Cyber Criminals Exploit Lockdown Workers

The Covid-19 global pandemic which is forcing millions of office workers to become remote workers has created a “perfect tsunami” for cyber criminals. They are now aiming to exploit the crisis and penetrate corporate defences by penetrating the unsecured home networks.

Cyber threats are globally growing amid the coronavirus pandemic, with online security experts warning that phishing scams are exploiting heightened fears among consumers and organisations.

Earlier this month, with rapidly rising Covid-19 infections in Italy, an email that had the appearance of being from the World Health Organisation was sent to more than 10 per cent of Italian organisations. The email, which bore the signature of a fictitious Italian doctor, claimed to have an attached document with guideline precautions against the infection. In fact, clicking on the document downloaded a Trojan Horse, a type of malware program, that was designed to infiltrate banks. 

According to Martin Butler, senior lecturer in digital transformation at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), cyber security provider Kaspersky has reported a spike in South Africa in devices affected by cyber-attacks, from the norm of under 30 000 daily to 310 000 on 18 March.

Similar reports from across the cyber security industry and across the world have also shown extremely high levels of cyber exploits since.

Butler says the risk of “brute force attacks” in which cyber criminals attempt various password combinations to gain access to corporate systems via individual user accounts remained high and, with compromised credentials responsible for over 80% of breaches, businesses need to implement encrypted communication such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) now more than ever.

Leading cyber security company Cynet has identified two main trends in the coronavirus-linked information security breaches:

  • Attacks aimed at stealing remote user credentials
  • Weaponised email attacks such as phishing and malware that may not be picked up by home email software.

With most work-from-home employees using online collaboration and video conferencing software, many of these systems are not integrated into corporate single-sign-on systems or thoroughly tested and embedded in safe remote environments.

While highly secure corporate networks should be able to prohibit or at least identify unauthorised activities to ensure that data assets remain protected and services are uninterrupted, home-based WiFi networks and 4G connections don’t have the benefit of corporate security policies and technologies. 

Though technology has aided continued lock-down working it has also increased some security risks. Organised cyber criminal groups are using some of the technology platforms to exploit the fear, uncertainty and doubt brought on by the situation.There has been a rapid increase in attacks launched by cyber-criminals and tese attacks have been in multiple forms, ranging from ransomware attacks, remote access network attacks, spear-phishing attacks, through launch of fake mobile apps to setting up of websites with capabilities to deploy malware.

Attackers have been proactive in launching cyber-attacks with incidents emerging as early as day one or two of the lockdown of sorts in certain countries globally. Well-documented reports also suggest that malware is being injected into systems by logging on to websites that host specific information on covid-19. All visitors to these websites were exposed to malware, leading to the extraction of information from their systems.

Under the pretence of providing relevant information on covid-19, there are mobile applications that are being disguised and can extract sensitive information from mobile phones, which are now being used to carry out financial transactions more than ever.

There are a number of ways by which individual remote workers can identify attackers’ giveaways when looking out for suspicious emails. These include: 

  • Poor grammar, punctuation and spelling
  • Design and the appearance of the email isn’t what you would expect
  • It is not addressed to a name but uses terms such as ‘Dear colleague,’ ‘Dear friend’ or ‘Dear customer’
  • Includes a veiled threat or a false sense of urgency
  • Directly solicits personal or financial information.

Important steps that business decison makers and organisations can take to reduce the ongoing risk include:

  • Raising awareness amongst teams, warning them of the heightened risk of COVID-19 themed phishing attacks
  • Providing continuous guidance and cyber-security training to workers on how to ensure they remain secure. This could include instructions on avoiding connecting to unsecured/untrusted Internet sources
  • All provided laptops being regularly updated with antivirus and security patches
  • Ensuring that multi-level authentication is enabled for remote working
  • Establishing a mechanism (helpline or online chat line) for advice or to report any security incident (including potential phishing)
  • Disabling USB drives to avoid the risk of malware, offering employees an alternative way of transferring data such as a collaboration tool
  • Back up being maintained for all critical systems along with anti-ransomware controls being deployed
  • Having a segregated environment can also enhance resilience to withstand cyber-attacks and enterprises should consider having alternative audio and video conferencing environments.

Covid-19 will drive significant changes to how organisations will come to operate and there may be a new ‘normal’ that emerging as a long term consequence of this crisis. 

NCSC:       CERT Europa:       LiveMint:        SCMP:       IOL.za:    

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