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Human nature leaves data vulnerable to hackers. Don’t make it easy for the cyber-criminals, writes Keiron Shepherd, pictured. Senior Security Specialist at F5 Networks.
Spring is typically a busy period for government organisations to request details on tax related issues. Unfortunately, cybercriminals know this and are ready to pounce on an obvious weak link – our distracted, emotive human nature.
The UK’s HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is one of the most forged domain properties in the world. In October 2017, it averted over a million visits to deceptive websites. It also requested the removal of 200,000 malicious websites in the last 12 months. While organisations like HMRC proactively warn the public against the proliferation of scams, it is often hard to keep pace with evolving cybercriminal sophistication and sheer volumetric persistence. High net-worth individuals are a particularly attractive target, and their tax details can command more than credit card details. It only takes a few instances of success for cybercriminals to hit the Dark Web jackpot.
To stay safe and avoid tax season becoming a data feeding frenzy, it is vital to rigorously scrutinise inbound communications whether you are a business or an individual. The HMRC states that it never uses text or email to communicate information on rebates or penalties, nor request personal or payment information. Alarm bells need to go off at any such request, and the relevant experts and authorities must be informed to determine the source of an attempted attack, as well as initiate relevant mitigation actions.
You can have best processes, systems, and intentions in place but there is still no legislating for impulsiveness. Critical thinking often disappears if there is vulnerable big data, which can be sold for big dollars. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of attractively designed fake apps offering free services, which conceal all manner of maliciousness behind the scenes. It is also relatively quick to replicate an authentic tax-related app and weaponize it for credentials theft. At a glance, it can be impossible to determine fakery from a genuine tax imperative. We are all busy and highly connected. We naturally gravitate towards convenience, and the bad actors have scrutinised our psychological profiles and mastered replicating our identities.
Education and awareness are essential in business to protect employees both in the office and at home. These need to be specific and tailored to the actual problems, including explicit procedural antidotes to basic human fickleness. A culture needs to be created for staff to practice secure thinking every day, including continually updating security settings (using automation tools to ensure no employee is left behind), regularly changing passwords, and ensuring attachments or links are treated with caution.
The latter is particularly important. According to F5 Labs research, phishing is still the top method to illegally obtain data. Free tools like VirusTotal can help in this instance, allowing users to upload files for scanning via hundreds of anti-virus solutions to check if it contains harmful content. To stay ahead of the hacker, it is also important for businesses to run regular penetration tests to gauge staff responses to potential cybersecurity pitfalls and identify specific areas for improvement.
All awareness-raising actions need to be supported by advanced and integrated security solutions, including robust web application firewalls (WAF), analytical tools to understand threat behaviour, and encryption tools. The challenge of responsible data management is already intensifying across EMEA, particularly with the emergence of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). There is no margin for error. Filing tax returns and dealing with the relevant bodies can be complex enough without having to deal with identity theft and fraud concerns.