their printers.  The messages, in this case, asked people to subscribe to PewDiePie’s YouTube channel and asked them to unsubscribe from a rival channel called T-Series.

Could ‘Fry’ The Printer Chip

According to PewDiePie, one of the most alarming risks that people could face thanks to vulnerabilities in the printer firmware is hackers forcing a stream of data to be continuously written by the printer’s chips. Since the chips only have a limited lifespan of ‘writes’, keeping them on such a continuous loop for long enough could overload and ‘fry’ the printer chip, thereby stopping the printer from working altogether.  This would most likely require the victim to purchase a new printer.

Unsubstantiated

Although it has been claimed that followers of PewDiePie have caused 100,000 machines to print out the message, this figure has not been verified, and currently, there is only anecdotal evidence in the form of some Twitter posts from alleged victims in the UK, US, South America, Spain and Australia.  There have, thankfully, been no reports of any printer chips being fried as yet.

Example

One example of how printers can be compromised dates from early 2017 when a hacker named Stackoverflowin was able to take control of more than 150,000 printers manufactured by HP, Brother, Epson, Canon, Lexmark and Minolta, and ordered them to print out a message.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

This may be a publicity stunt by a YouTube vlogger that is likely to expand the number of his followers, but it appears to have had a serious point about a security vulnerability that could affect your business or home printer. Back in August, for example, it was discovered that hundreds of HP inkjet printer models were in desperate need of firmware patches, and this latest stunt may help to prompt enough questions from printer owners to motivate printer manufacturers to take another look at their firmware, and for printer owners to seek out patches that may already be in existence.

Smart Botnet Detection Needed

For businesses to maintain an effective cyber defence, the ability to prevent, detect and stop smart botnets in real-time is now an important consideration.

What Is A Botnet?

A botnet is a term for multiple malicious mini-programs working together to take over large numbers of computers and digital devices for different purposes e.g. stealing data and / or launching attacks, or in the case of DDoS attacks, shutting down servers (and the websites on them) by bombarding them with requests (a flood).  Botnets also sap electricity and computing power as they work.

How Big Is The Problem?

According to DDoS protection provider Link11, DDoS attacks (launched using botnets) on e-commerce providers showed an increase of more than 70% on Black Friday compared with other days in November this year, and Cyber Monday attacks showed a massive increase of 109% compared with the November average. Botnets have also shown a move towards the Internet of Things (IoT).

Last year saw a huge growth in the use of botnets.  For example, Spamhaus figures showed that the number of command and control (C&C) servers used for managing IoT botnets more than doubled, going from 393 in 2016 to 943 in 2017.

The increase in the use of botnets has been driven by factors such as the availability to cyber criminals of very cheap and easy to operate rent-a-botnet services booter or stresser botnet services, and the proliferation of IoT device with sub-standard security that can be used in attacks. Cyber criminals also use various amplification techniques to increase the impact of their attacks.

Characteristics Of Botnets

The characteristics of botnets and how they are made can provide the key to detecting them and preventing them. For example:

  • Some have a long ‘dwell time’ (the time the malicious program sits on a device before it’s activated), and they need to communicate to work. Communication often involves the use of command and control servers. Disconnecting communications between bots and their botnet command and control servers has, therefore, been a way of stopping them.  New smart bots, which create peer-to-peer networks, can be more difficult to stop.
  • Botnets use processing power.  If suspicious processes that take up a lot of memory are spotted, and / or if devices appear to slow down, this can be an indicator that the device has been compromised and a botnet is awake and active.

Turned To Crypto-Mining

A recent security bulletin from Kaspersky Labs states that botnets are now increasingly being used to distribute illicit crypto-mining software, and that the number of unique users attacked by crypto-miners grew significantly in the first three months of 2018. The malware used for mining is designed to secretly reallocate an infected machine’s processing power to mine cryptocurrencies, with all the proceeds going to the attacker.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

With cyber-crime, prevention is better than cure, and being able to detect signs of attacks early is vitally important. Security commentators suggest a focus on security measures that prevent initial infection and lock-down unnecessary trust permissions. Businesses may also benefit from using security technologies that can detect, alert or block botnet activity in real-time, and by continually analysing network traffic and local system logs.

Inspecting devices and checking for any suspicious processes that appear to be taking up taking up a lot of memory may also be a way to detect botnets that have already slipped through the net and are active.

