The chaos and confusion created by the Coronavirus pandemic has proved to be irresistible to scammers. According to Forbes, Coronavirus-themed phishing emails are more numerous than any other single phishing email theme in the past. Jiri Kropac, a researcher at ESET, noted at least 2,500 malware infections from COVID-19-themed emails during a window of just a few hours on Monday, March 16th.
Scammers aren’t restricting their attacks to just emails; we’ve seen reports of scams involving apps, robocalls, text messages, fundraisers, and products claiming to cure COVID-19. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. A report from security firm Check Point found darknet sites that are advertising hacking tools created specifically to capitalize on Coronavirus fears. We expect the volume and variety of attacks to increase as this pandemic unfolds.
An Ideal Situation for Scammers
Why is the coronavirus creating the perfect environment for scammers? The simple answer is because both business and individuals are vulnerable. Businesses have two main barriers that scammers must get through to be successful: the individual employee and the business’s IT threat detection and response. The environment created by the coronavirus has weakened both of those defensive barriers for many organizations.
Why COVID-19 is making employees more susceptible to scams
- Fear – This virus has many people legitimately fearing for the lives of either themselves or their loved ones. Scams claiming to cure or just improve the odds of staying healthy suddenly become much more compelling when people are anxious.
- New Attacks – An unprecedented event leads to unprecedented attacks. The most important tools employees have to protect themselves from scams are awareness and education. Unfortunately, scammers are coming up with all sorts of creative new attacks that your employees won’t be familiar with, reducing the effectiveness of those defensive tools.
- Working Using Personal Computers – Many businesses are having their employees work from home to reduce the Coronavirus spread. Most likely your corporate office has much more powerful security tools than the average person will have on their home computers. Be cautious when trusting your employees’ personal computers, even if they are connecting to your network using a VPN.
Why COVID-19 is making businesses vulnerable
- Lacking Disaster Recovery & Business Continuity Plan – Many small and medium-sized businesses do not have a robust disaster recovery & business continuity plan and they are currently finding themselves scrambling just to resume operations.
- Security is Not a Priority – Sadly, security isn’t a priority for many companies until they are under attack and lose access to their tools and data. Security will become even less of a priority as companies focus all their effort on just delivering their core service during this pandemic.
- Remote Workforce – Setting up and managing a remote workforce takes time and proper planning. Businesses affected by the Coronavirus do not have the luxury of time to properly transition their staff into remote workers. Many organizations will have glaring security vulnerabilities as a result of a rushed transition. Businesses that have an internal IT team will have even more trouble responding effectively to security incidents as their IT team will be trying to adjust to working remote as well.
- Can’t Follow Their Security Incident Response Plans – Having a security incident response plan is critical to limit the damage a successful cyberattack can cause your business. Plans that are already implemented will most likely need to be revised to account for the change in how businesses are operating due to the Coronavirus. If you don’t have any security incident response plans already created then read our blog covering how to create one.
Types of Coronavirus Scams
Phishing emails are a staple in the scammer toolkit. They are an extremely efficient method of attack; they take relatively little time to create, can be mass sent, and just require a few people to fall for the scam to make it worthwhile. As mentioned above, coronavirus-themed phishing emails are being sent out at a volume much higher than previous scam themes. Why are so many Coronavirus-themed phishing emails going out? It’s because they are working.
Below is a real example of a scam email claiming to be from the World Health Organization. There have been reports of many other phishing emails that follow a similar pattern; a reputable organization sending links to health or safety tips.
(image courtesy of Sophos Ltd.)
If you or anyone you know struggles to identify phishing emails, check out our infographic on some easy ways to spot a phishing email. It is critical that no one within your organization falls for a phishing email in this climate. Many businesses are already struggling just trying to keep the lights on, a malware or ransomware attack on top of that could be devastating.
Government Check Scam
There has been talk about the government sending relief checks to help Americans blunt the economic impact of the pandemic. Cybercriminals started running scams based on this government aid, before it was confirmed that it’s happening. The FTC released a few tips to protect citizens from this scam. Here are their tips:
- The government will not ask you to pay anything up front to get this money. No fees. No charges. No nothing.
- The government will not call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number. Anyone who does is a scammer.
- Anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a scammer.
“Coronavirus Tracker” Apps
App stores are being flooded with “Coronavirus tracker” apps. These apps claim that you’ll be able to see a map, updated in real-time, showing which areas are affected by the virus. The app will request broad permissions so it can supposedly warn you when infected people are within your area. Once you grant it permissions, the app will proceed to lock your phone and you will get a ransom note like the one below.
(image courtesy of Domain Tools)
If you’re interested in seeing a legitimate map showing the progression of the Coronavirus, take a look at this site created by Johns Hopkins.
Coronavirus-themed robocalls are out in full force. Alex Quilici, YouMail Chief Executive, says “roughly 1% of the calls out there right now on a daily basis are involving what looks like a coronavirus-related scam.”. Quilici noted that robocall scammers are still experimenting and to expect an even greater surge in Coronavirus-themed scam calls if they find something that works well.
Currently many robocall scammers are just slightly adjusting their usual scams to mention the Coronavirus. Here is a transcript of a real Coronavirus robocall recorded by YouMail:
“Hello this is Brett PJ sick(?) with an important message regarding the effects of the Corona virus outbreak on your student loans…new measures will include the interest on your federal student loans until further notice…For more information on how these new measures will impact your future payment obligations. Call us back today at [phone number].“
If you’d like to hear the robocall or listen to other examples of scam calls check out YouMail’s directory.
Numerous charities and fundraisers have been popping up claiming to support those affected by COVID-19. Sadly, not all of these charities and fundraisers are legitimate. Use caution when donating to any organization that you’re not familiar with. The Minnesota attorney general’s office posted a guide on how to properly research charities before you donate to them.
Products That Claim to Cure or Treat Coronavirus
The market is being flooded with products that claim to cure or treat the COVID-19, do not trust these products. Amazon reported to Reuters that they have already removed over 1 million different products claiming to treat Coronavirus. The FTC and FDA have had to issue warnings to several sellers of teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver who are claiming their product can treat the virus. The FDA went even further and issued a statement saying, “there are no approved vaccines, drugs or investigational products currently available to treat or prevent the virus”.
Tips to Avoid Coronavirus Scams
- Don’t click on any links unless you trust and can verify the source
- Scrutinize any emails claiming to be from organizations like the WHO or the CDC
- Don’t install Coronavirus-related apps from unknown developers
- Ignore offers and advertisements for products that claim to treat or cure the Coronavirus
- Do your research before donating to any Coronavirus charities or crowdsourcing campaigns
Our CIOs work with clients to build an IT security strategy that successfully balances productivity and security. A key part of building this strategy is using both your technology and your people to defend your business. If you want to learn more about how you can keep security top of mind across your organization during the COVID-19 pandemic or after, view our IT support services and see how we can help you develop a security solution that fits your business.