The UK’s National Cyber Security Center (NSCS) handled a record number of cyber security incidents over the last year, according to its annual review, as criminals attempted to exploit the global pandemic.

In its annual report, published on Tuesday, the NSCS revealed it handled 723 serious incidents between last September and the end of August, marking a 20% increase on the previous year.

The upsurge in incidents was linked to coronavirus, with the NSCS stating that criminals sought to use the pandemic to take advantage of vulnerable individuals, through schemes such as bogus emails, purporting to be from health authorities, that would infect devices with malware. In total, the organization’s Suspicious Email Reporting Service saw more than 2.3 million reports of malicious emails being flagged by the British public and led to 22,00 malicious URLs being taken down.

The report also outlined the work that the NSCS has done to protect the UK’s National Health Service following the WannaCry ransomware attack that crippled IT systems in hospitals across the country three years ago. The organization scanned more than one million NHS IP addresses, identifying 160 high-risk or critically vulnerable areas that could be exploited to disrupt the service. In an attempt to prevent future ransomware attacks, the NSCS updated its ‘Mitigating Ransomware and Malware Attacks’ guidance to recommend that companies implement a “defence in depth” strategy to ensure they have multiple defensive layers.

While there was an increase in the number of cyber security incidents, the chief executive officer of the NSCS, Lindy Cameron, praised its response to the threat for “creating an environment in which cyber security can thrive”. Expanding beyond addressing threats in the UK, the organization worked with 125 countries across the world over the last 12 months, testing their cyber defenses against realistic scenarios.

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