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Ransomware chokes COBRA: How AI-powered data analysis can support financial services’ plight

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By Toby Butler, Financial Crime Solutions Manager at Ripjar

 

Ransomware attacks are on the increase in the United Kingdom. Most of the British Government’s COBRA meetings have been convened in response to ransomware attacks, showing how cybersecurity breaches are as pressing as national emergencies and crises. The National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) annual review found this year that the country was hit by 17 ransomware incidents that were so impactful they “require a nationally coordinated response”. That extends to the financial services sector, which saw an increase of ransomware attacks with 55% of organisations hit in 2021.

Where does this leave the sector and how can artificial intelligence and machine learning be instrumental in understanding the risks companies face against future ransomware attacks?

Toby Butler

Company information is being stolen and sold to different threat groups, who prey on the individuals in that organisation who are more likely to pay them. The UK is one of the most cyber-attacked countries in the world and the Government has been criticised for being “ill-equipped” to deal with this exponential rise of fraud cases.

 

Ransomware-as-a-Service

Ransomware is one of the most common forms of cybercrime. Fighting it has become one of the biggest problems that organisations today face during their everyday operations. For instance, Malware (malicious software) encrypts the files of a single computer, then works its way through an entire network to reach the server and inflict maximum damage. Company information is being stolen and sold to different threat groups, who prey on the individuals in that organisation who are more likely to pay them.

When these attacks occur the victims, more often businesses, are left with minimal options. If they have substantial backup solutions already in place, they can attempt to restore the encrypted data to their servers. But if that data isn’t already secured elsewhere, they may need to pay a ransom to the criminals behind the attack. Thereby allowing the business to function once again and restoring their reputation. The cost of paying the ransom will feel considerably smaller compared to starting a business again from scratch. Sophos’ State of Ransomware in Financial Services 2022 report found that 52% of financial services organisations paid the ransom to restore their data, the average remediation cost in financial services was US$1.59M.

Cybersecurity Ventures estimates that ransomware is set to cost global businesses more than $256 billion by the end of 2031. By that token, organisations need to be extremely mindful of the potential threats they may face. Businesses need to understand the methodologies these hackers use, to address the weaknesses within their domain and take measures to isolate and prevent further ransomware attacks from happening again.

 

The rise of WAMs

According to a recent report by security firm CyberSixgill, 19% of the 3,612 cyberattacks that took place in 2021 were traced back to Wholesale Access Markets – or WAMs for short. WAMs are, in essence, underground internet flea markets. These markets are where aspiring attackers come to purchase network access from threat actors – the individual or entity involved in carrying out the cyber-attack. Types of threat actors include insiders, cybercriminals, rival organisations, or even nation states stealing data.

WAMs sell access to multiple compromised endpoints (or pathways) for around 10-20 dollars. Researchers found that WAMs listed access to approximately 4.3 million compromised endpoints in 2021, which include access to both provider and enterprise software (for example, an organisation’s Slack channel) up to 180 days before the attack itself took place. This shows how long these compromised endpoints remain undetected without proper internal analysis.

 

How can Financial Services stay ahead of the curve?

The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning is undisputed across modern businesses and sectors, and continues to revolutionise processes across the board. AI is a significant player in the financial services industry, building the ‘cyber-wall’ against nefarious users. It gives organisations optimal insights into reducing the likelihood of a ransomware attack in the future.

Namely, AI and machine learning collects and analyses vast amounts of messy (structured and unstructured) data from disparate sources. The challenge for the sector is to understand the volume and variety of the raw data collected from any source to build better protection in the future.

Structured information could be best understood as the clear data we see in a table. For example, the following attendees made a business meeting: first name – Joan, surname – Smith, age – 46. But unstructured information is information presented in a complex manner. For example, ‘there were five people who attended the business meeting, one of whom was forty-six and called Joan Smith’. Naturally, due to the complex nature of the prose, it would be more difficult for a machine to process that data into a digestible format for further risk analysis. This is where AI continues to prove invaluable.

AI uses natural language processing to understand the information provided on the web. As the software continues to evolve, natural language processing reads the information in a way a human would to extract the key information from the text. By incorporating AI and machine learning within an organisation’s IT infrastructure, companies operating within financial services can be better equipped to handle cybercrime.

These tools are flexible and adaptable, they can be configured to analyse different types of data from different sources to curate key insights. This collated information provides a better analysis of the organisation’s exposure, allowing them the opportunity to get upstream in preventing future attacks. This kind of approach is essential to processing listings on WAMs.

The power to analyse data to identify weakness is vital in the battle against cybercrime. It gives organisations a better understanding into what they could expect to see in the future. Hosting the correct data, and with the analytical skills, financial organisations can gain a better understanding of the methodologies and weaknesses in-house that attackers use and exploit to hold them to ransom. Organisations can then use this as a reference to pinpoint compromised endpoints, giving them a chance to reduce access before this route can be exploited and ruin their business.

