FBI sees major spike in coronavirus-related cyber threats

FBI sees major spike in coronavirus-related cyber threats
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A top official at the FBI on Wednesday said that the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has received 20,000 coronavirus-related cyber threat reports this year, as officials sounded the alarm on growing cyber threats to COVID-19 vaccine research.

Tonya Ugoretz, the deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division, said during a virtual conference hosted by cybersecurity group CrowdStrike that the IC3 was tracking a massive spike in hackers using the COVID-19 crisis to target Americans.

“Already, here we are in the first or second week of June, the IC3 has already had as many complaints up to this point as they did for all of 2019, and that is for all types of internet fraud,” Ugoretz said.

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She noted that for just coronavirus-related activity — such as scams, malicious emails, or fraud — the FBI IC3 has received “at least 20,000 complaints.”

The new data revealed Wednesday is a continuation of a trend in increasing cyberattacks and targeting during both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests around the death of George Floyd. Major agencies including the World Health Organization and the Department of Health and Human Services have been targeted, while coronavirus-related scams have targeted federal relief funds. 

Ugoretz said in April that the IC3 was receiving between 3,000 and 4,000 cybersecurity complaints per day, an increase from the typical 1,000 complaints per day the IC3 saw prior to the pandemic. 

The FBI official also warned that nation states are continuing to target the healthcare sector and groups conducting research into coronavirus treatments and vaccines. 

“We have also seen other actors, including nation states, scanning for vulnerabilities, conducting reconnaissance, conducting intrusions, and attempting to steal data from those US universities and research institutions that are really focused on trying to deliver that research in response to the pandemic,” Ugoretz said.

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The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned in May that Chinese-government backed hackers were attempting to steal coronavirus-related research from U.S. institutions. CISA Director Christopher Krebs said earlier this month that he expects “every intelligence service” to target COVID-19 related research.

Bryan Ware, the assistant director of cybersecurity at CISA, said during the same virtual conference Wednesday that his agency was also tracking an uptick in malicious emails tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with increased ransomware attacks. These involve an attacker accessing and encrypting a network, and then demanding payment to give the user access again.

The threat of cybercriminals targeting healthcare groups or research organizations working on vaccines for COVID-19 are issues CISA is laser-focused on, Ware said. 

“We are seeing adversaries that are targeting our pharmaceutical companies, pharmaceutical research, laboratories, testing, and really out into the future manufacturing of the vaccine systems and the distribution of vaccines,” Ware said. “We are committed to doing everything we can in our mission of protecting critical infrastructure in protecting those companies involved in research and development of the vaccines.”