With more of our work, school and social lives online during COVID-19, experts are warning of a coming increase in scams and cyber crime.
Technology challenges are bound to arise and scams are always going around – that’s nothing new, said Carmi Levy, director of content for London’s InfoTech internet research group. But crises, like COVID-19, are poised to make it worse.
“Whenever there is a major crisis hackers and criminals zero in on that fear and take advantage of the fact that we’re all looking for information,” Levy said, noting they have already seen an expected increase in pandemic-related cyber crime. “The online criminal community pivots on a dime.”
It can be a costly combo, Levy said: With the stress of a global health crisis, our guards may already be down. Working from home, people may be away from the technology supports and protective measures that help guard against cyber crime.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre is warning Canadians of a variety of scams that have popped up in the wake of COVID-19. They include everything from fake charities calling, texting or emailing, to “health agencies” offering results of your COVID test, selling a list of people infected in your neighbourhood or offering masks for a donation.
These scams can step out into the real world too, the centrewarns: door to door salespeople may be offering decontamination kits or posing as cleaning or home heating companies wanting to protect your home against COVID-19.
Online threats can often take the form of malware, or malicious software loaded onto your device when you click a link. Sometimes, it can be ransomeware – software that holds your computer hostage in exchange for information, similar to the attacks on Southwestern Ontario municipalities last year.
Regardless of what form the scams take, electronic or not, scams will often use the imminentthreat of coronavirus to pressure you into acting, Levy said.
“They often use COVID-19/coronavirus as an excuse to rush or threaten you. ‘This is a challenging time for the company. You must respond immediately, otherwise we’ll go bankrupt.’ Or ‘New law enforcement powers enacted by the government mean if you don’t comply, a warrant will be issued for your arrest.’ Those are some pretty scary-sounding, urgent pleas,” Levy said.
Woodstock police have warned residents to be aware of scams, especially any that might be COVID-19 related. While they haven’t become aware of specific COVID scams unfolding in the area, they certainly are happening.
“Police have also been made aware of scams related to the current COVID-19 pandemic; including personal protective equipment (PPE) products such as masks or cleaning/sanitizing agents, COVID-19 testing and treatment services and the new Emergency Response Benefit,” Woodstock police said in a statement.
The best defense is information and a healthy dose of suspicion, Levy said. Don’t answer the email, don’t click on any links, buttons or attachments, and don’t be afraid to be the one to ask for help.
“Speak to colleagues and leaders to understand where those resources lie now that everyone is working remotely. Do not be afraid to use them,” Levy said. “No one will think you’re dumb, better to ask and feel silly than to deal with the consequences of a hack or breach after the fact.”
Above all, Levy said we all have a role to play in combatting the misinformation and scams that proliferate online.
“Misinformation, aside from the virus itself, is the biggest enemy,” Levy said. “Fortunately it doesn’t take much time, energy or knowledge to bust misinformation, but we have to be willing to take the time.”
“If we don’t pay attention we’re part of the problem. If we pay attention we’re part of the solution.”
Tips to combat scams and cyber crime during COVID-19
Use the “hover” method to double check where emails are coming from before you open them: Use your cursor to hover over the sender’s email address and beware of misspellings or other slight inaccuracies in the email address, a common trick used by fraudsters to make emails look legitimate
Make your friends and neighbours aware of potential scams, like too-good-to-be-true offers of money, supplies or coronavirus cures. Make sure elderly neighbours, parents and less tech-savvy people are aware too.
Common email scams can appear to come from government sources, corporate IT departments, fake charities, online companies promising COVID-19 cures, cleaning products or vaccines, or invitations to download apps. Watch for prompts to share personal information.
Always double-check and source your information before sharing on social media. Reliable sources include the Canadian and Ontario governments, the World Health Organization, and the Public Health Agency of Canada
Never provide financial information to anyone, especially “verifying” information that legitimate sources should or do already have
Beware of any messages or marketing that uses fear or pressure of time to compel you to act
If you’re unsure, always ask a second opinion or expert. You might feel silly, but it could save you a heartache in the long run.
Beware of unsolicited calls or emails – if you didn’t initiate the contact, you don’t really know who’s on the other end. Always better to hang up or not respond and establish contact yourself if you think the information may be legitimate.
Don’t feel pressured into making a charitable donation, and always double check online that a charity is registered.
Beware of online ads for cheap or hard to find items like hand sanitizer and cleaning products.
Above all, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. If you believe you have fallen victim to a scam, contact police.