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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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April 6, 2020

Will COVID-19 Exacerbate Ecommerce Fraud?

Ecommerce sales in the United States continue to gain a greater share of overall retail sales each year. The Department of Commerce reports Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link that in 2019, total ecommerce sales increased almost 15 percent over 2018 and represented 11 percent of total retail sales. There is no question that with the current COVID-19 environment, our daily habits have undergone tremendous change. As part of that change, I expect that ecommerce sales will increase at a greater rate in 2020 than in 2019.

Following social isolation guidelines, consumers and businesses are turning more and more to conducting their commerce transactions online. Prepaid carry-out, drive-through, and delivery orders now dominate the dining industry as inside dining options have been largely shuttered. Large retailers have been promoting online ordering and ship-to-home delivery options as their stores are closed. TransUnion reports that in the week from March 11 to 17, when the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a global pandemic, ecommerce transaction volume increased 23 percentOff-site link over the previous week.

This spike in ecommerce traffic will likely bring with it a parallel spike in criminal activity, possibly adding to the increasing fraud levels in ecommerce. This shouldn't come as any surprise. It will be important for the good guys not only to be expecting this but also to be prepared for it by making swift adjustments that match the challenge.

One of the key adjustments to consider and apply quickly is properly tuning algorithms for detecting ecommerce fraud. In normal times, anomalous-pattern detection schemes are relied on to expose fraudsters. Elements such as the type of stores commonly used, frequency of usage, average or range of transaction values, and more go into making up an overall usage pattern for a given customer. While these transaction risk models have become very sophisticated over the years, they are challenged by abrupt changes in usage patterns, especially at an individual account level. They need to be smartly and quickly adjusted. Issuers and merchants need to balance the decision of denying transactions—which brings with it the risk of disgruntled legitimate customers and lost revenues—against approving fraudulent transactions and taking financial losses. No easy task, but doable and necessary to undertake, with constant attention.

Working collaboratively with merchants, consumers can help to surprise the criminals as fraud fighting evolves. The good guys win if we exercise patience with one another and remain mindful of the balance between purchase friction and fraud avoidance as fraud-fighting tools and methods adjust. Both sides being considerate of the needs on both sides of the transaction—working together, again, with patience and willingness to engage, perhaps differently than we've been willing to in the past, could yield results that everyone (except the crooks) is happier with, in both the short run and long run.

We know fraud management teams will be busy managing their fraud-detection tools and processes and expect they will rise to the challenge. We also expect consumers are ready and willing to assist in ways that are helpful as well. The constant chess match with the criminal element will continue, and we look forward to seeing a chess piece on the good guys ' side of the board with some new moves to help aid in the fight against the bad guys.

November 4, 2019

Encouraging Password Hygiene

Practicing good password hygiene such as using strong passwords and never using them for any other application can be a huge nuisance. Many people, including yours truly, would love to see passwords fade into oblivion and be replaced by stronger authentication technologies, such as biometrics. But the fact remains that passwords will continue to be used extensively for the foreseeable future, and for as long as they remain with us, it's imperative that we adhere to good password protocol. Verizon's 2019 Data Breach Investigation ReportOff-site link reveals that more than 60 percent of successful data breach hacks were due to compromised or stolen log-in credentials.

Information that describes good password practices is abundant, but people continue to be careless. So how can we successfully encourage people to actually follow these practices?

Interestingly, while I was pondering this issue, I came across a Wall Street Journal articleOff-site link. Written by a cybersecurity professor, the article describes research that the author and her colleagues did on this very topic—how to get people to create strong passwords—and I thought it would be useful to share their findings.

So what's the secret to getting us to use strong passwords, according to these researchers? It's the simple incentive of time—and by this I mean the length of time we're allowed to keep our passwords. The researchers found that people were willing to use stronger passwords if they could keep them for longer than they had in the past.

The conventional wisdom used to be that we should change passwords at least once a year. Now many financial service providers and others require users to change passwords every 30 days. However, some organizations continue to allow longer time periods, or perhaps don't enforce change at all, but offset the longer duration with stricter rules, requiring longer passwords with a minimum number of special characters. I imagine most of us are accustomed to the strength bar or bubble graphic that shows us the strength of a password as we're creating it. These might be useful in educating us about what strong passwords look like, but the researchers found them to be ineffective in driving people to create strong passwords.

I'll admit I don't always practice the best password hygiene. One of several reasons for this is that it seems my passwords expire so frequently. But I could get fully on board with building stronger, unique passwords if that meant I would have more time before I had to change them.

Have you seen or experienced other tactics or solutions that have pushed you to use better password hygiene? If so, we would love to hear from you!

October 28, 2019

Should We Throw in the Towel When It Comes to Data Breach Prevention?

