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Cyber safety: New insights for countering threats

To maximise their cyber safety, businesses must learn to “drive defensively” in the face of ever mounting and evolving risks. Westpac experts highlighted critical actions to counter the most prevalent threats in a recent virtual forum.

By Cameron Cooper


The rising sophistication and frequency of cyber attacks is costing Australian businesses tens of billions of dollars a year.


Boards, CEOs and employees can take proven actions, however, to prevent or minimise the financial or reputational fallout from such incidents.


At a recent Westpac Institutional Bank virtual forum, titled Cyber Threats and Risk Resilience, two of the bank’s cybersecurity experts outlined the latest strategies to combat prevalent challenges such as business email compromise (BEC), whereby fraudsters use spoof emails to get victims to send funds to falsified accounts.


Westpac Head of Fraud Ben Young noted that small to mid-sized enterprises such as law firms, construction companies and property agencies are in scammers’ sights because they often process transactions involving significant financial outlays, or the transfer of valuable data. At the same time, they may not always be up to date on cyber-safety protocols.


“Most of these businesses have consumer-to-business payments, so while their accounts payable team may be aware of cyber risks, the average Joe is not – and if a client gets a scam email, they’ll take it on faith that it’s accurate,” Young says.


Stay alert

The forum follows the release of the Australian Cyber Security Centre’s Annual Cyber Threat Report 2020-21, which states that a cybercrime is being reported every eight minutes in Australia.


More than AUD 33 billion in financial losses were reported via the ACSC’s ReportCyber portal, with the top three problem areas being cybercrime involving fraud (about 23 per cent), shopping (about 17 per cent) and online banking (about 12 per cent).


During the reporting period, the ACSC issued 39 alerts and advisories to help combat urgent and critical threats. Nevertheless, most cybersecurity incidents it responded to in the 2020-21 financial-year period related to low-level malicious activity such as phishing and non-sensitive data loss.


To improve security, the ACSC advises measures such as being alert for phishing emails; understanding risks associated with social media and other online networks; and backing up important information to the cloud or an external hard drive.


Speaking at the forum, Simon Brown, Head of Cyber Strategy and Advice at Westpac, highlighted the challenges of ransomware and malware attacks that have increasingly tormented many businesses in recent times. Brown says simple errors such as employees clicking on unexpected attachments in emails and businesses operating unpatched systems can have debilitating impacts on an unprepared organisation.


“The call to action is for all of us to drive defensively. Don’t trust any system or any third party more than you need to in order to achieve your business goals,” he says.


To understand and improve their cyber resilience, Brown encourages organisations to consider five fundamental steps as a starting point:    


  1. Understand the critical business processes and technology upon which your business relies – for example, your general ledger, CRM software, email platforms and so on. After making that assessment, consider what else those systems are dependent on, for example, if the business has an internal corporate network, you should consider the Active Directory system or similar system that manages users’ passwords. Having this list of critical technology then helps you focus your resilience efforts.
  2. Make sure you have backups of key technologies and data – ransomware attackers want to seize control of your critical technology and then try to extort the business for its return. “If you have great independent or off-site backups, it gives you more options in the case of an attack,” Brown says.
  3. Make things harder for attackers by requiring two-factor authentication to verify the identity of users – start by deploying this key control mechanism on everything that provides access from the internet, including virtual private networks and remote desktop access but also key cloud systems like Office 365 and Google Apps (including administrator accounts).
  4. Build a habit and a process around patching every system, every time there’s an update. That’s particularly important for anything internet-facing. Make sure you’ve got someone in your organisation receiving and responding to alerts from the ACSC.
  5. Get an independent assessment of your attack surface – an external expert can identify network weaknesses. “It’s difficult to maintain a complete inventory of all your technology, so getting an independent party to have a look is invaluable to understand your environment from an attacker’s perspective,” Brown says.


Email hazards

The Westpac Institutional Bank forum highlighted the insidious nature of BEC, with Young pointing to three common crime types:


  • CEO impersonation – the criminals pose as the CEO or a senior executive and send emails to request money transfers to a fraudster’s account.
  • actual email compromise – where a cyber criminal hacks into emails of the business or a supplier to try to get a bogus payment processed.
  • salary redirection – where the hacker pretends to be an employee and tries to change a BSB and account number in an effort to divert payments.


Forum attendees were advised to be careful with the information and data they share online, and to pay attention to privacy settings. Creating strong, unique passwords for online accounts is also crucial, along with avoiding using the same password for social media, email or banking account services.


In addition, Young urges vigilance across a business in cases, for example, where there are requests from vendors, payroll processors, suppliers and customers for sudden changes to payment instructions.


He also suggests using callback practices to verify payment process changes via phone or outside of email to make sure you are still communicating with a legitimate business partner. “Callback on trusted numbers is the one thing you should do if you do nothing else,” he says.


Westpac on the front foot

To safeguard customers, Westpac has a team of fraud prevention experts who engage inaround-the-clock surveillance of clients’ accounts. They monitor about 25 million transactions daily as they seek to quell threats related to areas such as payment cards, merchant transactions and customer onboarding.


An increasing area of attention within banks relates to identity takeover crimes. Westpac and other financial institutions have successfully used Document Verification Service (DVS) checks to tackle synthetic-identity cases – a type of fraud where a criminal combines real and fake information to create a new identity.


The ongoing focus will be to target the ID theft of existing and onboarding customers using technology such as biometrics. “That’s the future for a lot of this onboarding and remote identification,” Young says.


At the same time, Westpac is urging businesses to educate their staff about cyber threats and to be vigilant. Young says it is important to quickly alert a bank if there is a suspicion that payments systems have been compromised, and to explicitly advise that a cyber fraud has occurred, rather than merely saying that a “mistaken payment” has been made.


“There is a separate protocol for mistaken payments and they’re not treated with the same level of urgency. And trust me, time is everything in this space,” he says.


Young believes many organisations have been too slow to embrace security measures such as PayID, an easy-to-remember identifier such as an ABN, mobile number or email address, that is linked to an eligible account.


Other measures such as penny credits and “waterproofing” of payments can also add additional layers of protection. The former involves depositing a small amount, even as low as 1c or 2c, into an account to quickly check its validity. The latter covers emails or SMSs that acknowledge changes or unusual activity on an account and ask users to confirm that any changes are valid.


“Waterproofing is pretty low-tech, but it can be quite effective in detecting some of those cases that you can’t detect yourself,” Young says.


To pay or not to pay?

In the Q&A section of the forum, one attendee asked the presenters to comment on what to do in the case of a ransomware attack.


Brown says the first action in such an instance should be to contact the ACSC to report that an attack has occurred. Containing the attack by turning off systems and enacting emergency responses with the assistance of internal IT teams or external specialists is often a valuable next step. Then the business should assess backups that are in place and consider the restoration of systems.


Organisations can make this easier by starting those assessments and making improvements now, before the attack. Ensuring that you’ve got great, independent backups in place and a runbook for how you would run your response to an incident are two key resilience improvements that you can start now.


For further information on how to avoid scams, visit Westpac’s Be Safe And Secure guide (PDF 2MB). If your business identifies a potential Westpac themed scam, email

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