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How do white collar criminals exploit cybersecurity weaknesses?


How White Collar Criminals Exploit Cybersecurity Weaknesses

White collar crime used to mean guys in suits committing fraud in fancy office buildings. But times have changed. With the rise of the internet and digital connectivity, white collar crime has moved online. These days, cybercriminals exploit weaknesses in cybersecurity systems to steal data, money, and identities. And they often do it without ever setting foot outside their homes.

So how do these 21st century criminals pull off their schemes? Here’s an inside look at some of the ways white collar cybercriminals exploit gaps in cybersecurity to commit their crimes.

Phishing for Account Credentials

One of the most common techniques is phishing. This is when criminals send emails pretending to be from a trusted source, like a bank, credit card company, or social media site. The email looks legit, but it contains links to fake login pages designed to steal account credentials. If someone enters their username and password, the scammer has full access to their accounts.

A common phishing scam is for a hacker to send an email warning the victim that their Netflix account has been suspended. It’ll urge them to click a link and re-enter their login info to reactive the account. But the link goes to a fake Netflix site that steals any credentials entered. Now the hacker can access and take over the victim’s real Netflix account.

According to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, there were over 100,000 reported phishing attacks in the first quarter of 2019 alone[1]. With phishing being so widespread, it’s no wonder why 91% of cyberattacks start with a phishing email[2].

Deploying Malware

Instead of tricking someone into handing over their login credentials, some hackers distribute malware designed to steal the information directly. Malware refers to malicious software programs like viruses, worms, and spyware. When installed on a victim’s device, malware can do things like record keystrokes, download files, and track browsing data.

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Criminals often hide malware in email attachments or bundle it with legitimate downloads. Once the user opens the infected file, the malware silently installs itself on their device without them realizing. Now the hacker has a direct pipeline to steal data like login credentials, financial information, or personal files.

Ransomware is a particularly nasty type of malware that encrypts the victim’s files until they pay up. After infecting a device, ransomware can lock down entire systems until the owner pays a ransom to regain access. In 2019 alone, ransomware attacks cost businesses and individuals over $7.5 billion in ransom payments[3].

Exploiting Unpatched Software Vulnerabilities

When software vendors release updates and patches, it’s often to fix known security vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. But not everyone promptly installs these important updates, leaving them open to attack. Cybercriminals can scan for devices running outdated, vulnerable software and leverage those unpatched flaws to breach defenses.

The WannaCry ransomware epidemic of 2017 infiltrated over 200,000 computers by exploiting a vulnerability in outdated Windows systems. Microsoft had already released a patch for the vulnerability 2 months prior. But many organizations hadn’t yet updated their systems, allowing the ransomware to spread rapidly across the globe[4]. This highlights the importance of promptly patching known software vulnerabilities before criminals can take advantage of them.

Stealing Sensitive Data from Improperly Secured Servers

Lax security on internet-connected servers can also provide an open door for white collar cybercriminals. When organizations fail to properly configure servers to restrict unauthorized access, hackers can penetrate these systems to steal valuable data.

In 2018, a researcher discovered a massive cache of highly sensitive Facebook user data stored on an improperly secured Amazon cloud server. Up to 87 million users had their personal info like names, email addresses, and phone numbers left exposed. This data was collected by a digital marketing firm called Cambridge Analytica. While they may not have hacked Facebook’s systems directly, the firm failed to take proper precautions to secure user data on their own servers[5].

This example highlights the need for robust security both within an organization and among third parties handling sensitive data. Weak links anywhere along the chain can expose users to data theft.

Pulling Off Business Email Compromise (BEC) Schemes

On the simpler end of the spectrum, some criminals exploit human vulnerabilities rather than technical ones. Business email compromise scams trick employees into wiring money, sending gift cards, or sharing sensitive data with scammers posing as trusted colleagues or partners.

Often the hacker will compromise or spoof an executive’s email account. Then they’ll email a finance staffer asking to wire funds for an “urgent” acquisition or payment. If the finance person falls for it, they end up transferring money right into a criminal’s pocket.

