Unit 42 Sees Surge in Attacks by Nigerian Cybercriminals

May 09, 2019
2 minutes
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Attacks by the Nigeria-based SilverTerrier cybercrime gang surged in 2018 as the group increasingly focused on high-tech firms and wholesalers, according to a new analysis from the Palo Alto Networks Unit 42 threat research group.

The report, “SilverTerrier – 2018 Nigerian Business Email Compromise,” shows how these cyber fraud schemes helped contribute to $1.29 billion that the FBI estimates was lost last year to Business Email Compromise schemes.

Unit 42 has closely followed SilverTerrier since the threat research group was set up in 2014, analyzing some 1.1 million attacks to document how Nigerian cybercriminals have grown in sophistication and effectiveness over the past four years.

Nigerian cybercriminals were traditionally associated with 419 spam email fraud: Scams that ask recipients to send money to help a purported Nigerian prince recover lost funds. These scams were notable for their lack of sophistication as well as emails laced with misspellings and poor grammar.

Since producing its first analysis of SilverTerrier in 2014, which was called “419 Evolution,” Unit 42 has documented how these cybercriminals have consistently upped their game, moving on to more sophisticated attacks and more lucrative targets.

In its latest report, Unit 42 shows that SilverTerrier’s number-one target in 2018 was the high-tech industry, where the attacks it observed more than doubled over the course of the year to 120,000 from 46,000. Last year’s number-two target, the wholesale industry, experienced a 400 percent increase in attacks.

Nigerian attackers have also switched from using poorly crafted spam email to using some of the latest malware tools and techniques. Toolkits now include malware for stealing bank account and credit card data as well as tools that give attackers remote control of a computer, which can yield large troves of data on a victim’s digital life. SilverTerrier has also begun using advanced tools to hide its malware from security products so that it’s only detected about 58 percent of the time.

Unit 42 analysts have worked with law enforcement around the world in efforts to crack down on Nigerian cybercriminals, including Operation Wire-Wire, which led to charges in 2018 against 74 individuals globally.  Unit 42 has followed some gang members so closely that they have uncovered Facebook pages bragging of their criminal success, which feature pictures of themselves surrounded by cash.


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