Kathryn Cave (Colombia) - Interview: Ricardo Villadiego, CEO of Easy Solutions, Cyber-Criminal Innovation & Predicting the Next Big Threat…

Located high on a plateau in the Andes Mountains, Bogota, Colombia is probably better known for its drug trade than entrepreneurialism, innovation or even cybercrime. Yet Ricardo Villadiego, CEO and founder of Easy Solutions based in the Colombian capital, is keen to stress that Columbia, and the 33 other unique countries that make up the Latin American continent, have a lot to offer. In fact, his dream was to start a company in Bogota and see it unfurl globally...

Villadiego started Easy Solutions, a Web fraud prevention company, in 2007. In the intervening years it has grown to cater for over 100 enterprise customers, who use its products to protect over 24 million end users. The company has boasted a nearly 1500% growth rate over the past three years, made the Inc. 500 List of Fastest-Growing Companies in 2011, and was a Red Herring Top 100 Tech Start-Up in 2012. This was the list incidentally, that initially included Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Salesforce.com, YouTube, and eBay.

"We wanted to create a company in Colombia," said Villadiego , "and push it out all over the world and I think that dream is starting to pay off when you see Easy Solutions at the forefront of Information Security not just in Colombia but in North and South America." The company is actually headquartered in Florida, but has a central office in Bogota, Colombia, along with offices in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica. It is opening branches in Europe and Atlanta later on this year. "We have roots in Colombia, R&D in Colombia and a strong presence in Latin America," Villadiego emphasised. "In a flat world... information can go on for longer. [And] a developer has the same information in Bogota Colombia as a developer in any other parts of the world."

PAC: The Next Threat to Catapult Out From LatAm

Big drugs money and cybercriminal ingenuity has put Latin America a decade ahead of the US and Europe in security threats. "Some of the attacks that are happening in the US or Europe were happening in Brazil 10 years ago," explained Villadiego , "Some of the techniques that cybercriminals were using in Latin America in the 90s are now being pushed to the world."

Villadiego, who has over 15 years' experience in IT security with a background at IBM, Trend Micro, Unisys Corporation (along with first-hand experience installing and fitting ATM machines) is convinced of the unique suitability of Latin American companies to provide security solutions. "When I attended conferences [a decade ago], ‘Man-in-the-Middle' attacks were a concept in the US and Europe, but a reality in Brazil. I remember in 1998 the world was worried about the idea of Pharming attacks - we were having those types of attacks in Colombia."

"Today there is another type of attack called PAC: Proxy Auto-Configuration Attacks... I don't see much of these elsewhere, but my guess is that are going to be pushed out to the world." These attacks are extremely sophisticated and allow criminals to change features in the end user device via malware. This means that the user can unwittingly end up browsing the internet through the cyber-criminal platform, meaning the criminals control what the user sees. "This clearly affects online banking but the potential is well beyond that. Imagine searching in Google and the bad guys [are] controlling the results of that search." This could extend to ads that you see and the visible content of your emails. "Basically using this concept they [criminals] can control the ‘cyber-reality' of the end users."


Inside LatAm: Mozilla Smartphones, Mobile Banking & Physical Threats

Inside the continent, it is not just the cyber-threat landscape which is developing. The whole of Latin America is progressing at a phenomenal rate and most changes appear to centre on internet penetration and smartphone adoption. Fabricio Bloisi Rocha, CEO of Movile, the largest mobile services company in Brazil, said at All Things D's conference, D: Dive Into Mobile, "The smartphone will be your whole connection to the internet." And the release of the Mozilla Firefox OS in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela this June could be a game changer.

Earlier this month, a Deloitte report released by the Latin American Federation of Banks suggested that the number of people on the continent who access their bank account with mobile devices will grow by 65% annually over the next couple of years. This is set to reach 140 million people by 2015.  This meteoric growth will inevitably throw up security concerns, especially as low penetration rates have left Latin American consumers fairly naïve and unsophisticated. Easy Solutions research released at the end of last year showed that shockingly, 40% of online users have never heard of phishing threats, and 50% did not know about malware.

Not surprisingly, as more financial institutions are using mobile banking, more criminals are beginning to target mobile devices. Villadiego explained the most common problem at present is criminals replicating financial applications in the mobile app store. The first attack of this nature happed two years ago to a Venezuelan bank, but this is happening more and more. Villadiego described this as the "phishing of mobile". Whilst he was keen to stress it is nowhere near as prevalent as phishing attacks at present, he does believe "this is going to increase."

There is a clear disconnect between what people are afraid of and what the real threats are. The top trends he is now observing are that criminals are building malware that doesn't cross country borders, in combination with two distinct forms of physical attack. The first of these is paying insiders to install physical key loaders in laptops, desktops and ATMs. The second is paying insiders to install wireless network reach. Villadiego is adamant that "putting these devices inside the physical bank infrastructure shows just how serious [local] criminals are about fraud."

Developing LatAm: Mentoring the Continent's Diverse Future

Sprawling over nearly eight million square miles, Latin America has around twice the land mass of the United States. It contains the world's highest waterfall (Angel Falls), the largest river (the Amazon) and the longest mountain range (the Andes). Made up of 33 economies, each developing at their own different rates, technological growth throws up challenges of its own. Today, Mexico, Brazil and Chile have the highest fraud incidences because these are the countries which allow real-time online transactions. But challenges and opportunities go hand in hand...

"Since the financial crisis in North America and in Europe, investors are looking to Latin America. I believe Latin America needs access to money for entrepreneurs and definitely mentors. There are not many case studies where Latin American countries have been pushed to the world. As people realise this is doable, venture capitalists will get more interested in Latin America and there will be more mentorships towards Latin America, companies that can be launched to the world."

Ricardo Villadiego built his dream business in Bogota, Colombia under the firm belief that, "Diversity drives innovation. [And] we have a unique set of unique skills within the company dealing with 33 economies." Now he is keen for foreign investors to help other businesses realise the potential within this huge, diverse continent... because behind the drug money and the ingenious criminal innovators are scores of entrepreneurs struggling to bring their dreams to life.


By Kathryn Cave Editor at IDG Connect



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