Impersonation Attacks


What Is an Impersonation Attack?

An impersonation attack is a type of cyber attack where an attacker pretends to be a trusted individual or organization to trick their target into divulging sensitive information, performing unauthorized actions, or gaining access to restricted systems. These attacks often impersonate someone trusted, either by compromising their account or by simply creating a lookalike copy. They then social engineer their victims into performing potentially sensitive but routine tasks like transferring funds, clicking a link, or sharing data.

The most common types of impersonation attacks include:

  1. Business Email Compromise (BEC): Attackers impersonate a company executive or trusted vendor to request fraudulent wire transfers or access to confidential information.
  2. CEO Fraud: A specific type of BEC where attackers impersonate the CEO or other high-ranking officials to authorize financial transactions or sensitive data sharing.
  3. Technical Support Scams: Attackers pose as technical support personnel to gain access to a victim’s computer or network under the guise of fixing a non-existent problem.
  4. Whaling: A form of phishing targeting high-profile individuals like executives, aiming for larger rewards.
  5. Spear Phishing: Highly targeted phishing attacks directed at specific individuals or organizations, often involving personalized messages to increase the likelihood of success.

How Do Impersonation Attacks Work?

While there are several types of impersonation attacks, they all tend to share the following steps:

1. Research and Preparation

Reconnaissance: Attackers gather information about the target organization or individuals through various means, such as social media profiles, company websites, and publicly available data. This helps them understand the relationships, routines, and communication patterns within the target environment.

2. Establishing Credibility

Creating a Pretext: Attackers develop a believable story or scenario to establish credibility. This might involve creating fake profiles, compromising legitimate accounts, or crafting convincing emails or messages that appear to come from trusted sources.

Spoofing: Attackers may use email spoofing to fake the sender’s address, making it look like the email is coming from a legitimate source. They might also use phone number spoofing or create lookalike domains to increase the believability of their attack.

3. Execution

Initial Contact: The attacker initiates contact with the victim, posing as a trusted individual such as a colleague, manager, vendor, or IT support. This contact could be via email, phone call, text message, or even social media.

Social Engineering: Using social engineering tactics, the attacker manipulates the victim into believing their request. This often involves creating a sense of urgency, appealing to authority, or exploiting the victim’s trust in the impersonated individual.

4. Request for Action

Phishing: The attacker might send a phishing email containing a malicious link or attachment, aiming to steal credentials, install malware, or harvest sensitive information.

Direct Requests: The attacker often directly asks their victim to perform tasks such as:

  • Transferring Money: Requesting wire transfers or payment of fraudulent invoices.
  • Sharing Confidential Information: Asking for sensitive data such as login credentials, financial information, or intellectual property.
  • Clicking Links or Downloading Files: Prompting the victim to click on malicious links or download harmful attachments that can compromise their system.

5. Exploitation and Consequences

Unauthorized Access: If successful, the attacker gains unauthorized access to systems, accounts, or sensitive data, which can be used for further attacks, data theft, or financial gain.

Financial Loss: Victims can incur financial losses due to fraudulent transactions, payments, or unauthorized access to financial accounts.

Data Breach: Sensitive information may be exfiltrated and used for identity theft, blackmail, or sold on the dark web.

Operational Disruption: The attack can significantly disrupt business operations, damage reputations, and lead to regulatory penalties.

Examples of Impersonation Attacks

  1. Google and Facebook Spearphishing (2013-2015): Lithuanian national Evaldas Rimasauskas orchestrated a fraudulent BEC (business email compromise) scheme, tricking Google and Facebook into wiring over $100 million to bank accounts he controlled. By creating a company with a name identical to a legitimate Asian-based hardware manufacturer, Rimasauskas sent phishing emails that appeared to be from the legitimate company, directing payments to his accounts.
  2. Merseyrail Cyberattack by LockBit Ransomware (2021): In April 2021, the LockBit ransomware gang targeted the UK rail network Merseyrail. The attackers took control of the Director’s email account and impersonated him to email employees and journalists about the ransomware attack. The email leaked employees’ personal data andtried to downplay the attack.
  3. $60 million lost to CEO Impersonation Fraud (2016): FACC, an Austrian aeronautics company, fell victim to a BEC scam in 2016. A Chinese national gained unauthorized access to the company’s email server and studied the CEO’s writing habits and quirks to make their phishing messages look legitimate. The attacker then impersonated the executive and sent emails instructing employees to transfer large sums of money to foreign bank accounts. After the attack, FACC fired their CEO and CFO and sued them for $10 million for not doing enough to prevent the attack.

How To Prevent Impersonation Attacks

  1. Employee Awareness and Training: Regularly train employees to recognize phishing attempts, suspicious emails, and other social engineering tactics.
  2. Email Security: Implement email authentication methods such as DMARC, SPF, and DKIM to prevent email spoofing. Use email filters to detect and block phishing emails.
  3. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): To add an extra layer of security, require MFA for accessing sensitive accounts and systems.
  4. Verification Protocols: Establish protocols for verifying the legitimacy of requests, especially those involving financial transactions or sensitive information. This can include callback verification or in-person confirmation.
  5. Monitoring and Alerts: Use monitoring tools to detect unusual activities and set up alerts for potential security breaches.
  6. Secure Communication Channels: Ensure secure communication channels for sensitive information, avoiding the use of unsecured email for critical transactions.
  7. Regular Updates and Patching: Keep all software and systems updated to protect against vulnerabilities that attackers might exploit.
  8. Data Breach Monitoring: Implement data breach monitoring to get alerted when your employees’, customers’, or vendors’ credentials have been compromised and are being leaked or sold on the dark web. Early detection enables your security team to reset the credentialsllows for immediate action to secure accounts and prevent further exploitation.