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Modern Bank Heists 5.0: The Escalation from Dwell to Destruction

By Tom Kellermann, VMware

April 25, 2022

There has been a fundamental restructuring of cybercrime cartels thanks to a booming dark web economy of scale. Powerful cybercriminal groups now operate like multinational corporations and are relied upon by traditional crime syndicates to carry out illegal activities such as extortion and money laundering. Cybercrime cartels are more organized than ever before and enjoy greater protection and resources from the nation-states that view them as national assets.1

With this ground truth serving as the backdrop for the threats facing financial institutions, I interviewed 130 financial security leaders and CISOs from around the world for the fifth edition of the Modern Bank Heists report. This year’s findings should serve as a warning to the financial sector that attackers are moving from dwell to destruction.

Geopolitical Tension Is Metastasizing in Cyberspace

Cybercriminals targeting the financial sector often escalate their destructive attacks in order to burn evidence as part of their counter incident response. Our report found that 63% of financial institutions experienced an increase in destructive attacks, a 17% increase from last year. Destructive attacks are launched punitively to destroy, disrupt, or degrade victim systems by taking actions such as encrypting files, deleting data, destroying hard drives, terminating connections, or executing malicious code. In fact, we’ve recently witnessed destructive malware like HermeticWiper being launched following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Notably, the majority of financial leaders I spoke to for this report stated that Russia posed the greatest concern to their institution.

The Year of the RAT

Financial institutions were certainly not immune to the recent resurgence of ransomware. 74% of financial security leaders experienced one or more ransomware attacks in the past year, and 63% of those victims paid the ransom. This is a staggering statistic.

One of the reasons that traditional crime syndicates have become loyal dark web customers is because of the well-funded ecosystem of readymade and available ransomware kits. Cybercrime cartels, such as the Conti ransomware gang, have made it as easy as possible for their associates to launch ransomware attacks on critical industries like the financial sector.

A technical analysis in the VMware Threat Analysis Unit’s latest threat report provides a view into the proliferation of ransomware and how Remote Access Tools (RATs) help adversaries gain control of systems. Ransomware has a sinister relationship with these RATs, given these tools allow bad actors to persist within the environment and establish a staging server that can be used to target additional systems. Once an adversary has gained this limited access, they will typically work to monetize it by relying on the victim’s data for extortion (including double and triple extortion) or through stealing resources from cloud services using cryptojacking attacks.

Manipulation of Financial Markets

Cybercrime cartels have realized that the most significant asset of a financial institution is nonpublic market information. 2 out of 3 (66 percent) of the leaders I interviewed experienced attacks that targeted market strategies, and 1 in 4 (25 percent) stated that market data was the primary target for cyberattacks on their financial institution.

What exactly are these cybercrime cartels looking for? We’re witnessing an evolution from bank heist to economic espionage, where cybercriminals target corporate information or strategies that can affect the share price of a company as soon as it becomes public. This information can then be used to digitize insider trading and front-run the market. Our report also found that 44% of Chronos attacks targeted market positions. A Chronos attack involves the manipulation of time stamps – a concerning development considering how critical of a role the clock plays in the markets.

Defense Is the Best Offense

Security has become a top-of-mind issue for financial sector leaders. According to our report findings, the majority of financial institutions plan to increase their security budget by 20-30% this year and named extended detection and response (XDR) as their top security investment priority.

As security leaders, we know that a strong defense is the best offense. Modern threat hunting on a weekly basis should be adopted as a best practice to help security teams detect behavioral anomalies, as adversaries can maintain clandestine persistence in an organization’s system. Our report found that currently, only 51% of financial institutions are conducting weekly threat hunts. I am hopeful that this number will jump in next year’s report as threat hunting programs have multiple outputs beyond finding a cybercriminal, such as fueling threat intelligence.

In today’s evolving threat landscape, cybersecurity has become a brand protection imperative. Trust and confidence in the safety of financial institutions depends on effectively avoiding, mitigating, and responding to modern cyber threats

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