Charting the Rise of Ransomware

At the beginning of the year, Risk Management put ransomware at the top of the list when surveying the 2016 cyberrisk threat landscape, and these attacks have arguably come to the fore as cyberthreat of the year, whether you measure by buzz or by increase in incidents.

Indeed, ransomware is not just grabbing headlines—these cyberattacks have quadrupled in 2016, according to a recent Beazley Breach Response Services review of client data breaches. Authorities report a similar surge at large, with the Department of Justice estimating that more than 4,000 ransomware attacks have occurred daily since the beginning of the year, representing a 300% increase from 2015. In July and August alone, 20% more of Beazley’s clients suffered a ransomware attack than in all of 2015. While the ransoms remain low, often in the range of $1,000, the firm points out that the true costs are dramatically higher due to the extensive review of company systems and data required to ensure the malware has been removed and data is clean.

Looking at specific industries, Beazley noted a significant uptick in attacks against financial institutions in the first three quarters of 2016, with hacking and malware accounting for 39% of breaches in the sector, up from 26% in 2015, and in higher education, these attacks increased from 38% last year to 46% in 2016. Hacking and malware account for a relatively steady proportion of just over half of breaches in the retail sector. Among healthcare organizations, however, human error has spiked, with 40% of industry incidents caused by unintended disclosure compared to 28% last year.

“From what we are seeing, it appears that many hackers are finding it easier to make money by holding companies to ransom for bitcoin than through selling personal data on the dark web,” said Katherine Keefe, global head of BBR Services. “But, the persistently high levels of hacking and malware attacks of all kinds are a reminder that organizations across industries, and of all sizes, need actionable plans ready to implement when a breach occurs.”

Check out the infographic below from security intelligence firm LogRhythm for more background on the rise in ransomware, how these attacks are impacting businesses, and how businesses are responding.

ransomware logrhythm
ransomware logrhythm

A Risk-Based Approach to Rating and Correcting Individual Cyberrisk

LAS VEGAS—At this week’s Black Hat conference, some information security professionals turned to a key issue to control enterprise-wide cyberrisk: hacking humans. As phishing continues to be one of the top threats for businesses, hackers and security professionals here continue to try and make sense of why this threat vector is so successful and how to better defend against these attacks.

In a session called “Blunting the Phisher’s Spear: A risk-based approach for defining user training and awarding administrative privileges,” Professor Arun Vishwanath presented some of his research on the “people problem” of cybersecurity, proposing a new model for quantifying the cyberrisk posed by individuals within the enterprise and tailoring training to best mitigate the risk they pose. While many corporate training programs stage fake phishing emails and then lecture those who fail, he said, this model continues to be ineffective, as proven by the increase in these attacks and their efficacy across all industries. People are not the problem, Vishwanath asserted, rather it is in our understanding of people.

Vishwanath and his colleagues have come up with a model to explain how users think, the Suspicion, Cognition, Automaticity Model (SCAM). Faulty ideas about cybersecurity practices, popular myths and other irrational beliefs lead to illogical and unsafe practices. Automatic behaviors also play a significant role in risky behavior, particularly with mobile devices and the ritualistic checking of email – users open messages mindlessly and get so used to clicking links, downloading files or entering credentials that they do not really factor logic into these decisions.

Based on this model of why individuals act in risky ways, he recommends developing a Cyber Risk Index (CRI) based on a short, 40-question survey given to individual employees to evaluate the cyberrisk they specifically pose, which can also be aggregated across divisions, sectors and organizations. As the results highlight different areas of weakness that lead to the employee’s risky behaviors, the CRI can dictate the best ways to that individual and mitigate the risk.
phishing risk training What’s more, this quantitative score of individual cyber hygiene can be used to track changes in risk posture over time and to improve current decision processes regarding privileged access to the organization’s systems to better control data at risk.

Check out Dr. Vishwanath’s whitepaper for more on this approach.

