Wednesday, 30 June 2021 11:40

Hackers capitalised COVID-19 lockdown to spread false information using bogus apps, text messages, and social media invitations: study

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McAfee’s latest report, Mobile Threat Report 2021, highlights that hackers harnessed malwares to spread misinformation on vaccines and used it to obtain a user's personal and sensitive data.

Hidden apps were the most active mobile threats, and this approach was capitalised during the lockdown when time spent online and on devices surged, according to a study to a report by McAfee’s threat research team, Mobile Threat Report 2021.

McAfee’s research explains how hackers are escalating fears with COVID-19 misinformation by using bogus apps, text messages, and social media invitations.

McAfee senior vice president, consumer business group Judith Bitterli says the pandemic changed consumers live, which also means hackers have also adapted to innovate various methods they use to target the public.

“With more people connected online than ever before, we want to make sure we are doing everything possible to help refocus consumer’s digital mindsets to protect what matters to them and their friends and family—their personal data,” Bitterli notes.

“Mobile threats remain prevalent in our world and as fraudsters use more advanced methods, this will only continue. We aim to support consumers in safeguarding their personal devices and more importantly, personal data,” she says.

Over the past year, the vaccine rollout has advanced at different rates across the globe, providing plenty of opportunities for hackers.

Researchers found that hackers are hiding malware and malicious links inside fake vaccination appointments and registration display ads.

Researchers warn that these have the potential to download malware into a person’s device that displays unwanted ads, as well as activating accessibility features to give the hacker full device control, giving them the ability to steal bank details and credentials.

According to the research, some of these campaigns worryingly started as early as November last year, before any vaccines had officially been approved, while others continue to appear as countries roll out their vaccination programmes in the fight against COVID-19.

“We’ve seen how the pandemic not only led to an increased dependence on mobile devices, but how it has prompted bad actors into developing new ways of tricking consumers and stealing their personal data,” laments McAfee fellow and chief scientist Raj Samani.

“As consumers continue to carry out daily activities on-the-go, it is critical that they stay educated and proactive about protecting their personal data,” he suggests.

The latest McAfee Mobile Threat Report 2021 highlights the following mobile threat trends:

· COVID-related malware: According to the McAfee COVID-19 Dashboard, more than 90% of all pandemic-related malware were trojans. Researchers found evidence of an SMS worm targeting Indian consumers, forming one of the earliest vaccine fraud campaigns. Both SMS and WhatsApp messages encouraged users to download a vaccine app and once downloaded, malware sent itself to everyone in the user’s contact list via SMS or WhatsApp. The malware behind this is the same family that was involved in India’s ban on the TikTok app last July.

· Billing fraud malware that makes purchases behind the backs of consumers: Researchers have also uncovered new information on mobile malware dubbed as Etinu. Targeting users in Southwest Asia and the Middle East, Etinu was found being distributed via Google Play, with more than 700K downloads before being detected and removed.

Once an app housing this malware is installed via the Google Play Store, the malware steals incoming SMS messages using a notification listener function. It can then make purchases and sign up for premium services and subscriptions that get charged to the user’s account.

· Hackers are using banking trojans to target hundreds of financial institutions around the world: McAfee says its mobile security detected a 141% increase in Banking Trojan activity between Q3 and Q4 2020. Most banking trojans are distributed via mechanisms such as phishing SMS messages to avoid Google’s screening process. During its research, McAfee discovered Brazilian Remote Access Tool Android (BRATA)—a popular banking trojan—that repeatedly managed to install itself on Google Play store and as a result, tricked thousands of users into downloads.


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Kenn Anthony Mendoza

Kenn Anthony Mendoza is the newest member of the iTWire team. Kenn is also a contributing writer for South China Morning Post Style, and has written stories on Korean entertainment, Asian and European royalty, Millionaires and Billionaires, and LGBTQIA+ issues. He has been published in Philippine newspapers, magazines, and online sites: Tatler PhilippinesManila BulletinCNN Philippines LifePhilippine StarManila Times, and The Daily Tribune. Kenn now covers all aspects of technology news for iTWire.com.

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