Why Malware Happens – Phishing and Social Engineering



Why would a talented computer programmer put so much effort into hurting people, when they could be earning a high salary in Silicon Valley? What makes YOU such an important target?

Welcome to our “Why Malware Happens” video series, where we try to answer some of these questions, by looking at malware and virtual crime from the perspective of the outlaws and troublemakers who threaten your data every day.

In 2013, Target was the victim of a major data breach that affected the centralized payment system for their 1,700 US stores. In order to protect these critical systems, Target had reportedly invested over $1.6 million into a state-of-the-art malware detection system. Instead of attacking this system directly, hackers instead targeted a trusted machine within Target’s infrastructure, and used this system as an entry point. Then, in order to hide their tracks, the criminals bounced the stolen credit card information through various infected computer systems around the globe.

The Target story is not that unusual. Every security system involves a certain level of trust, and problems arise when that trust is exploited.

For example, you can buy the best lock for your door. But of you forget to lock your door after leaving the house, this security system will be of no use.

A single virus can easily infect millions of computers in a very short amount of time. If just one of those computers happens to be within a trusted network at a “high-value target”, with high security privileges, then this can act as an alternate entry point into an otherwise air-tight network.

Also, by infecting millions of additional computers, the hackers can create a complex network to cover their tracks and maintain anonymity.

Kevin Mitnick was one of the most famous hackers in history, having reportedly breached companies such as Motorolla, Sun Microsystems and Nokia. Kevin was probably best-known for using very low-tech methods to breach security systems. Sometimes, it would just be as simple as calling a company on the phone, falsely claiming to be a person of authority, and asking for access privileges.

When a human uses this approach, it’s called “Social Engineering”. But when social engineering is done with a computer, it’s often called “Phishing” — with a PH.

Phishing is also another reason that hackers might want to infect your machine. For example, a hacker might create a fake web page that looks identical to the Gmail login page. But when someone enters their username and password, this information gets emailed directly to the perpetrator.

Once hackers take control of your email account, they can use this as an entry point into your Facebook, banking information, and other accounts. They can then use this information for lucrative identity theft and fraud. In January of 2016, it was revealed that terrorist groups are now using hacked social media and email accounts to perform convincing Social Engineering attacks on other opponents.

So even if the victim of a cyber-attack is not a high-value strategic target, hackers and malware producers still see tremendous value in going after as many people as possible.

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