Tech Tip – Find Out When You’re Visiting A Site That’s Been Hacked

If you use Google Chrome and you’d like to make sure that you know when you’re visiting a site that’s been hacked, and you’d like to set up a watch list for sites that you regularly visit, or those that store personal data, here’s a handy browser extension that could help.

The HackNotice extension for Google Chrome could help you to add another layer of security to your browsing.  To use it:

In Chrome, Google ‘hacknotice extension’.

Click on the link.

Click on the ‘Add to Chrome’ button (top right).

Follow the instructions.

SIM Swap Scam Warning

A recent investigation by BBC TV’s Watchdog Live revealed evidence that some mobile phone shop staff are not conducting proper ID checks for replacement SIM requests, thereby enabling some customers to become victims of SIM swap scams.

What is a SIM Swap Scam?

SIM swap scams are believed to have been in existence for the last four years in one form or another.  In its current form, the SIM swap scan happens when a fraudster goes into a mobile operator’s shop and claims a false identity i.e. the identity of one of that operator’s customers.  The fraudster knows that the person they are claiming to be is a customer of that operator because of personal details that have been stolen in previous malware or cyber-attacks, and those details have been posted or sold on the dark web.

In the shop, while pretending to be that customer, the fraudster claims that their phone has been lost or stolen and asks to be issued with a replacement SIM. Once the fraudster has the replacement SIM, the victim’s SIM no longer works, and the fraudster can then access any online service that requires security codes to be sent to the phone, as well as being able to access any other of the victim’s personal details that are stored on the SIM.

In the past (London 2016), a similar version of the scam worked when fraudsters used an intercepted bank statement from the victim (or information found on social media) to call the person’s mobile operator, pass security checks, and get a blank SIM card.  The fraudsters were then able to access the unique codes sent by the victim’s bank to log into their account and transfer funds.

What Should Happen When Someone Requests a Replacement SIM?

At the moment, mobile operators should conduct i.d. checks for replacement SIMs, but it is not compulsory.  Also, the Watchdog Live investigation revealed that checks for contract customers and Pay As You Go customers may differ.  For example, O2 said that it only asks for photo ID when replacing SIMs on monthly contracts, and that Pay As You Go customers will be sent an authorisation code if someone is trying to access the number.

What Happened in Reality?

In the investigation, which involved the secret filming of Watchdog Live’s own ‘King Con’ former fraudster in multiple EE, O2, Three and Vodafone stores, EE and Three staff conducted all the necessary checks, but Vodafone blamed rogue employees for not doing so.  Also, replacement SIMs were obtained from O2 stores and the authorisation codes that the company says it sends out were not received.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

It appears that this relatively old fraud is still very much alive and is a reminder of how valuable our personal details can be to criminals. Bearing in mind how serious this fraud can be to the victims, it is shocking that photo ID checks for replacement SIMs are not made to be compulsory for all operators in all situations.  Mobile operators could help themselves and customers by introducing compulsory measures and by making sure through training and in-built systems that all staff conduct satisfactory checks.

It is also worrying that the investigation appears to have revealed a two-tiered security system, with Pay As You Go customers afforded less protection.

In the meantime, one way that we can help ourselves is to regularly check both our phone and bank statements, and if you have a contract with e.g. O2, contact them to confirm that no replacement SIMs have been issued in your name.

Free VPN Tools May Be Linked To China

A new investigation by Metric Labs of the top free VPN (Virtual Private Network) apps in Apple’s App Store and Google Play has revealed that more than half are run by companies with Chinese ownership.

What’s A VPN?

A ‘Virtual Private Network’ (VPN) is generally used to keep internet activity private, evade censorship / maintain net neutrality and use public Wi-Fi securely e.g. avoid threats such as man-in-the-middle attacks.  A VPN achieves this by diverting a user’s traffic via a remote server in order to replace their IP address while offering the user a secure, encrypted connection (like a secure tunnel) between the user’s device and the VPN service.

Popular Free Apps

VPNs (Forbes, 2017) are the most searched-for apps in the world, partly because people have become much more concerned with privacy and they have become more afraid of government surveillance of their digital activities.  For example, the UK government’s Investigatory Powers Bill), which was passed into 29th November 2016 as the Investigatory Powers Act (“Snooper’s charter”) means that a large list of UK agencies, including various police forces and government departments, can ask for any UK citizen’s stored browsing history (details of every website and instant messaging apps that you have visited or used in the past 12 months).

