As if dealing with months’ long lockdowns, travel bans and general unease about where this coronavirus will take us next wasn’t stressful enough, it seems we have rising cybercrime to worry about as well. Yes, we’re talking scams.
In what has now become the norm during times of fear and uncertainty, hackers are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to take advantage of the unavoidable changes many of us have had to make to our living and working arrangements.
During our downtime, we spend more time online, socialising, entertaining ourselves, and looking for information – or in some cases, a cure. As we do so, we often become less discerning about what we choose to click on, and to whom we hand over our personal and payment details, leaving us wide open to phishing attacks and other scams.
Our work situation is also likely to have changed. Many of us are now working from home, taking advantage of the opportunity to have cheeky naps during our lunchbreak, and wear pyjamas to meetings. But, hackers also know there is opportunity in our new work-from-home status.
According to consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers’s (PwC) 2021 Global Digital Trust Insights survey, there was a 65% increase in cybersecurity incidents between April and June this year (1).
“The attackers have taken advantage of the situation,” said Nicola Nicol, partner at PwC. “Attackers have started to look to take advantage of employees who are working from home and perhaps not thinking about security in the same way they would do in an office environment.”
Indeed, breaches cost companies an estimated $7.6 billion in the last financial year as COVID-19 forced employees out of their usual workspace to set up office at home. And, the impact in dollars lost is only expected to rise.
Let’s say something big happens. Hurricane Katrina. Bushfires. COVID-19. Those affected feel panic and uncertainty. They look for answers, for a solution, for aid. Meanwhile, those on the outside want to help. They want to donate money, or simply show their support.
But, all too often, there are those on the sidelines, ready to take advantage. Which is why during occurrences of major regional and global events, there are typically correlating spikes in cybercrime activity.
These activities usually start with social engineering techniques designed to psychologically manipulate targets into performing desired actions, such as clicking on a malicious link or divulging confidential information.
Cybercriminals understand that during these times of heightened fear and insecurity, people want the latest information, they are looking for solutions, and are less discriminating about the links they click on and the information they provide.
They know we are spending more time online. They know our home office is unlikely to be protected by the same levels of security as a traditional workspace. They know we are distracted, trying to juggle home and work life, now that there is very little separation between the two.
They know this, and they know exactly how to take advantage.
According to the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), cyberattacks on Australian businesses cost the economy $29 billion each year. Last financial year, an average of 164 cybercrimes were reported to the ACSC on a daily basis, with data revealing 62% of small businesses were affected by a cyber security incident.
Obviously, cybercrime is not just limited to Australia. Around the world, cybercriminals are cashing in on the COVID crisis, targeting both individuals and companies that are spending more time online due to work-from-home orders.
At the beginning of October, the European-based international police organisation, Interpol, cautioned “many individuals and businesses that may not have been as active online before the crisis have become a lucrative target” for cybercriminals who have adapted existing online crime to fit emerging vulnerabilities.
In its report on the subject, Interpol said, “With organisations and businesses rapidly deploying remote systems and networks to support staff working from home, criminals are also taking advantage of increased security vulnerabilities to steal data, generate profits and cause disruption”.
In the UK, workers are indeed feeling the impact of this increased threat. According to a PwC survey (2), 21% of UK workers said they felt more vulnerable to cybercrime since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with stress or fatigue being the most common factor (35%), followed by lack of skills and training to stay safe from cybercrime while working from home (19%).
Of the 1,200 UK workers surveyed, 32% said they had observed an increase in speculative criminal activity, such as suspicious emails or malicious adverts and links, while 22% revealed they considered themselves to be more vulnerable to a cyberattack when they shared personal details with hospitality venues such as pubs and restaurants for contact tracing reasons.
“We have seen a spike in cybersecurity incidents this year, with criminals exploiting the challenges that people and organisations are facing from COVID-19,” said Chris Gaines, lead cybersecurity partner at PwC.
“Many of these incidents were linked to ransomware attacks and some of them were accompanied by data breaches. Analysis by our Threat Intelligence team has shown that the pace and frequency of ransomware attacks is rising all the time.”
Over in the US, authorities have noted a similarly dramatic increase in cybercrime. According to the Cyber Division of the FBI, recently released statistics reveal it has received up to 4,000 complaints of cyberattacks a day, which is a 400% increase on the number of complaints typically received before the pandemic began (3).
Meanwhile, the Telco Security Alliance reported in July that it had observed a sharp increase in malicious online activity, identifying more than 1 million cybersecurity threats leveraging COVID-19 fears in the first half of 2020, with a 2,000% increase in the month of March alone (4).
