As virus drives rise of cyber attacks, experts urge caution and devise solutions

Transitioning to home-based operations proved a valuable step in combating the COVID-19 threat this spring, but it appears to have exposed a remote, internet-reliant workforce to a different kind of virus — the ongoing scourge of cyber attacks.

“Cyber criminals have a much larger, more engaged audience right now to target because of the increases in peoples’ time online when there’s few other options to do things right now,” said Wyatt Cobb, CEO of SoftWarfare, a cyber security company based in the Kansas City area. “The volume of potential for complex cyber attacks and simple cyber attacks to occur, no doubt, have increased greatly.”

Cyber security complaints increased by 300% between March and June, according to the FBI.

“The propensity for more people to be online who are making mistakes was magnified tremendously,” said James Curtis, a Webster University cyber security professor. “You probably read some of these horror stories about people getting their government checks stolen, about getting tricked into buying things. And it’s all true.”

Attacking with fear

Cyber criminals are able to use fear of the coronavirus to their advantage, Curtis said.

“The bad guys want to steal our stuff. That’s what it comes down to,” he said. “And they will take advantage of fear; they will take advantage of vulnerability.”

For example, cyber criminals register online domains with buzzwords related to the coronavirus and COVID-19 to attract more people to their links, Curtis said. Such tactics led to a 788% increase in high-risk domains in March, according to a study by cyber security company Palo Alto networks.

Wyatt Cobb

“People would get online and start typing ‘coronavirus,’ and they click on a link,” Curtis said. “The purpose for these was either to get you to buy something that was fake or to be able to put a virus on your system and then steal your stuff.”

Scam emails are another common method, SoftWarfare’s Cobb said.

“When they have enough information on a company they’re able to socially engineer — through email — a phishing attack where they get an employee to take some action that benefits the hacker and usually gives up assets from the company,” he said.

Brute force attacks — leveraging stolen credentials to try thousands of password and username combinations — also are increasingly common, Cobb said.

Businesses fighting back

The Cyber Threat Intelligence League — which includes Kansas City-based cyber security operation CYDERES, a division of the Fishtech Group — is among those working to prevent, detect and respond to cyber crimes.

“A lot of people came together to produce a community of cyber security professionals trying to do what they can to help fight COVID-related hacks and take care of cyber criminals that are trying to take advantage of the pandemic in any way,” said Eric Foster, president of CYDERES.

Eric Foster

Participation in the league is his way of supporting those continuing to risk their lives during the spread of the coronavirus, he said.

“I can’t necessarily be on the front lines helping treat patients, but we can try to make sure that the bad guys that are attacking hospitals or nurses or even just utility providers are dealt with as fast as we can,” Foster said.

SoftWarfare also has worked to help during the pandemic by launching its Biothenticate software in June. The software uses iris, facial and fingerprint scanning to confirm a user’s identity upon login.

“We moved very quickly to get that product to market when we saw things coming online,” Cobb said. “We knew we had a valuable solution that could help many small, medium and large businesses.”

Best defense? A good offense

Workers can be proactive in warding off cyber attacks, Webster University’s Curtis said, emphasizing skepticism and common sense over comfort when in a home office.

“Always look for trusted senders. Do not click on links from people that you don’t know,” he said. “When you get an email from someone saying ‘We need you to click on this link about your banking or your finances,’ don’t do it. Go into a search engine and then find that organization. Then go into your account. That way you’re initiating (the interaction), not responding to it.”

Businesses have a responsibility to expose their employees to cyber security precautions, Cobb said.

“One of the best things that any company can do is just give their employees the necessary training and awareness,” he said. “Making sure that every employee, no matter what their role is at the company, has some level of security awareness training.”

It’s about defending themselves, their data, their financial resources and their families, Cobb emphasized.

“There are major threats online,” he said, “and defending your assets and personal life from those threats is on you.”

This story was produced through a collaboration between Missouri Business Alert and Startland News.

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