China Links To Free VPNs – Security & Privacy Concerns

Bearing in mind that the main reason for getting a VPN is to preserve your privacy and security, the problem with the results of the Metric Labs survey is that they show that over half of the top free VPN apps that people can find e.g. in the App Store and Play Store for UK and US, have Chinese ownership or are based in China.

The problem with being linked to (or based in) China, according to the report about the Metric Labs (top10vpn) survey, is that China tightly controls access to the Internet from within the country, has clamped down on VPN services, and many of the free VPN services with links to China offer little or no privacy protection and no user support.

How Bad Are They?

The investigation revealed that 17 of the 30 top free VPN apps available from simple online searches have links to China and 86% of those apps have security issues.  It was also discovered that 64% of apps have no dedicated website, and 86% of apps have unacceptable privacy policies with many being presented in an amateur fashion e.g. posted on a Free WordPress sites with ads.  Some of the privacy policies either give no information about the sharing of information with third parties, have no privacy policy at all, use a stock privacy policy not related to VPNs, or simply state that information will be shared with China.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

When you bear in mind that the reason for downloading a VPN app is to preserve privacy, the results of this investigation indicate that simply trusting one of the free VPN apps available online, and without pausing to look at its privacy information or look too much into it could be a mistake.  If your privacy is valuable to you (and you’ve not already been provided with a trusted VPN), it may be worth seeking out a trusted paid-for service. There are many lists available online from Tech magazines that offer useful comparisons and information to help you choose a VPN that will give you the right levels of performance and security.

Firefox Quantum Browser’s ‘Monitor 2.0’ Will Warn You About Security Breaches

Mozilla’s latest update for its Firefox Quantum browser includes the Firefox Monitor 2.0 security tool, which can tell you whether a site you’re visiting has suffered a security breach in the last 12 months and whether your details have been leaked online.

Developed in Partnership with HIBP

Back in June, the Mozilla blog detailed how it was testing the Firefox Monitor tool which was being developed in partnership with HaveIBeenPwned.com (HIBP), a service run by Troy Hunt, described by Mozilla as “one of the most renowned and respected security experts and bloggers in the world”.  At the time of testing, it was announced that Monitor, through its HIBP / Firefox partnership, would be able to check a user’s email address against the HIBP database in a private-by-design way.  Mozilla said that visitors to the Firefox Monitor website would be able to check (by entering an email address) to see if their accounts were included in any known data breaches, with details on sites and other sources of breaches and the types of personal data exposed in each breach. It was also announced that the Firefox site would offer recommendations on what to do in the case of a data breach, and how to help the user to secure their accounts.

Rolled Out

The Monitor 2.0 security tool that’s just been rolled out in the latest Firefox Quantum update can tell you if your details have been leaked online (if you visit monitor.firefox.com), provide a desktop notification /alert when you visit a website that’s been compromised in the last 12 months, and give extra security details such as how many accounts were affected by a breach and what happened in the breach.

You Can Turn Notifications Off

Mozilla has been quick to point out that the Monitor tool has been designed to help but not annoy users and as such, if you’ve already been told about the potential security issues, you can navigate back without being told again and you can disable the notifications altogether with a just few clicks, if you’d prefer not to see them.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Google Chrome dominates the browser market, but there is still a lot of competition among those fighting it out with a less than 10% share of the market – Apple’s Safari, Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer & Edge.  Adding this tool, that’s linked to a renowned security expert, to the Firefox browser could add some real value at a time when the news is full of major security breaches, but most of us may not know how to check whether our details have been stolen, and what to do next.

Businesses always need to be very security-conscious, particularly since the introduction of GDPR, and being able to see notifications about pages that have been breached may be another way that business users can help to protect themselves.

The tips and personal stories of those who have been affected by a data breach highlighted on the Firefox website for Quantum business users may also help raise awareness about online privacy and could help provide prompts and ideas to help keep improving data protection and cyber resilience in businesses.

Adult Site Visits on Work Computer Lead to Network Infection

The extensive online porn-accessing habit of an employee of a US government department known as the US Geological Survey (USGS) is being blamed for a government computer network becoming infected with malware.

9,000 Pages

In an investigation, highlighted in a paper (published online) by the US Office of the Inspector General, it was discovered that the unnamed employee is alleged to have accessed 9,000 pages on adult pornography websites.

Infected

It is believed that the infection of the government network happened after the employee used their work laptop to visit pornographic websites, some of which originated in Russia and contained malware, thereby compromising and infecting the laptop. It was from this laptop that the malware was able to spread to the government network.

