Microsoft has been approved to take control of malicious web domains which were used to send phishing messages regarding COVID-19.

According to a blog by Tom Burt, corporate vice-president of customer security and trust at Microsoft, said this was part of disrupting operations which were taking advantage of the global pandemic in an attempt to defraud customers in 62 countries around the world. 

Burt claimed Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit (DCU) first observed these criminals in December 2019, when they deployed a sophisticated, new phishing scheme designed to compromise Microsoft customer accounts. 

The attackers attempted to gain access to customer emails, contact lists, sensitive documents and other valuable information. The phishing emails were designed to look like they originated from an employer or other trusted source, and frequently targeted business leaders across a variety of industries, attempting to compromise accounts, steal information and redirect wire transfers. 

In recent months, the phishing emails contained messages regarding COVID-19 as a means to exploit pandemic-related financial concerns, using terms such as “COVID-19 Bonus,” and encouraging victims to click on malicious links. Once these links were clicked on, the user was prompted to grant access permissions to a malicious web application controlled by the criminals and access the victim’s Microsoft Office 365 account.

“This scheme enabled unauthorized access without explicitly requiring the victims to directly give up their login credentials at a fake website or similar interface, as they would in a more traditional phishing campaign,” Burt explained.

“As we’ve observed, cyber-criminals have been adapting their lures to take advantage of current events, using COVID-19-related themes to deceive victims. While the lures may have changed, the underlying threats remain, evolve and grow, and it’s more important than ever to remain vigilant against cyber-attacks.”

Burt claimed Microsoft takes measures to monitor and block malicious web apps based on telemetry indicating atypical behaviour, and in cases where criminals suddenly and massively scale their activity and move quickly to adapt their techniques to evade Microsoft’s built-in defensive mechanisms, additional measures such as the legal action filed in this case are necessary.

“This unique civil case against COVID-19-themed BEC attacks has allowed us to proactively disable key domains that are part of the criminals’ malicious infrastructure, which is a critical step in protecting our customers, Burt said.

“Microsoft and our Digital Crimes Unit will continue to investigate and disrupt cyber-criminals and will seek to work with law enforcement agencies around the world, whenever possible, to stop these crimes.”

Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET, said: “The ability to send a phishing email from a trusted source is the perfect disguise for any threat actor. Compromised domains are very much sought after, so closing the option will no doubt act as a severe blow to those attempting to gain control and use them for illicit purposes. 

“This latest move won’t eradicate the phishing email problem but it will no doubt plug a sizeable hole in a major issue seen worldwide.”