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CASE STUDY: How cybercriminals targeted QLD law firm with social engineering

09 Jan 2018

Article by MailGuard content writer Emmanuel Marshall

Recently The Brisbane Times broke a story about cybercriminals who stole millions of dollars from Queensland law firms in December.

This story is interesting because the cybercriminals involved didn’t hack into the lawyer's network or infect their computers with a virus - they just sent them an email.

The lawyers who fell for this scam were targeted with phone calls from people who said they were seeking legal representation.

The phone calls seemed legitimate; after explaining their problems the callers promised to email the lawyers with ‘important documents’ related to their cases.

When the lawyers received the emails they found links to a file-sharing site. They clicked on the links and were required to enter their email account passwords to gain access.

This whole process was a trick designed to collect the lawyer’s email login passwords. 

Once the scammers gained access to the lawyer's email accounts they moved to phase two of the scam, monitoring the firm's email traffic for invoices requesting payment.

When they saw a suitably large invoice arrive in the firm’s inbox they sent a bogus message with false bank account details so that the payment went into the bank account of the scammers instead of the law firm.

Social engineering

Lawyers are smart people, right? Not the sort who easily fall for scams.

But the criminals who executed this fraud gained their trust by speaking to them on the phone so that when the scam email arrived, the victims were primed and waiting to click on the malicious link it contained.

Speaking to The Brisbane Times, Queensland Law Society(QLS) president Christine Smythe said, “They are quite cunning... They are people who speak good English, answer in a convincing away and come with a backstory... The precise method of attack varies, but the essence is that the criminals obtain access to the firm’s email accounts and use this to misdirect funds.”

The fraud against this Queensland law firm is an example of social engineering, a method of cybercrime that hinges on psychological manipulation.

Most people would categorise cybercrime as an IT issue but in reality, the majority of cyber-attacks are targeted at people, because they are usually the weakest link in the security chain.

Contemporary cybercrime is as much about psychology as technology.

The criminals behind the law firm fraud went to a lot of trouble to make sure their scam hit home, but similar techniques are used in email scams every day. 

Using the brand names of well-known companies or posing as government agencies, cybercriminals use many different manipulation tricks to deceive.

But the ultimate objective of these social engineering attacks is always the same; to gain the trust of the victim just long enough to extract a password or account number that will get them past the company’s defences.

Cybercrime targets people

People are not machines.

We make a lot of decisions based on emotional responses and social cues. We haven’t got the mental bandwidth to parse every communication and verify its authenticity.

Like the lawyers who fell for the email scam in Queensland, we’re all prone to making errors of judgement and that’s the security gap cybercriminals can most easily exploit.

Social engineering is a booming crime category because cybercriminals understand that it’s easier to deceive a person than a machine. TechBeacon’s ‘2016 Cybersecurity Trend Report’ reveals that 65% of professionals identify social engineering as the most serious security threat to their business.

Human beings are still the gatekeepers of valuable data.

Bank accounts, file storage, credit card details; they are all protected by passwords and those passwords can be obtained with trickery because they are stored in human brains.

Hacking into a company using social engineering techniques is as simple as sending a cleverly worded email to people who work there.

If criminals can trick one person into clicking on a malicious link or logging into a compromised website, they can use that person as an access point to the company’s most valuable data.

In her interview about the law firm scams, Smythe commented, “These emails are coming almost every day now at our firm, just from different people… It's something we talk about with staff on a daily basis; as soon as you are asked for email credentials then pull back. All practitioners must take the measures they can to ensure their email account is secure and stays secure.”

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