Beware of Coverage Gaps for Social Engineering Losses

Social engineering is the latest cyberrisk giving companies fits and large financial losses. A social engineering loss is accomplished by tricking an employee of a company into transferring funds to a fraudster. The fraudster sends an email impersonating a vendor, client, or supervisor of the company and advises that banking information for the vendor/client has changed or company funds immediately need to be wired at the “supervisor’s” direction. The email looks authentic because it has the right logos and company information and only careful study of the email will reveal that the funds are being sent to the fraudster’s account. Unsuspecting and trusting employees unwittingly have cost their companies millions of dollars in connection with social engineering claims.

But when companies look to their traditional insurance program, they are usually met with the unhappy surprise that they do not have coverage for such a loss. Most assume that the loss will be covered by the crime/fidelity policy that nearly all companies have. Insurers, however, have denied coverage for social engineering claims under those policies, claiming that the loss did not result from “direct” fraud. Insurers contend that the crime policy applies only if a hacker penetrates the company’s computer system and illegally takes money out of company coffers. In the case of a social engineering claim, company funds have been released with the knowledge and “consent” of an employee, albeit the employee has been induced by fraud to release the funds. Policyholders and insurers are currently litigating the scope of coverage under traditional crime policies nationally with mixed results.

Some crime policies also contain exclusions that may pose specific barriers to social engineering claims. For example, many traditional crime policies contain a “voluntary parting” exclusion that bars coverage for losses that arise out of anyone acting with authority who voluntarily gives up title to, or possession of, company property. In addition, some insurers have put overly broad exclusions on crime policies that are directed toward eliminating coverage for many cyber risks, including social engineering claims.

Given the prevalence of social engineering claims and the clear market for companies looking to insure against such risks, some insurers have begun to offer an endorsement that provides coverage for social engineering claims. The coverage may be subject to a sublimit and may include coverage for some, but not all, social engineering risks. The coverage also might be subject to additional exclusions. Like all insurance policies, the precise words of the endorsement matter and, therefore, should be carefully reviewed.

Finally, and most important of all, social engineering coverage will not automatically be added to a company’s policy and not all insurers will provide such coverage. Therefore, companies should review their current insurance program with their insurance professionals and experienced coverage counsel to determine whether they have appropriate coverage that is in line with the market for social engineering claims.

Check out “6 Tips to Minimize the Risks of Social Engineering Fraud” from Risk Management.

How Phishing Emails Can Threaten Your Company

Impostor emails, dubbed “business email compromise” by the FBI, are increasing and targeting companies of every size, in every part of the world. Unfortunately, victims often do not realize they have been had until it’s too late. There are no security tool alarms and there is no ransom note. But because systems appear to be running as normal, everything seems like business as usual. And that is the point, according to Proofpoint’s study, “The Imposter in the Machine.”

From New Zealand to Belgium, companies from every industry have suffered losses, the study found. Here is a small sampling of recent impostor attacks during the last year:

  • A Hong Kong subsidiary at Ubiquiti Networks Inc. discovered that it had made more than $45 million in payments over an extended period to attackers using impostor emails to pose as a supplier.
  • Crelan, a Belgian bank recently lost more than $70 million due to impostor emails, discovering the fraud only after the company conducted an internal audit.
  • In New Zealand, a higher education provider, TWoA, lost more than $100,000 when their CFO fell victim to an impostor email, believing the payment request came from the organization’s president.
  • Luminant Corp., an electric utility company in Dallas, Texas sent a little over $98,000 in response to an email request that they thought was coming from a company executive. Later it was learned that attackers sent an impostor email from a domain name with just two letters transposed.


Most often, company executives are targeted, with two common angles. In one case, the always-traveling executive is studied by attackers, who use every resource available to understand the target’s schedule, familiar language, peers and direct reports. Because the executive is frequently on the road, direct reports who routinely process payments can easily be victimized.

Another ploy involves suppliers and how they invoice. For example, the supplier’s language, forms and procedures are used to change bank account information for an upcoming payment. If the attackers are successful, a company may find that they have been making payments to them for months without knowing it.


For more about the risks of phishing, check out “The Devil in the Details” and “6 Tips to Reduce the Risk of Social Engineering Fraud” from Risk Management.