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Cybersecurity trends to look out for: Extortion among the top threats in 2021

FYI, this story is more than a year old

With the massive Solarwinds-based attack exposed in December 2020, having hit significant corporations like Microsoft, it's become clear that the targets for cyber-criminals in 2021 will be everyone — including corporations, remote workers and MSPs.

Cyber-crime is evolving, driven by emerging trends — 2021 may be the first year when data extortion officially becomes the main threat to businesses worldwide. With more criminals exposing private data, even after they've successfully extorted a ransom, we've already seen ransomware destroy businesses and lives this year.

Attacks on healthcare operators continue as hackers seek to cause maximum chaos — hospitals worldwide have reportedly experienced a 45% increase in cyber-attacks in the last two months. Even vaccine researchers are not safe from state actors and other groups wishing to steal secrets for profit.

The significant attacks of 2020 set the tone for this coming year, and it's worth analysing the recent key trends. History tends to repeat itself, and those who have learned the lesson are better prepared to meet the challenges and defy attackers when it counts.

The below findings are reflected and analysed in the Acronis Cyberthreats Report 2020.

In 2020, the world saw:

  • 31% of global companies attacked by cyber-criminals at least once a day — a dramatic ramping up of attacks. Microsoft patching close to 1,000 flaws in its products in just nine months - as high as 15-20% more than in 2019 — with Windows and Office still the biggest malware magnets.
  • More than 1000 companies had their data leaked due to ransomware attacks, at least 20% more than last year — with ransomware still number one among cyber-threats. Maze ransomware, in particular, accounted for almost 50% of all known cases.
  • COVID-19 scams offering fake financial support and fake free testing, both of which were phishing scams to harvest data. Also, fake remote education apps and medical leave documents installing malware.
  • New variations on sextortion scams that threaten the leaking of supposedly recorded video from a victim's webcam, as well as threats to infect a victim's family with COVID-19.
  • Remote workers under massive attack, with 92% of global organisations adopting new technologies to facilitate remote workers, IT departments struggling to cope.

Staggering malware stats of 2020

With independent malware testing lab AV-Test recording 400,000 new malware samples per day in Q3 2020, cyber-criminals take automation to a whole new level. The top-10 malware families included Emotet, Agent Tesla, XMRig, Formbook, Trickbot, LokiBot, Remcos, Qbot, Nanocore and Azorult.

With ransomware still the number one threat to businesses worldwide, the top-10 ransomware families are Maze, REvil/Sodinokibi, SNAKE (EKANS), Nemty, NetWalker (aka Mailto), Ragnar Locker, MegaCortex, CLOP, DopplerPayer and Thanos. Some groups try to infect as many users as possible, while others focus on high-value targets only.

The Maze ransomware family proved most troublesome, not just encrypting data but stealing terabytes of private data in targeted attacks — with both small businesses and massive global brands falling victim to it virtually every week throughout much of 2020, it's clear that no-one is safe.

And while some strains pretend to pride themselves on not attacking hospitals, schools or governments, there is zero honour among thieves, especially when ransom payments can now be anywhere from $200,000 to tens of millions, depending on the size of company hooked or data's sensitivity.

Malicious websites have also grown in numbers, with the US seeing the largest number of blocked URLs in Q3 2020 at 16.4%, followed by Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain, the UK, China, South Africa, Hong Kong, Italy and Australia rounding out the top-10 countries.

What will 2021 bring — and how do we stay safe in the current and future threat environment?

Key cybersecurity trends of 2021:

  • Attacks on remote workers will continue growing as the COVID-19 threat escalates and vaccines will take most of 2021 and beyond to truly be rolled out to a global population
  • Attackers will switch to full automation — causing the number of malware samples to skyrocket. Attacks on MSPs, small business, cloud and remote workers will dominate the market
  • Phishing will take weirder forms of malware in emails, with the latest example from January 2021 being a “Trump sex scandal video” that tries loading Java-based malware. 
  • Ransomware will be looking for new targets beyond PCs and Macs, with cloud databases, industrial control systems, IoT devices, connected appliances and other network-attached devices on top of the list
  • Data exfiltration will surpass data encryption for the first time in history, leading to ever greater extortion threats, that could still see data leaked despite payment.

We live in a world where digital space became the 5th basic human need, in addition to air, water, food and shelter. We rely on digital space to make our life more comfortable, but with that, we're exposing ourselves to a whole new dimension — with its own rules and risks.

Nowadays, most businesses consume the benefits of the digital world daily — and simple cyber hygiene rules, like the ones above, can help lower the risks. So can advanced defence tools.

Each business is to decide for themselves — but if you want to continue operating in the digital world in 2021, you won't be able to remain dependant on weak elements, like outdated, complex solutions and unsuspecting employees. Otherwise, you won't do business long enough to know better.

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