Vishnu Prasad
April 9, 2024

9 Most Critical Security Threats in the Finance Industry

The world of finance:

Transactions worth billions of dollars in the blink of an eye.

Vast sums of money and sensitive data are constantly in flux.

Security structures are built not just to safeguard money, but to protect the very trust that keeps the global financial system intact. Yet, as cybersecurity professionals are acutely aware, these security structures are always in constant attack.

The question isn't if an attack will happen, but when, how, and whether we'll be ready for it.

Table of Contents

Threat #1: Phishing Attacks

Threat 2: Ransomware

Threat 3: Insider Threats

Threat 4: DDoS Attacks

Threat 5: Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

Threat 6: Mobile Banking Threats

Threat 7: Third-Party Service Vulnerabilities

Threat 8: Data Breaches

Threat 9: Cloud Security Threats

The finance sector is under cyber attack!

Threat #1: Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks are designed to deceive individuals into revealing sensitive information, such as banking credentials, credit card numbers, and personal identification details. The method? Deceptively simple yet alarmingly effective: sending emails or messages that pretends to be legitimate communication from financial institutions or trusted entities.

The finance sector, with its database full of financial data and money flows, is a favorite target for phishing attacks. Cybercriminals use various tactics, such as posing as bank officials or financial service providers, to attract individuals into clicking on malicious links or attachments. Once clicked, these links can lead to fake websites designed to harvest login credentials or install malware on the victim's device.

The consequences of these attacks extend far beyond individual financial losses. They can damage the trust in financial institutions, lead to regulatory penalties for data breaches, and even disrupt the stability of financial markets if large-scale attacks are successful.

Here are some detailed real-world examples of phishing attacks within the finance sector:

The Nordea Bank Incident (2007)

  • What happened: Hackers used phishing emails to infect customer computers with a Trojan horse to capture customer login details.
  • Consequences: Losses amounted to approximately 1.1 million euros.
  • Individuals compromised: Over 250 customers were affected.

Operation Phish Phry (2009)

  • What happened: One of the largest cyber fraud phishing schemes ever conducted that targeted U.S. bank accounts, involving Egyptian hackers.
  • Consequences: The operation led to the arrest of nearly 100 people in the U.S. and Egypt.
  • Individuals compromised: Hundreds of U.S. bank account holders were affected.

RSA Security Breach (2011)

  • What happened: A spear-phishing attack targeted RSA employees that led to the theft of information related to RSA's SecurID two-factor authentication products.
  • Consequences: The attack had significant implications for RSA and its customers, including major defense contractors and government agencies, although the exact financial loss was not disclosed.
  • Individuals compromised: Specific numbers were not disclosed, but the breach had widespread implications for RSA's global customer base.

Dyre Phishing Scam (2014)

  • What happened: Attackers used the Dyre malware to target customers of over 1,000 banks and financial institutions worldwide.
  • Consequences: Losses were in the tens of millions of dollars.
  • Individuals compromised: Thousands of banking customers worldwide.

Bangladesh Bank Heist (2016)

  • What happened: Hackers used phishing emails to install malware on the Bangladesh central bank's computer systems that allowed them to send fraudulent messages via the SWIFT banking network.
  • Consequences: The attackers successfully stole $81 million from the Bangladesh Bank's account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  • Individuals compromised: The attack targeted the central bank of Bangladesh, which affected the national financial system.

Threat 2: Ransomware

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts a victim's files or locks them out of their system and then demands a ransom payment for the decryption key or release of the system. For financial institutions, the impact of ransomware can be particularly devastating. Not only can it lead to substantial financial losses from the ransom payments themselves, but it can also result in operational disruptions, loss of sensitive customer data, regulatory fines, and long-term reputational damage.

Strategies for prevention and mitigation of ransomware attacks on financial institutions include:

  • Make sure that all critical data is backed up regularly and that backups are stored securely, preferably offsite or in a cloud environment that is not directly connected to the main network.
  • Conduct regular training sessions for employees to recognize phishing emails and other common vectors for ransomware attacks. Educated employees are the first line of defense against cyber threats.
  • Maintain up-to-date antivirus and anti-malware software and make sure that all systems and software are patched regularly to protect against known vulnerabilities.
  • Implement strict access controls and use the principle of least privilege, ensuring that employees only have access to the information and resources necessary for their roles.
  • Develop and regularly update an incident response plan that includes procedures for responding to ransomware attacks. This plan should include steps for isolating infected systems, communicating with stakeholders, and restoring data from backups.
  • Divide the network into segments to prevent the spread of ransomware. If one segment is compromised, it's more difficult for the malware to infect other parts of the network.
  • Participate in industry and government cybersecurity information sharing programs to stay informed about the latest ransomware threats and best practices for defense.

