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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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June 27, 2022

The Ransomware Threat Continues to Grow

For more than five years, this blog; federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; and multiple industry associations have continued to warn businesses about the threat of ransomware attacks. Nevertheless, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center's (IC3) 2021 crime report Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link shows that in 2021, IC3 received 3,729 ransomware complaints, representing losses of $49.2 million. These numbers reflect a 51 percent increase in the number of victims and a 69 percent increase in losses. The report notes that these figures are likely higher as the crimes are underreported, and that these financial losses don't “include estimates of lost business, time, wages, files, or equipment, or any third-party remediation services acquired by a victim.” According to the report, the industries most frequently targeted were health care, financial services, information technology, critical manufacturing, and government but water systems, energy, and transportation networks were also attacked.

In the beginning, criminals carried out ransomware attacks by gaining network access to a company's computer system, which they would accomplish by getting an employee to unknowingly load malware or load it themselves by exploiting an operating software vulnerability or using a remote access channel. The malware would then encrypt the targeted files so the company could not access them, and the criminal would demand a ransom and promise a decryption key once it was paid.

Last year saw an evolution of the attacks, when criminals began to seek higher payouts. In addition to making the regular ransomware demands, criminals threatened to release sensitive information they'd gathered before encrypting the files unless the victims paid an additional ransom. Regardless of any promises they make and money they get, criminals often sell this information on the Dark Web for even more money.

The defenses against a ransomware attack remain the same:

  • Conduct employee training and phishing tests to educate and increase awareness. • Implement a process for employees to report suspected phishing emails and investigate them immediately.
  • Make frequent offline data backups and regularly test the backup process.
  • Install security patches and software updates as soon as possible.
  • Monitor remote desktop protocols, if they're used, and carefully review access controls.

What defensive measures has your company implemented to defend against a ransomware attack? Let us know I've missed any.

June 13, 2022

Quishing: Another "Fish" in the Fraud Ocean

We should all be knowledgeable about phishing attacks by now, given the number of warnings consumers and businesses get about this type of email fraud. We've even warned about it, in this Take On Payments post last year, and in others. We've also warned about smishing, a variation that uses SMS text messaging rather than email. Vishing is another form of social engineering that we've also mentioned in the blog. It's like phishing but comes through a telephone, often from a spoofed number—one that looks like a legitimate number of a company or agency. All of these varieties of fraudulent attacks have the same goal: to "fish" for your login or account information.

And now there's quishing. Again.

Quishing is not new but has experienced a revival within the criminal element as a result of the increased use of QR codes for digital payments. We first wrote about the risks and benefits of QR codes back in 2012, when they were used predominantly on printed media such as billing statements. The account holder could scan the QR code to go to the biller's payment website to pay their bill. We wrote about them again in late 2020, when merchants used them in the pandemic as an alternative contactless payment technology to near field communication. Since then, the use of QR codes has exploded—not just for payment applications, but also for other contactless usages born from health concerns: to let people access digital restaurant menus, for example, or to get detailed product information. QR codes are easy to implement, but that also makes them easy to alter without detection. The criminal sends an email with a QR code that, when captured by the victim's camera, opens a counterfeit website that may look like a merchant's legitimate website but is intended to steal account credentials. The email may contain a coupon to give the victim further incentive to capture the QR code. Unfortunately, detecting quishing attacks is difficult for email malware applications since the QR code is embedded in the email message.

QR code manipulation can also take place on printed material. Cases have been reported where stickers with altered QR codes have been placed on event posters at a venue or in other public places. When the person accesses the fraudulent QR code to purchase event tickets, the criminal captures the payment card information then uses that information to make fraudulent purchases. Meanwhile, the victim shows up at the event and is told their ticket confirmation is invalid.

The same defensive measures used to spot phishing, smishing, and vishing attacks should be used to guard against quishing attacks. Be wary of messages from unknown sources, especially if they offer an incentive or convey a sense of urgency. Always be suspicious of any request for you to "confirm" your account credentials. Keeping a solid defensive position will help keep you safe from these attacks.

April 18, 2022

Smishing: Phishing with a Different Bait

The Retail Payments Risk Forum team is always on the lookout for changes in attack patterns by the criminal element regarding payments. Our sources of research include industry news, networking with payments stakeholders, third-party reports, and our internal security warnings. One other source we have is our own personal experience, though we have to remind ourselves of our colleague Claire Greene's warning that each of us is a sample of one. What we experience may not be, and probably isn't, what the average person might encounter.

I was recently reminded of this warning with regard to my own experience with smishing attacks. Unlike phishing, which uses email, smishing uses SMS text messages to entice you to click on a malicious link that either loads malware on your phone or, more likely, directs you to a fake website to capture your login information. (Simply opening the text message poses little risk.) Over the last several weeks, I have been getting one to two text messages a day on my phone asking me to click on a link to respond—usually to a customer satisfaction survey allegedly from a major retailer, with the offer of a gift card as a reward for responding. One message informed me that a product I had ordered (and already received) from an online retailer couldn't be shipped until I clicked on the link to pay an international tax of $2.83. I am confident that all these messages were "smishing" attempts.

