Threat-Actor Opportunism at Peak During Holiday Season


By Mike Mimoso, Editorial Director at Flashpoint,

Attackers’ opportunism is never higher during the year than in the holiday shopping season. As a result, businesses must be aware of the potential for increases in malware attacks against point-of-sale (PoS) systems, the possibility of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against popular web-based services, and attempts to bypass fraud-detection systems, to name just a few seasonal risks.

All of these are heightened by a month-long increase in online shopping and spikes in usage of gaming and streaming services precipitated by people having downtime away from their jobs and school.

The answer isn’t a complicated one: businesses must maintain a mix of basic vigilance around patching of critical systems, awareness of attackers’ tactics and targeting, and reinforce education among users to potential risks to the business and threats specific to the holiday season.

In the meantime, here’s a review of some of the holiday gifts your organisation would rather avoid:

Point-of-Sale Systems Always a Lucrative Target

Americans are expected to spend more than $120 billion in retail ecommerce during 2018’s 32-day holiday shopping season—up $17 billion from last year, and $53 billion from 2014. That enormous volume of shopping during a relatively short period time puts stress on the security of PoS systems in the U.S. These are lucrative targets, and they’ve been exploited in the past through attacks against giant retailers and hospitality providers, resulting in the loss of tens of millions of payment card records and the personal data of victims.
Researchers have studied particular PoS malware families in the recent past and saw demonstrable spikes in data exfiltration from these systems, in particular on Thanksgiving weekend, which includes Black Friday. And while it should be noted that these types of attacks are not limited to the holiday shopping season, there is a pattern of heightened activity that figures to continue.

DDoS Attacks More than a Holiday Nuisance

Some attackers still crave attention and what better way for some than to ruin Christmas morning by carrying out DDoS attacks against popular gaming networks, or New Year’s Day, one of the busiest days of the year for video streaming services.
The Lizard Squad’s infamous 2014 Christmas-Day takedown of the Xbox and PlayStation networks put organisations across industries on notice. Many fearing similar action during what is supposed to be a quiet period ramped up in subsequent years by putting aggressive defences in place internally and cooperating with law enforcement.

Similarly, financial institutions have been largely spared since a series of DDoS attacks against high-profile banks and organisations in late 2012 and early 2013 triggered a similar run of investments in DDoS mitigation tools and in intelligence services seeking advance knowledge of the planning of such attacks.

Refund Fraud, Phishing, and Fraud-Detection Bypasses for the Holidays

Attacks during the holiday shopping season don’t have to be as bombastic as a major DDoS attack or pilfering tens of millions of payment cards from an unprotected PoS system. Threat actors can also chip away at profits during the holidays through refund fraud schemes, phishing pages, and attempts to circumvent fraud-detection systems.

Refund fraud peaks during the holidays according to Flashpoint’s dataset; it involves a threat actor making online purchases that are shipped to a drop site, for example, and then the actor claims to have never received the purchase. They are issued a refund and get the product at no cost. Analysts evaluated seasonality effects on refund-related chatter across Flashpoint’s DDW dataset; the lowest amount of chatter surrounding refund fraud occurred in September, before steadily increasing through the holiday season, after which it began to decline again in late January.
Phishing is certainly a year-round threat, but during the holidays, threat actors looking to capitalise on high volumes of consumer shopping will create fraudulent shopping sites that look legitimate. While appearing legitimate, these sites often falsely advertise discounted products hoping to entice unsuspecting victims. Without further training and user awareness, these attacks, which take advantage of the human factor instead of technological vulnerabilities, are likely to continue.

Fraud-detection systems are also stressed during peak holiday shopping days, and threat actors have been known to try to exploit this scenario. Discussions on underground forums in the past have centered around the use of stolen payment card information during the holidays and the types of activities that may trigger a fraud-detection system.

Fraud is not a just seasonal threat to retailers by any means. Many vendors try to capitalise on the holiday season by spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt in their marketing, which only compounds what is already an especially busy season for those administrators and managers defending retail networks.

Some threats to businesses, however, do have their peaks during the holidays. Flashpoint analysts assess that threat actors are likely to recycle many of the same—or variations of—attacks. It is recommended that organisations maintain a high level of alertness and awareness during this time period and they educate their workforce and customers so they are less vulnerable to targeting during the holiday season.


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