Europol analyzes latest trends, cybercrime impact within the EU and beyond

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The global COVID-19 pandemic that hit every corner of the world forced us to reimagine our societies and reinvent the way we work and live. The Europol IOCTA 2020 cybercrime report takes a look at this evolving threat landscape.

europol IOCTA 2020

Although this crisis showed us how criminals actively take advantage of society at its most vulnerable, this opportunistic behavior should not overshadow the overall threat landscape. In many cases, COVID-19 has enhanced existing problems.

Europol IOCTA 2020

Social engineering and phishing remain an effective threat to enable other types of cybercrime. Criminals use innovative methods to increase the volume and sophistication of their attacks, and inexperienced cybercriminals can carry out phishing campaigns more easily through crime as-a-service.

Criminals quickly exploited the pandemic to attack vulnerable people; phishing, online scams and the spread of fake news became an ideal strategy for cybercriminals seeking to sell items they claim will prevent or cure COVID-19.

Encryption continues to be a clear feature of an increasing number of services and tools. One of the principal challenges for law enforcement is how to access and gather relevant data for criminal investigations.

The value of being able to access data of criminal communication on an encrypted network is perhaps the most effective illustration of how encrypted data can provide law enforcement with crucial leads beyond the area of cybercrime.

Malware reigns supreme

Ransomware attacks have become more sophisticated, targeting specific organizations in the public and private sector through victim reconnaissance. While the pandemic has triggered an increase in cybercrime, ransomware attacks were targeting the healthcare industry long before the crisis.

Moreover, criminals have included another layer to their ransomware attacks by threatening to auction off the comprised data, increasing the pressure on the victims to pay the ransom.

Advanced forms of malware are a top threat in the EU: criminals have transformed some traditional banking Trojans into modular malware to cover more PC digital fingerprints, which are later sold for different needs.

Child sexual abuse material continues to increase

The main threats related to online child abuse exploitation have remained stable in recent years, however detection of online child sexual abuse material saw a sharp spike at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis.

Offenders keep using a number of ways to hide this horrifying crime, such as P2P networks, social networking platforms and using encrypted communications applications.

Dark web communities and forums are meeting places where participation is structured with affiliation rules to promote individuals based on their contribution to the community, which they do by recording and posting their abuse of children, encouraging others to do the same.

Livestream of child abuse continues to increase, becoming even more popular than usual during the COVID-19 crisis when travel restrictions prevented offenders from physically abusing children. In some cases, video chat applications in payment systems are used which becomes one of the key challenges for law enforcement as this material is not recorded.

Payment fraud: SIM swapping a new trend

SIM swapping, which allows perpetrators to take over accounts, is one of the new trends. As a type of account takeover, SIM swapping provides criminals access to sensitive user accounts.

Criminals fraudulently swap or port victims’ SIMs to one in the criminals’ possession in order to intercept the one-time password step of the authentication process.

Criminal abuse of the dark web

In 2019 and early 2020 there was a high level of volatility on the dark web. The lifecycle of dark web market places has shortened and there is no clear dominant market that has risen over the past year.

Tor remains the preferred infrastructure, however criminals have started to use other privacy-focused, decentralized marketplace platforms to sell their illegal goods. Although this is not a new phenomenon, these sorts of platforms have started to increase over the last year.

OpenBazaar is noteworthy, as certain threats have emerged on the platform over the past year such as COVID-19-related items during the pandemic.

VP for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, who is leading the European Commission’s work on the European Security Union, said: “Cybercrime is a hard reality. While the digital transformation of our societies evolves, so does cybercrime which is becoming more present and sophisticated.

“We will spare no efforts to further enhance our cybersecurity and step up law enforcement capabilities to fight against these evolving threats.”

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said: “The Coronavirus Pandemic has slowed many aspects of our normal lives. But it has unfortunately accelerated online criminal activity. Organised Crime exploits the vulnerable, be it the newly unemployed, exposed businesses, or, worst of all, children.

“The Europol IOCTA 2020 cybercrime report shows the urgent need for the EU to step up the fight against organised crime [online] and confirms the essential role of Europol in that fight”.

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October 7, 2020