Driftnetting – the new threat vector

Phishing, spearphishing, whaling are all nautical terms that have been created or adopted by the information security industry. The AFP has coined a new term.

Driftnetting, according to the AFP’s Scott Mellis, is being employed by hackers intent on stealing funds by exploiting system vulnerabilities and normal business processes.

Here’s how it works.

Most people receive their salary either weekly or fortnightly. Often there’s an automatic process that processes employee salaries using data from the company HR system. Hackers rely on this regularity as it allows them to remain distant from the actual theft.

By exploiting some weakness in the HR system, stealing an employee’s credentials or hacking an account the adversary logs into the HR system. In order to escape detection, they’ll often do this during normal business hours so the log in looks like a normal activity.

Importantly, the bad actors also avoid doing this to HR staff who might notice their own accounts being accessed.

Once they log in to the employee’s account, they simply change the payment information to another bank account – often established by a mule who collects the money and then transfers it to the actual thief. Typically, several mules are used so there’s no single point of failure in the process if multiple accounts are accessed within one organisation or pay run.

Then the hacker sits back and waits for the normal weekly or fortnightly payroll process to run.

In other words, they use the falsified account information as a net to catch the money as it flows past through the normal tide of the payroll process.

For companies that fall victim to driftnetting, the first sign of detection is usually “employee rebellion” says Mellis. Once staff realise their regular pay hasn’t been deposited they call HR. By the time an investigation reveals what has happened the money is likely to have been moved from the mule accounts to the hackers.

Mellis describes these as “set and forget attacks” where the hacker makes the changes and waits for the natural process to perform.

A side effect of access to the HR system is that other personal information was accessed by the hackers. For example, they would have access to Tax File Numbers that was then used to submit false tax returns.

Mellis says “There was enough information extracted from these platforms for criminals to lodge a tax return. If they’d been successful it was likely they could submit a falsified return before the affected party realised”.

Fortunately, the ATO was able to detect these attempts but Mellis says there is an emerging trend in other jurisdictions around the world to lodge false tax returns as more and more systems go online.

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Tags hackersattacksdriftnettingIT SecurityAFPtheftphishingpayrollHR systemswhalingtfnspear phishingATO

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