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The Consequences of Ignoring Cyber Attacks on Your Website

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Glenn Stok is a systems analyst with a Master’s Degree in Computer Science. This informative article is based on his professional insight.

Even though the United States has a Cyber Command for Cybersecurity, they still lack a simple solution to stop threats in their tracks.

Even though the United States has a Cyber Command for Cybersecurity, they still lack a simple solution to stop threats in their tracks.

This is a review of the harm caused by companies and government agencies that don't monitor real-time hacker attempts. I include a simple solution that I do with my website to block bots that search for access to data.

In May 2011, the following companies notified me that a hacker stole my personal info from their computers: Best Buy, Citigroup, Home Depot, Capital One, and JC Penny.

I discovered that all the companies in the 2011 data breach shared customer personal information with one single company. They all use the services of an advertising company named Epsilon in Dallas, Texas. In addition, their privacy policy isn't very protective since they all let Epsilon have the data on their customers.

With this combined data, Epsilon probably knows more about you than any individual company. In May of 2011, all your personal information that was on their database got out to hackers.

There are ongoing reports of compromised data on large corporate and government computer systems:

  • Sears and Kmart reported a data breach in 2017.
  • Hackers attacked the Equifax credit reporting agency in July 2017.

Cyber Attack on Citibank and Others

According to Reuters, 360,000 Citigroup accounts were hacked with a cyber attack in May of 2011. Citibank should know how to protect its client's data from cyber threats. They have the resources, but they don't know how to fix it. A simple monitoring algorithm, as I do, would have stopped it before 100 hacks, not 360,000.

Those warning notices assured me that the breach did not include critical data required to commit fraud. However, that didn’t leave me with any secure feeling. Steal a little from one firm, more from another, and before you know it, they have all the data required to steal my identity.

I monitor my credit activity with a monitoring firm, so if someone were to apply for a loan in my name, they would notify me immediately. Therefore, I’m not worried for myself, but these ongoing cyber-attacks make me wonder how these big corporations can be so lacking with security.

In June 2011, a hacker group broke into a publicly allocated portion of the Senate’s website. Luckily they were stopped from getting into an internal part of the network by the site’s firewall. (Source: reuters.com).

monitoring-website-for-hacker-cyber-attacks

Google Got Hacked Too

Even Google was hacked! In June 2011, hundreds of Gmail accounts were compromised by a hacker in China. Some of them belonged to U.S. Government officials. (Source: Washington Post).

We have to ask ourselves how safe our privacy is if all these trusted companies were hacked at the same time. They don't have strong enough defenses in place to detect and stop cyber attacks.

They can block hackers in real-time, but I don't see that anyone is doing enough to implement that safety measure. Computer systems that are online with the Internet need to have better controls in place to avoid hackers from getting through. They are continuously trying.

Processes need to be implemented to block predators the instant their attack is apparent.

How to Monitor a Website for Hacking Attempts

I have taken steps to monitor and stop hacker attacks in real-time on my website. Large corporations and government agencies can protect their computers that way too. But they don't!

The process is so easy. I wrote code to monitor and discover cyber attacks that seek to compromise security.

You might be familiar with the page on websites that tell you that you've reached a non-existent page. It's known as a 404 error page. If you click on a link to a page that no longer exists or if you mistype a URL, you will get that 404 error.

I used that error condition to capture information about visitors who got a 404 error. And more importantly, the software code I wrote tracks their activity in real-time to determine if they are attempting to hack into my database.

I capture info such as:

  • The visitors IP address
  • Their location in the world
  • The site and the page they were looking at before they clicked to my website
  • The page they were trying to see
  • The web browser they were using
  • Some of their system information

How can I make use of that info to block a hacker? The trick is to automate it.

A large number of simultaneous 404 errors from the same IP address indicates possible hacking. I look up their DNS authenticity, and sometimes that shows, “Could be forged: hostname does not exist.” I find that to be an obvious clue that the visitor is up to no good.

I like to get notified in real-time via email to know what's going on with my website. However, that notification is not necessary. It's quite easy to write a routine to block hacker bots automatically. I'll explain a little later how to automate the process to stop hackers in their tracks.

