The National Bank of Blacksburg in Virginia has discovered just how important it is to have effective controls in place to protect against phishing. The bank suffered two costly phishing attacks in the space of eight months that have resulted in losses exceeding $2.4 million.

Phishing is the leading tactic used by cybercriminals to gain access to login credentials, steal data, and install malware. Emails are sent to employees with malicious attachments, which if opened, result in the installation of malware. Alternatively, links are sent in emails that direct employees to fraudulent websites where they are fooled into disclosing their login credentials.

The first attack on Blacksburg Bank took place on May 28, 2016. Malware was installed on its systems which gave the attackers access to the STAR Network – The system that manages debit card ATM activity. After gaining access to the STAR Network, the hackers were able to change account balances, remove security measures such as anti-theft and anti-fraud protections, conduct keystroke logging, and authorize withdrawals from customers’ accounts via ATMs.

In the two days that the hackers had access to the system, they were able to make withdrawals at hundreds of ATMs across the country and stole $569,648.24 from customers’ accounts. This was possible without stealing customers cards or using skimmers to create fake bank cards.

The malware was detected on May 30, 2016 and the attack was investigated by the computer forensics firm Foregenix which determined that the malware was installed as a result of an employee being duped by a phishing email.

Eight months later, on January 7, 2017, a similar attack occurred which involved cybercriminals gaining access to the STAR Network. Similarly, access was possible for two days, although in this case approximately $1.8 million was withdrawn from customers’ accounts. Verizon investigated the breach and concluded that access was gained as a result of an employee falling for a phishing scam.

The National Bank of Blacksburg holds an insurance policy against cyberattacks although its insurer, Everest National Insurance Company, has refused to cover the losses. Blacksburg is now suing its insurer for breach of contract.

What these incidents show is just how easy it is for major losses to be suffered as a result of employees falling for phishing scams and the importance of having robust anti-phishing measures in place.

There is no single solution that will provide total protection against phishing, although a good place to start is with an advanced spam filtering solution such as SpamTitan.

SpamTitan uses dual antivirus engines (Bitdefender and ClamAV) that provides superior protection against phishing and block emails containing malware and malware downloaders. The solution performs multiple checks on each incoming email to determine whether it is genuine, spam, or malicious, including standard checks of email headers, a Bayesian analysis on message content, and greylisting. Together, these controls ensure 99.97% of spam emails are detected and blocked, with a false positive rate of just 0.03%. Independent tests at Virus Bulletin have confirmed a 100% malware detection rate.

No anti-spam solution will block 100% of all spam and phishing emails so it is essential for employees to be trained how to recognize phishing emails. While it was once a best practice to provide annual training, with the volume of phishing emails now being sent and the increased sophistication of attacks, an annual training session is no longer sufficient.

Training needs to be ongoing, with regular training sessions scheduled throughout the year and employees conditioned through phishing simulation exercises. With effective spam filtering and employee security awareness training, the majority of phishing attempts can be thwarted.