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COVID-19 Crooks: Crafty Cybercriminals

By: Christian Carlo D’Ambrosi

Initial publication date: June 25th, 2020

For all of us Torontonians, at least some degree of fear has become the norm in these past few months. Unfortunately, this has caused countless cybercriminals to use this fear to try to wrestle our hard-earned cash and, in some cases, even our identities from right under our noses. So today, we’re going to be answering three simple questions: what cybercrimes are being committed regularly, what we can protect against them, and, above all, who to contact if we see or fall victim to one.

By definition, a cybercrime is essentially any crime that occurs over or thanks to the internet. And while these types of crime were widespread even before the COVID-19 outbreak, certain online scams have become increasingly prevalent thanks to the virus. And while the cases of such crimes are endless, The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has made a list of some of the most common.

One of the most notable on this list has been the occurrence of fraudsters posing as representatives from government departments. These scams typically work by first sending you a coronavirus-themed phishing email that entices you to click a link within it. These links then install malicious software on your device and requesting that you enter sensitive personal and financial details in order to complete what is supposedly a government form. This then allows the scammer to gain valuable information about you such as your credit card number, health card number, or social insurance number. Unfortunately, a scammer can then use these details to take on your identity. If you’d like to see some examples of these types of emails, click here.

Another common example has been that of fake and deceptive online ads. Said ads will often try to sell health related products such as cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers, and, believe it or not, even cures to COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, these ads have raised a number of major concerns. The first is that they often serve as a front for resellers who purchased products in bulk at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, and as a result they often are trying to sell you these products at exorbitantly high prices that are far above their market value. Another issue is that the supposed cures and tests being sold are typically not approved by Health Canada, meaning that despite their promises they will almost certainly either not work or be harmful to your health. Worst of all, these ads can even act as phishing links, stealing your personal info and planting harmful malware on your device simply by clicking on them. A list of some of the products flagged as fraudulent by the American Federal Drug and Food Administration can be viewed here.

Yet, perhaps the most disturbing of them all have been crimes surrounding CERB applications. In particular, fraudsters will often use the information stolen via one of the aforementioned scams to apply for CERB, pretending that they are another person so that they can receive increased benefits. An even sneakier way in which this has taken place has been via fraudsters offering to help computer illiterate people such as the elderly with their CERB applications. Promising to do their applications for them in exchange for both their personal information and a small fee, these scammers can then use these details to reroute the money to their own accounts, making thousands in the process. 

Yet, this all begs the question as to what can be done to protect against these cybercrimes. First and foremost, we recommend always cross referencing any COVID-19 information you are receiving. That way, if you are presented with an email or advertisement that makes some sort of claim regarding COVID-19, you can spot potential misinformation and make an informed decision. Another important protection method is to avoid answering anything that may appear to be a phishing email, with the elements of such emails often including suspicious or unknown senders, threats, and requests for personal information. You may also want to consider backing up your files and installing anti-malware on your computer, which will give you an added layer of protection in case you do wound up being the victim of a cyberattack. And, above all, it is important that you make your online accounts more secure by not just having a complicated password, but by having different passwords for different accounts. That way, if one is compromised, then your others will not also be negatively affected.

Yet, if you do end up either stumbling upon one of these scams or fall victim to one yourself, there are several things you can do to report them and have them investigated by authorities. As per the Government of Ontario’s website, it is suggested that you first contact the Toronto Police Service, and from there contact both the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at this link and any other relevant regulatory bodies.

Unfortunately, if you do end up falling victim to a scam, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to get your personal information or money back. However, in order to at least have a chance at recovering this information or at the very least protect yourself from further harm, the Government of Ontario recommends that you:

  • stop all communication with the scammer
  • collect records of any interactions you had with the scammer
  • change all passwords to accounts that may have been affected
  • run an anti-malware check on your computer and have your devices checked by a professional
  • notify any financial institutions that you are attached to of your situation.

By doing so, you can give yourself the best possible chance of avoiding any future problems and perhaps remedying some of the damage that has already occurred.

As always, remember that if you would like to have your ordeal with a COVID-19 crook covered in a news article, feel free to contact us at this link so that we can help draw publicity to your story. And above all, also remember that there is no shame in either reporting of or being the victim of a scam, and that by sharing your experience with others you are helping to protect our community from some truly nasty COVID-19 criminals!

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