According to the FBI, BEC scams have cost organizations over $26 billion since 2016. Carelessness and lack of cybersecurity awareness on the human side enable these schemes to succeed.

Insider Threats

In some cases, the weak link in cybersecurity is an organization’s own employees. Insider threats refer to staff who misuse access privileges or mishandle data, whether intentionally or not. A disgruntled employee might deliberately steal and share proprietary data. But even well-intentioned insiders can accidentally expose data by falling for phishing scams or misconfiguring server permissions.

A 2020 survey found that 90% of organizations feel vulnerable to insider attacks, which are often harder to detect and prevent compared to external breaches. Ongoing cybersecurity training and monitoring employee activity can help mitigate these risks. But insider threats highlight that people, policies, and awareness are as crucial as technical defenses.

What Facilitates These Crimes?

What exactly makes these types of cybercrimes so prevalent? There are a few key factors at play:

  • Anonymity – The internet allows criminals to hide behind spoofed email addresses and IP masking techniques.
  • Low risk – Cybercrimes carry lower risks than violent crimes, especially given the technical challenges of tracking down perpetrators.
  • High rewards – Sensitive digital assets like financial data, login credentials, and trade secrets can yield big payouts.
  • Easy access – Internet connectivity provides wide access to potential targets across the globe.
  • Weak security – From phishing susceptibility to unpatched software, human and technical vulnerabilities are rampant.

Together, these factors create low-risk, high-reward opportunities to exploit people and technology for profit. And as our digital infrastructure expands faster than security measures can keep up, cybercriminals have plenty of weaknesses to take advantage of.

What Can Organizations Do?

So how can companies better defend against white collar cybercrime? While there’s no silver bullet, organizations can take steps like:

  • Implementing robust technical safeguards like firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and data encryption.
  • Keeping software patched and up to date.
  • Securing servers and cloud data stores.
  • Enabling strong password policies and multi-factor authentication.
  • Training staff on cybersecurity awareness to prevent phishing and social engineering.
  • Monitoring systems and network activity to catch anomalies.
  • Conducting incident response planning and simulations.
  • Building a resilient security culture focused on defense.

Bolstering both human and technical elements of cybersecurity can help organizations become a harder target. While skilled criminals may still find ways to breach defenses, strong preparation can minimize both the likelihood of attacks and the damage inflicted.

With cybercrime projected to cost the world $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, organizations have a vested interest in shoring up weaknesses. By understanding how white collar criminals operate and deploying robust, layered security, companies can adapt to the evolving threat landscape. While cybersecurity often feels like an uphill battle, awareness and proactive measures can help turn the tide to defend our digital assets and data.


[1] Anti-Phishing Working Group. (2019). Phishing Activity Trends Report, 1st Quarter 2019. https://docs.apwg.org/reports/apwg_trends_report_q1_2019.pdf

[2] PurpleSec. (2020). 91% of Cyber Attacks Start with a Phishing Email. https://purplesec.us/resources/cyber-security-statistics/#Phishing_Emails

[3] Emsisoft. (2020). The State of Ransomware in the US: Report and Statistics 2020. https://www.emsisoft.com/ransomware-statistics/

[4] Morgan, S. (2017). Global Ransomware Attack Causes Turmoil. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-39901382

[5] Chang, A. (2018). Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s Data Privacy Scandal: ‘We Made Mistakes’. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-s-data-privacy-scandal-we-made-mistakes-n859496

FBI. (2020). 2019 Internet Crime Report. https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-the-internet-crime-complaint-center-2019-internet-crime-report

Verizon. (2020). 2020 Data Breach Investigations Report. https://enterprise.verizon.com/resources/reports/2020-data-breach-investigations-report.pdf

Cybersecurity Ventures. (2019). 2019 Official Annual Cybercrime Report. https://www.herjavecgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/CV-HG-2019-Official-Annual-Cybercrime-Report.pdf

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