Five cyberattacks on marketing departments

Why cybercriminals want to attack PR and marketing staff and, crucially, how to protect your company from financial and reputational harm.

How cybercriminals steal advertising budgets, advertising mailouts, and websites, and how to protect them.

When it comes to attacks on businesses, the focus is usually on four aspects: finance, intellectual property, personal data, and IT infrastructure. However, we mustn’t forget that cybercriminals can also target company assets managed by PR and marketing — including e-mailouts, advertising platforms, social media channels, and promotional sites. At first glance, these may seem unattractive to the bad guys (“where’s the revenue?”), but in practice each can serve cybercriminals in their own “marketing activities”.


To the great surprise of many (even InfoSec experts), cybercriminals have been making active use of legitimate paid advertising for a number of years now. In one way or another they pay for banner ads and search placements, and employ corporate promotion tools. There are many examples of this phenomenon, which goes by the name of malvertising (malicious advertising). Usually, cybercriminals advertise fake pages of popular apps, fake promo campaigns of famous brands, and other fraudulent schemes aimed at a wide audience. Sometimes threat actors create an advertising account of their own and pay for advertising, but this method leaves too much of a trail (such as payment details). So a different method is more attractive to them: stealing login credentials and hacking the advertising account of a straight-arrow company, then promoting their sites through it. This has a double payoff for the cybercriminals: they get to spend others’ money without leaving excess traces. But the victim company, besides a gutted advertising account, gets one problem after another — including potentially being blocked by the advertising platform for distributing malicious content.

Downvoted and unfollowed

A variation of the above scheme is a takeover of social networks’ paid advertising accounts. The specifics of social media platforms create additional troubles for the target company.

First, access to corporate social media accounts is usually tied to employees’ personal accounts. It’s often enough for attackers to compromise an advertiser’s personal computer or steal their social network password to gain access not only to likes and cat pics but to the scope of action granted by the company they work for. That includes posting on the company’s social network page, sending emails to customers through the built-in communication mechanism, and placing paid advertising. Revoking these functions from a compromised employee is easy as long as they aren’t the main administrator of the corporate page — in which case, restoring access will be labor-intensive in the extreme.

Second, most advertising on social networks takes the form of “promoted posts” created on behalf of a particular company. If an attacker posts and promotes a fraudulent offer, the audience immediately sees who published it and can voice their complaints directly under the post. In this case, the company will suffer not just financial but visible reputational damage.

Third, on social networks many companies save “custom audiences” — ready-made collections of customers interested in various products and services or who have previously visited the company’s website. Although these usually can’t be pulled (that is, stolen) from a social network, unfortunately it’s possible to create malvertising on their basis that’s adapted to a specific audience and is thus more effective.

Unscheduled circular

Another effective way for cybercriminals to get free advertising is to hijack an account on an email service provider. If the attacked company is large enough, it may have millions of subscribers in its mailing list.

This access can be exploited in a number of ways: by mailing an irresistible fake offer to email addresses in the subscriber database; by covertly substituting links in planned advertising emails; or by simply downloading the subscriber database in order to send them phishing emails in other ways later on.

Again, the damage suffered is financial, reputational, and technical. By “technical” we mean the blocking of future incoming messages by mail servers. In other words, after the malicious mailouts, the victim company will have to resolve matters not only with the mailing platform but also potentially with specific email providers that have blocked you as a source of fraudulent correspondents.

A very nasty side effect of such an attack is the leakage of customers’ personal data. This is an incident in its own right — capable of inflicting not only reputational damage but also landing you with a fine from data protection regulators.

Fifty shades of website

A website hack can go unnoticed for a long time — especially for a small company that does business primarily through social networks or offline. From the cybercriminals’ point of view, the goals of a website hack vary depending on the type of site and the nature of the company’s business. Leaving aside cases when website compromise is part of a more sophisticated cyberattack, we can generally delineate the following varieties.

First, threat actors can install a web skimmer on an e-commerce site. This is a small, well-disguised piece of JavaScript embedded directly in the website code that steals card details when customers pay for a purchase. The customer doesn’t need to download or run anything — they simply pay for goods or services on the site, and the attackers skim off the money.

Second, attackers can create hidden subsections on the site and fill them with malicious content of their choosing. Such pages can be used for a wide variety of criminal activity, be it fake giveaways, fake sales, or distributing Trojanized software. Using a legitimate website for these purposes is ideal, just as long as the owners don’t notice that they have “guests”. There is, in fact, a whole industry centered around this practice. Especially popular are unattended sites created for some marketing campaign or one-time event and then forgotten about.

The damage to a company from a website hack is broad-ranging, and includes: increased site-related costs due to malicious traffic; a decrease in the number of real visitors due to a drop in the site’s SEO ranking; potential wrangles with customers or law enforcement over unexpected charges to customers’ cards.

Hotwired web forms

Even without hacking a company’s website, threat actors can use it for their own purposes. All they need is a website function that generates a confirmation email: a feedback form, an appointment form, and so on. Cybercriminals use automated systems to exploit such forms for spamming or phishing.

The mechanics are straightforward: the target’s address is entered into the form as a contact email, while the text of the fraudulent email itself goes in the Name or Subject field, for example, “Your money transfer is ready for issue (link)”. As a result, the victim receives a malicious email that reads something like: “Dear XXX, your money transfer is ready for issue (link). Thank you for contacting us. We’ll be in touch shortly”. Naturally, the anti-spam platforms eventually stop letting such emails through, and the victim company’s form loses some of its functionality. In addition, all recipients of such mail think less of the company, equating it with a spammer.

How to protect PR and marketing assets from cyberattacks

Since the described attacks are quite diverse, in-depth protection is called for. Here are the steps to take:

  • Conduct cybersecurity awareness training across the entire marketing department. Repeat it regularly;
  • Make sure that all employees adhere to password best practices: long, unique passwords for each platform and mandatory use of two-factor authentication — especially for social networks, mailing tools, and ad management platforms;
  • Eliminate the practice of using one password for all employees who need access to a corporate social network or other online tool;
  • Instruct employees to access mailing/advertising tools and the website admin panel only from work devices equipped with full protection in line with company standards (EDR or internet security, EMM/UEM, VPN);
  • Urge employees to install comprehensive protection on their personal computers and smartphones;
  • Introduce the practice of mandatory logout from mailing/advertising platforms and other similar accounts when not in use;
  • Remember to revoke access to social networks, mailing/advertising platforms, and website admin immediately after an employee departs the company;
  • Regularly review email lists sent out and ads currently running, together with detailed website traffic analytics so as to spot anomalies in good time;
  • Make sure that all software used on your websites (content management system, its extensions) and on work computers (such as OS, browser, and Office), is regularly and systematically updated to the very latest versions;
  • Work with your website support contractor to implement form validation and sanitization; in particular, to ensure that links can’t be inserted into fields that aren’t intended for such a purpose. Also set a “rate limit” to prevent the same actor from making hundreds of requests a day, plus a smart captcha to guard against bots.