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Europol's 2021 cybercrime report: the pandemic accelerated the evolution of cyber threats


On 11 November, Europol published its Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA) 2021 report, which details the developments and challenges related to cybercrime, and highlights how the global pandemic has fuelled the rapid rise of cybercrime in all its forms.

Each year, Europol publishes the IOCTA (Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment) report on the latest developments and emerging threats in cybercrime, as well as their impact on European users, organizations, and governments.

The latest edition of the report [pdf] focuses on how the shift towards digital work caused by the Covid pandemic has continued to significantly influence the evolution of cyber threats across the board in the past 12 months. Europol highlights five key cyber threats influenced by pandemic-related digitalisation in 2021:

  • Expanding ransomware affiliate programs and the continued proliferation of crimeware-as-a-service.
  • The evolution of mobile malware as cybercriminals learn to bypass security measures like two-factor authentication (2FA).
  • The steep increase in online fraud caused by the growth of online shopping.
  • The alarming increase in overall activity related to child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
  • Abuse of legitimate services such as VPNs, encrypted communication services, and cryptocurrencies.

Ransomware remains the primary threat

Europol highlights ransomware as one of the main cyber threats in 2021 and beyond. According to the report, more ransomware affiliates are looking to cooperate with “hackers and other malware developers,” while ransomware operators are looking for high-value targets in large organizations and their supply chains.

“These trends were highlighted in the previous IOCTA, but the transition has been quicker than many might have anticipated, with numerous large-scale intrusions like those of Microsoft Exchange Server, SolarWinds and Kaseya coming to light in the past 12 months,” reads the report.

Europol recommendations on ransomware<br>
Europol's recommendations on tackling ransomware

Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle noted that ransomware gangs are recklessly trying to up their profits by disrupting critical infrastructure “with no concern for the possible damages such interceptions may cause to public safety and security.”

“To this, the collective response of our international law enforcement community is clear: the authorities and the private sector worldwide stand strong and ready to mitigate together any threat that blackmails the stability of our societies.”

Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europol

Mobile malware is spreading like wildfire

The European law enforcement agency points at mobile malware as another major concern that has made its way near the top of the European threat landscape.

By introducing 2FA disruption techniques, overlay attacks, and increased SMS-spamming capabilities, mobile malware has become a “scalable business model” for cybercriminals.

“Mobile malware has been a looming threat in Europe for a long time but has never materialised to the extent expected due to the lack of scalability as a sustainable business model,” states the report.

“Unfortunately, cybercriminals have made a breakthrough this year, and the number of mobile malware reports to law enforcement has increased significantly.”

Alarmingly, mobile banking trojans such as Cerberus and TeaBot are now capable of intercepting SMS messages containing one-time passcodes sent by financial institutions and 2FA applications like Google Authenticator.

Online fraud: a key concern

According to the report, the European fraud landscape was significantly impacted by the continuing pandemic, as cybercriminals continued to exploit the shift to remote work and make use of Covid-related lures like phishing messages and counterfeit medicine sales.

Online fraud - phishing

“Criminals continue making significant profits as well-known types of online fraud continue to be effective. Investment fraud has become a significant concern, as phishing and social engineering have further increased to generate considerable criminal proceeds,” reads the report.

Due to the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the shift to online shopping has presented cybercriminals with new fraud opportunities, and Europol points to delivery fraud as a new focus for criminals in 2021.

“Posing as delivery services, criminals contact potential victims with links to phishing websites pretending to offer information about parcel delivery, with the aim of obtaining user credentials and payment card details.”

Edvardas Šileris, Head of Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre, stressed that cybercrime is a reality and that “law enforcement worldwide needs to catch up.”

”Only by working together can we create innovative ideas and practical approaches that can put a halt to cybercrime acceleration. It is essential to establish the environment and resources required to do so,” he concluded.


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