This is the sixth in a series of posts about Cyber Defense that happened to real people in real life, costing very real money.
Chris, a very ordinary businessman, was on a very ordinary business trip when he received an urgent call from one of his business partners asking him to make a money transfer. Chris was waiting for a train at a station, but he was happy to have the opportunity to help out his colleague, so he quickly pulled his laptop out of his bag to make the transfer.
The account for his company-owned mobile phone was maxed out, so he wanted to take advantage of the train station’s Wi-Fi while he had a chance. He booted up his laptop and started looking for a free connection. Fortunately, “Railway_Station_Name” was open to the public – no username, password, or registration required.
“Phew! Caught a lucky break there,” thought Chris.
Fueled by motivation to get the job done, Chris went ahead and connected to the seemingly trustworthy network. He noticed it was a little bit slow, and not wanting to risk missing his train, he closed all the background apps and processes, including his anti-virus software. He really wanted to use the opportunity to show his initiative to his team, and he didn’t want to risk missing his meeting or not finishing the transfer because his computer was slow. He figured that as long as he avoids opening emails or browsing the web, he wouldn’t have any problems.
And just like he thought, it was all over in a couple of minutes. He completed the money transfer without any issues. He shut down his laptop and hurried off to catch his train, confident that he had done the right thing by taking a few minutes to help his business partner.
“A job well done,” Chris thought to himself.
Chris arrived back at his hotel later that evening and booted up his laptop again to send some emails and wrap up his day. But his computer wasn’t working properly. It was slow. Error messages were spreading over his desktop like flies on spoiled fruit. He tried running an anti-virus check, but even that wouldn’t work. He decided to take it into a computer store he had passed earlier to see if they could take a look at it for him.
He only had to wait at the shop for a few minutes while the store’s staff checked his laptop.
“The problem is your computer’s infected by a virus – several in fact,” said the clerk. “One of the viruses disabled your AV software, and you’ve also got a ton of spyware. We’ve cleaned it up for you so you should be good to go now, but try to be more careful in the future.”
The satisfaction Chris had felt earlier was suddenly gone. Now he was plagued with doubt about whether or not his information was secure, and even worse, he was concerned that perhaps the bank account he had used earlier had been compromised. He’d heard of such things happening to other people working for other companies. He thought that maybe these other people had just been suckers, scammed by some spam emails or clicking random links they found online. But now he wasn’t so sure, so he decided to change all of the passwords for his online accounts.
Chris retired to his hotel, feeling stressed, and with a lighter wallet from paying the guys at the computer shop for helping him out. He told himself that he would think twice before disabling his AV software in the future. But Chris’ doubts about what he’d done, and what kind of threats he had been exposed to, continued to linger.
Chris didn’t realize that he’d fallen into a trap, and connected to a rogue Wi-Fi hotspot that a hacker had prepared at the train station. These kinds of opportunistic attacks are quite common because they capitalize on people taking Wi-Fi security for granted, and are quite easy and cheap for hackers to put together. As this video shows, it’s a small feat to trick people into connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots that hackers can use to steal account credentials and intercept communications.
F-Secure Security Advisor Su Gim Goh recently conducted an experiment in Hong Kong to see how many people connect to Wi-Fi hotspots without verifying that the connections are safe. He put together a Wi-Fi hotspot for less than 200 U.S. dollars, and took it to different cafes and restaurants in Hong Kong. Goh was able to determine that 55% of people automatically connected to his hotspot, which was set up to spoof legitimate connections that people want to use. “Spoofing” legitimate Wi-Fi hotspots means that the bad Wi-Fi hotspots are able to trick devices into thinking they’re legitimate hotspots that have been used before, so anyone that’s used the legitimate (“spoofed”) Wi-Fi hotspot in the past, and has their device recognize it as a preferred or safe network, will be automatically connected to the “spoofing” hotspot.
Goh and many other security researchers warn people against taking Wi-Fi security for granted. “Auto-connecting is typically bad for security, so you should disable that option on your phone, or even just keep your Wi-Fi off when you’re not using it. It’s really not that hard to toggle it on/off, and it’s better than learning the hard way.”
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