Threat 3: Insider Threats

Insider threats can come from employees, contractors, or anyone else who has inside access to the system and sensitive information. Unlike external threats that attack from the outside, insider threats have legitimate access which they misuse that makes these threats particularly challenging to detect and prevent.

The role of internal actors in security breaches can vary from unintentional actions, such as an employee falling for a phishing scam, to malicious activities where an insider intentionally steals or compromises data. The motivations behind their actions can range from financial gain to personal grudges or even espionage.

To detect and prevent insider threats, financial institutions can implement several measures:

  • Deploy User Behavior Analytics (UBA) tools to monitor and analyze user behavior for any unusual or suspicious activities that deviate from their normal behavior patterns. 
  • Implement strict access controls and privilege management policies to ensure that employees have only the access necessary for their job functions.
  • Conduct regular audits of the system and data access logs to identify any unauthorized or suspicious access patterns. Continuous monitoring can help in quickly detecting and responding to insider threats.
  • Educate employees about the risks of insider threats and encourage them to follow best practices for data security. Promoting a culture of security awareness can help in preventing unintentional insider threats.
  • Establish a formal insider threat program that includes policies, procedures, and a dedicated team responsible for managing insider threat risks.
  • Implement physical security measures to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive areas and ensure that sensitive information is securely stored and disposed of.

Threat 4: DDoS Attacks

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are a formidable threat in the digital age, particularly for the finance sector. These attacks involve overwhelming a target's network, server, or website with a flood of internet traffic far beyond what the system can handle. This surge is usually generated from a network of compromised computers and devices, known as a botnet, which makes it challenging to stop the attack by blocking a single source.

For financial services, the potential havoc caused by DDoS attacks is not just about temporary service disruption. Here's a closer look at the impact:

  • The most immediate effect of a DDoS attack is the downtime of online services. For financial institutions, this means disrupted online banking, trading platforms, and payment gateways, directly affecting customer transactions and access to financial services.
  • In an industry built on trust, any hint of vulnerability can be damaging. Downtime and service disruptions can erode customer confidence, which can lead to a loss of clients and a tarnished brand image.
  • Beyond the ransom that attackers might demand to stop the attack, financial institutions face revenue losses from discontinued operations. There's also the cost of mitigating the attack and potential regulatory fines for failing to protect customer data.
  • Responding to a DDoS attack can significantly impact organizational resources, which diverts attention from other critical operations and potentially leaves the institution vulnerable to other types of cyber threats.

Threat 5: Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) represent a complex form of cyberattack where an unauthorized user gains access to a network and remains undetected for a long period. The term persistent is key here; these attackers are in it for the long haul, often targeting high-value targets like financial institutions to steal sensitive data or monitor internal activities for strategic purposes. APTs are typically state-sponsored or executed by highly organized criminal groups, which makes them sophisticated and challenging to defend against.

The long-term dangers of APTs in the finance sector are very dangerous. They are designed to be stealthy to remain undetected for as long as possible to continuously gather valuable information or access financial assets. Over time, this can lead to significant financial losses, erosion of customer trust, regulatory penalties, and even destabilization of financial markets.

High-profile cases within the finance industry have underscored the severity of APTs:

  • The Carbanak Gang: Starting in 2013, this group used APT tactics to infiltrate over 100 financial institutions worldwide, which led to losses estimated at over $1 billion. They used a range of tactics, from spear-phishing to malware and network exploitation to siphon off funds.
  • SWIFT Banking Attacks: In a series of incidents culminating in the 2016 Bangladesh Bank heist, attackers used APT methods to compromise the SWIFT banking network and stole $81 million. These attacks targeted the banks' internal networks and exploited vulnerabilities to issue unauthorized SWIFT transactions.
  • Metamorfo Campaigns: This APT group targeted financial institutions primarily in Brazil with malware to steal credentials and sensitive data. Their tactics included phishing emails and exploiting banking software vulnerabilities.

Threat 6: Mobile Banking Threats

The rise of mobile banking has changed the way we manage our finances with its unprecedented convenience and accessibility. However, this digital leap forward comes with its own set of vulnerabilities. Mobile banking threats are a growing concern, with cybercriminals exploiting a range of tactics to gain unauthorized access to user's financial information and funds.

