Cyberattack should prompt advisers to ask their IT professionals hard questions

Last week's ransomware attack reveals system vulnerabilities

May 15, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

By Liz Skinner

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Advisory firm owners should be asking their information technology experts two important questions to protect their businesses from the "WannaCry" ransomware attack that hit more than 200,000 computers in 150 countries in recent days and from future cyberstrikes.

First, ask whether the firm has a patch management system for making updates to software on a regularly scheduled basis, as well as a method to implement quick fixes when necessary, said Jason Graf, security analyst and ransomware expert for Sword & Shield Enterprise Security Inc.

Microsoft issued a patch it labeled critical in March that firms should have immediately downloaded for all their computers, instead of waiting for their regular updating cycle of every 60 to 90 days, he said. That patch was released for current systems.

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The second question to ask is whether the firm uses any unsupported systems, meaning those where the vendors of those tools no longer provide updates and security patches to those versions. Microsoft took the unusual step over the weekend of saying it was providing a patch for older versions of Windows, including Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, which gave those firms that didn't have updated systems an option they would not ordinarily receive.

"Business leaders need to ask their IT people the hard questions," Mr. Graf said. "Do not assume that you don't have these outdated systems in your environment."

The ransomware attack that was unleashed late last week was especially damaging because it had a mechanism to spread through the network, looking to infect other computers that hadn't been updated to stop the worm.

The malware used a technique purportedly stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency. It affected the U.K.'s National Health Service, Russia's Ministry of Interior, China government agencies, Deutsche Bahn, automakers Nissan Motor Co. and Renault, PetroChina, logistics giant FedEx Corp., and other company and hospital computer systems in countries from Eastern Europe to the U.S. and Asia.

The hackers used the tool to encrypt files within affected computers, making them inaccessible, and demanded ransom — typically $300 in bitcoin.

Victims have paid about $50,000 in ransom so far, with the total expected to rise, said Tom Robinson, chief operating officer and co-founder of Elliptic Enterprises Ltd., a ransomware consultant that works with banks and companies in the U.K., U.S. and Europe.

Mr. Robinson, in an interview by email, said he calculated the total based on payments tracked to bitcoin addresses specified in the ransom demands.

Advisory firm RS Crum has been proactive in the last few years to secure its data, and it hasn't had any breaches.

"We have learned that you cannot be perfect in your defense, but with some diligence, you can remove the low hanging fruit that will hopefully lead to the 'bad guys' looking elsewhere for an easier target," said Ashley Bleckner, a financial adviser at RS Crum.

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Her firm, which has eight people and manages about $400 million in client assets, has an outside agency perform a security audit of its safeguarding practices and systems several times a year.

After checking with her firm's IT consultants, she confirmed RS Crum has a regular patch management program and does not have any unsupported systems.

RS Crum also verifies all wire transfer requests with a phone call and changes its passwords every 90 days.

"In the past five years, this has become a top priority for our firm because data is so valuable, and once it's gone, it's gone," she said.

Bloomberg News contributed reporting to this story.

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