Cybersecurity Tips to Help Retailers and Consumers Stay Secure During the Holiday Season

It’s time to take advantage of all those holiday specials and spend all your hard-earned bitcoin — er, I mean money — buying gifts for friends, family and, of course, yourself. Many retailers, large and small, online and brick-and-mortar, run holiday promotions as early as September. Gone are the days of waiting until Black Friday or Cyber Monday to take advantage of sales and specials.

The bad guys will be shopping, too — just not for the same items you are. Instead, they will be shopping for your wallet.

It’s true that some cyber Grinches ramp up their malicious activities during the holiday season, perhaps in the form of holiday-specific spam, spear phishing or compromised sites. While increased vigilance is encouraged during this time, there are a number of cybersecurity tips and best practices consumers and retailers should follow throughout the year to help mitigate threats. Having the right controls and awareness in place before the holidays can go a long way during the busy shopping season.

Download the complete X-Force report: Security Trends in the Retail Industry

For Retailers: Vigilance Encouraged Throughout the Year

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are heavy shopping days and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. However, IBM X-Force research conducted over the past few years revealed that there was no significant uptick in network attacks targeting X-Force-monitored retailers during the traditional holiday shopping period in late November. In fact, last year, the volume of attacks for those two days fell below the daily attack average for retailers.

November 2016
Figure 1: The daily average attack count for retailers during Black Friday through Cyber Monday was lower than the daily average for the year, Nov. 1 to 29, 2016 (Source: IBM Managed Security Services data).

However, now that the shopping extravaganza lasts for two or more months, it’s possible that this four-day window is too short of a time period to identify notable network attack trends.

So far in 2017, network attacks targeting retail networks were highest in Q2, with June being the most-targeted month. Attacks dropped notably beginning in August and have been steadily declining, with the volume of attacks monitored for October below the monthly average for the year.

Network attacks targeting retail industry
Figure 2: Monthly average attack count for retailers, Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2017 (Source: IBM Managed Security Services data).

Time to celebrate? Not necessarily. In 2016, we observed a notable surge in the volume of attacks targeting retailers in mid to late December. Additionally, malware compromises occurring earlier in the year that have gone undetected can wreak havoc once the busy season commences. In December 2016, a security researcher discovered that nearly 7,000 online stores running Magento shopping cart software were infected with data-stealing skimmer malware capable of logging credit cards and passwords and making them available to attackers as image files for exfiltration.

Furthermore, bad actors do not have to steal anything to wreak havoc on the retail industry. A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is enough to cost the sector millions. In fact, the average cost of DDoS attack for organizations across all industries rose to over $2.5 million in 2016.

Retailers are encouraged to monitor their networks with increased vigilance during this holiday season. Vulnerable point-of-sale (POS) systems, compromised websites, and targeted spam and phishing campaigns can be costly.

To help keep your security posture strong over this holiday shopping season and all year long, review and implement the recommendations outlined in the IBM report, “Security Trends in the Retail Industry.”

For Consumers: What Cybersecurity Tips Are Missing From Your Repertoire?

Many online consumers have improved their security awareness as media coverage and education opportunities have increased. However, below are a few cybersecurity tips that many consumers likely haven’t thought of.

Assess Convenience Versus Risk

Our digital interactions leave data trails. Finding the right balance between personalization and privacy is the consumer’s responsibility, not just the retailer’s. Many sites have the option to save your card data for future use. While this feature offers convenience to the consumer, the stored data can be stolen via SQL injection attacks or other database compromises — after all, there are billions of leaked records due to misconfigured servers. Always look for the green lock icon in the browser address bar to ensure a secure connection to websites.

Be Wary of Unsuspicious Emails

Criminals have gotten really good at devising phishing lures that are extremely difficult to recognize as fraudulent. Receive an attachment from someone that appears to be in your contact list? Call them to confirm. Order something online? Before clicking the “track package” link in the confirmation email, ensure that it is actually an item you purchased from the correct vendor.

Use Passphrases and Multifactor Authentication

Exercise strong password hygiene by choosing to use a long, easy-to-remember passphrase, such as “ipreferpassphrasesoverpasswords,” instead of complex passwords containing a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. Unfortunately, this is not always an option since many websites now require a password that contains this combination. Use different passphrases for each site. If this seems too daunting, use a password manager. Rather than managing dozens of passphrases on your own, you’ll just have to remember the one key to your digital vault.

Always opt for multifactor authentication when available, and figure out which option is the most secure when choosing a real-time short message service (SMS) text message, an email message or an automated phone call.

Get Creative With Security Questions

When setting up new accounts, opt for security and password reset questions that aren’t public to make it harder for fraudsters to get their hands on your information. For example, don’t use your mother’s maiden name, which could be easily found online. Even answers to opinion-based questions, such as favorite movie, food, etc., can be found on social media. For increased security, lie about your answers or use passphrases as the answers.

Skimmers Abound

By now, you have most likely heard of skimmers being placed on the card readers at gas stations and bank ATMs. A skimmer is a hidden device placed inside the mouth of a payment card reader that is designed to copy your card data for criminals to user later. But what about in-store POS systems? Be on the lookout for suspicious-looking card swiping terminals that could be skimmers, or cash register attendants who seem to swipe your card on two different readers. Maintain this vigilance not only during the holiday season, but all the time, especially if you travel to other countries.

Know Your Card Security Features

Banks and credit card companies have implemented some great security features, such as being able to set limits on the number of times the card can be used within an hour or on the amount that can be spent on one purchase. However, if you’re unaware of these limits for your personal accounts or your phone number is not up to date in your bank profile, you may end up with a declined card.

Cover Your Card

Is the person in line behind you taking a selfie, or is he or she taking a picture of your card as you make a purchase? By obtaining the credit card number, name, expiration date and the card security code or card verification value on the back, an attacker may be able to use the information to make online purchases.

Keep Your Guard Up Year-Round

The holiday season is a great time to take stock of the past year while relaxing and spending time with loved ones, but it’s no time to let your guard down, especially given the increasing sophistication of cybercriminal tactics targeting holiday shoppers and sellers alike. We encourage retailers and consumers to follow best practices not only this holiday season, but also all year long to help mitigate attacks and compromise.

Download the complete X-Force report: Security Trends in the Retail Industry

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Nick Bradley

Practice Leader, Threat Research Group at IBM Security

Nick Bradley manages IBM’s Cyber Threat Research and the X-Force Threat Analysis Group, responsible for collecting and assessing current cyber threats affecting IBM clients and the world in general. Nick’s teams are also responsible for publishing IBM’s Cyber Threat Index, an annual executive-level publication designed to offer insight into the threat landscape and assist decision makers in choosing where to invest to bolster their security posture.