The employee is also reported to have saved images from the infected websites onto an unauthorised USB device, and to a personal Android phone that was connected to the government-issued computer. This resulted in the Android phone also becoming infected with malware.

Stealing Information

The big risk with malware is, of course, that it is designed to steal information and spread to other systems, and in the case of ransomware, for example, to destroy files, lock-down systems, and extort money.

Malware

In the UK, a government report from April this year found that nearly half the businesses in the UK have fallen victim to cyber attacks or security breaches in the last year, and that the most common breaches involved fraudulent emails e.g. phishing, attempts by scammers to impersonate the organisation online, as well as viruses and malware. The annual Verizon data breach investigations report from April showed that ransomware is the most popular form of malware used in cyber-attacks, and this type of malware is responsible for 40% of all successful malware attacks. The use of ransomware has doubled over the last year.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

In this case, the use of USB devices and government computers for personal use was against the rules, but this didn’t appear to be actively monitored and / or enforced. As the government department discovered to their cost, and too late, it may have been better to address such obvious security vulnerabilities by restricting web access to certain types of websites (and monitoring this), disabling USB connections on government-issued computers, providing IT security training, and developing a well-communicated IT security policy.

This story also highlights the risks of policies such as ‘bring your own device’ in businesses. BYOD policies allow employees to bring in their personally owned laptops, tablets, smart-phones and even storage devices, and use them to access company information and applications, and solve work problems. Unfortunately, as shown in this story and in a study by SME card payment services firm Paymentsense back in May, BYOD schemes and using USB storage devices can increase the cyber-security risks for businesses and organisations. The most popular types of BYOD security incidents in the last 12 months include malware, which affected two-thirds (65%) of SMEs, and viruses (42%).

These days, secure cloud storage and storage on secure company systems are provided, and this, combined with adequate security training and forbidding the use of USB ports (closing USB ports) on company computers could be ways of minimising this kind of security risk for many businesses.

Ubicoustics Overhears Everything You Do … And Understands

Researchers in the US have presented a paper based on their research that identified a real-time, activity recognition system capable of interpreting collected sounds that could well be used by home smart speakers.

Identify Other Sounds, and Issue Responses

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in the US claim to have discovered a way that the ubiquity of microphones in modern computing devices, and software that could use a device’s always-on built-in microphones could be used to identify all sounds in room, thereby enabling context-related responses from smart devices. For example, if a smart device such as an Amazon Echo were equipped with the technology, and could identify the sound of a tap running in the background in a home, it could issue a reminder to turn the tap off.

Ubicoustics

The research project, dubbed ‘Ubicoustics’, identified how using an AI /machine learning based sound-labeling mode, drawing on sound effects libraries, could be linked to the microphone (as the listening element) of a smart device e.g. smart-watches, computers, mobile devices, and smart speakers.

As Good As A Human

The sound-identifying, machine-learning model used in the research system was able to achieve human-level performance in recognition accuracy and false positive rejection. The reported accuracy level of 80.4%, and the misclassification level of around one sound in five sounds, means that it is comparable to a person trying to identify a sound.

As well as being comparable to other high-performance sound recognition systems, the Ubicoustics system has the added benefit of being able to recognise a much wider range of activities without site-specific training.

Applications

The researchers noted several possible applications of the system used in conjunction with smart devices e.g. sending a notification when a laundry load finished, promoting public health by detecting frequent coughs or sneezes and enabling smart-watches to prompt healthy behaviours after tracking the onset of symptoms.

Privacy Concerns

The obvious worry with a system of this kind is that it could represent an invasion of privacy and could be used to take eavesdropping to a new level i.e. meaning that we could all be living in what is essentially a bugged house.

The researchers suggest a potential privacy protection measure could be to convert all live audio data into low resolution Mel spectrograms (64 bins), thereby making speech recovery sufficiently difficult, or simply running the acoustic model locally on devices so no audio data is transmitted.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The ability of a smart device to be able to recognise all sounds in a room (as well as a person can) and to deliver relevant responses could be valued if used in a responsible, helpful, and not an annoying way. It doesn’t detract from the fact that, knowing that having a device with these capabilities in the home or office could represent a privacy and security risk, and has more than a whiff of ‘big brother’ about it. Indeed, the researchers recognised that people may not want sensitive, fine-grained data going to third-parties, and that operating a device with this system but without transmission of the data could provide a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Nevertheless, it could also represent new opportunities for customer service, diagnostics for home and business products / services, crime detection and prevention, targeted promotions, and a whole range of other possibilities.