Barracuda Researchers identify a spike in COVID 19 test-related email scams with the rise in Omicron cases

With the COVID cases dominating headlines once again due to the latest Omicron variant, the hackers are back at exploiting the pandemic to conduct more attacks. As the demand for COVID tests increased over the past weeks, so did the number of scams exploiting the scarcity of tests. Barracuda researchers witnessed a spike in COVID test-related phishing attacks over the past couple of months. Since early October 2021, test-related scams have increased by 521%.

Scammers have been opting for different tactics to get the attention of their victims. They are sending offers on emails to sell COVID tests and other medical supplies such as masks or gloves. Some of these are selling counterfeit or otherwise unauthorized products. Fake notifications of unpaid orders of COVID tests are being sent out where scammers have provided a PayPal account to receive payments to complete the purchase of rapid COVID tests, counting on the desperation of their victims. Malicious fraudsters have also been impersonating healthcare workers and lab test providers as legitimate employees to share fake test results.

As some organizations try to get their staff back to the office, they send out updated policies or request information on employees’ vaccination status. Hackers hijack these conversations. In one specific example found in Barracuda’s research, cybercriminals impersonated an HR department and shared a file hosted on a phishing site with employees in hope of stealing their account credentials. The attackers went as far as impersonating the Office 365 logo and stating that the document has already been scanned for virus and spam content.

Sharing his insights on such attacks, James Forbes-May, Vice President, APAC at Barracuda Networks said, “Covid-19 has disrupted everyone’s health and mental sanity for almost 2 years now. The latest variant has brought yet another opportunity for the scammers to take advantage of the people seeking COVID-19 tests. So, it is crucial to stay mindful while clicking on suspicious links or opening attachments in these unexpected emails and divulging any personal information when seeking a test, regardless of it being a legitimate site.”

As scammers can adapt their email tactics to bypass gateways and spam filters, it is critical to have a solution that detects and protects against spear-phishing attacks, including brand impersonation, business email compromise, and email account takeover. A purpose-built technology that doesn’t rely solely on looking for malicious links or attachments can be deployed. Organisations can use machine learning to analyse standard communication patterns and spot anomalies that indicate an attack. Deploying technology that uses artificial intelligence can also help organisations identify compromised accounts, alert users in real-time, and remove malicious emails sent from compromised accounts.

To avoid such phishing attacks, it is also necessary to educate the users about spear-phishing attacks. Organisations must provide their employees with up-to-date user awareness training about COVID-related phishing, seasonal scams, and other potential threats. This will help them recognise the latest attacks and know how to report them to IT right away.

Moreover, to help the employees avoid making costly mistakes, companies should create guidelines and set strong internal procedures to confirm all email requests for wire transfers and payment charges, thereby preventing potential fraud.

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