The recent increase in smishing and vishing schemes is prompting me to remind readers of schemes designed to trick users into providing credentials to perpetrate fraud. We have previously written on phishing, smishing, vishing, and QRishing schemes to increase awareness about these methods of intrusion.

HC3 recently warned the health care sector about vishing schemes designed to impersonate employees in order to access financial systems. See previous blog on this topic here.

The City of New York was recently forced to take its payroll system down for more than a week after a smishing scheme that was designed to steal employees’ pay. The attack targeted the city’s Automated Personnel System Employee Self Service users. The threat actor sent fake text messages with multi-factor authentication to employees with a link to insert their self-service credentials, including usernames, passwords, and copies of driver’s licenses. The scheme was designed to steal the information so the payroll system could be accessed in order to divert payroll to the threat actor’s account. 

Phishing, vishing, smishing, and QRishing continue to be successful ways for threat actors to perpetrate fraud. Applying a healthy dose of paranoia whenever you receive any request for credentials, whether by email, phone, text or through a QR code is warranted and wise.

Phishing, Smishing, Vishing, and QRishing. All of these schemes continue to pose risk to organizations that needs to be assessed and addressed.

Vishing made a strong debut during the pandemic [view related post], and continues to be a scheme that is surprisingly successful.

This week, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management (in the wake of another data breach that was recently settled), notified some of its customers that their accounts were compromised by threat actors impersonating Morgan Stanley employees. According to Morgan Stanley, on February 11, 2022, a threat actor called some of Morgan Stanley’s clients and tricked them into thinking the caller was a Morgan Stanley representative, obtained the customers’ online account information, and gained access to the accounts.

Once that was done, the “bad actor…initiated unauthorized Zelle payments.”

Morgan Stanley disabled the accounts of the customers that were affected by the Vishing scheme and has confirmed that its systems remain secure. It also provided resources to customers on Vishing attacks and how to prevent them.

We have previously alerted you to vishing and smishing schemes [view related post]. A new scheme, using QR codes, is called QRishing or quishing. According to security company Abnormal, between September 15 and October 13, 2021, it identified a new way for hackers to try to get around security measures put in place to keep users from clicking on malicious links or attachments. The phishing campaign they detected was designed to collect Microsoft credentials using QR codes.

According to Abnormal, the threat actors used compromised email accounts to send QR codes that looked like a missed voice mail to users.  Although the threat actors were unsuccessful in getting users to click on the QR code or take a picture of it and send it to their email account in order to click on it, the point is that attackers are getting increasingly more creative and embedding malicious code behind QR codes, which became widely used by restaurants and other establishments during COVID. Many people had never heard of a QR code or used one until COVID hit, and no one seems particularly concerned about taking a picture of a QR code when instructed to do so.

The tip here is to be cautious of QR codes, especially in an email or text, and specifically if someone is asking you to click on it or it is linked to a missed voicemail message. If QR codes are emailed, they might not be detected by the email security system, which is exactly what the attacker has designed it to do so it is delivered to your email box, giving you the chance to click on it and compromise your Outlook credentials. The new mantra is don’t click on suspicious links, attachments, or QR codes.

New dictionary words have been formed to describe online scams. Phishing, one that everyone knows by now, is when a scammer uses a pretext in an email to get someone to click on a link or attachment in the email to deploy malicious malware and ransomware.

Social engineering is when criminals conduct online search of individuals and companies by looking at Facebook and LinkedIn profiles and through Google searches to find out as much as possible about a company and its employees and develop a dossier on the company to launch a phishing, vishing or smishing scam.

Vishing can occur, for example, when a criminal buys a similar domain to a company domain, then adds some security terms to make it look like they are from the IT department of the company and calls an employee, tells them a story about how they need to update the VPN or add additional security measures, sends the employee an email from the fake company email address and while they are on the phone with the employee, convinces the employee to put their user name and password into the pop-up, now allowing the criminal full access to the employee’s account.

And smishing (it’s so new that spell check doesn’t recognize it) is when the scammers use a text (SMS messaging) as the ruse instead of an email or a telephone call.

People tend to trust text messages more than emails. They also read them more frequently and faster than emails. Scammers are using old techniques with new technology to get people to click on embedded links to introduce malicious malware into individuals’ phones or to give up personal or corporate credentials. Now the scam is using text messages.

This should be concerning for IT professionals since so many employees use their personal phones for work. Even though the employees are being targeted on their personal phones, the smishing scams can be a threat to corporate security. IT professionals may wish to add smishing as a technique when providing security training to employees so they are aware of the latest techniques used by criminals.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) get together to issue an alert to warn us about a security threat, you can bet that the threat is real, and that they have seen it used successfully at an alarming rate.

