Cyber Experts Warn Of Online Scams Exploiting Coronavirus Fears

We are currently experiencing an unprecedented global event. The outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – now officially a pandemic – has caused apprehension globally, ultimately resulting in lockdowns, travel bans, panic buying, and financial market turmoil.

Scammers, too, have taken notice. Emergencies offer golden opportunities for con artists to launch fraudulent campaigns that feed off, and cash in on, the climate of concern. Against the backdrop of a disease that has so far caused more than 4,000 deaths and continues to spread, scammers have wasted no time in playing on people’s fears or evoking feelings of compassion.

Some cybercriminals clearly think that all their Christmases have come at once: an anxious population, vulnerable people at the highest risk, excessive demand for goods no longer in stock, and masses of disinformation sloshing around on social media – all this equates to a massive opportunity to prey on people and attempt to defraud them while they are at their most susceptible.

The scams can take various forms, here are a few examples of the despicable tactics seen in use recently.

Fake news with malicious links

As a major source of information on the outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) is among the most-impersonated authorities in the ongoing scam campaigns. In the example below, fraudsters pretend to offer important information about the virus in an attempt to get potential victims to click on malicious links. Typically, such links can earn the senders money by installing malware, stealing personal information, or attempting to capture login and password credentials.

Figure 1. An email purporting to be from the World Health Organization

The WHO is aware that its brand is being used by scammers, so it provides advice on its website on how it communicates, and provides details of what it will or will not do in official emails.

Importantly, the WHO has not randomly started to email people who are not subscribed to their service, so treat any email you receive purporting to be from them with a few grains of salt…

The real news can also be found on the trusted sources you normally visit to get your daily intake. Links in unsolicited emails do not have unique or breaking news stories, so think twice before clicking on them.

How low can they go? Exploitative calls for charity…

Another common type of scam doing the rounds is a tug on the heart strings that attempts to get the recipient to help fund the vaccine for children in China. There is, at the time of writing, no vaccine available and it is not expected to be ready for public use until next year.

Figure 2. The fake charity

People who receive the coronavirus-themed charity emails are asked to send bitcoins to the attackers’ wallets. Despite this technique being only effective for a fraction of the users, when done on a global scale, it can be financially attractive for the criminals.

Fake protective gear

In another type of fraud, scammers send spam emails in a bid to dupe the victims into thinking they can order face masks that will keep them safe from the novel coronavirus. What happens instead, is that the victims will unwittingly reveal their sensitive personal and financial information to the fraudsters.

Figure 3. Fake offers for face masks

With demand for protective gear outstripping supply, con artists have been increasingly targeting people who are looking to take protective measures. According to Sky News, fraudulent face mask sellers swindled people in the UK out of £800,000 (US$1 million) in February alone!

Face masks are in very limited supply, so be savvy about product claims and only purchase from a trusted vendor that you would normally trust with your order (and credit card details!).

How to stay safe

These are just a few of the examples of how cybercriminals are attempting to capitalize on the current climate surrounding the virus outbreak. This is an apt time for individuals and businesses to learn, or be reminded of, some of the most common ways criminals capitalize on people’s emotions (not only) during major events and emergencies.

Here are some of the basics that will help you stay safe:

  • Avoid clicking on any links or downloading any attachments in unsolicited emails or texts from unknown sources, or even in trusted sources unless you’re absolutely sure that the message is authentic. In doubt? Don’t click it!
  • Ignore communications that ask for your personal information.
  • Be especially wary of emails that add to the sense of alarm and urge you to take immediate action or offer COVID-19 vaccines, cures or other unfounded miracles.
  • Look out for fraudulent charities or crowdfunding campaigns.
  • Use reputable multi-layered security software that includes protection against phishing.

You can easily protect yourself from these and many other online scams by installing a decent antivirus software.

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