ESET Threat Report: Attempts to exploit MS Exchange and massive waves of password guessing were the most frequent intrusion vectors

  • The exclusive research included in the report provides previously unpublished information about APT group operations: ProxyShell exploitation; OilRig campaign and activities by the infamous cyberespionage group the Dukes (aka Cozy Bear).
  • ProxyLogon vulnerability was the second most frequent external attack vector in ESET’s 2021 statistics, right after password-guessing attacks.
  • Microsoft Exchange servers fell under siege again in August 2021 via ProxyLogon’s “younger sibling”, named ProxyShell, which has been exploited worldwide by several threat groups.
  • Attacks exploiting the Log4Shell vulnerability were the fifth most common external intrusion vector in 2021.
  • RDP attack numbers from the last weeks of T3 2021 broke all previous records, amounting to a staggering yearly growth of 897%.
  • Ransomware surpassed the worst expectations in 2021, with attacks against critical infrastructure, outrageous ransom demands and over USD 5 billion worth of potential bitcoin transactions in H1 2021 alone.
  • Android banking malware detections rose by 428% in 2021 compared to 2020.
  • Emotet botnet has been resurrected.

ESET Research releases its T3 2021 Threat Report today, summarizing key statistics from ESET detection systems and highlighting notable examples of ESET cybersecurity research, including exclusive, previously unpublished updates on current threats. The latest issue of the ESET Threat Report (covering September to December 2021) sheds light on the most frequent external attack vectors, the reason behind the rise of email threats, and shifts in the prevalence of certain types of threats due to fluctuating exchange rates of cryptocurrencies. Researchers reveal that the ProxyLogon vulnerability was the second most frequent external attack vector in ESET’s 2021 statistics, right after password-guessing attacks. Microsoft Exchange servers fell under siege again in August 2021, with ProxyLogon’s “younger sibling”, named ProxyShell, which has been exploited worldwide by several threat groups. As the final threat report of the year 2021, it also comes with commentary on the broader trends observed throughout the year as well as predictions for 2022 by ESET malware researchers and detection specialists.

Further research in the report revolves around the Log4Shell vulnerability, yet another critical flaw in the ubiquitous Log4j utility that surfaced in mid-December. IT teams everywhere were sent scrambling, again, to locate and patch the flaw in their systems. “This vulnerability, scoring a 10 on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System, put countless servers at risk of complete takeover – so it came as no surprise that cybercriminals instantly started exploiting it. Despite only being known for the last three weeks of the year, Log4j attacks were the fifth most common external intrusion vector in 2021 in our statistics, showing just how quickly threat actors are at taking advantage of newly emerging critical vulnerabilities,” explains Roman Kováč, chief research officer at ESET.

The exclusive research presented in the ESET Threat Report T3 2021 provides previously unpublished information about APT group operations. This time, researchers offer updates on the activity of cyberespionage group OilRig; latest information on in-the-wild ProxyShell exploitation; and new spearphishing campaigns by the infamous cyberespionage group the Dukes.

According to ESET telemetry, the end of the year was also turbulent for Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) attacks, which escalated throughout all of 2020 and 2021. The numbers from the last weeks of T3 2021 broke all previous records, amounting to a staggering yearly growth of 897% in total attack attempts blocked – despite the fact that 2021 was no longer marked by the chaos of newly imposed lockdowns and hasty transitions to remote work.

Ransomware, previously described in the ESET Threat Report Q4 2020 as “more aggressive than ever” surpassed the worst expectations in 2021, with attacks against critical infrastructure, outrageous ransom demands and over USD 5 billion worth of bitcoin transactions tied to potential ransomware payments identified in the first half of 2021 alone. As the bitcoin exchange rate reached its highest point in November, ESET experts observed an influx of cryptocurrency-targeting threats, further boosted by the recent popularity of NFTs.

In the world of mobile, ESET noted an alarming upsurge in Android banking malware detections, which rose by 428% in 2021 compared to 2020, reaching the detection levels of adware – a common nuisance on the Android platform. Email threats, the door to a myriad of attacks, saw their yearly detection numbers more than double. This trend was mainly driven by a rise in phishing emails, which more than compensated for the rapid decline in Emotet’s signature malicious macros in email attachments. Emotet, an infamous trojan inactive for most of the year, as illustrated in the report, came back from the dead in T3.

The ESET T3 2021 Threat Report also reviews the most important research findings, with ESET Research uncovering: FontOnLake, a new malware family targeting Linux; a previously undocumented real-world UEFI bootkit named ESPecter; FamousSparrow, a cyberespionage group targeting hotels, governments, and private companies worldwide; and many others. T3 also saw ESET researchers publish a comprehensive analysis of all 17 malicious frameworks known to have been used to attack air-gapped networks, and conclude their extensive series of deep dives into Latin American banking trojans.

The report also contains an overview of the numerous talks given by ESET researchers in T3 2021, and introduces talks planned for the SeQCure conference in April 2022 and the RSA Conference in June 2022, with the latter showcasing the recent ESPecter discovery.

For more information, check out ESET Threat Report T3 2021 on WeLiveSecurity. Make sure to follow ESET Research on Twitter for the latest news from ESET Research.


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