Sophisticated Covid-19 phishing scams and why we need to step up threat information sharing

IBM, together with several Partners of the Charter of Trust launched an initiative earlier this year to build the Charter’s threat information sharing capability related to digital infrastructures and the IoT supply chain.

By Nick Rossmann, Global Lead for Threat Intelligence, IBM Security X-Force

My team at IBM, a Partner of the Charter of Trust, discovered a malicious cyber operation in which a currently unknown adversary masqueraded as one of the world’s largest cold-chain providers in a global email phishing campaign seemingly aimed at spying on entities essential to the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

From the onset of the pandemic, Covid-19 phishing emails have been one of the most prolific scams observed by the security community this year. Since late-January, attackers have duped recipients into opening emails with subject lines related to the novel coronavirus. Victims the world over, living in fear of the pandemic and its health and economic impact, received these emails and were enticed to click on their infected links and attachments. Doing so has led to compromises of individual devices and corporate networks, and ultimately to the theft of personal and company data. The fact that more employees are working from home during the pandemic, lacking in many instances sufficient cybersecurity protections, has exacerbated this threat and increased the need for organizations to take measures to address these security risks and be on alert.

The hackers claimed to represent Qingdao Haier Biomedical Co., a China-based company and one of the world’s largest cold-chain suppliers, making equipment to store and deliver materials at cold temperatures. In at least one copy of the spam email, the fake Haier representative sought to purchase about 500 vaccine refrigerators to bolster their temperature-controlled logistical services. The user, who purports to serve as Haier’s project manager in Africa, promised a $220,000 upfront payment, according to an email provided by the IBM security researchers. Attached to the email is a draft contract entitled, “RFQ – UNICEF CCEOP and Vaccine Project.” But the HTML attachment was actually a malicious file that, if opened, would prompt the recipient to share their secret login credentials with the attacker.

IBM’s security team has been researching Covid-19-related cyber-attacks and sharing with the Charter of Trust threat information sharing network since the early days of the pandemic. Based on the sophistication of this attack, which targeted a variety of industries related to vaccine storage and delivery before hackers cleaned up their digital footprints, researchers believe the campaign was launched by a nation-state, but declined to speculate on which one.

It’s unclear if any victims fell for the scam. But if they did, the harvested credentials could help an attacker “gain insight into internal communications, as well as the process, methods and plans to distribute a Covid-19 vaccine.

As pharmaceutical companies and governments the world over prepare for the logistical puzzle of disseminating hundreds of millions of vaccines to help blunt the coronavirus, cyber-criminals continue to leverage the urgency and despair of the global pandemic for intelligence and monetary gain. In this case, the phishing scheme spanned six countries and targeted European organizations that bolster immunization in poor countries.

In late November, the Atlanta-based cold chain company Americold Realty Trust said it was the target of a cyber-attack. The company believes the attack has been contained, but hadn’t “completed its investigation,” Americold said in a Nov. 30 regulatory filing. The company didn’t expect the hack to impact operations. Americold didn’t respond to requests for comment on the scope of the attack and the role email phishing may have played.

“As we shift toward distributing a vaccine for Covid-19, the logistics of this operation will become extremely critical,” said John Hultquist, a senior director at the cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc. “Seemingly mundane security issues could have major repercussions to such a complex and important effort.”

As Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. work with U.S. and global regulators to approve their Covid-19 vaccines for emergency use, global distribution has already started. Pfizer and United Airlines transported the first mass air shipment of a vaccine from Brussels to Chicago in late November.

Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures to avoid contamination. But maintaining temperature controls once a vaccine leaves the airplane remains a challenge. In parts of West Africa, for instance, temperatures in mid-December range from 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Even states in the U.S. lack necessary capacity to store large volumes of the vaccine without spoiling. This makes cold chain companies like China’s Haier essential to global distribution.

It also makes them prime targets for spoofing campaigns, said Claire Zaboeva, Senior Cyber Threat Analyst at IBM’s Security X-Force. Targets of the phishing operation have included the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union, according to IBM. The agency is responsible for streamlining customs and duties as goods travel across the European Union. Attackers may see the agency as a single point of compromise to disrupt distribution across the region. Petrochemical companies were also targeted, since they produce dry ice to keep vials cool.

This was a well-prepared, precise, sophisticated campaign. We can’t ignore the fact that there are actors who will benefit from disrupting distribution of the vaccine. If an actor could disrupt consumer trust in the vaccine, that could play a pivotal role in changing perceptions of world power.

Raising cyber security resilience through collaboration between partners, is becoming a key objective for most companies. That is why IBM, together with several Partners of the Charter of Trust launched an initiative earlier this year to build the Charter’s threat information sharing capability related to digital infrastructures and the IoT supply chain. One of the first deliverables was to share threat information relating to Covid-19 and this case shows how relevant this topic is. The Charter of Trust has in parallel developed baseline security requirements for the supply chain, and this case also shows that such baseline requirements need to be complimented by security awareness since the methods used by adversaries evade normal security measures.

The more information on threats organizations, institutions and governments have access to, the better they can prepare to defend against them – making collaborative initiatives such as the Charter of Trust’s threat sharing platform, essential to thwarting off cyberattacks and safeguarding our digital environments.