IOCTA 2021, the latest report on current cyber threats

According to Europol’s latest edition of the Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment, the accelerated digitalisation related to the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly influenced the development of a number of cyber threats.

Criminals have been quick to abuse the current circumstances to increase profits, spreading their tentacles to various areas and exposing vulnerabilities connected to systems, hospitals or individuals.

While ransomware groups have taken advantage of widespread teleworking, scammers have abused COVID-19 fears and the fruitless search for cures online to defraud victims or gain access to their bank accounts.

The increase of online shopping, in general, has attracted more fraudsters. With children spending a lot more time online, especially during lockdowns, grooming and the dissemination of self-produced explicit material have increased significantly. Grey infrastructure, including services offering end-to-end encryption, VPNs and cryptocurrencies, continue to be abused for the facilitation and proliferation of a large range of criminal activities. This has resulted in significant challenges for the investigation of criminal activities and the protection of victims of crime.

In addition to expanding the efforts to tackle these threats from a law enforcement perspective, it is crucial to add another level of protection in terms of cybersecurity. The implementation of measures such as multi-factor authentication and vulnerability management is of the utmost importance for decreasing the possible exposure to cyber threats. Awareness raising and prevention are key components in reducing the effectiveness of cyberattacks and other cyber-enabled criminal activities.

These are the main current threats:

• Ransomware affiliate programmes enable a larger group of criminals to attack big corporations and public institutions by threatening them with multi-layered extortion methods such as DDoS attacks.

• Mobile malware evolves with criminals trying to circumvent additional security measures such as two-factor authentication.

Online shopping has led to a steep increase in online fraud.

• Explicit self-generated material is an increasing concern and is also distributed for profit.

• Criminals continue to abuse legitimate services such as VPNs, encrypted communication services and cryptocurrencies.

Ransomware groups have used the pandemic to their advantage to launch more sophisticated and targeted attacks. While mass distributed ransomware seems to be in decline, cybercrime groups and their affiliates opt for well-orchestrated manual attacks against large corporations and government institutions.

The pandemic has also facilitated the breakthrough of other threats, which were already making significant attempts to penetrate the cyberspace. Mobile malware and, specifically, banking Trojans have also been equipped with capabilities to intercept text messages on Android devices, compromising the two-factor authentication security protocols.

A key threat is the production of self-generated material, an alarming trend, which younger children are also exposed to. Lured by offenders using fake identities on gaming platforms and social media, more and more young children are falling into the trap of producing and sharing explicit material. Recording without the knowledge of the victims and the further dissemination of live-streamed sexual material is another alarming threat, referred to as ‘capping’. Peer-to-peer networks remain a key channel for the exchange of child abuse material, along with the Dark Web.


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