Image: iStock/Melpomenem

The shift to remote work in 2020 forced organizations and employees to become even more dependent on the cloud. But that shift also caught the attention of cybercriminals who were glad to exploit such a dependency. In a report published Tuesday, McAfee looks at cloud-based attacks and malware that took advantage of the new work environment.

SEE: Shadow IT policy (TechRepublic Premium)

For its McAfee Labs Threats Report: April 2021 report, the security provider focused on cyber incidents and malware that occurred during the third and fourth quarters of 2020.

In its analysis, McAfee found almost 3.1 million external attacks on cloud user accounts throughout 2020. Though these types of attacks hit a high during the second quarter, they remained steady in most countries and increased in some over the third and fourth quarters.

Among the 10 countries analyzed in the report, Thailand experienced the highest number of cloud-based attacks last year with more than 600,000 just in the second quarter and around 500,000 in the third quarter and the same number in the fourth quarter. India was next on the list with more than 400,000 such attacks in the second quarter and around 375,000 in the third quarter and again in the fourth quarter. The U.S. was among the least-targeted nations on the list.

The information on cloud-based attacks was based on data from more than 30 million McAfee customers and encompassed all the major industries, including financial services, healthcare, education, retail, technology, manufacturing, energy, real estate and transportation.

Image: McAfee

Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic played a significant role in cyberthreats during the second half of 2020. Attackers continued to deploy coronavirus-themed phishing campaigns and other attacks, happily targeting workers coping with pandemic restrictions amid the potential vulnerabilities of remote work. For the second quarter, McAfee found a 605% increase in these types of threats, followed by a gain of 240% in the third quarter and 114% in the fourth quarter.

“The world—and enterprises—adjusted amidst pandemic restrictions and sustained remote work challenges, while security threats continued to evolve in complexity and increase in volume,” McAfee fellow and chief scientist Raj Samani said in a press release. “Though a large percentage of employees grew more proficient and productive in working remotely, enterprises endured more opportunistic COVID-19 related campaigns among a new cast of bad-actor schemes.”

SEE: How to manage passwords: Best practices and security tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Other threats increased during the second half of 2020. Ransomware attacks observed by McAfee grew by 69% from the third to the fourth quarter as REvil, Thanos, Ryuk, RansomeXX and Maze proved themselves as the top ransomware families.

Mobile malware rose by 118% in the fourth quarter. The HiddenAds, Clicker, MoqHao, HiddenApp, Dropper and FakeApp strains were the most prominent malware families. MacOS malware jumped by 420% in the third quarter but then declined around the end of the year. PowerShell threats grew by 208% in the fourth quarter as McAfee caught several attacks that tried to inject malicious code into legitimate running processes.

In total, McAfee found an average of 588 threats per minute during the third quarter, a number that rose to 648 threats per minute in the final quarter.

“As your enterprise meets new challenges in 2021, it remains imperative that workforces—both onsite and remote—be alert to potential threats emerging from seemingly routine communications,” the report said. “Remind and test your workforce’s resistance against clicking unverified links and engaging external email attachments. As this report confirms, ransomware and malware targeting vulnerabilities in work-related apps and work processes were active in the last half of 2020 and remain dangerous threats capable of taking over networks and data, while costing millions in assets and recovery costs.”

To help organizations further protect themselves from ransomware and other malware, Samani shared with TechRepublic the following tips:

  1. Back up. Back up. Back up. And be sure to capture an offline backup.
  2. Use robust endpoint security software.
  3. Implement network segmenting.
  4. Use effective identity management tools.
  5. Keep all the software on your computers up to date.
  6. Show file extensions in File Explorer in Windows.
  7. Consider setting up a software restriction policy (SRP).

And for organizations who get hit by a ransomware attack, Samani recommends the following actions:

  1. Immediately disconnect from the internet and other network connections if infected.
  2. Create a memory dump.
  3. Take pictures for evidence.
  4. Make a copy of the encrypted drive.
  5. Try to recover files with forensic tools such as PhotoRec.
  6. Check for a possible decryptor.
  7. Don’t turn off or reboot the computer.
  8. Don’t delete any files, including the ransom notes.
  9. Don’t trust the word of a criminal. If you decide to pay, accept the risk of losing everything, and seek help from a professional ransomware expert.