IT's Worst Nightmare: The Disciplined And Patient Thief

Last week, one of the industry's best security analysts (Avivah Litan, from Gartner) wrote a blog post about the latest round of skimming attacks and she made two intriguing points: that POS card reader tamper attacks skirt PCI protections and that most bank fraud detectors fail because the amounts are too small. These attacks actually are even more clever than that. Through a disciplined, non-greedy approach, many of these attacks make it not worthwhile for either the consumer or the bank to pursue.

Litan spoke of additional security measures being better than the alternative of "having the customer account drained." But that's just it. These thieves are not stupid enough to kill the goose that laid the golden mag-stripe. Just as the typical consumer needs to see enough fraud to make a phone call to a bank—and endure the inevitable series of hold music performances—worthwhile (for some, that's more than $5, and for others, it can be more than $20), the typical bank needs to see enough of its customers get hit to make a call to its fraud department worthwhile.

If the attacks are carefully planned and the victims chosen even more carefully, thieves can make a nice living as long as no single bank or customer gets hit for too much. This approach is the classic salami attack (taking a tiny sliver from a huge number of accounts).

At a low enough level, consumers won't notice it. There's then that gray area where they notice and suspect it, but it's only $3 so they may let it slide. What does this all add up to? Very few checks bouncing, which means no lawsuits being filed, which likely means no media interest.

It's a twist on the tree falling in the woods line. "If a fraud happens and no one hears about it, will anyone bother to stop it?" When cyberthieves start acting like adults, we're all in trouble. Fortunately, with criminals, greed and speed will invariably trump wisdom. Until then, though, I'll be checking my bank and credit card statements very carefully.