Laughing all the way to the bank: Why banks need to rethink their approach to social media

In Common ByAngus Batey / 12th July 2013

by Angus Batey

Every day, I check my bank accounts online. Every time I check, my bank is encouraging me to send it Tweets. So every day I find myself wondering whether I am the only one of their customers to find this bordering on insane.

The social-media revolution has changed the way all companies do business and interact with their customers, and it would be naive to imagine that banking hadn’t been as affected as everybody else. Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and the rest are powerful tools, enabling individuals and corporations to strengthen relationships through easy interaction – and best of all, the costs are met by somebody else. What’s not to like?

Just about the only other thing I can guarantee on happening every day is that I’ll receive an email telling me that my bank account has developed some problem or other, but that help is at hand, if I’d just click on the link and resubmit my details. I’ve been getting them for the thick end of 20 years and they’ve not evolved greatly in their wit or sophistication. We all know the more obvious telltale giveaways, from the hilariously inept salutations (“Dear esteemed beneficiary…”) to the clumsily hidden address they really come from. Yet these scams still manage to fool some users – according to a 2010 report by Cyveillance [PDF], a spammer can expect to get about 250 people to hand over their data for every half-million phishing emails sent. This is a tiny fraction, but a significant number.

Usually, the first thing that lets you know a purported banking email is a fraud is that it claims it comes from a bank you’ve never had an account with. But what if the scammers knew who you banked with, and took a little more care to make their emails plausible? Wouldn’t that low rate of success quickly start to climb?

Every major High Street bank has a range of official Twitter accounts it uses to communicate with the outside world – often little more than a stream of links to corporate press releases or items of perceived interest to customers. But even if that’s all a bank uses Twitter for, its accounts represent an incredible intelligence-gathering opportunity for anyone willing to spend a couple of hours to better target phishing attacks.

Unless you’re an avid student of the banking industry you’re unlikely to subscribe to a bank’s social-media feed if you don’t hold an account with them – and on Twitter, where you don’t even need to be a registered site user to view details of who is following a particular account, the High Street banks’ feeds are a potential scammer’s goldmine. True, a list of followers will only give you a list of Twitter account names: but, obligingly, a significant number of Twitter users include their real names on their publicly accessible profile pages, sometimes with a link to a personal website which will contain contact information: some users even include email addresses and phone numbers on those public pages.

Worse – from a security perspective – most banks also operate helpline-style Twitter accounts, where users publicly out themselves as customers, often of products including mortgage, insurance and share-dealing services as well as just ordinary current accounts: and while conversations requiring detailed information are conducted via email or private Twitter direct messages, initial queries are asked and answered in full public view.

In the real world, someone wishing to target you for banking fraud would either have had to have sold you something and have you give them a cheque to know where you banked, or followed you up and down the High Street on the off-chance you might visit your local branch. Following your bank on Twitter is like walking up and down that High Street wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the bank; Tweeting a question to your bank, from a Twitter account that includes your email address, is like walking around in that t-shirt, and with a flashing neon sign fixed to your head saying “Please rob me”.

The criminals clearly prefer to spend their time counting the loot, not finding more effective ways to raise it – and for that we should be thankful. Because, in their enthusiasm to embrace the new opportunities for customer engagement that social media provide, our banks are giving criminals an unprecedented opportunity to improve their phishing success rate. Clearly the banks’ market research has told them that no new method of customer interaction should be shunned: and to the average internet user, who thinks anything free and convenient is to be applauded, a bank refusing to embrace social media will look out of touch. But by encouraging customers to publicly reveal information about the products and services they use, banks are playing a dangerous game – undermining security to promote customer dialogue seems a curious business decision for an industry that relies, more than most, on protecting its clients’

* Angus Batey is a freelance journalist who has covered cyber defence and data security for titles including the Sunday Telegraph and Digital Battlespace. He doesn’t follow his bank on Twitter.

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