Associated vulnerabilities with mobile banking include:

  • Phishing attacks. Cybercriminals use fake emails, texts, and websites to impersonate legitimate banking institutions to trick users into revealing their personal and banking information.
  • Trojan attacks. Malicious software disguised as legitimate apps can infect mobile devices and let attackers steal banking credentials and other sensitive data.
  • Unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Using mobile banking on unsecured public Wi-Fi networks can expose users to eavesdropping and data interception by hackers.
  • Fake banking apps. Fraudulent mobile apps designed to mimic legitimate banking apps can trick users into downloading them.
  • Man-in-the-Middle (MiTM) attacks. Attackers intercept the communication between the user's device and the banking server to steal or manipulate data.

Threat 7: Third-Party Service Vulnerabilities

The dependence on third-party vendors and software for different operational needs is a double-edged sword. While these services can offer efficiency, innovation, and cost savings, they also introduce a range of risks, particularly in cybersecurity. Third-party service vulnerabilities can serve as a backdoor for cybercriminals to access sensitive financial data and systems.

To manage third-party risks effectively, financial institutions can adopt the following best practices:

  • Conduct thorough due diligence before engaging with any third-party vendor. Assess their security policies, compliance with relevant regulations, and track record in handling data securely.
  • Enforce continuous monitoring of third-party vendors to ensure they maintain the required security standards, such as regular audits, security assessments, and reviews.
  • Make sure that contracts with third-party vendors include clear terms regarding data protection, incident response, and compliance with industry regulations. Include the right to audit and stipulate immediate notification requirements in the event of a security breach.
  • Limit the access of third-party vendors to only what is necessary for them to fulfill their contractual obligations. Use the principle of least privilege to minimize potential exposure.
  • Develop and maintain an incident response plan that includes procedures for managing security incidents involving third-party vendors. It should outline roles, responsibilities, and communication strategies in the event of a breach.
  • Establish a comprehensive vendor risk management program that involves all stages of the vendor lifecycle, from selection and onboarding to ongoing management and offboarding.

Threat 8: Data Breaches

Data breaches are particularly alarming because of the sensitive nature of the information involved. When financial institutions suffer a data breach, the implications can be devastating. Not only can these incidents lead to substantial financial losses, but they also erode customer trust, damage the institution's reputation, and attract regulatory penalties. The information compromised in these breaches often includes personal identification details, account numbers, passwords, and transaction histories that make affected individuals vulnerable to identity theft and financial fraud.

To safeguard sensitive financial data and mitigate the risks associated with data breaches, financial institutions can adopt the following strategies:

  • Encrypt sensitive data both at rest and in transit to ensure that even if data is intercepted or accessed by unauthorized individuals, it remains unreadable and useless to them.
  • Implement strict access controls and use the principle of least privilege to make sure that employees and third parties have access only to the data necessary for their specific roles.
  • Conduct regular security audits and vulnerability assessments to identify and address potential weaknesses in the system before they can be exploited by attackers.
  • Require Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) for accessing sensitive systems and data. This adds an additional layer of security beyond just passwords which makes unauthorized access more difficult.
  • Develop and maintain a comprehensive incident response plan that outlines the steps to be taken in the event of a data breach, including how to contain the breach, assess its impact, notify affected parties, and restore services.
  • Keep all systems and software up to date with the latest security patches to protect against known vulnerabilities.
  • Collect and retain only the data that is absolutely necessary for business operations to reduce the potential impact of a data breach.
  • Conduct extensive due diligence on all third-party vendors and continuously monitor their compliance with security standards to mitigate risks associated with third-party service vulnerabilities.

Threat 9: Cloud Security Threats

The finance sector's shift towards cloud computing has brought about significant benefits, including scalability, flexibility, and cost-efficiency. However, this transition also introduces a range of security challenges. Cloud environments can be complex and dynamic, making traditional security approaches less effective and increasing the risk of data breaches, unauthorized access, and compliance violations.

Cloud security threats in the finance sector often stem from:

  • Improper setup of cloud services can leave systems vulnerable to attacks.
  • The shared responsibility model of cloud services can lead to ambiguity about who is responsible for securing what.
  • Inadequate control over who has access to cloud-based resources can lead to unauthorized access.
  • Ensuring data privacy and meeting regulatory compliance requirements become more challenging in a cloud environment.

The finance sector is under cyber attack!

The stakes are incredibly high. It's not just financial assets at risk but also customer trust and the very reputation of these financial institutions. Because of that, it's important that organizations within the finance sector recognize the sophistication and persistence of cyber threats and respond with equally sophisticated and dynamic defense strategies.

Specializing in application security, we45 offers tailored solutions that address the unique challenges faced by the finance sector to help institutions safeguard their critical assets against the ever-present threat of cyberattacks. For more information on how we45 can enhance your cybersecurity posture, visit our main website.