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Unit 42 is the threat intelligence arm of Palo Alto Networks, the global leader in cybersecurity. This study was authored by Janos Szurdi, Zhanhao Chen, Oleksii Starov, Adrian McCabe, and Ruian Duan.

With the spread of the coronavirus worldwide, interest is high in related topics. Accordingly, Unit 42 researchers found an immense increase in Coronavirus-related Google searches and URLs viewed since the beginning of February. Cybercriminals are looking to profit from such trending topics, disregarding ethical concerns, and in this particular case preying on the misfortunes of billions.

To protect customers of Palo Alto Networks, Unit 42 researchers monitor user interest in trending topics and newly registered domain names related to these topics, as miscreants often leverage them for malicious campaigns.

Using Google Trends and our traffic logs, we observed a steep increase in user interest of topics related to Coronavirus, with prominent peaks at the end of January, the end of February, and the middle of March 2020.

Accompanying the growth in user interest, we observed a 656% increase in the average daily Coronavirus-related domain name registrations from February to March. In this timeframe, we witness a 569% growth in malicious registrations, including malware and phishing; and a 788% growth in “high-risk” registrations, including scams, unauthorized coin mining, and domains that have evidence of association with malicious URLs within the domain or utilization of bulletproof hosting.

As of the end of March, we identified 116,357 Coronavirus-related newly registered domain names. Out of these, 2,022 are malicious and 40,261 are “high-risk”.

We analyze these domains by clustering them based on their Whois information, DNS records and screenshots (collected by our automated crawlers) to detect registration campaigns. We found that while many domains are registered to be resold for a profit, a significant fraction of them are used for both well-known malicious activities as well as for fraudulent shops selling items in short supply.

The traditional malice abusing Coronavirus trends includes domains hosting malware, phishing sites, fraudulent sites, malvertising, cryptomining, and Black Hat Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for improving search rankings of unethical websites. Interestingly, although many webshops that use newly registered domains try to scam users, we detected an especially unethical cluster of domains capitalizing on users’ fear of Coronavirus to further frighten them into buying their products. Moreover, we discovered a group of Coronavirus-themed domains, which now serve parked pages with high-risk JavaScript that may at anytime start redirecting users to malicious content.

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Unfortunately, there will always be cybercriminals who will attempt to victimize people during local, national, and world events when their fears are elevated. We have observed this same type of behavior time and time again when calamitous events occur, cybercriminals start to circle for victims. Sadly, we do not expect this exploitative type of behavior to go away anytime soon.

People should be highly skeptical of any emails or newly-registered websites with COVID-19 themes, whether they claim to have information, a testing kit, or a cure. Special care should be taken to examine domain names for legitimacy and security, such as ensuring it is the legitimate domain (google[.]com vs g00gle[.]com), and that there is a lock icon to the left-hand side of the browser’s URL bar, ensuring a valid HTTPS connection.

Similar care should be taken with any COVID-19 themed emails – a look at the sender’s email address often reveals the content is likely not legitimate, as it’s either unknown to the recipient, mis-spelled, or suspiciously long with random seeming characters.

To protect users from cybercriminals, Palo Alto Networks best practice recommendation for URL Filtering is to block access to the Newly Registered Domain category. However if you cannot block access to the Newly Registered Domains category, then our recommendation would be to enforce SSL decryption to these URLs for increased visibility, to block users from downloading risky file types such as PowerShells and executables, to apply a much stricter Threat Prevention policy, and increase logging when accessing Newly Registered Domains. We also recommend DNS-layer protection, as we know over 80% of malware uses DNS to establish C2.

Due to the suddenness of the coronavirus outbreak, many employees are self-isolating and working from home. While organizations have always provided secure access to their employees via VPN connections, the enormous amount of employees requiring secure access is unprecedented and requires additional resources and capacity.

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Palo Alto Networks offers Prisma Access, a cloud-delivered secure access service edge (SASE) platform that provides consistent policy enforcement and security for remote offices and mobile users, and will scale up and down as business demands evolve.

To learn more about how Palo Alto Networks can help remote employees, please see our resources here and check out Nir Zuk’swebcast on how to enable business continuity.

For more information about the above study, please refer to the full blog (attached).

About Palo Alto Networks

Palo Alto Networks, the global cybersecurity leader, is shaping the cloud-centric future with technology that is transforming the way people and organizations operate. Our mission is to be the cybersecurity partner of choice, protecting our digital way of life. We help address the world’s greatest security challenges with continuous innovation that seizes the latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, analytics, automation, and orchestration. By delivering an integrated platform and empowering a growing ecosystem of partners, we are at the forefront of protecting tens of thousands of organizations across clouds, networks, and mobile devices. Our vision is a world where each day is safer and more secure than the one before. For more information, visit

About Unit 42

Unit 42 is the global threat intelligence team at Palo Alto Networks and a recognized authority on cyberthreats, frequently sought out by enterprises and government agencies around the world. Our analysts are experts in hunting and collecting unknown threats as well as completely reverse-engineering malware using code analysis. With this expertise, we deliver high-quality, in-depth research that provides insight into tools, techniques, and procedures threat actors execute to compromise organizations. Our goal is to provide context wherever possible, explaining the nuts and bolts of attacks, as well as who’s executing them and why, so that defenders globally can gain visibility into threats to better defend their businesses against them.

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