The Future of Fraud

By: Ori Eisen

This article originally appeared on WIRED.

When I started 41st Parameter more than a decade ago, I had a sense of what fraud was all about. I’d spent several years dealing with fraud while at VeriSign and American Express. As I considered the problem, I realized that fraud was something that could never be fully prevented. It’s a dispiriting thing to accept that committed criminals will always find some way to get through even the toughest defenses. Dispiriting, but not defeating.

The reason I chose to dedicate my life to stopping online fraud is because I saw where the money was going. Once you follow the money and you see how it is used, you can’t “un-know.” The money ends up supporting criminal activities around the globe – not used to buy grandma a gift.

Over the past 10 years the nature of fraud has become more sophisticated and systematized. Gone are the days of the lone wolf hacker seeing what they could get away with. Today, those days seem almost simple. Not that I should be saying it, but fraud and the people who perpetrated it had a cavalier air about them, a bravado. It was as if they were saying, in the words of my good friend Frank Abagnale, “catch me if you can.”

They learned to mimic the behaviors and clone the devices of legitimate users. This allowed them to have a field day, attacking all sorts of businesses and syphoning away their ill-gotten gains. We learned too. We learned to look hard and close at the devices that attempted to access an account. We looked at things that no one knew could be seen. We learned to recognize all of the little parameters that together represented a device. We learned to notice when even one of them was off.

The days of those early fraudsters has faded. New forces are at work to perpetrate fraud on an industrial scale. Criminal enterprises have arisen. Specializations have emerged. Brute force attacks, social engineering, sophisticated malware – all these tools, and so many more – are being applied every day to cracking various security systems. The criminal underworld is awash in credentials, which are being used to create accounts, take over accounts and commit fraudulent transactions.

The impact is massive. Every year, billions of dollars are lost due to cyber crime. Aside from the direct monetary losses, customer lose faith in brand and businesses, resources need to be allocated to reviewing suspect transactions and creativity and energy are squandered trying to chase down new risks and threats.

To make life just a little simpler, I operate from the assumption that every account, every user name and every password has been compromised. As I said at the start, fraud isn’t something that can be prevented. By hook or by crook (and mainly by crook), fraudsters are finding cracks they can slip through; it’s bound to happen. By watching carefully, we can see when they slip up and stop them from getting away with their intended crimes.

If the earliest days of fraud saw impacts on individuals, and fraud today is impacting enterprises, the future of fraud is far more sinister.

We’re already seeing hints of fraud’s dark future.

Stories are swirling around the recent Wall Street hack. The President and his security team were watching warily, wondering if this was the result of a state-sponsored activity. Rather than just hurting businesses or their customers, we’re on the brink (if we haven’t crossed it already) of fraud being used to destabilize economies. If that doesn’t keep you up at night I don’t know what will.

Think about it: in less than a decade we have gone from fraud being an isolated irritant (not that it wasn’t a problem) to being viewed as a potential, if clandestine, weapon. The stakes are no longer the funds in an account or even the well being of a business. Today – and certainly tomorrow – the stakes will be higher. Fraudsters, terrorists really, will look for ways to nudge economies toward the abyss.

Sadly, the ability of fraudsters to infiltrate legitimate accounts and networks will never be fully stifled. The options available to them are just too broad for every hole to be plugged. What we can do is recognize when they’ve made it through our defenses and prevent them from taking action. It’s the same approach we’ve always had: they may get in while we do everything possible to prevent them from doing harm.

In an ideal world bad guys would never get through in the first place; but we don’t live in an ideal world. In the real world they’re going to get in. Knowing this isn’t easy. It isn’t comforting or comfortable. But in the real world there are real actions we can take to protect the things that matter – your money, your data and your sense of security.

We learned how to fight fraud in the past, we are fighting it with new technologies today and we will continue to apply insights and new approaches to protect our future.

Download our Perspective Paper to learn about a number of factors that are contributing to the evolving fraud landscape.