For starters, this is a true story, and it happened to me. Its relevance to modern cyberattacks is important because, due to a hardware failure, I began engaging with a threat actor until they slipped up and asked for the unreasonable.
So how did this all go down? Let’s start with some background.
A number of colleagues, my wife, and I attended a company gathering in another country. This event occurs annually and is called “Presidents Club” for the top sales and contributing employees in the organization. This event is common in sales organizations and can draw team members from all over the globe.
While at this event, I joined a few colleagues for an afternoon excursion in a local town. After spending a few hours in the shops, I noticed my phone had stopped working. In a nutshell, facial recognition stopped working and the touchscreen was completely unresponsive. I had no way to unlock the phone, nor shut it down. The best I could do was a manual, hard reboot.
My phone rebooted, but it was stuck on the Home screen, and all I could see were notifications. I had no way to interact with them, nor expand them. That is where the fun begins. A broken phone with only a name and the first two lines of an email visible on the Home screen.
Now, fast-forward a few days. While I was having breakfast over the weekend at the resort, my phone vibrated. I am still not sure why I was carrying it since it was essentially useless, but I felt better having it versus leaving it my hotel room.
After a quick glance, I noticed a message allegedly from my CEO asking if I had some time that day for a call. That is all I could read on the notifications screen. I could not see the source email address, signature, nor any other text.
I meandered back to my hotel room and booted up my laptop. I opened the email, and just replied back to the message, asking for details. This began my interaction with the threat actor.
To confirm the email, I sent an SMS text message to my CEO asking if he really sent the email, since it came from his name, albeit a private email address. I did not know any of his private email addresses, but it seemed potentially legitimate because it had his name, title, and a local ISP domain name close to his residence. I knew to be cautious, but also needed to verify whether or not it was him.
After about 30 minutes, I received a reply from the threat actor and I instantly knew it was a spear phishing attack.
The threat actor’s immediate request for gift cards was a dead giveaway as a basic social engineering attempt.
Shortly thereafter, I received a confirmation from my CEO that he did not send the email, nor was the email address his. The cybercriminal had created a fictitious account for my CEO, knew his hometown, and identified my name and title for the spear phishing attack. While all of this information is public, it does show the level of detail a threat actor will go to in order to conduct an attack. In addition, after I received the spear phishing email and ceased to respond, I received multiple emails attempting to lure me back into the scam. These included everything from “Did you get my last email? I urgently need confirmation” to addressing me by name and asking me for confirmation that I could help.
All in all, it was a simple spear phishing attempt that was averted. However, having a hardware failure at the same time created a situation that was harder to manage, making it even more difficult to prove the email had signs of a scam.
This personal cybersecurity anecdote serves as a simple warning for everyone. Anyone can be targeted by a threat actor. Environmental and technology considerations can make it harder to identify the threat; especially when a phishing email and a simple hardware failure coincide.
If you ever have a doubt over the legitimacy of an email, verify its source and look at clues in the contents. Our scrutiny toward communications (such as email and text) becomes increasingly important as cyber scammers continue to sharpen their spears, such as by using AI-powered technology to mine for contextually relevant information and by mimicking the conversation styles of friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.
While my story is trivial compared to many others, it does add one lesson I would like to instill upon everyone: Never rely on partial information, such as the notifications screen on a mobile phone, to determine a threat. Proper assessments of an email, for example, one potentially containing a phishing scam, require an inspection of the entire email from header to signature to properly assess the risk. And, remember to stay calm, no email should ever need an immediate reply, especially on the weekend. If anything is ever that urgent, go old school and pick up the telephone.
Morey J. Haber, Chief Security Officer, BeyondTrust
Morey J. Haber is the Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust. He has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and has authored three books: Privileged Attack Vectors, Asset Attack Vectors, and Identity Attack Vectors. He is a founding member of the industry group Transparency in Cyber, and in 2020 was elected to the Identity Defined Security Alliance (IDSA) Executive Advisory Board. Morey currently oversees BeyondTrust security and governance for corporate and cloud based solutions and regularly consults for global periodicals and media. He originally joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition where he served as a Product Owner and Solutions Engineer since 2004. Prior to eEye, he was Beta Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. He began his career as Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.