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Scammer groups are exploiting Gmail ‘dot accounts’ for online fraud

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Image: Agari // Composition: ZDNet

Cyber-criminal groups are exploiting a Gmail feature to file for fraudulent unemployment benefits, file fake tax returns, and bypass trial periods for online services.

The trick is an old one and has been used in the past. It refers to Gmail’s “dot accounts,” a feature of Gmail addresses that ignores dot characters inside Gmail usernames, regardless of their placement.

For example, Google considers john.doe@gmail.com, jo.hn.doe@gmail.com, and johndoe@gmail.com as the same Gmail address.

Regular users have been using this feature for years to to register free trial accounts at online services using the same email address, but spelled out in different ways.

More recently, a scammer group learned to use dotted Gmail accounts to trick Netflix account owners into adding card details to scammers’ accounts –registered with the user’s dotted Gmail address.

The legitimate “update your card details” Netflix email would arrive in the real user’s inbox, who’d later update the scammer’s account without knowing.

The reason why this trick works is because “dotted” Gmail address alternatives are a pure-Gmail feature, not found with many online email providers. Online websites like Netflix, Amazon,eBay, and government portals, treat each dotted email address as a different account, which provides a breeding ground for all sorts of problems.

In a report published today, the team at email security firm Agari says it saw criminal groups use dotted Gmail addresses in many more places all last year.

In an example included in their report, Agari said it saw one group in particular use 56 “dotted” variations of a Gmail address to:

  • Submit 48 credit card applications at four US-based financial institutions, resulting in the approval of at least $65,000 in fraudulent credit
  • Register for 14 trial accounts with a commercial sales leads service to collect targeting data for BEC attacks
  • File 13 fraudulent tax returns with an online tax filing service
  • Submit 12 change of address requests with the US Postal Service
  • Submit 11 fraudulent Social Security benefit applications
  • Apply for unemployment benefits under nine identities in a large US state
  • Submit applications for FEMA disaster assistance under three identities

“We’ve seen multiple groups use the technique, but the article is just an example from one of those groups,” Crane Hassold, Senior Director of Threat Research at Agari told ZDNet today.

“In essence, this allows cybercriminals to centralize their fraudulent activity within a single Gmail account, rather than having to monitor a bunch of different accounts, increasing the efficiency of their operations,” Hassold said.

Gmail address “features” are ripe for abuse

But besides the dot character, Gmail also has two other features that scammers could potentially similarly abuse in the future.

The first is the plus sign. For example, a Gmail address like username+randomword@gmail.com will always redirect emails back to username@gmail.com.

The second is the legacy @googlemail.com domain. All emails addressed to username@googlemail.com will always arrive at username@gmail.com.

Hassold told ZDNet that none of these two additional techniques have been spotted in the wild, just yet. However, they are just as efficient as the “dotted” Gmail addresses and could provide scammers with even more alternative email addresses they could use for abuse, fraud, or to gain access to unwarranted benefits.

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Cloud Data Security

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Data security has become an immutable part of the technology stack for modern applications. Protecting application assets and data against cybercriminal activities, insider threats, and basic human negligence is no longer an afterthought. It must be addressed early and often, both in the application development cycle and the data analytics stack.

The requirements have grown well beyond the simplistic features provided by data platforms, and as a result a competitive industry has emerged to address the security layer. The capabilities of this layer must be more than thorough, they must also be usable and streamlined, adding a minimum of overhead to existing processes.

To measure the policy management burden, we designed a reproducible test that included a standardized, publicly available dataset and a number of access control policy management scenarios based on real world use cases we have observed for cloud data workloads. We tested two options: Apache Ranger with Apache Atlas and Immuta. This study contrasts the differences between a largely role-based access control model with object tagging (OT-RBAC) to a pure attribute-based access control (ABAC) model using these respective technologies.

This study captures the time and effort involved in managing the ever-evolving access control policies at a modern data-driven enterprise. With this study, we show the impacts of data access control policy management in terms of:

  • Dynamic versus static
  • Scalability
  • Evolvability

In our scenarios, Ranger alone took 76x more policy changes than Immuta to accomplish the same data security objectives, while Ranger with Apache Atlas took 63x more policy changes. For our advanced use cases, Immuta only required one policy change each, while Ranger was not able to fulfill the data security requirement at all.

