Cybercrime - a growing menace

28th of October 2011
Cybercrime - a growing menace

A shadowy ‘new age’ economy is prospering on the backs of legitimate businesses, run by IT-savvy criminal entrepreneurs who ply their furtive trade over the net. Hartley Milner reports on the growing menace of cybercrime.

Attacks on computer systems, industrial espionage and theft of company secrets are a growing headache for businesses, with global corporate losses conservatively estimated at around 750 billion euros a year.

Because of the EU’s advanced internet infrastructure, member states are among the most frequently targeted countries, suffering disruptive as well as costly raids on their government and financial institutions and unwary citizens.

The tools of the cybercriminal’s trade include computer viruses, malware and spyware, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated in order to breach security barriers put in their way.

And European security authorities warn that as internet connectivity continues to expand, the risk to organisations and individuals in the region will rise dramatically, both from existing sources in Eastern Europe, Russia and China and from previously unconnected parts of the world.

Businesses are a lucrative target for these information super-highwaymen because their operational data, secrets and employee and client information can be traded through the digital underworld economy and turned into cash.

SMEs are particularly vulnerable, as they may not be fully aware of the problem, lack the financial resources to take evasive action or simply believe they are too small to attract attention.

It is not only office-based networks at risk. As mobile phones become smarter and more proficient at storing information, they too are increasingly coming under attack.

Cybercrime reporting varies between countries. Some businesses may be reluctant to declare data breaches, fearing the fallout from their clients learning they do not have adequate security measures in place.

But surveys show that up to 75 per cent of companies believe they are being ‘hit’ on a regular basis. Fear of attack is also on the rise, with nearly two-thirds of ceo's saying it causes them more concern than conventional fraud.

Ulf Bergström of the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) told ECJ: “This is indeed a growing threat because all businesses have systems underpinning their operations. Security of your bank accounts, data about clients, business plans, etc, are vitally important, as without them you could find yourself out of business.

“These people are after your passwords and financial information, they carry out industrial espionage, steal your financial interests, business analysis, patterns of behaviour and any incriminating activities that can be used for extortion or fraud, or for selling to competitors – basically all offline criminal activities that can now take place online, so the scope of their activities is limited only by your imagination.

“The main problem here is that SMEs, which constitute around 99 per cent of the EU's economy, are not sufficiently protected. They often lack knowledge, time and people to manage the online threats to their business, yet they need to do more to make them themselves safe.”

Cyberspace invaders

Computer viruses can be contracted through a variety of ways and come in many forms. Network security experts estimate there are more than 150,000 viruses and other types of malicious code in circulation. Viruses come from emails, infected software, free downloads and general internet surfing. Spam, viruses, malware and Trojans can be used to steal your company’s identity and for mass marketing offensive material such as porn and seedy dating sites.

When you open an email infected by a virus, the sender can use your computer and servers to email en masse all types of advertising to hundreds of people, making them believe that this information is from you. These infiltrations can cause your domain – your email and website – to crash, causing costly data loss and inconvenience.

One of the most useful tools in the cyber criminal’s box is the bot – a small but highly contagious program that hijacks and enslaves computers without their users knowing it. These many thousands of ‘zombie’ machines, known as a botnet, are then used to automate raids on individuals and corporate systems, send out spam mails, distribute crimeware, mount ‘denial of service’ attacks, scan for vulnerabilities and host phising websites. Phising websites mimic legitimate sites such as online payment processors to steal usernames, passwords, credit card details and other sensitive information.

The recent case of a web server hijacking in Europe flags up just how damaging such an attack can be, for all concerned. Italian police and security agency Europol were alerted after a grandmother innocently surfing the net for gifts for her grandchildren clicked on a link to a legitimate online retailer, only to find herself redirected to a child abuse website. Investigations showed that the store’s site, along with others worldwide, had been infected with malware to redirect innocent internet users to websites hosting the illegal material.

In another case, a major European electrical appliance producer was baffled by the mysterious loss of technical data – until it discovered its network had been infiltrated. The implication for the company was that its stolen material was likely to have been bartered over the net or sold to a competitor.

To turn a profit, these techie tricksters may need help disposing of their ill-gotten gains, because while they have no trouble accessing internet banks and performing transactions from the other side of the world, they cannot get the money into their own hands so easily. So they turn to ‘money mules’, ordinary people they have duped with offers of employment advertised in newspapers, etc, whose bank accounts are then used to launder the proceeds of the fraud.

Loss of data and scams are concerning enough, but identity fraud can be catastrophic. Yet hackers have the means to assume your business and network identity in order to get hold of credit, goods and services. They can also send out pornography, hate crime emails and fraudulent offers, etc. By taking over your company’s identity, they are protecting themselves and exposing your business to unlawful practices.

Smartphones have developed into more than just trendy executive toys in recent years, and in many ways have become too smart for their own good, offering fraudsters a fresh opportunity. Last year, attacks on these ‘portable PCs’ almost doubled. Once installed on the phone, a Trojan secretly begins sending text messages, or SMS messages, to premium rate numbers that charge a fee and then it takes money from the user’s accounts and sends it to the criminal.

Official app stores most often serve as platforms for these activities. It is crucial, therefore, that your phone has security software that scans every application downloaded and a lock-out device in case it is stolen.

Reclaiming the net

European security agencies are rising to the challenge of cyber ‘terrorism’, but are finding it difficult to crack, as Europol director Rob Wainwright explains: “Cybercrime is borderless by nature – this also makes criminal investigations more complicated for law enforcement authorities. To effectively tackle cybercrime, adequate cross-border provisions are needed, and international co-operation and mutual assistance within EU law enforcement and between the EU and third countries needs to be enhanced.

“But as the EU’s criminal intelligence and information hub, Europol has advanced IT tools and a large team of professional analysts and experts ready to support the work of European law enforcement authorities in their fight against cybercrime.”

And he stressed working with the private sector was essential, not only to share intelligence and evidence but also in the development of technical tools and law enforcement measures to prevent online crimes.

The European Commission – itself under ongoing attack, including taking a major hit from hackers earlier this year – is fighting back with the launch of three linked initiatives to counter the menace across the EU:

•A cybercrime centre to investigate criminal activities, to be fully operational by 2013

•Computer emergency response team, comprising IT security experts who will exchange information and strategies with similar teams in member states (2012).

•European information sharing and alert system (EISAS) with its role including raising awareness about cybercrime (2013).

The nearest we have to a united front against the problem is the Council of Europe’s convention on cybercrime, launched in 2001 to promote co-operation between nations, and still the only binding treaty in the war on computer fraud. With signatories from outside the EU, including America, it is growing into an international alliance, though only 18 countries have so far ratified the convention, with 25 yet to do so.

But vulnerable organisations need to do more for themselves, according to ENISA’s Ulf Bergström. “Business should make sure that their staff are aware and become more vigilant towards the risks and threats by providing appropriate training and seeking advice from relevant member state authorities, and ensure all their PCs have updated firewalls and other antivirus software,”
he said.

ENISA produces training material for SMEs covering concerns such as email security, malicious software, identity theft, internet theft at home and security while travelling and when working remotely.

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