Why the COVID-19 pandemic has been a blessing for scammers

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In case we needed any more proof, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us once again just how ruthless scammers are. While people across the world have united to look after those around them in this time of emergency, hackers and malicious actors have shown no sign of easing up. In fact, across the world scams are on the rise.

Indeed, this period of crisis has actually provided a series of advantages to malicious actors, who have ramped up their operations in order to capitalise on the crisis. Here, we’ll take a look at the reasons why the pandemic has been a blessing for scammers, some of the most prevalent scams that have developed during this period, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Sense of panic
One of the most dangerous tactics employed by scammers is to create a sense of panic among their targets. It is often easy to spot a dodgy email or a suspicious web page when thinking calmly, but when a person is panicked, rational thought processes can go out the window. This is one of the main reasons that scammers have been able to exploit the pandemic — with many people fearful of contracting the virus, or breaking government-imposed restrictions, it is easier to provoke panic. A common type of scam that has played on this heightened nervousness has been SMS scams that falsely inform people that they have contracted COVID-19. Typically, a fake message tells the recipient that they have been near someone who has had the virus, and that they need to get tested. However, the link in the text actually directs recipients to a website that attempts to gain bank details and other personal information.

Changing norms
Another major advantage that has been handed to cyber criminals has been a shift in day-to-day norms. In normal times, phishing emails or texts pretending to be from official organisations tend to stick out, as they will come through channels that wouldn’t typically be used, or will ask the subject to do something that legitimate organisations would never request, such as provide bank details. During the pandemic, though, the world has been turned on its head, and it is less obvious when communications are out of the ordinary.

Government organisations across the world have been sending out texts and emails to citizens informing them of the latest rules regarding lockdown, and this has allowed scammers to exploit this change in norms to create convincing hooks for phishing emails. In April, for example, Google reported that there were more than 18 million malware and phishing emails related to COVID-19 sent out within just one week. Phishing emails can be even harder to spot on mobile, which is why ESET Mobile Security comes with an anti-phishing feature, taking much of the guesswork out of suspicious texts or emails.

Working from home

Lastly, probably the biggest change brought on by the COVID-19 crisis has been the need for large proportions of the working population to work from home for an extended period. While many people are now beginning to return to the office, the shift to remote work came suddenly, and this provided cyber criminals with a major advantage.

Working from home has increased people’s vulnerability to cyber attacks, as it is more difficult to protect against threats on personal home networks. Not only have we seen an increased risk from malware and phishing, but also the rapid rise in popularity of video calling services has led to vulnerabilities in these platforms being exploited by hackers. The most infamous example of this was the ‘Zoombombing’ phenomenon, where malicious actors broke into public Zoom calls in order to display graphic content to unsuspecting participants.

Tips to avoid falling victim
These are just a few examples of the ways in which the pandemic has been hijacked by scammers, but these examples demonstrate how important it is to be aware of cyber threats, and to be educated on how to keep yourself safe. Below are some key tips to protect yourself against the threats we have just discussed:

  • Stay calm — scammers use time pressure to encourage people to make decisions under stress, so if you receive an email or message, make sure to take a deep breath and keep a level head.

  • Check the sender — if you receive a message that instructs you to click a link or provide information, you should always check the sender’s details. Try to authenticate any link you receive and, if in doubt, delete the message and report it.

  • Go through official websites and channels — it is always recommended to go directly to a company’s genuine website, so if you receive an email or text that claims to be from an organisation, avoid using the link provided. Instead, perform a fresh search in your browser.

  • Keep software updated — when vulnerabilities in apps, such as Zoom, are discovered, the company will provide an update to resolve the issue. It is for this reason that it is vital to keep your software updated at all times — where possible, select the ‘auto-update’ option so that you do not forget to install updates.

  • Install antivirus and cybersecurity software — the battle against malware, phishing and all other types of online and offline threats is made vastly easier by installing multilayered protection on your devices. To find out which software is best for you, check out the range of cybersecurity solutions on our website.