How Is the Ongoing DDoS Extortion Campaign Impacting the Financial Sector?

The financial services sector has experienced a wave of organised DDoS attacks focused on extorting firms by denying access to their essential systems.

Philippe Alcoy, Security Technologies for NETSCOUT, describes the cybersecurity threat facing the financial services sector, the damage it has done and how it can best be safeguarded against.

In 2020, for the first time in history, the annual number of Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks exceeded 10 million. These attacks took place at greater frequency, speed, and strength, enabling attackers to knock out their targets faster than ever before. Now, NETSCOUT is seeing threat actors re-targeting companies who were previously able to prevent being attacked, focusing particularly on the finance industry.

Before looking at DDoS attacks in relation to the financial sector, it is important to understand what a DDoS attack is. DDoS attacks can be described as malicious attempts to make online services unavailable, which is achieved by overwhelming the service with traffic from multiple systems. The industries targeted by these attacks are wide-ranging, from telecommunications and eCommerce to finance and healthcare.

In 2020, the financial sector emerged as a prime target for cybercriminals. NETSCOUT observed that there were more DDoS attacks against the finance industry in the month of June than there were from January to May 2020. In fact, from June to August 2020, there were more attacks against the industry in this period than were seen in total between April 2016 and May 2020. There was also an increase in the speed of attacks that were taking place against the financial sector, with the total throughput of attacks increasing by roughly 4.5 times worldwide.

DDoS extortion campaign

This campaign of DDoS attacks targeting the finance industry was taking place worldwide, with banks, exchanges and other financial services organisations all being hit. But there was something unusual about these DDoS attacks: they were part of an extortion campaign. This involves extortionists demanding a payment via Bitcoin within a specified amount of time prior to or following a demonstration DDoS attack. In most scenarios, when the demands of the attackers aren’t met, the ensuing attack that was threatened does not end up taking place.

In 2020, for the first time in history, the annual number of Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks exceeded 10 million.

More recently however, NETSCOUT has discovered that the same attackers are returning to previous targets. The organisations that were successfully able to mitigate the first DDoS extortion attack are now being retargeted in follow-on attacks, months after the original attacks took place.

The impact of the campaign

The financial sector is a prime focus for this DDoS extortion series and the more recent retargeting campaign because they are perceived to have access to large amounts of money, as well as vast swathes of private data, making them an obvious target for those behind the campaign.

It should be noted that the attackers claim to be part of well-known attack groups, such as ‘Lazarus Group’, ‘Fancy Bear’, and ‘Armada Collective’ to try and boost their credibility and scare their targets into paying up. As such, NETSCOUT has given the attackers the nickname ‘Lazarus Bear Armada’ (LBA).

Unlike other threat actors, these LBA attackers have carried out extensive research into identifying the appropriate email inboxes that are regularly checked and used, to make sure their threats are read by the right people. The increased accuracy of the extortion emails has the potential to cause serious damage to those in the financial sector. It has the capability to disrupt a large number of services used by finance organisations, from online banking platforms and website access to internal systems that help the organisations to operate and fulfil the needs of customers.

A DDoS extortion campaign can lead to institutions losing a large amount of money, even without a ransom being paid, because the initial demonstration DDoS attack results in downtime for part of the company.

An indirect consequence of a DDoS extortion attack is the reputational damage that it can cause. For example, when financial organisations are hit by a DDoS attack, customers may be unable to access their money and financial information, and may feel put off or let down by the organisation not having the appropriate DDoS countermeasures in place.

In order to mitigate the risk posed by DDoS extortion campaigns, financial services organisations must have a solid plan of action in place. It is vital that when organisations are attacked, they know who to contact and notify. This should include key stakeholders, security providers and local regulators. Financial institutions should also learn from previous DDoS extortion campaigns that targeted the industry. For example, there are clear similarities between the DD4BC series of attacks that took place from 2014-2016, and the current extortion campaign, with both targeting the financial sector.

While a DDoS extortion attack can be devastating for those organisations in the financial services sector, providing they have the right protection and plan of action in place, the damage caused by the attack can be kept to a minimum.

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