What is Ransomware?
Ransomware is a form of malware designed to encrypt files, which essentially locks users out of their computers. While it is possible to encrypt your files to prevent theft of your data, hackers can still add a layer of encryption over it preventing you from accessing it as well.
After encrypting your files, the attacker then demands a ransom to restore access to your data. Payment may increase daily if you refuse to pay, however, making payment may lead the attacker to demand more money to see how much you will pay overall.
Where does this malware come from? Around 90% of cyberattacks stem from social engineering or phishing. For example, say a friend’s computer gets hacked. The hacker can use their contact list to send out emails, enticing recipients to click on a link.
If you click on the link, it could download ransomware onto your device, or perhaps a Trojan horse that allows the hacker access to everything on your device, including passwords. While this is bad enough on a personal level, it has the potential to cause even more damage within a work setting.
The circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 crisis are unprecedented. The last time we experienced a global pandemic of these proportions, the world was a very different place indeed. So, when it happened, we followed the advice of experts and the new laws put in place by our governments.
We locked down. We stayed at home. We transitioned our workplace. And criminals saw their opportunity for attack.
“You’ve got IT departments in big organisations… they used to have a thousand people in a downtown office,” University of Melbourne senior lecturer in computing and information systems, Dr Suelette Dreyfus, said in a recent abc news interview.
“Now they’ve got a thousand people they’ve got to manage at kitchen tables from Wagga to Wonthaggi.”
Providing greater opportunity for hackers, it’s not only this dispersed pool of workers causing problems, there is also a larger spread of devices and connections accessing valuable business information, which were previously held on much tighter terms.
“You’ve got many more ‘BYO devices’, home devices, little Angus who’s 15 years old who’s been on that device playing games that he’s downloaded from the internet – and God knows what else,” Dr Dreyfus said.
“You have problems – people using their Wi-Fi from home, maybe they haven’t updated the firmware on their Wi-Fi devices for five years – that’s a security risk.”
ProPrivacy digital privacy expert, Ray Walsh, told The Daily Swig, “For businesses, who have had to change how they operate on a massive scale to allow employees to work from home, the landscape has been extremely turbulent”.
“Ransomware attacks have become even more prevalent, and there has been a noticeable increase in the sophistication of the ransomware being used to attack victims both in the private and public sectors.”
“To make things worse, Europol has reported an increase in the cybercrime-as-a-service business model that provides criminals without technical knowhow to engage in cyberattacks.”
According to reports, ransomware attacks have moved on from mass attacks towards more targeted assaults. In some cases, these attacks have evolved to incorporate the threat of auctioning off encrypted data, increasing pressure on the victims to pay the ransom.
Attacks on cloud-based services and ‘disruptionware’ – designed to cause chaos by disrupting critical systems and disseminating disinformation via deep-fakes – are also on the rise, with chinks in businesses’ security systems stretched wider with more employees working from home.
The truth is, no one is immune. Cybercriminals will target anyone with a device and an internet connection, whether that’s an individual, a small business, a not-for-profit, or a large conglomerate. The more they target, the higher their chances of success.
But, that doesn’t mean you – as a business, as an employee, or even as an individual – can’t fight back.
Discussing the spike in cybercrime as a result of more Aussies working from home, CommBank Group Chief Information Security Officer, Keith Howard, said:
“Many businesses feel that cyber security is too technical, complex or expensive to deal with, but a cyber security attack has the ability to negatively impact a business, along with suppliers and customers, so there’s never been a more important time for businesses to take steps to ensure their information is protected online.
“A large part of what makes cyber security complex and intimidating is the increasingly sophisticated technology. Thankfully however, there are some simple tips people can follow to protect themselves online.”
As with so many things, knowledge is key. The more you understand where potential attacks can come from – and what you can do to avoid those attacks – the safer you and your business will be.
As an individual, you should:
As a business, you should:
Visit Scamwatch to find out more about the latest scams and how to avoid them. Scamwatch also has a page dedicated to COVID-19 scams. Want updates sent straight to your socials? Subscribe to get the latest info sent to your inbox, or follow Scamwatch on Twitter.
Visit CommBank’s business support page to get the latest Signals report. Signals provides a summary of the cyber security landscape, featuring trends and observations derived from Commonwealth Bank’s Cyber Security Centre. Further info provided by CommBank on how you can protect your business from cyber crime can be found here.
Disclaimer: The information contained within this post is general in nature and does not take into account your personal situation. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your needs, and where appropriate, seek professional advice from a financial adviser.
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