How to Track Hacking Activity on a Website

Since I programmed my website to send me emails of hacker attempts with all the data, I get to see what they are trying to achieve. It's usually a search to find back door access, admin scripts, SQL database scripts, and PHP setup code. This activity indicates an attempt to gain access to our server through one of these routines.

I'm noticing that these attempts always have IP addresses from foreign countries such as China, Japan, Bangladesh, India, Russia, Brazil, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Jordan. It’s rare for me to catch a hacker from the U.S.

Some of these attacks are so vicious they take up a lot of bandwidth, hitting hundreds of non-existent pages in a matter of seconds. They are hoping to find one that is a back door entry to log in and get vital information from the rest of the server.

I keep my customer records offline with no connection to the Internet in any way whatsoever. Besides, I don't have any scripts online that would allow access to my data, but the hackers don't know that. They try to get access anyway and eventually will find a business website that is easy to penetrate, and sometimes they find something useful.

Hackers use bots to scan every computer in the world or a selected country. Some scripts their bots are searching for, allow them to plant executable code to search for things like customer records.

How Companies Allow Access to Their Data Without Knowing It

Since I wrote code to send me emails showing what these hackers are looking for, I have discovered a particular targeted search that happens almost every day. Hackers are looking for a file by the name of crossdomain.xml.

I don’t have that file on my server, but they keep scanning computers until they find it on some server somewhere. It may be a government installation or a big corporate office computer. Eventually, they find one that has this file, and once they do, they have a field day collecting data.

This file lets a user opt-in to allow other sites to read its data. Typically JavaScript, Flash, and Java limit reading data from the same website in the same domain. However, opting-in to allow cross-domain data access is opening the door for trouble.

I am shocked that so many websites use this without monitoring it closely. That is the only reason why hackers are searching through all sites until they find it. I feel that since I get hackers searching for this every day, it must be quite prominent. I wonder if some Webmasters have it on their server and don’t even realize it.

How to Block Hackers and Stop Cyber Attacks

This last section is for Webmasters. Anyone else who’s interested can follow along to get the jest of what I’m about to explain. Programmers and webmasters will understand this, but I’ll explain it in plain English so anyone can follow along.

Make a 404.php file and specify that to be the page to display when someone clicks to a non-existent page or enters a non-existent page in their browser. That method will also capture bots that go around the Internet searching for back doors. Back doors are scripts that allow access.

Make the page display a friendly error telling a legitimate visitor that they stumbled upon a non-existent page. Include options to find their way around your website.

Now for the critical part:

Write PHP code that monitors hacker attacks. The method is to keep track of how many requests ended up with error-404's by the same IP address within a specified time—say 30 seconds.

If more errors occur than is a reasonable number for a human, then it is most likely a cyber hacker bot. Examine the requests for files that include SQL, admin, cross-domain, login, scripts, setup, and anything else that could provide a method of access to a hacker.

If there is a match, then you can safely assume this is a hacker. No one else would be looking for these types of scripts and getting continuous 404 errors while searching.

The next step of the PHP routine is to capture

  • The HTTP referrer (where they came from)
  • The redirect status (status code)
  • The HTTP user agent (browser info)
  • The server signature (webserver info)
  • Any other info you might want to track

Write additional PHP code that blocks that IP address. On an Apache server, you do that by adding a deny record to the "htaccess" file. That's the trick to block the hacker, and it takes just milliseconds.

You can also include PHP code to send the details of the hacker attempt to an administrator’s email address for follow up. You can also post the info to a report file that can be printed later for review.

A Central Database of Hacker IP Addresses Is Strongly Needed

Imagine if everyone would share their hacker’s IP address with other field office computers so they can block any discovered hackers too. The possibilities are endless.

With this method, cyber hackers can be stopped in real-time before they succeed in getting through and compromising a server. If they try again from a different IP address, that too will be blocked in real-time. They won't have a chance!

I have other ideas to enhance this implementation, such as developing a way to send hacker's IP addresses to a central database. The United States Cyber Command for Cybersecurity is just the place for that! How about it?

There presently are several sites where you can report hackers. Even the FBI has a “File a Complaint” link on their website for this purpose. But the data has to be entered by a human, and it's time-consuming. I wish I could just let the code I wrote interface with something like that when it happens.

I think all Webmasters need to work together to control cybercrime. They can shut the door to these attacks, and the Internet can be much more secure for us all.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Glenn Stok