Tale from the Dark Side

Tale from the Dark Side

Penumbrous forces wait to feed on your calamity

In this autumnal month of witchery, trickery, and general tom-ghoulery, there comes a Halloween-worthy tale disturbing enough to haunt the mind of any business owner or information technology professional. It’s a curdling tale of innocence, ignorance or naivete (you be the judge) damned by unseen yet palpable presences—veritable shadow figures lurking and preying like ghosts in the machine.

As is often the case with such tales, this one’s all the more harrowing because it’s true. Or so says Stu Sjouwerman, founder and CEO of KnowBe4, a firm that specializes in Internet security awareness training, especially for smallto medium-size enterprises.

According to Sjouwerman, the unfortunate series of events began on a day much like any other at a small company that provides a subscription service to a specialized database. The company’s network consisted of 20 workstations, an SQL server, an exchange server and a dedicated website server, all linked together by a broadband connection. Normal enough for a smallish business, right? Hold that thought. This is where the story gets weird.

The company did not have a trained IT team—rather, it had one person serving part-time in an administrative role handling IT issues. This unlucky soul was going about his day, taking care of business, when he noticed something that made his spine verily tingle: For no apparent reason, the company’s webserver suddenly started experiencing much higher levels of traffic from countries where it did not even conduct business.

His flesh creeping, the part-time administrator suspected cybercriminals had broken into the company’s network. And, unfortunately, he was right.

All Tricks, No Treats

Sjouwerman says that, upon investigating the situation, it was discovered that one of the workstations had become infected with Zeus malware after an employee clicked on a link in a phishing e-mail. All the company’s servers and a number of workstations were compromised, giving cybercriminals full access to the network. The company’s logs revealed that the webserver was being used to host an illegal music download service, and also that mischievous miscreants had installed hidden rootkits.

The disinfection of the company’s network required a frightful amount of time and expense. Sjouwerman says in a press release recounting the eerie episode that his company spent 110 billable hours correcting the problems associated with the network breach, including:

  • 10 hours to select, order, configure and install a quality firewall;
  • 20 hours to build a new webserver, upload digital backups and bring it “nearline”;
  • 25 hours to scan all servers and workstations with several anti-malware tools to locate rootkits;
  • 15 hours to wipe and rebuild Windows on all workstations to ensure removal of all rootkits;
  • 10 hours to install anti-malware software on all servers and workstations;
  • 10 hours to bring the new webserver online and debug the initial problems; and
  • 20 hours to repair things that broke during the rebuild, install drivers, bring printers back online, and so forth.

At the standard rate of $90 per hour, the total cost for the technical-service cleanup was $9,900, according to Sjouwerman. On top of that, the breached company incurred loss of both revenue and productivity during the repair and rebuild: its webserver was offline for an entire day, resulting in approximately $6,600 in lost revenue; and all of the company’s 20 employees lost at least one workday during the rebuild, at an average cost of $120 per person per day, resulting in a combined productivity loss of about $2,400. Between the outside consultant fees, lost revenue and lost productivity, this single network breach cost the company a total of $18,900. All for that one horrific click!

Grave Consequences

“Many small and medium enterprises think they’re adequately protected against security threats because they have antivirus software, but the reality is that cybercriminals can bypass that software by tricking an employee into clicking a link in a phishing e-mail,” Sjouwerman says. “Most business owners have no idea of the time and cost involved in disinfecting a workstation, let alone an entire network. [The breached company] paid nearly $20,000 to undo the damage caused by one employee’s unwitting click. Those costs would have been exponentially higher for a midsize company with a larger network. And just think how much a business stands to lose when cybercriminals use their network access to capture login information and passwords for bank accounts and other financial transactions. That’s when losses rapidly escalate into six figures.”

Sjouwerman points out that the moral to this haunted mouse tale is that such escalations need not occur.

“Our research has shown that training can reduce employees’ susceptibility to phishing attacks by 75 percent after the very first session,” he says, “and that subsequent testing and retraining can shrink the percentage to close to zero in a matter of weeks. . . . It pays to invest in cybercrime prevention training.”

Sjouwerman adds that, thanks to a free phishing security test on KnowBe4’s website, the initial part of such an investment costs nothing more than a bit of time. He encourages owners of small- and medium-size businesses to take advantage of the test (at www.knowbe4.com/phishing-securitytest/) to learn how many of their employees are Phish-prone™, or susceptible to phishing attacks. The module takes only a few minutes to complete and might well help avoid a nightmarish situation later.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Security Today.

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