The joint advisory issued on August 20, 2020, “Cyber Criminals Take Advantage of Increased Telework Through Vishing Campaign,” warns companies of the increased use of vishing attacks by cyber criminals. The advisory defines “vishing” as “a form of criminal phone fraud, using social engineering over the telephone system to gain access to private personal and financial information for the purpose of financial reward” [see related Privacy Tip].

People are always amazed at how much time and effort cyber criminals take to get the big pay-off. I always say this is how they make their living. We go to work every day and get a lot of work done in a legal way, while they go to work every day to figure out how to steal from us. They are spending the same amount of time on strategy, development and implementation to work out the details of the crime as we are in making an honest living. What they are doing in cyber crime is no different than planning for a bank robbery. They have to plan carefully and then execute the crime. That’s what the cyber criminals have done with their vishing campaign.

The vishing campaign referred to in the advisory started with the criminals registering domains and creating phishing pages that duplicate a company’s internal VPN (virtual private network) login page, including the requirement for two-factor authentication or a security passcode. They then obtained SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificates for the registered domains, including support(victim company name), ticket(victim company name), employee(victim company name), or (victim company name)support. The point is that they are using the actual company name in combination with IT support to lure the victims and convince them into thinking the domain is real. It certainly looks very real.

The criminals then do online research on potential company victims, and according to the alert, “compile dossiers” on employees of the companies “using mass scraping of public profiles on social media platforms, recruiter and marketing tools, publicly available background check services, and open-source research.” This is publicly-available information about companies and their employees that the criminals use to implement the crime. They aggregate the publicly available information and then start calling the employees on their cell phones. When an employee answers, they engage them in conversation as if they know them (from social engineering—including name, address, position in the company) to get them to believe they are from IT support. They advise the employee that the company has changed the VPN and that a link to the new login will be sent, which includes multi-factor authentication, and that they will need to log in to reset the VPN. During the call, they assist the employee in logging in to the VPN and in the process, they gain access to the employee’s log in credentials and now have access to the employee’s account.

Once in the employee’s account, the criminals have access to other potential victims in the company using the same tactics, and are able to “fraudulently obtain funds using varying methods dependent on the platform being accessed.”

The alert acknowledges that this old scam, previously used on telecommunications and internet service provider employees, has now expanded to all industries because of the transition from work at the office to work from home during the pandemic. Companies need to be aware of the campaign, alert their employees, and provide them with resources and tips to avoid falling victim to it.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) recently issued an alert warning the public about vishing campaigns [see related post]. Vishing is defined by the FBI as “a form of criminal phone fraud, using social engineering over the telephone system to gain access to private personal and financial information for the purpose of financial reward.”

Vishing basically means that cyber criminals are gathering publicly-available information on companies and employees so they get to know a lot about them, and then they call employees on their cell phones to try to get them to believe that they are from IT support and that a new VPN (virtual private network) is being used. They then assist the employee with activating the new VPN and in the process obtain the employee’s credentials to access the company’s system and look for new victims.

We all know not to give our credentials to strangers via email. We also know not to give our credentials or personal information to anyone over the telephone. That said, the joint alert makes it clear that people who are working from home are falling victim to this campaign as there is no face-to-face authentication, and the criminals have gathered so much information on the individual employee that the employee believes it is a co-worker calling to assist.

Beware of giving any information to anyone over the telephone (or via email for that matter).

The Alert gives the following “End-User Tips”:

  • Verify that web links do not have misspellings or contain the wrong domain.
  • Bookmark the correct corporate VPN URL and do not visit alternative URLs on the sole basis  of an inbound phone call.
  • Be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls, visits, or email messages from unknown individuals claiming to be from a legitimate organization. Do not provide personal information or information about your organization, including its structure or networks, unless you are certain of a person’s authority to have the information. If possible, try to verify the caller’s identity directly with the company.
  • If you receive a vishing call, document the phone number of the caller as well as the domain that the actor tried to send you to and relay this information to law enforcement.
  • Limit the amount of personal information you post on social networking sites. The internet is a public resource; only post information you are comfortable with anyone seeing.
  • Evaluate your settings: sites may change their options periodically, so review your security and privacy settings regularly to make sure that your choices are still appropriate.

For more information on how to stay safe on social networking sites and avoid social engineering and phishing attacks, refer to the CISA Security Tips below.

Impersonation schemes are on the rise, and artificial intelligence (including deep fakes and voice cloning) will only make these schemes more difficult to detect.