We've all heard it said—we've probably, cynically, said it ourselves: "It's not a matter of if but when your company will be hit by a data breach." Reports about cyberattacks and network breaches fill my daily newsfeed with headlines on ransomware attacks, attacks on multifactor authentication, and 5G network vulnerabilities. For each new, better, stronger, faster solution the industry comes up with, criminals find a way to circumvent it in seemingly short order. Is there anyone whose personal information hasn't been stolen once, twice, five times? I've lost count of how many times I've received six months of free credit monitoring.

In today's world, is there any way for an organization to fully protect itself against the broad spectrum of ever-evolving threats and still have time, resources, and capital left over to conduct its everyday business? Or should we assume that breaches are a foregone conclusion, throw in the towel when it comes to prevention, and turn our focus instead to incident response?

According to Verizon's 2019 Data Breach Investigations Report , small businesses were frequent targets of breaches. (The report looked at incidents occurring from November 1, 2017, to October 31, 2018.) Other findings it reported: outside actors perpetrated 69 percent of breaches, 52 percent were the result of hacking, and it took months or longer to discover 56 percent of the incidents.

Last year, I wrote about committing to muscle memory your organization's plan for the right of boom. A Google search on "data breach response" returns pages of results with guides, resources, and services, but the midst of a cyber-event is probably not the best time to come up with a plan. Turns out, there's an app for that! At a recent fintech conference, I saw a demo of a dynamic breach response solution that turns response into a routine business process. The company likens its app to "an airbag for network breaches" and claims the tool helps organizations prepare for, detect, and respond to data breaches. Another company demonstrated a white-labeled application for financial institutions that aims to reduce post-breach fraud and identity theft of consumers through algorithmic risk assessments that produce recommendations for actions to take to mitigate these risks.

National Cybersecurity Awareness Month bannerOctober is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. It's a good time to review your own right of boom plan or take steps to implement one. One resource: the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity Resources Road Map  for small and midsize businesses.

While it is not hyperbole to assert that criminals will breach your organization's network, you should not throw in the towel or lower your defenses against such threats. Rather, you should avail yourself of technological innovations to support breach prevention and response preparedness so your organization can restore normal business operations as quickly as possible. What approach has your organization taken to adopting threat prevention and response preparedness?

July 22, 2019

Ransomware Attacks Continue

Ransomware attacks have only continued since I addressed the problem in a recent post, and they've continued to target municipal and state agencies. Riviera Beach (May) and Lake City (June), both in Florida, were successfully attacked. Lake City paid a bitcoin ransom of approximately $470,000 while Riviera Beach paid about $600,000, also in bitcoin. These attacks took place soon after the one in Jackson County, Georgia, whose government paid $400,000 for decryption keys. While law enforcement officials recommend that victims not pay ransom for fear that doing so encourages the criminals to continue their attacks, the affected agencies often view paying the ransom as a cost-effective way to restore operations as soon as possible. Moreover, Lake City and Riviera Beach were both insured against such attacks, with a $10,000 and a $25,000 deductible, respectively. It appears that in all three of these instances, when they got their ransom, the criminals supplied the necessary data that allowed officials to regain control of the systems.

So how can governments, schools, hospitals and doctors' offices, financial services, and consumers best protect their systems from these nefarious attacks? It's not easy—criminals are constantly developing new malware to get into systems. However, here are some critical guidelines from IT security professionals that can help us all avoid or minimize the impact of a ransomware attack.

  • Perform data backups at least daily, and keep at least one backup copy offsite or on portable storage devices not connected to the network.
  • Avoid using end-of-life operating systems and software that cannot be updated to address known vulnerabilities.
  • Install software updates and security patches as soon as possible, and follow established change control guidelines.
  • Evaluate segmenting your network into separate zones to minimize the spread of a ransomware infection.
  • Train and test employees regularly about how criminals use phishing attacks to load malware onto computers that can then compromise system access credentials.
  • Require employees to use strong passwords.
  • The IT security community is divided about how frequently passwords should be changed, but do so at least every six months.
  • Maintain comprehensive access controls so that only the employees that require access to individual system have such rights, especially regarding remote access.
  • Use reliable security software and, as the second bulleted item recommends, keep it updated. Evaluate adding special trusted anti-ransomware tools, some of which are free.
  • Evaluate your cybersecurity insurance policy in terms of its ransomware coverage.

In addition, every agency and organization should develop a ransomware response plan that can be implemented as soon as an attack has been detected. While the immediate focus should be on minimizing the impact of the attack, elements for business continuity, law enforcement notification, media communications must also be part of the plan.

We hope you won't be a victim, but simply keeping your fingers crossed isn't an effective plan.

Photo of David LottBy David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed