Scam Pandemic: How Attackers Exploit Public Fear through Phishing

Authors
Marzieh Bitaab, Haehyun Cho, Adam Oest, Penghui Zhang, Zhibo Sun, Rana Pourmohamad, Doowon Kim, Tiffany Bao, Ruoyu Wang, Yan Shoshitaishvili, Adam Doupé, and Gail-Joon Ahn

Abstract
As the COVID-19 pandemic started triggering widespread lockdowns across the globe, cybercriminals did not hesitate to take advantage of users' increased usage of the Internet and their reliance on it. In this paper, we carry out a comprehensive measurement study of online social engineering attacks in the early months of the pandemic. By collecting, synthesizing, and analyzing DNS records, TLS certificates, phishing URLs, phishing website source code, phishing emails, web traffic to phishing websites, news articles, and government announcements, we track trends of phishing activity between January and May 2020 and seek to understand the key implications of the underlying trends. We find that phishing attack traffic in March and April 2020 skyrocketed up to 220\% of its pre-COVID-19 rate, far exceeding typical seasonal spikes. Attackers exploited victims' uncertainty and fear related to the pandemic through a variety of highly targeted scams, including emerging scam types against which current defenses are not sufficient as well as traditional phishing which outpaced the ecosystem's collective response.

Reference
Marzieh Bitaab, Haehyun Cho, Adam Oest, Penghui Zhang, Zhibo Sun, Rana Pourmohamad, Doowon Kim, Tiffany Bao, Ruoyu Wang, Yan Shoshitaishvili, Adam Doupé, and Gail-Joon Ahn. 2020. Scam pandemic: how attackers exploit public fear through phishing. In Proceedings of the APGW Symposium on Electronic Crime Research. APWG.

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