You have new e-mail — or, how to let hackers sneak in with a single click

Security & Privacy

This is the first in a series of posts about Cyber Defense that happened to real people in real life, costing very real money.

government offices hack cartoon

A rainy, early spring day was slowly getting underway at a local council office in a small town in Western Poland. It was a morning like any other. Nobody there expected that this unremarkable day would see a series of events that would soon affect the entire community…

Joanna Kaczmarek, a Senior Specialist in the council’s Accounting Department, rushed into her office a little late, but in a good mood nonetheless. Before getting down to work, she brewed herself a cup of coffee and played some music on her computer. Several days earlier, she had finally installed a music app on her PC so she could listen to her favourite tunes while she worked. This had taken some effort though, as she had needed administrator’s access to her computer. It took a lot of pleading and cajoling, but after a week the IT guy finally gave in. Joanna had no idea that she was opening a dangerous gap in the council’s IT system.

That morning, Joanna launched, as she had countless times before, a government issued budget management application. With a few clicks, she made a transfer order for nearly twenty thousand zloty. The recipient of the money was a company that had won the contract for the renovation of a main road in the town. The whole operation took seconds. Two days later, the owner of the company phoned Joanna, asking about the advance he was supposed have received. “I can’t get the work started without that money”, he complained in an annoyed voice. Joanna was a little surprised and contacted the bank. The bank confirmed the operation, saying that there was nothing suspicious about it.

Joanna, together with the Head of the IT Department, carefully ran back over the events of the day of the transfer. They found nothing out of the ordinary, so started checking what was happening on Joanna’s computer around the time before the transfer date. They soon found something: nearly a week prior to the date of the missing transfer, Joanna had received an email from the developer of the budget management software. For Joanna, the message hadn’t raised any red flags; the email contained a reminder about a software update and looked very legitimate. It contained the developer’s contact data, logo and telephone number. Everything was in order…

Everything except for a change of one letter in the sender’s address.

Joanna hadn’t noticed – a “t” and an “f” look so alike when you read quickly, don’t they? Unaware of the consequences, Joanna followed the link that was to take her to the update website. With just one click of her mouse she started a snowball of events that ultimately affected each and every resident of the town. Instead of the “update”, she downloaded dangerous spyware onto her computer. In this way, the cybercriminals who orchestrated the attack learnt that the woman was a Senior Specialist in the Accounting Department and was responsible for transferring money, including EU funds. The thieves lured Joanna into a digital trap, tricking her into installing software that replaced bank account numbers “on the fly”. As she was processing the transaction, the hackers replaced the recipient’s account details with their own, effectively stealing the money. Joanna would have been unable to install the fake update if she hadn’t obtained the administrator’s rights she’d needed for her music app. All she had wanted was to listen to some music while she worked. If only she had known what the consequences would be…

After the attack was discovered, the Police launched an investigation. Joanna was just one of many victims.

Investigators discovered that the malware infection was likely to have targeted computers used by local government workers in hundreds of municipalities across Poland. Law enforcement authorities haven’t officially disclosed how much money was stolen, but given the fact that losses may have been underreported, the estimated figures are in the millions of zlotys. On the top of that, Joanna’s town had to wait months for the completion of the roadwork.

This was one of the largest mass cyber-attacks against local government in Poland. It certainly won’t be the last one…

For small and medium sized enterprises, the average financial loss as the result of a cyber security incident is on average 380 000€. The risk and the lost is real. Don’t be an easy target. We help businesses avoid becoming an easy victim to cyber attacks by offering best in class end-point protection and security management solutions trusted by millions.

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