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The Present

How cybercrime has evolved since the pandemic hit

Opportunistic agility is running rampant among hackers and scammers.

Credit: John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • McAfee's user base has been seeing an average of 375 new threats per minute during the pandemic.
  • Once everyone got situated in their home offices and their company's security teams started taking the appropriate measures, how did the attackers adjust?
  • Ransomware on cloud servers, hijack attempts on IoT gadgets and business email compromise (BEC) attacks increased in volume as well as sophistication over the course of Q3 2020.

From a meta-historical perspective, crime waves have a tendency to rear their heads at times of societal chaos, and the sudden arrival of the coronavirus pandemic brought chaotic conditions that were particularly ripe for cybercrime.

In most companies, cybersecurity was a little-noticed casualty in the rush to transform digitally, support remote working, and keep customer-facing apps and services running as the new normal set in. Understandably, organizations prioritized keeping the lights on. Millions of people moved online, including individuals without much experience of working or shopping through the internet, and with equally poor cybersecurity awareness.

There’s no debate about whether hacking and other malicious cyberattacks have increased. McAfee alone reports that malware grew 1,902 percent over the past four quarters, and the company’s user base has been seeing an average of 375 new threats per minute during the pandemic. It’s clear that cybercrime is flourishing in these conditions.

Credit: McAfee

But beyond the many reports that cybercrime has surged, there’s been proportionately little talk about how it’s changed. Once everyone got situated in their home offices and their company’s security teams started taking the appropriate measures, how did the attackers adjust?

Here are four ways that cybercrime has visibly adapted to the changing conditions of 2020.

One of the notable ways that attacks were especially effective at the start of the pandemic was the manner in which they directly took advantage of the confusion caused by the situation. COVID-19 related phishing emails raised phishing attacks overall by 68 percent. There was also a marked uptick in business email compromise (BEC) attacks, where the criminal masquerades as a legitimate company and attempts to convince the victim that the coronavirus chaos forced them to change their banking details.

Cybercriminals have adjusted their targeting and tactics to follow the spread of COVID-19, with the spike beginning in Asia before shifting to Europe and the U.S. Now, as people are returning to work, phishing emails and malware have switched gears. Instead of claiming to educate you about the virus, they are disguised as guides to helping workers return safely to the office.

“What’s clear is that hackers are hoping to capitalize on public fear,” says Dr. Alex Tarter, Chief Cyber Consultant and CTO at Thales. “As a global population we have proactively sought out as much information as we can find to help inform our day-to-day lives, but also make us feel safe. Many of instances of cybercrime in the wake of COVID-19 have been designed with this fear in mind.”

In this vein, malware, mobile malware and fileless malware have skyrocketed, using pandemic-related topics to play on people’s fears and lure them to malicious URLs. Tarter estimates that half of all COVID-19-related domain names created since December 2019 were set up with the purpose of injecting malware, with many of these domains spoofing content from genuine websites in order to mask their intent.

Another distinct trend is the shift to a broader attack surface. As work moved out of “on-premises” network environments, bad actors have followed us onto the cloud, so cloud-related breaches have increased. Protecting your server isn’t sufficient; you need to connect all the dots and cover every connected device, because your cloud-connected printer is the backdoor to your entire organization.

Cybercriminals have long since woken up to the fact that IoT devices are often the weakest links in any system. IoT-focused attacks have grown in number and in impact, with a 46 percent rise in the number of attacks on smart homes, smart enterprises, and control systems that are connected to critical infrastructure.

Cybercriminals are taking advantage of the pressure that organizations are under to remain operational by expanding ransomware attacks, which doubled from 200,000 in Q1 2020 to 400,000 in Q2. Health centers are a popular target, because hackers know that they are overwhelmed with critical patients and can’t afford the time it will take to resolve the attack, so they are more likely to give in and pay the ransom than struggle to combat and cure it.

A few weeks ago in Germany, a patient was unable to receive care when a ransomware attack on Düsseldorf University Hospital disrupted the emergency care unit, forcing them to transfer her to another hospital to receive critical care. The patient died during the journey, a cybercrime first.

Credit: Trend Micro

New ransomware families are emerging, using more sophisticated, phased attack strategies that are more difficult to rectify. Trend Micro has identified a 36 percent jump in new ransomware families, compared with the same period in 2019. Hackers know that IT and security teams are operating remotely, without access to their usual tools and processes and often without experience in dealing with an attack remotely, which handicaps their ability to resolve it quickly.

Hackers have been quick to respond to the sudden rush to remote working. In the urgency of the moment, many companies implemented trusted VPN services for employees working from home, or set up a remote desktop, without configuring them properly, thereby opening the doors to hackers. In March, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) alerted businesses to elevated risks of VPN abuse.

A number of cloud tools are poorly protected. Zoom, for example, has become a lifeline for businesses and schools, but it has serious security vulnerabilities. It’s no coincidence that individuals and educational organizations have been the targets of so many cyber attacks during the pandemic; they are (rightly) perceived as the most vulnerable.

Shadow IT use rose when employees sent home from the office had no choice but to use their personal laptops for sensitive work-related tasks, but these devices are rarely protected as well as an office computer.

Phishing attacks rose in part because many employees switched to work remotely almost overnight, without any training to independently recognize phishing scams. The average employee isn’t equipped to deal with them, and at home there’s no security team on hand to immediately respond to questions and defuse the threat.

The coronavirus pandemic increased chaos in the world, and that presented a golden opportunity to malicious actors and hackers of all types. COVID-19 saw cybercrime shift to cynically exploit fears about the pandemic, take advantage of hasty shifts to remote working, attack overstretched critical infrastructure like health industries, and aim at broader targets across organizations. IT teams can’t afford to fall behind as the ongoing struggle with cybercrime enters a new phase.


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