07/18/2013 11:46 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Hands Up! This Is a Cyber Heist


Hollywood loves a good bank heist story. The elaborate plots, team dissent and theatrical payoffs make for some of the most beloved films in cinematic history. Behind the glamorized depictions of criminal assailants sneaking into established banking institutions, however, lurks a very real threat -- one that relies on computers and electronic fraud rather than assault rifles and vendettas. Earlier this year, in possibly the largest bank robbery ever recorded, a group of Internet hackers stole more than $40 million from banks across the globe.

Targeting at least 26 nations, the cyber-criminals hacked into Indian accounts and withdrew funds from ATMs around the world in a December initiative that resulted in $5 million in losses. Following this monumental theft, the group struck again in February by stealing an estimated $40 million using a U.S. Visa and MasterCard processor. Such schemes truly read like the pages of a Hollywood heist blockbuster, involving hundreds of accomplices. Simply, big money backers hire hackers to obtain bank codes and PIN codes, as well as cashers to collect money from ATMs.

The money exchange begins before even a single dime disappears from a bank account with viruses and malware used to identify financial data for online purchases, cash withdrawals and wire transfers. With 662 breaches to banking and non-financial institutions reported by the Identity Theft Resource Center in 2010, followed by 419 breaches in 2011 and 470 in 2012, cyber-attacks against the banking industry and even the average consumer remain a constant threat.

Fortunately, banking institutions have started to address the problem with their own cyber-intelligence and counterattack campaigns. With at least one major U.S. lender hiring hackers to attempt cyber-attacks against their financial systems and other firms relying on in-house initiatives, banks look to enhance security protocols through simulated attacks. The need for such security efforts remains paramount, as there is more at stake than the individual funds held by banking giants. Consumer trust serves a vital role in the banking industry, and the average consumer's confidence in the security of his/her bank will likely be shaken by repeated reports of cybercrime and personal accounts of theft. In addition, the success of cybercrime highlights an even more significant risk in the issue of cyber-terrorism.

Banks do not hold the only responsibility for protecting financial information and customer funds. The average consumer possesses the necessary tools to help keep cyber-criminals from stealing money and pertinent data by following just a few simple precautions.

  1. Utilize strong passwords (birthdays, anniversaries and the names of children and cherished family pets are easy targets for hackers looking to steal funds and other personal information)
  2. Be cautious with all Internet activities (never provide financial information to unknown or questionable websites or over unsecured networks, avoid downloading material from suspicious links and only access secured websites online)
  3. Keep stringent firewall settings and up-to-date security software on all electronic devices, including cellphones and tablets
  4. Closely watch all financial accounts and alert banks immediately of any illegal or inauthentic activities

For more information on Internet hackers and current trends in cybercrime, see Hackers Unite