Threat actors are emboldened, evidenced by the fact that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) recently published an alert that threat actors are impersonating CISA employees in vishing attacks in order to obtain money. (View our previous related posts here.)

Threat actors impersonate government employees to try to scare individuals into providing information and financial payment, including the IRS and the FTC. The FTC has provided numerous Scam Alerts on this subject matter, which can be accessed at

CISA reminds us that “CISA staff will never contact you with a request to wire money, cash, cryptocurrency, or use gift cards and will never instruct you to keep the discussion secret.”

Remember that scammers are bold and unscrupulous. Heed the recommendations of CISA and FTC on how to detect and mitigate against impersonation voice calls.

Wow! It’s hard to believe this blog marks the 400th Privacy Tip since I started writing many years ago. I hope the tips have been helpful over the years and that you have been able to share them with others to spread the word. 

I thought it would be fun to pick 10 (ok—technically, a few more than 10) Privacy Tips and re-publish them (in case you missed them) in honor of our 400th Privacy Tip milestone. We have published tips that are relevant to the hot issues of the time, but some are time-honored. It was really hard to pick, but here they are:

Continue Reading Privacy Tip #400 – Best of First 400 Privacy Tips

The Health Sector Cybersecurity Coordination Center (HC3) recently issued an Alert warning that “threat actors employing advanced social engineering tactics to target IT help desks in the health sector and gain initial access to target organizations” have been on the rise.

The social engineering scheme starts with a telephone call to the IT help desk from “an area code local to the target organization, claiming to be an employee in a financial role (specifically in revenue cycle or administrator roles). The threat actor is able to provide the required sensitive information for identity verification, including the last four digits of the target employee’s social security number (SSN) and corporate ID number, along with other demographic details. These details were likely obtained from professional networking sites and other publicly available information sources, such as previous data breaches. The threat actor claimed that their phone was broken and, therefore, could not log in or receive MFA tokens. The threat actor then successfully convinced the IT help desk to enroll a new device in multi-factor authentication (MFA) to gain access to corporate resources.”

After the threat actor gains access, login information related to payer websites is targeted, and they submit a form to make ACH changes for payer accounts. “Once access has been gained to employee email accounts, they sent instructions to payment processors to divert legitimate payments to attacker-controlled U.S. bank accounts. The funds were then transferred to overseas accounts. During the malicious campaign, the threat actor also registered a domain with a single letter variation of the target organization and created an account impersonating the target organization’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO).”

The threat actors are leveraging spearphishing voice techniques and impersonating employees, also known as “vishing.” IC3 noted that “threat actors may also attempt to leverage AI voice impersonation techniques to social engineer targets, making remote identity verification increasingly difficult with these technological advancements. A recent global study found that out of 7,000 people surveyed, one in four said that they had experienced an AI voice cloning scam or knew someone who had.”

IC3 provides numerous mitigations to assist with the prevention of these vishing schemes, which are outlined in the Alert.

I am not a huge fan of using chatbots, as I never end up getting my questions fully answered. I get the efficiency of using a chatbot for simple questions, but my questions are usually not so easily resolved, so I end up completely frustrated with the process and trying to find a human being to help. This happens a lot with my internet service provider. I start with the chatbot, don’t get very far and then yell, “Can’t you just let me talk to someone who can fix my problem?”

At any rate, it seems that lots of people use chatbots and are quite comfortable giving chatbots all sorts of information. Probably not a great idea after reading a summary of research done by Trustwave.

Bleeping Computer obtained research from Trustwave before publication which shows that threat actors are deploying phishing attacks “using automated chatbots to guide visitors through the process of handing over their login credentials to threat actors.” Using a chatbot “gives a sense of legitimacy to visitors of the malicious sites, as chatbots are commonly found on websites for legitimate brands.”

According to Bleeping Computer, the process begins with a phishing email claiming to have information about the delivery of a package (it’s an old trick that still works) from a well-known delivery company. After clicking on “Please follow our instructions” to figure out why your package can’t be delivered, the victim is directed to a PDF file that contains links to a malicious phishing site. When the page loads, a chatbot appears to explain why the package couldn’t be delivered – the explanation usually being that the label was damaged – and shows the victim a picture of the parcel. Then the chatbot requests that the victim provide their personal information and confirms the scheduled delivery of the package.

The victim is then directed to a phishing page where the victim inserts account credential to pay for the shipping, including credit card information. The threat actors provide legitimacy to the process by requiring a one-time password to the victim’s mobile phone number (which the victim gave the chatbot) via SMS so the victim believes the transaction is legit.

The moral of this story: continue to be suspicious of any emails, texts, or telephone calls -(phishing, smishing, and vishing) and now chatbots – asking for your personal or financial information.