There has been a major increase in cryptojacking attacks in recent months. Many cybercriminal gangs now favoring this method of attack over ransomware and other forms of malware and are taking advantage of the high value of cryptocurrencies.

As with ransomware attacks, cybercriminals need to install malicious code on computers. Instead of encrypting files like ransomware, the code is used to mine for cryptocurrency. Mining cryptocurrencies involves a computers CPU being used to solve complex computational problems, which are necessary for verifying cryptocurrency transactions and adding to the blockchain. In exchange for verifying transactions, the miner is paid a small amount for the effort.

Devoting one computer to the task of cryptocurrency mining could generate a few dollars a day. Using multiple computers for the task can generate a substantial return. The more computers that are used, the more blocks can be added to the blockchain and the greater the profits. When a network of cryptocurrency mining slave computers can be amassed, the profits can be considerable. According to Kaspersky Lab, one cryptojacking gang that focusses on infecting enterprise servers and spreading the malicious code using NSA exploits, has generated around 9,000 Monero, which equates to $2 million.

Not all computers are suitable for mining cryptocurrency. One cybercriminal gang has got around this by developing malware that can decide whether to deploy a cryptocurrency miner or ransomware, with the decision based on the processing power of the computer. If its not suitable for use mining cryptocurrency, ransomware is deployed. This tactic helps maximize profits after compromising a device.

The use of cryptocurrency miners increased sharply last year as the value of cryptocurrencies started to soar. The price of those cryptocurrencies may have fallen, but cryptojacking attacks are still on the rise. The volume of new cryptojacking malware variants has also increased considerably over the past few months. Ā Figures from McAfee indicate the number of cryptojacking malware variants increased by a staggering 1,189% in the first three months of 2018 alone, rising from around 400,000 malware variants to more than 2.9 million.

Over the same time frame, there has been a fall in the number of ransomware attacks. In Q1, ransomware attacks fell by around 32%, indicating threat actors who previously used ransomware to make money have changed their tactics and are now using cryptocurrency miners.

Ransomware attacks falling by a third is certainly good news, although the threat from ransomware cannot be ignored. Steps must be taken to prevent the installation of the file encrypting code and good backup practices are essential to ensure files can be recovered in the event of an attack. Certain industries face a higher risk of ransomware attacks than others, such as the healthcare industry, where attacks are still rife.

Cryptojacking attacks are more widespread, although the education sector has proven to be a major target. Many mining operations have been discovered in the education sector, although it is unclear whether these mining operations are legitimate, computers are being used by students to mine cryptocurrency, or if educational institutions are being targeted.

One thing is clear. As the value of cryptocurrencies rose, the number of mining attacks increased. That suggests that should prices fall, cybercriminals will switch to other types of attacks, and there could be a resurgence in ransomware attacks.

It could be argued that the installation of cryptocurrency mining malware on a computer is far less of a problem than ransomware or other forms of malware. When the CPU is mining cryptocurrency, the user is likely to find their computer somewhat sluggish. This can result in a drop in productivity. Heavy processing can also cause computers to overheat and hardware damage can result.

Cryptojacking malware is usually installed by a downloader, which can remain on a computer. If the profits from mining cryptocurrency fall, new malware variants could easily be downloaded in its place. Cryptocurrency mining malware can also be bundled with other malware variants that steal sensitive information. Cryptojacking attacks are therefore a major threat.

Protecting against cryptojacking attacks involves the same security controls that are used to block other forms of malware. Cryptojacking malware can be installed by exploiting vulnerabilities so good patch management is essential. Spam and phishing emails are used to install malware downloaders, so an advanced spam filtering solution is a must. Web filters can prevent web-based mining attacks and malware downloads and offer an important extra layer of protection. It is also important not to neglect end users. Security awareness training can help to eradicate risky behaviors.

Additionally, security audits should be conducted, first to scan for the presence of cryptojacking malware, which includes searching for anomalies that could indicate the presence of the malware. Those audits should include servers, end points, POS systems, and all other systems. Any system connected to the network could potentially be used for mining cryptocurrency.