UK’s NCSC reveals Premier League footie clubs to be ripe pickings for cybercrooks: One almost lost £1m to BEC attack

Common cybersecurity threats also apply to Premier League football clubs, according to the National Cyber Security Centre, which said that one club nearly sent £1m to fraudsters after a business email compromise (BEC) attack.

The NCSC report, out yesterday and titled “The Cyber Threat to Sports Organisations” (PDF), reveals some interesting details about how high-value, high-profile businesses might not be taking information security as seriously as they ought to be.

“The managing director (MD) of a Premier League football club was the victim of a ‘spear phishing’ attack,” recounted NCSC in its report [PDF]. “When he clicked on the email, he was diverted to a spoofed Office 365 login page where he entered his credentials, unwittingly passing his email address and password to unidentified cyber criminals.”

During that year’s transfer window (when teams buy and sell players) the club agreed to pay a European club £1m. Criminals quietly monitoring the MD’s email account spotted this and carried out the classic account details switch, sending an email to the club from a false email address as if it was continuing the previous conversation from the real account – and doing the same to the MD.

And they would have gotten away with too, if they’d used a different account

They then successfully got the Premier League club to send them £1m. The only saving grace was that the criminals’ bank account already had a fraud marker against it, meaning banks in the transaction chain halted the transfer at the last moment.

Meanwhile, another anonymous organisation “that holds athlete performance data” discovered that for eight months a number of their email addresses had been silently forwarding messages to “suspicious external email accounts”. Sensibly, the organisation reported this to the Information Commissioner’s Office, in accordance with the Data Protection Act 2018 – though it faced significant “excess costs” on its insurance policy after ‘fessing up and telling athletes, insurers and more.

The cause? Its Office 365 implementation did not have multi-factor authentication (MFA) enabled.

Paul Chichester, NCSC’s director of ops, said in a statement: “I would urge sporting bodies to use this time [before sports stadiums reopen to the public] to look at where they can improve their cyber security – doing so now will help protect them and millions of fans from the consequences of cyber crime.”

Adenike Cosgrove of email security biz Proofpoint commented: “The sporting industry has complex supply chains and frequently transfers large payment sums, making it a prime target for business email compromise attacks. In 2018, Lazio football club famously lost £1.75m to an email scam, transferring money to fraudsters, and we can expect these types of attacks to continue.

“To protect against email fraud, the UK government has mandated the email authentication standard, DMARC, for all public sector organisations – private companies and sports authorities should follow suit.”

Business email compromise scams are widespread; a bread-and-butter attack method for online criminals. The scam is simple: you receive an email that invites you to click a link or open an attachment. Once you do either of those things, you either download some form of malware or input login details to a website controlled by the criminals. In both cases the criminals gain a foothold into your organisation.

Rather concerningly, a couple of years ago one study found that BEC’d staffers were too ashamed to tell their bosses about it, while the volume of such attacks increased by a quarter in the first two months of 2020 alone. ®