How to protect your business from COVID-19-themed vishing attacks

Cybercriminals have been using the COVID-19 pandemic as a central theme in all kinds of crisis-related email phishing campaigns. But because of the dramatic rise of the number of at-home workers, one method that has become increasingly common over the past few months are vishing attacks, i.e., phishing campaigns executed via phone calls.

COVID-19 vishing attacks

Rising success rates are the reason why vishing has become more common, and there are several factors driving this trend:

  • People are actually at home to receive calls, giving threat actors more hours to connect with live targets
  • Everyone is on high alert for information about the pandemic, stimulus checks, unemployment compensation, ways to donate to charitable organizations, and other COVID-related topics, providing attackers with an endless supply of vishing social engineering options
  • Cybercriminals conduct research and use personal information – the last four digits of a social security number, for example – to build credibility and fool their victims into thinking they are speaking with legitimate sources.

Let me expand on this last point. Modern vishing attacks use research-based social engineering to attack targets with convincing scams. How do these attackers know so much about their targets? Typically, cybercriminals obtain personally identifiable information in one of three ways:

1. Social media

Many social media profiles are not protected from public view and they serve as a treasure trove of personal information that can be used for building attacks. For example, listing your place of employment with an employee badge not only lets an attacker know where you work, but what the company badge looks like for replication purposes.

“About You” sections of social media accounts often reveal personal information that can be used for password reset fields – your favorite color, your dog’s name, or the city you were born. And detailed posts outlining work projects, professional affiliations and technologies you’re using all help build a valid pretext scenario.

2. Password dumps

There has been no shortage of public data breaches that have resulted in extensive password dumps containing usernames, email addresses and passwords of compromised accounts. Individuals often reuse passwords across different accounts, which makes it easy for attackers to hack their way in through “credential stuffing.” For example, a LinkedIn password and user email address exposed in a breach could be used to access bank or e-commerce accounts.

3. Search engines

An individual’s name, address and photo of signature can often be found online via local government public records sites. In addition, paid services exist for individuals who want to obtain additional information, such as a target’s date of birth or marital status.

Many people don’t realize how much personal information can be found via a simple online search. As a result, when an attacker uses things like the last four digits of their social security number, the town in which they live, or the names of their children, victims assume the person they are speaking to is a credible source, and they don’t think twice about divulging information that they would otherwise keep private.

Vishing is a business problem, too

On the surface, it might seem like vishing attacks are a consumer problem only. But, in reality, businesses can be impacted too – especially now, as a significant portion of employees across the country are working from home.

These employees not only have corporate information stored on their personal devices, but they also generally have remote access to internal corporate resources. Vishing attacks are designed to build relationships with employees, eventually convincing them to give away confidential information, or to click on malicious links that are sent to them by the visher, who has earned confidence as a “trusted source.” As with other social engineering attacks, the ultimate goal is to gain access to corporate networks and data, or to get other information that can be used to commit fraud.

Tips for mitigating COVID-19 vishing attacks

Mitigating the risk of vishing attacks requires a multi-faceted approach, but it should start with end user awareness and education.

As soon as possible, businesses should roll out employee training sessions (even if they’re virtual) that explain what vishing is, how cybercriminals obtain personal information, and how they’re exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to trick victims.

They should provide basic security tips, such as keeping social media accounts private and using different passwords for different accounts, as well as best practices for responding to a real-world attack. Incorporating attack simulations into training programs can also be a great way to teach employees how to respond to a vishing campaign using defined internal processes.

Technical controls are another key component of a layered security strategy to protect employees and your business from vishing threats. Web filters, antivirus software, and endpoint detection and response solutions are examples of the types of standard security controls that should be implemented. In addition, password policies must be defined and communicated to employees. And, last but not least, multi-factor authentication can be effective in thwarting attacks, as it forces cybercriminals to crack more than one user credential to gain access to corporate systems.

Defending against vishing during the pandemic and beyond

Even though COVID-19-prompted shelter-in-place orders are lifting across the country, many organizations are maintaining work-at-home policies for the safety of their employees and because they realize the operational and financial benefits that come along with telecommuting programs. This means that protecting the remote workforce should continue to be a top priority for businesses of all sizes and defending against vishing attacks should be a core component of security strategy.

Vishers will continue to come calling long after the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end, so it’s important to make sure remote workers – and all employees – know how to identify suspicious callers, just like they should know how to identify suspicious emails. Supplementing employee education with the proper security controls is a good starting point to keep your staff and your business safe regardless of who’s on the other end of the line.

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