When I say the word ‘bat’, what image comes to mind? A flying mammal? A cricket bat?
In English, they call this a ‘homograph’: when two or more words are spelt the same but don’t have the same meanings or origins.
In cybersecurity, a homograph is a lot more sinister. It’s a term given to a type of impersonation attack where an email address or website URL looks legitimate but isn’t. It’s designed to trick people into clicking on malicious links or to fool them into transferring money or sharing sensitive information.
Recent research by Vanson Bourne and Mimecast found that more than 85% of respondents had seen impersonation fraud in the past 12 months, and 40% had seen an increase in this type of attack in the same period. In South Africa, 36% of respondents had seen an increase in impersonation fraud asking to make wire transactions, and 37% had seen an increase in impersonation fraud asking for confidential data.
Despite this growth, many organisations do not have a cyber resilience strategy in place to help them detect, prevent and recover from these types of attacks.
Easy to execute, hard to detect
Homograph attacks are difficult to detect – by both the user and regular email security systems.
To create these lookalike domains, attackers use non-Western character sets or special characters found in Greek, Cyrillic and Chinese, to display letters which, to the naked eye, look identical to the western alphabet. Mimecast.com, for example, looks like мімесаѕт.com in Cyrillic. According to one domain name checker, there are 117 possible Mimecast domains that can be misrepresented with just one character from a non-English alphabet.
These subtle changes are likely to go unnoticed by users. In South Africa, 31% of respondents were not confident that employees could spot and defend against impersonation attacks, which easily and often slip through an organisation’s security systems.
Some 21% of South African respondents were not confident that their organisation’s security defences could defend against impersonation fraud asking for confidential information, rising to 25% for fraud asking to make wire transactions – in line with global trends.
This is because the emails themselves don’t contain malware and the URLs often have legitimate (read: stolen) security certificates.
Is it me you’re looking for?
Website URLs aren’t the only avenues for impersonation attacks; email address impersonation is also on the rise.
These types of attacks are designed to trick users such as finance managers, executive assistants and HR representatives into transferring money or disclosing information that can be monetised by cybercriminals. The email appears to come from someone they trust – a C-suite executive or a third-party supplier that they regularly do business with – and therefore wouldn’t think twice about responding to.
South Africans reported that, in the past 12 months, cybercriminals have attempted to impersonate finance teams (24%), third-party vendors (20%), a member of the C-suite (7%), as well as HR, sales, operations, legal and marketing team members (between 5% and 8%).
Again, these emails do not contain malware, which means they can go undetected by most email security systems. Social engineering attacks such as these rely on our inability to spot anomalies in URLs and email addresses – and the fact that we believe we’re communicating with someone we know.
Know what to do
Cybercriminals have figured out that they can bypass security systems by switching from malware-laden attacks to malware-less impersonation attacks. Now, social engineering meets technical means to put us in the middle of the next evolution of cyber-attacks.
Here are some measures organisations can implement to guard against these types of attacks.
- Education. When users know how social engineering and spoofing attacks work and then understand they shouldn’t click on links in emails, breach incidents can be drastically reduced. Users should be encouraged to physically type an address into a browser rather than click on a link in an email, even if it was supposedly sent by someone they know and trust. Education and awareness will always be the most important defence mechanisms.
- Protection. Email security systems are getting better at stopping malware which enter the network through dodgy files and attachments, but few are effective against impersonation attacks. Organisations need a solution that can deep-scan all inbound emails and inspect for header anomalies, domain similarity, sender spoofing and the existence of keywords and suspicious impersonation emails. These can then be blocked, quarantined, or delivered as flagged to alert the receiver of potential risk.
- Resilience. Having the right threat protection in place is just one part of a robust cyber resilience strategy. Organisations also need to be able to adapt their strategies to stay ahead of attacks, while having the durability to continue with business as usual in the event of an attack, and the recoverability to ensure data and emails are always accessible.
- Oversight. Often, lax security on a third-party supplier’s side provides an entry point into an organisation’s network. Enterprises should continuously evaluate and manage the security and privacy policies of their suppliers and include security in their service level agreements. They should also perform on-site security assessments with new suppliers before sharing sensitive information.
- Visibility. Organisations need to know who their vendors are and who has access to company information, and for what reasons. This is even more important now that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation has come into force and will affect all South African organisations when the Protection of Personal Information Act is finalised.
Thirty-seven percent of South African organisations have suffered data loss because of email-based impersonation attacks in past 12 months. These organisations also reported reputational damage (34%), loss of customers (29%), direct financial loss (17%) and lost market position (19%).
Email continues to be the number one threat to organisations globally and accounts for 96% of all incidents that organisations face.
Clearly, there is an urgent need to work towards a higher standard of email security. Cybercriminals have evolved their attack methods. It’s time the security strategies organisations use to protect their users and their businesses evolve as well.
Online retail gets real
After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.
Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.
The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.
This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping.
But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.
On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.
He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.
According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.
In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature.
Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.
A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand.
In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.
Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.
It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time.
It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.
Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.
The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.
Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.
Reliable satellite Internet?
MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.
Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company.
“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.
The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.
The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022.
The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data.
C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.
MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity. Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.
Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content.
The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.
Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online.
“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”