Interest in vaccines is driving all sorts of activity, reports say, from vaccine-specific phishing to growing bot traffic on healthcare sites.

With the global vaccination effort commanding headlines and media coverage on a daily basis, attackers have jumped on a variety of schemes to take advantage of people’s need to know more about the status of vaccines, including creating new phishing campaigns, scraping data from the websites used for scheduling vaccination appointments, and registering vaccine-related domains, security firms warned on Thursday. 

Vaccine-related phishing attacks are up 26% since October, often with fraudsters using a well-known brand, such as the Centers of Disease Control, as the apparent source of the e-mail, network-security firm Barracuda Networks states in a blog post. The number of dangerous domains registered that use the word “vaccine” increased by 29% over the past four months, according to security firm Check Point Software Technologies. 

Bot operators have also started targeting vaccine-related healthcare sites, with the amount of “bad bot” traffic rising nearly 50% between January and February, and a nearly 400% increase since October, website-protection firm Imperva stated in an analysis. The amount of traffic, along with increase in human traffic, runs the risk of causing outages, says Edward Roberts, application security strategist at Imperva.

“We have customers, who are going to be making vaccines available, concerned with the level of traffic,” he says. “The influx of human traffic plus the automation does have the potential to bring a website down.”

While Imperva’s analysis draws no firm conclusions about how the influx in traffic to healthcare and vaccination scheduling sites is related — if it is — to cybercrime, the other schemes are more transparent. 

The increase in vaccine-related phishing is merely the same cybercriminal groups using a new topical lure to get end users to click on links or run a malware-ladened attachment, Barracuda Networks states. Once compromised, the attackers either exploit the user in a business e-mail compromise or move laterally, seeking out other users and systems, the company says.

“Vaccine-related phishing emails impersonated a well-known brand or organization and included a link to a phishing website advertising early access to vaccines, offering vaccinations in exchange for a payment, or even impersonating health care professionals requesting personal information to check eligibility for a vaccine,” Barracuda Networks states in its analysis

Between the beginning of November and the end of February, Check Point’s research group collected more than 7,000 registrations of domains using the word vaccine. Only 294 of those domains, however, are considered dangerous, the company says. 

Often, the intent of attackers is signaled by their attempts to construct the infrastructure necessary for an attack, the firm states.

“One of the surest signs of imminent online scams is an increase in domain registrations,” Check Point states in its blog post. “This signals that scammers are preparing web content, which appears to be genuine in order to attract curious people, with the aim of stealing their credentials and account details, or stealthily installing malware on their PCs or devices.”

in 2019, Imperva blocked about a quarter of traffic as bad bot traffic, and about half that (13%) as good bots that may or may not be blocked. The remaining traffic (about 63%) represented the actual users, “human” traffic. 

Over the past months, the amount of human traffic and bot traffic has increased to medical and healthcare sites, Imperva’s Roberts says. 

“It varies when you are talking about different industries,” he says. “Within healthcare, pharmacies might be one group and hospitals another group that might be seeing different levels. We are certainly seeing an increase in automated traffic. There has been a lot more bot traffic overall.”

The degree to which the attacks are causing disruptions is unknown. While Imperva, for example, notes that vaccine websites in several states have crashed and pointed at bots as a potential cause, the company had no evidence of a link between the two issues. 

Even automated data collection bots that check the inventory at different locations, arguably a “good bot,” could be causing disruption if the sites are not robust enough. Imperva notes that such bots, along with bad bots that try to reserve vaccines, could disrupt the scheduling process. 

“Some helpful bots — developed with good intent — will be deployed as a way to scan appointment booking sites to keep citizens apprised of availability,” the company states in its blog post. “However, automated traffic congests the network’s bandwidth and will make it harder for legitimate users to access the system.”

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT’s Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline … View Full Bio

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