Although a part of me was tempted to assume my experience was indicative of a very recent trend, I decided to research whether I was indeed average in experiencing an increased number of these attacks. It appears Claire was right—although my research showed that smishing attacks have substantially increased, seems I am fortunate to have only recently become a target. A cybersecurity firm that claims to handle 80 percent of mobile messages in North America has reportedOff-site link that the number of smishing attacks during the third quarter of 2020 had increased 328 percent over the previous quarter. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) doesn't separate smishing from phishing, vishing (phone calls), or pharming (redirection to a fake website) incidents, but the IC3's Internet Crime Report 2021 Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link shows that these complaints increased 34 percent from 2020 to 2021.

The warning signs for a smishing message are quite similar to those of a phishing attack and may include the following:

  • A sense of urgency, pushing you to respond right away. As we are now in income tax season, these messages may include references to past due taxes or a suspended refund.
  • An offer of a reward such as a gift card, rebate, or a coupon for a future purchase from the retailer
  • Poor English grammar or improperly formatted phone numbers
  • An unknown sender. It is best to report or delete messages you weren't expecting from people you don't know.

Be aware that what appears to be the sender's phone number is often spoofed. It may be a familiar number or at least may have a local area code. This is intended to increase your trust and thus the likelihood that you will respond.

Likewise, the protective measures you should take to protect yourself against falling victim to a smishing attempt are similar to any other safeguards you take:

  • Keep your mobile device software and browsers updated with the latest security upgrades.
  • If you are in doubt about the legitimacy of the message, do not use the link or phone number provided in the text to contact the sender. If the message appears to be from someone you know or a business you are familiar with, find their number in your contacts or online and contact them directly.

I realize that the criminals launching these types of attacks are generally using automated systems to transmit hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the messages in hopes of getting even just a small percentage of recipients to click on the link. So even if you are like me and not average, there is a good chance you have been or are likely to be the target of a smishing attack. I hope you will use information to not become a victim, and distribute it to help keep others from falling victim.

February 28, 2022

5G and 3DS: A Perfect Pair?

Not that long ago, when you heard the term "5G," you would probably mentally translate it to "five grand" or "five thousand dollars." Today, 5G refers to the fifth generation of mobile network wireless communications technology. Network operators promise that 5G technology will deliver much faster data transmission speeds, lower latency, and greater signal reliability, which consumers may not truly realize on the mobile front for several years as operators upgrade their cell tower networks. But are there benefits on the payments side we're likely to see?

My colleague Doug King first raised this question in a Take On Payments post in September 2018, when the industry thought 5G was on the cusp of becoming a reality. While the pandemic and regulatory concerns about security and safety have slowed implementation, it is now underway.

We have also previously written about the evolution of 3DS (short for "three-domain secure"), which was developed in 2000 to improve the authentication of a legitimate consumer's payment transaction with a merchant. The first version of 3DS was unsuccessful in the United States for a variety of reasons centered on poor consumer experiences that resulted in high shopping cart abandonment rates. However, as the share of digital transactions of overall retail sales continued to grow, the payments industry knew that new tools were needed to combat increasing fraud.

Recognizing that the 3DS process needed an overhaul to meet consumer, issuer, and merchant requirements, EMVCo released EMV 3DS 2.0 specifications video fileOff-site link in 2016. While this version results in a more complex transaction and was slow to gain traction in the marketplace until recently, its strength relies on the merchant's ability to send additional data to the payment card issuer. This additional information includes transaction, method of payment, and payment device information and is intended to help the issuer to run fraud mitigation tools more effectively, better detecting the fraudulent transactions and not denying the legitimate ones. The issuer, if still concerned about a transaction's legitimacy, can perform stepped-up authorization with the customer, including out-of-band confirmations. An out-of-band confirmation is authentication occurring on a different channel than the one initiating the transaction, such as when a banking app sends an email or text with a password the customer must enter in the app to carry out the transaction. A recent reportOff-site link indicates that 10 percent or less of transactions require this stepped-up authorization, and merchant adoption increased 50 percent during Q4 2021 compared to Q4 2020.

So how will 5G and 3DS work together? Transmitting and handling payment authorization messages with the additional data the EMV 3DS 2.0 specifications require can increase transaction time. Slow response time (latency) is a major factor in a consumer abandoning a shopping cart and the merchant losing a sale. The mobile network benefits of 5G will be realized over time, but many operators have already begun to support local 5G networks for small to mid-sized businesses requiring fast data speeds.

Such networks will allow these businesses to handle the additional message data, as well as additional payment devices, while providing better service levels. While the GSMAOff-site link (Global Systems for Mobile Communications Association) estimates it will take until 2025 before half of the mobile communications in North America will be on a 5G network, the uptake in the United States is expected to be faster.

I believe that the further adoption of EMV 3DS will be enhanced with the continued implementation of 5G technology in the United States. We will continue to monitor both technologies as well as when their expected benefits start to come about.