With cybercrime and ransomware continuing to remain prevalent, it’s vital that financial services companies understand how they can get ahead of the curve and build a robust security platform within their IT infrastructure that can withstand an attack. In 2022, a ransomware attack occurred every 40 seconds. The mindset for the sector needs to be one of when, not if.

Organisations need to be thinking about an attack now – before it’s happened. Pre-planning and preparing for the worst possible outcome from future threats and adversaries. The introduction of AI and machine learning in the fight against cybercrime is a must, and the sooner the industry gets behind in implementing AI, the safer it will be through the next decade.

 

 

Business

Accounting Automation in the Future

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Accounting automation is the process of streamlining repetitive tasks in financial processes. For example, some processes like invoicing are time-consuming and repetitive. Automation can reduce manual labor and save businesses both time and money. Also, it helps improve accuracy, reduces errors, and provides more accurate financial reporting.

Accounting automation in the future will be increasingly important for businesses to stay competitive. But every new change comes with both advantages and challenges. Let’s dive in to get ready for this future trend.

 

Potential Future Benefits of Accounting Automation

Increased Efficiency and Cost Savings

Accounting automation is a great way to increase efficiency and cost savings. For example, AI bookkeeping uses advanced algorithms to automate many accounting tasks. So, companies can track expenses, prepare financial reports, and more using AI.

It reduces the time needed for manual entry. So, businesses can spend fewer labor hours on tedious processes. They can increase efficiency by freeing up resources for more strategic work. It also helps reduce errors and inconsistencies associated with manual processes. So, the cost of compliance is lower because of greater accuracy.

 

Improved Accuracy and Reliability

Accounting automation can improve accuracy and reliability in accounting processes. For example, Automating bank reconciliation is less prone to errors from human mistakes or miscalculations. You can automate the process to identify discrepancies between the bank statement and accounting records. It helps to ensure that financial reports remain accurate and reliable. So businesses can take corrective action faster than processing data manually.

 

Streamlined Business Processes

Streamlined business processes involve eliminating unnecessary steps, reducing paperwork, and automating repetitive tasks. This allows businesses to focus on higher-value activities, such as developing new products, improving customer service, and developing strategic plans for the future.

 

Making a Better Decision

Accounting automation can enhance decision-making in 3 ways.

1. It enables businesses to access real-time information from multiple systems. So they can identify trends for better decision-making.
2. Automated accounting also helps with forecasting, budgeting, and auditing tasks. It enables businesses to be more proactive in their decision-making processes.
3. Also, automated accounting tools can integrate with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. They can manage data across the enterprise and make concise decisions that are favorable to the company as a whole.

 

Increase Customer Satisfaction

Accounting automation can help businesses increase customer satisfaction by streamlining their processes and providing a more efficient customer experience. For example:
4. Automated accounting systems can automate tedious manual tasks such as invoicing, data entry, and payroll processing. This allows businesses to focus on other aspects of their operations that are more important for customer service.
5. Automated accounting systems can also provide customers with more accurate and timely financial information. The information can help them make better decisions about their finances.
6. Also, accounting automation enables businesses to respond quickly to customer inquiries. It helps reduce wait times and improve the overall customer experience. So, you can build better relationships with their customers.

 

Improved Accessibility

Accounting automation takes place online or comes with cloud-based solutions. So, you can access your information and do your job from anywhere instead of being confined to one spot.

 

Challenges to Implementing Accounting Automation in the Future

Cost of Technology Infrastructure Upgrades

Automating an accounting system often requires businesses to invest in new hardware and software, such as servers and other associated equipment. These upgrades come with a hefty price tag that may be difficult for small businesses to afford.

There are also extra costs, such as installation fees, setup charges, software licensing fees, cloud storage costs, and maintenance fees.

 

Training Requirements for Staff Members

Accounting automation involves using advanced technology to automate certain processes. So, it creates a need for trained staff members who can handle the new technology. Training requirements vary depending on the type of software used.

Some common training includes record-keeping procedures, software applications, and troubleshooting skills.

 

Regulatory Compliance Issues

Accounting automation can be a time-saver, but it also requires firms to be aware of the applicable rules and regulations. Companies must ensure that their automated systems are compliant with relevant laws and regulations such as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), and other applicable accounting standards.

Besides, they must also comply with legal requirements related to taxes, financial statements, and other reporting obligations.

So, businesses must consider the complexities of regulatory compliance when automating accounting.

 

Security and Data Protection Concerns

As businesses move their accounting processes to the cloud, they are exposed to a wide range of potential security risks. Data breaches can cause significant damage to the business’s financial and reputational integrity. Besides, the complexity of automated accounting systems can make it difficult to identify and detect suspicious activities or errors in the system.

To ensure data is kept secure, businesses must have strong measures in place to protect against unauthorized access, encryption, and regular backups of data.

