The Top 5 Ways Threat Actors Leverage and Monetize a Security Breach

Data breaches are perhaps the most talked-about cybersecurity topic at the moment. There were an estimated 36 million data records exposed due to data breaches in the first half of 2020, marking a dangerously significant milestone: companies are still failing to protect themselves and their customers. Although the vast majority of threat intelligence and cybersecurity tools are well within the budget of companies, it appears that many still believe their data is protected simply by the way it is stored.

Despite some IT managers thinking their data is secure on a local network, it is estimated that only 5% of any organization’s data folders are secured from a data breach. These vulnerabilities can lead to a data breach, in which your organization’s data can be leveraged in many ways to leave you with a rather large financial burden or damage to your reputation.

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the ways threat actors initiate data breaches and leverage those breaches for monetary gain. We’ll also highlight some key steps an organization can take to protect itself.

How threat actors initiate a data breach

How threat actors leverage stolen data

How do I prevent a data breach from happening to my organization?

Next steps

How threat actors initiate a data breach

Threat actors generally execute their cybercrimes using a select few methods. First, there is the classic method of stealing hardware or devices from an individual or organization. This form of data breach is generally carried out by an internal source, such as an employee with direct access to critical components of your IT infrastructure.

Other common methods include downloading trojan files or opening malicious links or files attached to phishing emails. This style of attack attempts to breach data by decrypting sensitive data such as passwords, credit card information, and protected files. If an organization fails to implement a strong threat intelligence tool, these kinds of attacks can go unnoticed. A survey by IBM found that in 2020, the average time it took an organization to detect the presence of a data breach was 207 days.

To mitigate the threat of a security breach, it is important to balance good security intelligence with suitable data protection measures and a good security awareness culture.

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How threat actors leverage stolen data

When a data breach hits your organization, your data is vulnerable to being used for several purposes by highly capable threat actors. Data can be leveraged for many illicit purposes and is often stolen for financial gain or to put an organization in a bad light (negative publicity stunts).

Here are 5 ways threat actors leverage stolen data after a security breach.

  1. Selling databases on the dark web to bidders. This technique often leads to data being sold off to other cybercriminals who use that data in various ways, including fraud and breaching a victim’s accounts and/or profiles.
  2. Committing fraudulent card transactions. One of the easiest ways for threat actors to leverage stolen data is by using the data directly for financial gain or to buy items in another name. If you store data that contains credit card information, it must be encrypted and tracked. Assuming you do not check your company card records more than once a month, you may end up with a bill running into the thousands on your company cards.
  3. Blackmail organizations for a ransom (victims pay to get data returned to them). Blackmailing companies is a cruel yet effective way for threat actors to leverage the data they steal. Using this method, threat actors can demand a sum of money to return data safely. The return of your data is not guaranteed, however, as threat actors can simply duplicate or encrypt the data on their machine in the process. For many organizations, sensitive data is plentiful. If it is leaked, it can leave a very negative financial mark and a bad reputation for the victim organization.
  4. Categorize stolen data for what is useful. For large-scale data theft and security breaches, threat actors will end up with a large repository of data that is untidy and not categorized based on profitability. This can be alleviated with a data scrambling/sorting tool, which displays what files/databases are the most sensitive—i.e., credit card information, account credentials, and customer files. This technique is common among threat actors who target government and military operations.
  5. Steal company addresses and social security numbers for fraudulent tax returns. Threat actors can take on stolen identities to submit fraudulent tax returns. An organization’s data will often contain information like registered address details, social security numbers, tax codes, and other financial information, and it is easy for threat actors to disguise themselves as a company if they hold enough credentials. A security breach can leave your data vulnerable to being used as a way to leverage tax payouts.

How do I prevent a data breach from happening to my organization?

Because threat actors are always innovating and evolving, there is no guaranteed way to prevent a data breach, but there are ways to minimize the threat of a data breach occurring. Some common tips include:

  • Limiting file and data access to employees who actively need the data for their roles.
  • Ensure your vendors fully comply with security protocols when you grant them access to your sensitive data.
  • Conduct employee security awareness training sessions. You may want to provide an SOP for saving files or uploading data to the cloud. An even more effective strategy might be to initiate a staged data breach, to see how your staff react.
  • Constantly update and patch applications on your network. Applications that are not regularly updated are prone to bugs and malicious activity.
  • Observe password best practices, including using unique, hard-to-guess passwords that are not repeated across multiple accounts.

Next Steps

Data breaches happen to even the most fortified IT infrastructures, affecting organizations big and small. It is important as an IT manager or cybersecurity professional that you implement into your IT support plan as many steps as possible to prevent a data breach from happening—security awareness training, data traffic encryption, robust access control management, regular updates to software and critical applications, etc.

While there are key steps you can take on your own to prevent data breaches, by far the best option is to consult a reputable managed service provider that offers a free assessment of your network and security posture. A managed service provider can help your organization craft a more comprehensive and tailored security plan to protect against data breaches.

Data breaches are a financial strain on your organization, but they can be prevented with suitable security culture and proper management of the data you store.