This study exposed the limitations of extending legacy Hadoop security components into cloud use cases. Apache Ranger uses static policies in an OT-RBAC model for the Hadoop ecosystem with very limited support for attributes. The difference between it and Immuta’s attribute-based access control model (ABAC) became clear. By leveraging dynamic variables, nested attributes, and global row-level policies and row-level security, Immuta can be quickly implemented and updated in comparison with Ranger.

Using Ranger as a data security mechanism creates a high policy-management burden compared to Immuta, as organizations migrate and expand cloud data use—which is shown here to provide scalability, clarity, and evolvability in a complex enterprise’s data security and governance needs.

The chart in Figure 1 reveals the difference in cumulative policy changes required for each platform configuration.

Figure 1. Difference in Cumulative Policy Changes

The assessment and scoring rubric and methodology is detailed in the report. We leave the issue of fairness for the reader to determine. We strongly encourage you, as the reader, to discern for yourself what is of value. We hope this report is informative and helpful in uncovering some of the challenges and nuances of data governance platform selection. You are encouraged to compile your own representative use cases and workflows and review these platforms in a way that is applicable to your requirements.

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GigaOm Radar for Data Loss Prevention

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Data is at the core of modern business: It is our intellectual property, the lifeblood of our interactions with our employees, partners, and customers, and a true business asset. But in a world of increasingly distributed workforces, a growing threat from cybercriminals and bad actors, and ever more stringent regulation, our data is at risk and the impact of losing it, or losing access to it, can be catastrophic.

With this in mind, ensuring a strong data management and security strategy must be high on the agenda of any modern enterprise. Security of our data has to be a primary concern. Ensuring we know how, why, and where our data is used is crucial, as is the need to be sure that data does not leave the organization without appropriate checks and balances.

Keeping ahead of this challenge and mitigating the risk requires a multi-faceted approach. People and processes are key, as, of course, is technology in any data loss prevention (DLP) strategy.

This has led to a reevaluation of both technology and approach to DLP; a recognition that we must evolve an approach that is holistic, intelligent, and able to apply context to our data usage. DLP must form part of a broader risk management strategy.

Within this report, we evaluate the leading vendors who are offering solutions that can form part of your DLP strategy—tools that understand data as well as evaluate insider risk to help mitigate the threat of data loss. This report aims to give enterprise decision-makers an overview of how these offerings can be a part of a wider data security approach.

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Key Criteria for Evaluating Data Loss Prevention Platforms

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Data is a crucial asset for modern businesses and has to be protected in the same way as any other corporate asset, with diligence and care. Loss of data can have catastrophic effects, from reputational damage to significant fines for breaking increasingly stringent regulations.

While the risk of data loss is not new, the landscape we operate in is evolving rapidly. Data can leave data centers in many ways, whether accidental or malicious. The routes for exfiltration also continue to grow, ranging from email, USB sticks, and laptops to ever-more-widely-adopted cloud applications, collaboration tools, and mobile devices. This is driving a resurgence in the enterprise’s need to ensure that no data leaves the organization without appropriate checks and balances in place.

Keeping ahead of this challenge and mitigating the risk requires a multi-faceted approach. Policy, people, and technology are critical components in a data loss prevention (DLP) strategy.

As with any information security strategy, technology plays a significant role. DLP technology has traditionally played a part in helping organizations to mitigate some of the risks of uncontrolled data exfiltration. However, both the technology and threat landscape have shifted significantly, which has led to a reevaluation of DLP tools and strategy.

The modern approach to the challenge needs to be holistic and intelligent, capable of applying context to data usage by building a broader understanding of what the data is, who is using it, and why. Systems in place must also be able to learn when user activity should be classified as unusual so they can better interpret signs of a potential breach.

This advanced approach is also driving new ways of defining the discipline of data loss prevention. Dealing with these risks cannot be viewed in isolation; rather, it must be part of a wider insider risk-management strategy.

Stopping the loss of data, accidental or otherwise, is no small task. This GigaOM Key Criteria Report details DLP solutions and identifies key criteria and evaluation metrics for selecting such a solution. The corresponding GigOm Radar Report identifies vendors and products in this sector that excel. Together, these reports will give decision-makers an overview of the market to help them evaluate existing platforms and decide where to invest.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:

Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Solution Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

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