Furthermore, companies must train their staff on the proper use of the system. It helps staff to know how to protect confidential information from being accessed or misused by unauthorized personnel.

Businesses may also need an experienced IT team to monitor and maintain the system to keep up with any changes or updates for optimal performance.

 

Final thoughts

Accounting automation has come a long way in the past few decades. It is likely to continue to advance in the future. As technology continues to evolve, more businesses will likely begin taking advantage of automation in their accounting processes. So, businesses should be aware of the potential challenges and prepare to stay competitive.

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Banking

How banks can help customers during the cost of living crisis

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 Lavanya Kaul Head of BFSI, UK & Ireland, LTI Mindtree

 

Surging energy and food prices are significantly driving up household expenditure, which means living standards in the UK will fall to 2.2% this year, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. This is the biggest drop in any single financial year since the records began in 1956-57.

It’s a tough situation for many consumers who are still struggling with financial hardship following redundancies and pay freezes from the pandemic. According to TSB’s Money Confidence Barometer, 82% of people have experienced an increase in the day-to-day cost of living. This resulted in almost a quarter of them using their savings, while one in five changed their usual spending habits and behaviours.

As the financial situation worsens, consumers are increasingly relying on their banks for help and support. But, while banks can’t control inflation, energy or food prices, they can play a more supportive role by adapting their services to offer stronger customer service, better tools for financial management and be more flexible with loan repayments.

 

Strengthen customer service with intuitive AI solutions

Since the pandemic, consumers have changed the way they bank, using more mobile apps for primary banking rather than going into physical branches. This provided an opportunity for banks to accelerate their investment in digital services including automation and offer customers more support during the cost of living crisis.

Lavanya Kaul

Effective tools include AI-powered chatbots which respond intelligently to customer enquiries to quickly help troubleshoot problems and provide useful advice. But to be successful, you need to ensure you strike the right balance between an efficient and convenient process and creating a personalised experience. Customers need to feel like you understand and care about their problems and are here to help, rather than just fobbing them off with a monosyllabic bot. To avoid this, banks need to embrace intuitive AI solutions to ensure that empathy comes across in all automated interactions with customers. While doing that, messaging is key. In times of stress, we don’t function as well and financial struggles are a huge stressor. The clearer the message and the simpler the instructions, the better.

Financial education, when combined with technology solutions such as open banking, can offer more long-term solutions for people to navigate their finances. This can help put more information into the hands of the consumer to help them grasp their financial situation better. Some banks have cracked this with innovative solutions like HSBC’s Financial fitness score tool that can analyse your money habits and signpost you towards ways to improve your financial health. This may include joining one of the financial education webinars run by the bank or having a ‘financial health check’ with a member of staff.

 

Launch money management features & apps

Introducing money management features and apps to increase the visibility of a customer’s financial situation, empowers them with the information they need to make smarter choices.

TSB offers Spend & Save and Spend & Save Plus current accounts which include a savings pot that enables customers to put extra money aside when they can and an auto-balancer feature that automatically transfers money from the savings pot into their current account if their balance falls below a certain level. This allows them to start building up savings and protects them from unnecessary overdraft charges.

Personal financial management (PFM) apps also help customers get a better understanding of their finances. These connect with a customer’s bank account and enable them to keep a close eye on their spending habits and track upcoming bill payments. An example is Prism, a PFM app which allows customers to manage bill payments by sending them reminders about due dates. It also provides a summary of their income, account balance and monthly expenses at a glance, therefore consolidating all their financial information in one place and saving time on bill payments.

Lloyd’s Banking Group and HSBC launched a subscription management tool for all customers on mobile, allowing them to see and cancel recurring card payments for things like TV subscription services. HSBC says that during the first quarter of the year, it led to customers dumping around 200,000 subscriptions.

 

Introduce payment holidays

While improved customer service and financial management tools are important support tactics, they might not be enough for more vulnerable customers. For example, those who are about to default on mortgage payments or loans due to redundancy or periods of ill health need banks to do more, like offering payment holidays. Banks relaxed the rules for payment holidays during the pandemic, so they should consider doing it again to help more vulnerable customers through the crisis. Customers need to understand that they are not alone when experiencing financial difficulties and that help is available

 

Ride out the crisis together

As inflation reaches a 30-year high, customers are now more reliant than ever on banks for guidance and support. But to provide the right level of service, they need to move away from their traditional ways and behave more like technology companies by embracing automated solutions to create the right products and services for customers. Then layer on top of that the need for more personalised and empathetic customer interactions, as well as consider additional support for more vulnerable customers.

While we don’t know how long the cost of living crisis will last, what we do know is that the pressure on household finances is likely to get worse before it gets better. Therefore, banks need to step up, be the supportive partner and do whatever they can to help customers. After all, the only way we can ride out the crisis is by supporting each other and working together.

 

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