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New year, old threats: Malware peddlers went into overdrive in Q1, says Trend Micro

Jan and Feb contained bumper load of fake invoice emails

Business email compromise (BEC) attempts were globally up by a quarter in the first two months of this year alone, according to research from threat intel firm Trend Micro.

In a report released today, the outfit said it had seen a 24.3 per cent increase in BEC attempts between January and February 2020.

"IT security teams around the world may be under significant pressure today, as the corporate attack surface expands thanks to mass home working demands in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic. But now, more than ever, they must be on high alert as opportunistic cyber-attackers look to strike," said a solemn Ian Heritage, cloud security architect at Trend Micro.

Those BEC attacks included CEO fraud, where the cybercrim pretends to be the boss sending an email to an employee instructing them to send money to a particular bank account; bogus invoices; and plain old compromise of staff email accounts, letting scammers pose as real employees to seed malware within a target organisation.

Typically BEC attacks are highly focused, so it is a cause for mild concern that these increased from 415 to 516 over a four-week period. Typically, infosec firms emphasise how BEC attacks are carefully crafted so that even switched-on staffers don't notice the scam until it's too late.

Finance managers were the most popular target for BEC attacks, followed by finance directors, finance controllers and CEOs.

Strangely enough, the number of malware-laden attachments on emails detected by Trend Micro shrank by 74 per cent over the same time period. While around a million spam emails came with dodgy attachments in January, by February that had dropped to just 256,000. The bulk of these were PDF files.

Emotet banking trojan detections shrank by more than half, down from 13,418 to 6,615 instances seen by Trend over the first eight weeks of the year. By contrast, attempts to seed the Ryuk ransomware were up from a few hundred detections to around 2,000 attempts.

With the world and his dog mostly working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, many infosec firms have warned of a rise in security threats. While Trend Micro's data suggests a general increase across the board, the timescale is short; moreover, it predates the point at which national lockdowns began kicking in across multiple countries during March. We'll make a comparison with later data as the year progresses. ®

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