September 11 came, it went and despite the FBI warning to credit unions to be ready for a bump in hostile activities on that anniversary date, multiple experts said they saw absolutely no traffic increase.
But they also had worrisome news: There has been a sharp rise in low-grade Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks aimed at financial institutions, often in association with attempted fraud, but sometimes apparently simply an angry act by a rejected loan applicant or a terminated employee.
First, the 9/11 news: “Nothing unusual happened on September 11. The reason there is nothing to report is that the volume is the same as the day before,” said Ashley Stephenson, CEO of Corero, a Hudson, Mass.-based DDoS mitigation firm. “Every day there are attacks.”
Chris Novak of the Verizon Risk Team said likewise: “We saw no spike in activity on 9/11.”
Rich Bolstridge, a DDoS expert with Cambridge, Mass-based network traffic firm Akamai, made it three: “We saw no increase in activity on September 11. We had expected to see activity. But it was very quiet.”
The big DDoS guns fired by al Qassam and other actors usually said to be connected to nation states in the Middle East may not have been out on 9/11, but the bad news is the jump in low-grade attacks that may be small compared to the giant attacks unleashed by al Qassam are plenty large enough to knock an unprepared credit union off line and, said the experts, most credit unions remain unprepared to adequately deflect DDoS assaults of just about any magnitude.
“We are surprised how naive CUs are about DDoS,” said Kirk Drake, CEO of Hagerstown, Md.-based CUSO Ongoing Operations. “They don’t realize how easy it has become for just about anyone to aim DDoS at a target.”
That is the rub, Terrence Gareau, principal research scientist for DDoS mitigation firm Prolexic in Hollywood, Fla., explained: “There is a very low barrier to entry for DDoS. We are talking $5 that will buy you 600 seconds of DDoS.”
That may only be 10 minutes, but the plunger who can come up with $50 could put a credit union down for an afternoon.
A chilling factoid via a report from Santa Clara, Calif.-based NSFOCUS, a DDoS mitigation firm: “Based on traffic analysis, there are 1.29 DDoS attacks occurring worldwide every two minutes, on average.”
The company added, “Most attacks are short and small. The report found that 93.2% of DDoS attacks were less than 30 minutes in duration and 80.1% did not surpass a traffic rate of 50 Mbps.” By contrast, the data throughput in al Qassam attacks has sometimes exceeded 45 Gbps, meaning it is vastly larger.
Van Abernethy, an NSFOCUS spokesperson, elaborated, “The main news – the press focuses on the big DDoS – but the reality is that unreported DDoS goes on all the time. There are a lot of small attacks.”
And then it gets worse still: “Small attacks are often accompanied by data exfiltration attempts, especially at financial institutions,” said Abernethy.
Verizon’s Novak agreed: “We are seeing where DDoS is used to distract a medium-size financial institution. While they are busy fighting off the DDoS. they don’t see that terabytes of data just walked out the door. That’s scary.”
A similar warning was issued a few weeks ago by respected Gartner analyst Avivah Litan who said she knew of three instances where DDoS was used to distract financial institution security as fraud was committed. She declined to offer specific details.
At CUNA Mutual, risk expert Ken Otsuka said that in the past year one loss associated with a DDoS attack had been filed. He also offered no specifics.
Add it up, however, and the situation is grim. DDoS as a service – available for hire by those with a grudge or with criminal intent – is increasingly available, it is cheap, and at least some providers happily accept Bitcoin, the virtual currency with some anonymity built in. Importantly, just about no technical skill is required, just a few dollars and a willingness to name a target.
On the credit union front, the sense among experts is that the largest institutions – perhaps the top 25 or 50 – may have credible DDoS mitigation tools in place. As for the many thousands of others, the collective opinion is that probably most are unprotected.
That could paint an attractive bull’s-eye for crooks. “There’s a trend where we see attacks going down market,” said Novak, “where the criminals are attacking smaller financial institutions because they don’t have the same defenses as the big banks.”