How to Protect Against New Surge in Attacks Targeting Remote Workers

eWEEK DATA POINTS: The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect storm of opportunity for cybercriminals. These people understand that times of rapid transition can cause serious disruptions for organizations.

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An unprecedented number of unprotected users and devices are now all online at the same time. In any home, right now, there are likely one or two people connecting remotely to work through the home internet connection. There may also be kids at home engaged in remote learning part of the time and connected to their friends the rest. Entire families are engaged in multiplayer games, talking with their friends in online chat rooms and over social media, as well as streaming music and video. 

It’s a perfect storm of opportunity for cybercriminals. These people understand that times of rapid transition can cause serious disruptions for organizations. In the rush to enable a massive telework initiative and ensure business continuity, things like security protocols can get overlooked, and criminals are looking to take advantage of any inadvertent security gaps. More, over the past several months, there has been a significant spike in coronavirus and COVID-19-related threats. Significant social events are usually a catalyst for new threats to emerge--there are always bad actors looking to exploit others during times of crisis--and the current situation is no different. 

It is essential that organizations continue to implement and follow measures to protect their remote workers and secure their devices and home networks. This eWEEK Data Points article, using industry information from Derek Manky, chief of Security Insights and Global Threat Alliances at FortiGuard Labs, offers some foundational points for companies not accustomed to having their employees working from home.

Data Point No. 1: Employ Cyber distancing. 

We have all been practicing social distancing over the last few months to protect against viruses and illness. Likewise, we should consider cyber distancing ourselves from our attackers. FortiGuard Labs, for one example, gathers and analyzes more than 100 billion security events every day, and recently it has been seeing an average of about 600 new phishing campaigns per day. Remote workers should keep their cyber distance by staying wary of suspicious requests, unknown attempts at contact, and unsolicited information. Your employees are the protectors of your information, your networks and your company’s health. 

Data Point No. 2: Cyber education is everyone’s responsibility in today’s telework environment. 

Security is a team effort. Now more than ever employees should understand their part in their organization’s security posture.  Organizations should be keeping their remote workforce employees in the “security loop” with a steady cadence of security-related education and updates. These updates might include policy guidelines in place to protect the enterprise network, instruction on cyber hygiene, and patch management. Offer employees a boost on becoming more cyber aware by advocating that they embrace cyber education. There are free training courses available to help educate users on the threat landscape and best practices that will help you to better protect yourself, your home network, and your company’s network.

For example, individuals interested in increasing their cybersecurity awareness can start their training for free with NSE 1 and NSE 2. Or, IT professionals and those who want to learn about firewall policies, firewall policies, user authentication, routing, and SSL VPN can take the FortiGate Essentials Course, also accessible to the general public and at no charge. 

Data Point No. 3: Educate teleworkers to be vigilant about potential cyberthreats.

Interestingly, FortiGuard has seen a reduction in more traditional attack methods. More specifically, during the first quarter of 2020, it saw a reduction of botnets per month of -66%, -65%, and -44% compared to the same time period in 2019. This seems to indicate that cybercriminals are adjusting their attack strategies in order to take advantage of the current crisis.

Regarding COVID-19, FortiGuard has observed an enormous spike in related scams – money scams, shared riding service scams, money transfer scams, credit card scams, and even scam kits designed for novice cybercriminals known as script kiddies. The phishing attacks range from scams related to helping individuals deposit their stimulus checks, to providing access to hard to find medical supplies, to providing help desk support for new teleworkers. The content is designed to either prey on the fears and concerns of individuals, take advantage of new circumstances, or pretend to provide essential information. 

While these attacks start with a phishing attack, their end goal is to steal personal information or even target businesses through their new teleworkers. Which is why the majority of these phishing attacks contain malicious payloads – including ransomware, viruses, remote access trojans (RATs) designed to provide criminals with remote access to endpoint systems, and even RDP (remote desktop protocol) exploits. 

In addition to online scams targeted at adults, cyber attackers are looking to exploit the kids at home too, launching springboard attacks. Some phishing attacks target kid’s computers and gaming systems with offers of online games and free movies, or even access to credit cards to buy online games or shop online stores. Multiple sites are illegally streaming Hollywood movies still in theaters but also secretly distributing malware to anyone who logs on. Free game, free movie, and once in and with a few lateral moves, the attacker is on your network. An organization that has implemented network segmentation already has the answer to those types of attacks in place. 

Data Point No. 4: Prioritize cyber hygiene.

Zero-day attacks are rare because they are difficult to develop. Instead, attackers target known vulnerabilities for which a patch is readily available, trusting that many companies may be lax in their patching and updating protocols – especially in the current climate, where there are many priorities to ensure business continuity and teams are likely spread even more thinly. More, attackers also trust that most individuals being pushed software updates may often treat patching and updating protocols with less urgency than the task at hand for their day-to-day job responsibilities. Enterprise IT and security teams need to identify every connected asset on their network, immediately patch those with vulnerabilities, replace those that can no longer be updated, and segment those devices that can’t be easily patched. For users, practicing good cyber hygiene means not only putting cyber education into practice amidst daily routines but also incorporating best practices and implementing software updates shared by the security team and making it a priority as the first line of defense against cyber attackers.  

Data Point No. 5: Put security countermeasures in place. 

Make sure that remote workers have a laptop with a pre-configured client to provide VPN connectivity for a secure VPN tunnel to your corporate headquarters’ network. For example, Fortinet is offering its FortiClient VPN solution for free to offer secure remote access. For more advanced security, consider adding an advanced, endpoint protection, detection, and response solution to detect and defuse live threats. Instruct users to enable the security included with most home routers and wireless access points. They should also contact their cable or internet service provider to see what security services they provide and have them enabled. 

Data Point No. 6: Ensure that your corporate headend is also protected. 

In addition to enabling multifactor authentication and single sign-on, make sure to leverage your next-generation firewall if you have the capability for scalable VPN termination and traffic inspection. Also consider a network access control solution and employing internal segmentation to ensure that authenticated devices only have access to the network resources they require, and to automatically respond to devices that misbehave. 

Data Point No. 7: Perform a review of your other security tools.

FortiGuard has recently been seeing an average of about 600 new phishing campaigns per day. Given that so many attacks are phishing-based, it is critical that your secure email gateway is capable of detecting and filtering out phishing attacks and spam, and eliminating malicious attachments. Choose a solution that provides robust data protection capabilities to avoid data loss. 

Data Point No. 8: If you haven’t already, start now. 

Organizations have been forced to hurry to move to a remote worker model to maintain business continuity and are likely to make mistakes that criminals will exploit. Knowing the risks is a critical first step. The next step, and often the hardest, is doing something about it. With operational and business continuity so critical, this is not a challenge that can be safely put off. Cybercriminals are all too willing and able to take advantage of this crisis for their personal gain.

If you have a suggestion for an eWEEK Data Points article, email cpreimesberger@eweek.com.