Warning: the latest targets for fraudsters are private school parents

CREDIT: This story was first seen in The Telegraph

Parents with children in private schools have become the latest target of cybercriminals hoping to divert school fee payments of thousands of pounds into their own accounts, The Telegraph reports.

High fees, often between £4,000 and £10,000 a term, and poor online security make schools attractive to fraudsters.

Neil Hare-Brown, of Cyber|Decider, a cyber risk specialists, said he had investigated incidents at six private schools in the last two-and-a-half months which have made claims on their insurance following cyber attacks.

He said he believes this is “just the tip of the iceberg” and warned that many schools may have had their mailboxes compromised without realising.

The Information Commissioner’s Office confirmed it was aware of at least one case where a private school’s system had been attacked.

The Independent Schools’ Bursars Association, which supports senior management staff in more than 1,000 schools, said the issue of cyber attacks had become more than an “isolated incident” over the last 12 months.

David Woodgate, chief executive of the ISBA, said in most cases the schools acted quickly to prevent significant losses. However he said he was concerned that the fraudsters were always “one step ahead” and could become more sophisticated in their approach.

He said the ISBA was being “proactive” at warning parents about the dangers of cybercrime and advising them to call the school’s finance department to check payment details.

Mr Hare-Brown said parents should be on especially high alert over the next few weeks when schools begin to issue invoices for next term.

The ruse typically follows the same pattern as a solicitor scam or other types of invoice fraud, as reported extensively by Telegraph Money. 

Fraudsters are able to compromise the school’s IT systems, which are often unsecure, usually through a phishing attack, according to Mr Hare-Brown. The criminals then gain access to the school’s emails and contact list.

They email parents, explaining that the school’s payment details have changed, and issue a new invoice with their own account information.

Parents who respond to request a confirmation will have their emails diverted to the fraudsters so the school will not receive them.

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The money transferred is usually drained from the fraudster’s account within hours and those who pay by bank transfer have little chance of getting their money back as the payments are not protected.

Banks are not obliged to refund the stolen cash, as they are with unauthorised or fraudulent payments on credit and debit cards.

Despite victims being tricked into transferring funds banks will say the payments were “authorised” and they simply followed the payee’s instructions.

If the school has cyber-insurance, the stolen fees could be covered. However few do and only 38% of policies would cover this kind of crime in any case, said Mr Hare-Brown.

Personal details of parents, staff and children, can also be sold on to other criminals to be used in identity fraud scams.

Parents who receive an email requesting payment into an alternative account should call the school to check instead of emailing. A small sum, such as £1, could be initially paid before telephoning for confirmation to ensure it has gone into the right account.

If you’ve believe you’ve paid money to a fraudster ring your bank straight away and ask them to contact the recipient bank to freeze and claw back the funds. Then contact Action Fraud, the UK’s cybercrime reporting service.

Mr Hare-Brown said schools had become a “big target” this year as criminals have caught wind of the huge amount of personal information they hold with relatively lax security measures in place.

In addition to financial information, school mailboxes typically hold details such as passport images, medical and family records.

He added: “School staff and parents are easily deceived and scams operated over the holiday period when schools are closed, mean the alert won’t be raised quickly.  This gives the criminals time to transfer funds with little chance of them returned.”

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