Fighting Fraudulent Transactions
Last March I wrote that two-factor authentication isn’t going to reduce financial fraud or identity theft, that all it will do is force the criminals to change their tactics:
Unfortunately, the nature of attacks has changed over those two decades. Back then, the threats were all passive: eavesdropping and offline password guessing. Today, the threats are more active: phishing and Trojan horses.
Here are two new active attacks we’re starting to see:
- Man-in-the-Middle attack. An attacker puts up a fake bank website and entices user to that website. User types in his password, and the attacker in turn uses it to access the bank’s real website. Done right, the user will never realize that he isn’t at the bank’s website. Then the attacker either disconnects the user and makes any fraudulent transactions he wants, or passes along the user’s banking transactions while making his own transactions at the same time.
- Trojan attack. Attacker gets Trojan installed on user’s computer. When user logs into his bank’s website, the attacker piggybacks on that session via the Trojan to make any fraudulent transaction he wants.
See how two-factor authentication doesn’t solve anything? In the first case, the attacker can pass the ever-changing part of the password to the bank along with the never-changing part. And in the second case, the attacker is relying on the user to log in.
The solution is not to better authenticate the person, but to authenticate the transaction. (Think credit cards. No one checks your signature. They really don’t care if you’re you. They maintain security by authenticating the transactions.)
Of course, no one listens to me. U.S. regulators required banks to implement two-factor authentication by the end of this year. But customers are rebelling, and banks are scrambling to figure out something — anything — else. And, amazingly enough and purely by accident it seems, they’ve stumbled on security solutions that actually work:
Instead, to comply with new banking regulations and stem phishing losses, banks and the vendors who serve them are hurriedly putting together multipronged strategies that they say amount to “strong” authentication. The emerging approach generally consists of somehow recognizing a customer’s computer, asking additional challenge questions for risky behavior and putting in place back-end fraud detection.
Despite the FFIEC guidance about authentication, the emerging technologies that actually seem to hold the most promise for protecting the funds in consumer banking accounts aren’t authentication systems at all. They’re back-end systems that monitor for suspicious behavior.
Some of these tools are rule-based: If a customer from Nebraska signs on from, say, Romania, the bank can determine that the log-on always be considered suspect. Others are based on a risk score: That log-on from Romania would add points to a risk score, and when the score reaches a certain threshold, the bank takes action.
Flagged transactions can get bumped to second-factor authentication — usually, a call on the telephone, something the user has. This has long been done manually in the credit card world. Just think about the last phone call you got from your credit card company’s fraud department when you (or someone else) tried to make a large purchase with your credit card in Europe. Some banks, including Washington Mutual, are in the process of automating out-of-band phone calls for risky online transactions.
Exactly. That’s how you do it.
EDITED TO ADD (12/6): Another example.