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Symantec reveals big shift in UAE cybercrime

Hussam Sidani, Symantec
Hussam Sidani, Symantec

Symantec’s Internet Security Threat Report (ISTR), Volume 21, revealed that cybercriminals are now adopting corporate best practices and establishing professional businesses in order to increase the efficiency of their attacks against enterprises and consumers.

This new class of professional cybercriminal, according to the study, spans the entire ecosystem of attackers, extending the reach of enterprise and consumer threats and fueling the growth of online crime.

“Advanced criminal attack groups now echo the skill sets of nation-state attackers. They have extensive resources and highly-skilled technical staff that operate with such efficiency that they maintain normal business hours and even take the weekends and holidays off,” said Hassam Sidani, Regional Manager, Gulf, Symantec.

The UAE’s 2015 Internet Security Threat Profile has dramatically jumped in world ranking from 49 in 2014 to 41 in 2015. This shift indicates a higher global percentage of source-based security threats, including malicious code, spam, phishing hosts, web and network attacks, and bots from the country. In the Middle East and Africa, UAE dropped down one position to 6th place compared to the previous year. Organisations in the UAE were also highly attacked by spear-phishing, ranking 1st within the Middle East and Africa region and 8th globally for targeted attacks.

“The UAE is considered a pivotal gateway to the Middle East and owing largely to its world-class IT infrastructure, connectivity and an attractive business environment It is a commercial hub for a large number of global organisations. Given its high-profile internationally, the country is a lucrative target for cybercriminals,” Sidani added.

Advanced professional attack groups are the first to leverage zero-day vulnerabilities, using them for their own advantage or selling them to lower-level criminals on the open market where they are quickly commoditised. In 2015, the number of zero-day vulnerabilities discovered on a global level more than doubled to a record-breaking 54, a 125 percent increase from the year before, reaffirming the critical role they play in lucrative targeted attacks.

In the UAE, spam and malicious code (malware) were among the most prevalent threats as well. The study revealed that one in 199 emails contained malware, while more than half (55.2 percent) of the emails were spam. Notably, the UAE was the source of a considerably larger percentage of global spam in 2015 compared to 2014, catipulating  the country’s global rank to 31st place, up 20 positions from 51st in 2014. This could be attributed to a range of socio-economic factors including the high smartphone penetration and high-speed internet access rate in the country as these connections can be easily leveraged and exploited by cybercriminals.

Data breaches continue to impact the enterprise. In fact, large businesses that are targeted for attack will on average be targeted three more times within the year. Additionally, the largest data breach ever publicly reported occurred last year with 191 million records compromised in a single incident. There were also a record-setting total of nine reported mega-breaches.

Businesses in the UAE were a victim of 2.7 percent of global targeted attacks, with an organisation facing an average of 2.2 attacks through the year. Ogranisations in the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sectors were the most affected by targeted attacks in the UAE in 2015, with 31.5 percent of overall attacks being directed towards them. Small organisations (1-250 employees), were the target of the most number of (64.2 percent) spear-phishing attacks in the country. These organisations may be targeted as they have less robust security parameters, and can be used to gain access to its partner ecosystem, which may comprise of larger and more lucrative companies.

Ransomware also continued to evolve in 2015, with the more damaging style of crypto-ransomware attacks growing by 35 percent. This more aggressive crypto-ransomware attack encrypts all of a victim’s digital content and holds it hostage until a ransom is paid. This year, ransomware spread beyond PCs to smartphones, Mac and Linux systems, with attackers increasingly seeking any network-connected device that could be held hostage for profit, indicating that the enterprise is the next target. The UAE was the 4th most impacted country in the Middle East and Africa region in regards to ransomware, and the 34th globally.  In addition, ransomware attacks grew 44 percent in the UAE as compared to the previous year.

From the Experts: Security Tips and Tricks

As attackers evolve, there are many steps businesses and consumers can take to protect themselves. As a starting point, Symantec recommends the following best practices:

For Businesses:

  • Don’t get caught flat-footed: Use advanced threat and adversary intelligence solutions to help you find indicators of compromise and respond faster to incidents.
  • Employ a strong security posture: Implement multi-layered endpoint security, network security, encryption, strong authentication and reputation-based technologies. Partner with a managed security service provider to extend your IT team.
  • Prepare for the worst: Incident management ensures your security framework is optimised, measureable and repeatable, and that lessons learned improve your security posture. Consider adding a retainer with a third-party expert to help manage crises.
  • Provide ongoing education and training: Establish simulation-based training for all employees as well guidelines and procedures for protecting sensitive data on personal and corporate devices. Regularly assess internal investigation teams—and run practice drills—to ensure you have the skills necessary to effectively combat cyber threats.

For Consumers:

  • Use strong passwords: Use strong and unique passwords for your accounts. Change your passwords every three months and never reuse your passwords. Additionally, consider using a password manager to further protect your information.
  • Think before you click: Opening the wrong attachment can introduce malware to your system. Never view, open, or copy email attachments unless you are expecting the email and trust the sender.
  • Protect yourself: An ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure. Use an internet security solution that includes antivirus, firewalls, browser protection and proven protection from online threats.
  • Be wary of scareware tactics: Versions of software that claim to be free, cracked or pirated can expose you to malware. Social engineering and ransomware attacks will attempt to trick you into thinking your computer is infected and get you to buy useless software or pay money directly to have it removed.
  • Safeguard your personal data: The information you share online puts you at risk for social engineered attacks. Limit the amount of personal information you share on social networks and online, including login information, birth dates and pet names.


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