VIENNA/BUCHAREST – It is viral and feeds on fear. It is not COVID-19 but is growing at the same speed and thrives on uncertainty, isolation, false information and the desperate search for remedies and answers. We are talking about cybercrime.
Interpol, Europol and the United Nations have been warning since the beginning of the health crisis of a spike in the number of websites offering fake miracle treatments or selling defective medical equipment at exorbitant prices.
Cyberattacks exploiting people’s fear of COVID-19 increased fivefold in March compared to the previous month, according to Romanian cybersecurity company Bitdefender.
A recent Europol report also found there had been a surge in fraud and cybercrimes seeking to take advantage of the pandemic.
Interpol seized more than 34,000 fake masks and millions of drugs, closed 2,500 bogus web pages and made 121 arrests in an international sting two weeks ago.
Neil Walsh, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s global cybercrime program, warned about sales of fake equipment, such as hand sanitizer, and supposed cures that can be dangerous.
“It’s really crazy stuff that in a normal situation most people would stop and say, hold on, that sounds crazy,” he said.
“But I think in this atmosphere where people are scared and feel lost, some might buy it.”
He urged people to only trust health advice from government websites or the World Health Organization.
Hackers also impersonate trusted organizations like the WHO to infect computers with viruses through phishing emails.
Criminals often send emails claiming to be from legitimate companies that direct victims to a fake website where their data is stolen.
Cybercriminals also attack victims’ computers with ransomware which infects and encrypts their system.
The user is then told that the only way they can gain access again is if they pay a ransom.
Hospitals, medical institutions and healthcare companies are regularly targeted by cybercriminals, experts have warned.
Bitdefender said a third of coronavirus-related cyberattacks it detected in March were aimed at medical organizations.
University Hospital Brno in the Czech Republic, one of the country’s coronavirus diagnostic centers, was forced to suspend surgeries and admissions on March 13 after its computer system was paralyzed by hackers.
Walsh said: “It’s just money, ransom money. If you target the most high-risk vulnerable population, hey, maybe if I attack these guys, I can place ransomware or a denial of service attack, then they’re going to pay me because they absolutely need access to their medical equipment and records.”
Cybercriminals also often target older people who may not be as accustomed to doing things online, but have been forced to do so because of quarantine.
Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, warned that fraudsters know that more people than ever are relying on technology and the internet.
Fraudsters have also taken advantage of a surge in people using online streaming sites such as Netflix during lockdowns.
Hackers sent 183,000 phishing emails posing as Netflix to users in Brazil between March 18-23 in a bid to get hold of customers’ bank details, Bitdefender said.
Criminals have also been trying to exploit the growing number of people who have been left without work during the crisis.
Job search forums on social media sites like Facebook have been filled with opportunists offering ways for people to earn easy money but only on the condition of an advance payment.
One of these bogus adverts offered the possibility of administrative work from home but asked for an advance of 50 euros for “training” before any applicants could start.
Walsh also warned there could be a spike in child sex abuse cases because of the increased amount of time youngsters are spending in their homes and online.
“So many children are now being schooled at home and having to go to class online or take a lot of stuff off the internet,” he said.
“We certainly see a growing sexual exploitation risk. We see children being targeted online by pedophiles.”
He highlighted a case in Norway when a pedophile infiltrated an online class through a video-conferencing application.
“Criminals love to take an opportunity where it exists,” he added.