Securing the Digital World

Dialing Up Deception: The New Vishing Scam

Nov 13, 2018 | by Heidi Bleau |

Fraud, as a concept, is only slightly younger than the concept of a promise. The advent of monetary and electronic advances in the past hundred or so years has only encouraged the practice and evolution of fraud tactics.  Phishing is no exception.  According to RSA research, phishing represented 50% of all cyber attacks last quarter and continues to play out worldwide, combining known electronic fraud tactics and alternate forms of deployment.

Vishing, or voice phishing, is a phishing attack where fraudsters use the telephone to misrepresent their affiliation or authority in the hope that victims will reveal credentials or other personal information for further compromise. Normally, vishing actors obtain the personal information of the victim, including their phone number, and initiate an unsolicited call claiming to be from an organization the victim trusts such as a bank, government agency, or other service provider.  Victims, often unaware that fraudsters can use tactics such as caller ID spoofing to make it appear as though they are calling from a legitimate business, are more likely to be socially engineered by the personal touch of a human voice than the impersonal touch of an email.

Changing the Formula
While vishing accounts for less than one percent of total phishing-type attacks, according to RSA’s research, it remains a very real threat, as evidenced by its recent evolution.  Vishing scams, traditionally believed to originate from an inbound call, are now being deployed in reverse.  Instead of the fraudster calling out to the victim, through “reverse vishing,” the victim calls out to the fraudster.

Poisoning the Well
So how does it work? Perpetrators of this scam use the internet to push false information to the top of search results.  A common way to accomplish this sort of “SEO poisoning” is to seed the false information throughout legitimate web pages, social media posts, online help forums and media comment sections (think back to all of those weird, non-sequitur replies you’ve seen), using keywords known to generate search traffic.

This effort can be combined with other tricks, such as misrepresenting a fraud page’s SEO value to search crawlers, buying fake back-links and clicks, or even employing a botnet to execute all of these tasks, which are meant to push information into the top results. Phishers have used these tactics to insert as many malicious links as possible to help execute “watering-hole” malware attacks.  Instead of linking to a fake or malicious website, in a reverse vishing attack, fraudsters link to a fake phone number.

One recent example tracked by RSA involves the publishing of fake customer care numbers alongside legitimate physical locations on Google Maps. Customers searching for business contact information are instead directed to a phone number operated by the fraudster. This scheme has proven to be highly effective as it is very common for consumers to search Google for contact information or location. There is little to no suspicion of fraudulent conduct, and the absolute trust in search results can cause victims to provide information that they may otherwise be hesitant to do.

Social media is another channel that is frequently used in an attempt to reach unassuming victims.  In the sample post below, a fraudster uses Facebook to try to direct consumers to a fake Amazon Prime customer service number.


We Won’t Call You, You Will Call Us
Fraudsters benefit from this new concept of reverse vishing in a couple of ways. First, while not as easy and anonymous to create as a URL, email address or even a social media account, phone numbers can be bought, sold and transferred easily and discreetly, and especially so if purchased through any of the abundant illicit providers in the cybercriminal community.

Second, using a phone number might be an effort to hamper any rapid attribution and takedown efforts. Oversight and takedown requirements, authority and processes for phone numbers are different from other electronic media in most countries.

In the U.S., for example, the investigation and takedown of a fraudulent site can often be accomplished at the service provider level, but claims investigation and action against phone numbers is handled by the Federal Communications Commission, a civilian watchdog agency with fewer resources and a much different mandate and pace than its private-sector counterparts.

What to Do?
Again, neither SEO poisoning nor phone fraud are new tactics, but the combination and nuance of this particular type of attack is notable, if nothing else for its variation on a theme, and for its seemingly calculated tactics meant to prey on human trust.

So how can consumers protect themselves against this updated scam? Vigilance and knowledge are the best bet to prevent becoming a victim.  Given the tactics discussed, there are a few things for consumers to keep in mind:

Be Aware When Searching for Important Numbers on the Web
The easiest and most secure way to find contact information for your phone company, bank, or any other service provider is by looking at official correspondence from that organization.  Statements, bills, invoices, and even credit and debit cards all include contact information for customer service. If you do search for a number online, be sure to scrutinize the content surrounding the numbers that come up.  Watch for suspicious signs such as the number combined with a message, surrounded by gibberish text or seemingly unrelated subjects.

Don’t Give Up Personal Info to Anyone
Most of us have been conditioned to keep our personal information safe, such as answers to security questions, PIN numbers, and passwords, but even slightly effective social engineering scams have proven time and time again their ability to pry this information out of even savvy consumers. The truth is that, like many companies have warned their customers, most organizations will never ask you for this type of information over the phone.

Call for Help
In the event you run across a scam like this, or find yourself falling victim to one, start the ball rolling as soon as possible.  If you suspect a scam involving your financial information, contact your bank immediately.  It is also highly encouraged to report any potential scam to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.  For example, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) in the U.S. and ActionFraud in the United Kingdom both provide a very easy process for victims to file a complaint right on their home page.

As always, the key ingredient in any cybersecurity effort is awareness and education.  Consumers must understand that their identity and personal information is very valuable to cyber crooks.  Complacency in the face of constant exposure to cyber threats like this is akin to simply handing over cash to a cybercriminal.

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Get a complete snapshot of the latest global cybercrime trends in RSA’s Quarterly Fraud Report: Q3 2018.