Cloud-based email threats capitalized on COVID-19 chaos

Photo by Oleksii Khodakivskiy

Trend Micro has revealed that it blocked 16.7 million high-risk email threats that slipped past webmail providers’ native filters. This amounts to an increase of nearly a third on 2019 figures.

The new statistics are provided by Trend Micro’s Cloud App Security (CAS), an API-based solution that provides second-layer protection for Microsoft Exchange Online, Gmail, and a host of other services.

“COVID-19 forced many organizations to accelerate their digital adoption plans, and SaaS apps have become indispensable to remote workers,” said Tony Lee, Head of Consulting at Trend Micro Hong Kong and Macau.

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“However, where there are users, there are also threats and we’ve seen a spike in attacks targeting organizations’ perceived weakest link during the pandemic.

“Each one of those nearly 17 million threats previously missed represents a risk of corporate data theft, ransomware and fraud.”

Detections of malware, credential theft and phishing emails all recorded double-digit year-on-year increases in 2020, while BEC volumes dropped slightly.

Malware-laden emails 

Trend Micro detected 1.2 million emails containing malware that would otherwise have appeared in users’ inboxes, up 16% on 2019 figures. These included many Emotet and Trickbot attacks which are often the precursor to targeted ransomware.

Phishing 

Trend Micro intercepted over 6.9 million phishing emails in 2020, a 19% increase from the previous year. Discounting credential phishing, the number of threats in this category surged 41% over the period. COVID-19 was a common lure, as were big-name brands like Netflix that have become popular during the pandemic. Attackers were typically looking for personal and financial information to monetize.

Credential phishing

Trend Micro detected nearly 5.5 million attempts to steal users’ credentials that were allowed through by existing cloud native security filters. This was a 14% increase on 2019 and accounted for the vast majority of detected phishing emails. Attackers are increasingly supplementing these with phone-based vishing attacks.

Business email compromise (BEC)

Although BEC detections declined 18% year-on-year, average losses continue to rise — increasing 48% from the first to the second quarter of 2020.