Security Service says phishing was main cyber-threat to government in 2021

The Malta Security Service has reported that one of the main cyber-threats faced by the government in 2022 was phishing emails directed at Maltese government infrastructure

File photo
File photo

The Malta Security Service (MSS) has reported that one of the main cyber-threats faced by the government in 2022 was phishing emails directed at Maltese government infrastructure.

These emails, designed to trick individuals into providing sensitive information, were dealt with in order to avoid any major cyber-incidents against the infrastructure.

The MSS reported numerous cyber-attacks of this kind against companies and private organizations, with a high number of phishing attempts in recent years targeting local customers by impersonating government authorities such as the Central Bank, the police force, and the customs department.

In June 2021, 40 victims were robbed of over €50,000 in just 24 hours when the police cybercrime unit had to see to ove 400 scam reports between May and June. The scams resulted in unauthorised bank withdrawals amounting to €400,000.

Scammers also impersonated the Health Ministry by sending out an SMS that requested recipients to send in €1.88 in order to be sent a vaccine certificate passport. In August 2021, scammers impersonated LESA, the local enforcement agency, by telling users of pending tribunal cases being transferred to court the following month.

In another scam, bank customers were notified of a fake “suspicious transaction” by being asked to click on a link to verify the transaction in question. Victims were then directed to a fake website to input sensitive details.

Another SMS scam in December 2021 would impersonate Maltapost and other delivery companies by telling recipients that a package is waiting for delivery and requesting payment.

Similar scams still circulate today. Last month, police warned of fake emails pretending to originate from the police force on charges of paedophilia.

Back in 2020, Malta’s cybersecurity agency Cyber Security Malta and the police force joined a global alliance led by Interpol to raise awareness on cyber-security during the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign helps communities keep safe from cybercriminals exploiting COVID-19 to steal data, commit online fraud, or simply disrupt the virtual world.

The MSS said in its annual report that it is involved in countering radicalisation, specifically self-radicalisation through social media. Terrorism was described as “a continuous but low threat” to Malta due to its geographical location close to Libya and Tunisia. “Terrorism was and remains on the top of the Service’s agenda. This phenomenon has long existed and will continue to exist for a long time. Terrorist groups are aware that many countries are doing everything possible to fight terrorism. To properly prepare against terrorism, we need to invest in modern apparatus, training and human resources.”

But the MSS said it had no information that any individuals or groups in the local scene have the capacity, or intention, to commit a terrorist attack against Malta or against foreign interests in Malta. “But this doesn’t change the need of the Service to remain vigilant in this sector.”

Pandemic disruption

The MSS reported difficulties coordinating efforts, particularly for meetings that would usually be held face to face, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It said terrorism had remained active throughout the pandemic, with simple and unsophisticated attacks throughout Europe, and more terrorism moving online with extremists using digital means to radicalise others.

Travel restrictions during the pandemic led to shortages in drug supplies. “While drugs were available strict controls hampered suppliers as they couldn’t work as usual,” the annual report reads.

In Malta’s case, being an island means drug trade depends on legal routes to hide illicit activity. “During the pandemic, due to measures imposed by the Maltese government and other governments, some of these routes became problematic for transporting products into Malta. That’s why these organised crime groups  had to develop new methods and routes.”

COVID-19 turned out to be an opportunity to conduct disinformation campaigns. Some social media pages were used to provide information on COVID-19 “based on rumours regarding the positivity rate, deaths, and work place infections”.

“Globally, right-wing extremists exploited social media platforms to undermine trust in governments, spread conspiracy theories on the origins of COVID-19, how it spreads and treatments you can take to recover quickly,” the MSS Said.

Malta’s greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)  in 2021 was an added pressure for the MSS.

Back in 2019, a specialised section was set up in the service to achieve needed benchmarks recommended by FATF and Moneyval.