Pharma cyber attack crews are switching from phishing to malware

As pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer strive to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, mobile phishing crews are ramping up their tactics in hopes to get their hands on critical pandemic research.

As pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer strive to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, mobile phishing crews are ramping up their tactics in hopes to get their hands on critical pandemic research.

Cybercriminals previously targeted pharmaceutical company employee credentials. However, new research shows that 77 percent of pharmaceutical mobile phishing attempts in the third-quarter of 2020 sought to deliver malware on victims’ systems. This shift, which reflects a 106 percent increase in malware delivery in mobile phishing, shows cybercriminals turning to spyware, remote access functionality and more in order to access “crown jewel” COVID-19 research data from pharmaceutical companies.

On a global scale, there have been multiple reports of foreign adversaries targeting pharmaceutical industry executives with mobile spear phishing attacks,” according to Hank Schless, senior manager of security solutions at Lookout wrote on Tuesday in an analysis of the trend. “Both the National Cyber Security Centre in the U.K. and the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency in the U.S. issued advisories to organizations involved in the COVID-19 response to shore up their security practices. State-sponsored campaigns prove that nation-state virtual espionage is not just an issue for government entities.”

Pfizer recently announced a vaccine under development, which it said proved 90 percent effective in the latest trials.

Mobile Phishing Rates Spike

In the first quarter of 2020, when COVID-19 was surging globally, researchers saw a spike in pharmaceutical mobile phishing rates – from 7.06 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 15.26 percent in Q1 2020.

“The reason that mobile devices have become a primary target is because a well-crafted attack can be close to impossible to spot,” said Schless. “Mobile devices have smaller screens, simplified user interfaces, and people generally exercise less caution on them than they do on computers.”

Meanwhile, while previously cybercriminals were relying on phishing attacks that attempted to carry out credential harvesting, in 2020, the aim shifted to malware delivery. For instance, in the fourth quarter of 2019, 83 percent of attacks aimed to launch credential harvesting while 50 percent aimed to deliver malware (Of note, some attacks were aimed at both credential harvesting and malware delivery).

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Cybersecurity Engineer | Website

Jordan is a Cybersecurity Engineer who has consulted in numerous sectors such as finance, education, manufacturing, and public sector organizations within the United States.