Last week I shared some thoughts about how the COVID-19 pandemic has “inspired,” the growth of online scams and threats. I pointed to two genres of risks. I explained what many in the Tri-county have already adjusted to, which is the life of a remote worker. Not everyone is so privileged. Certainly the entire first responders cavalcade would be less than effective working from home. It’s not that none of their work, such as administrative duties, couldn’t fit that model. Giving care, preserving peace in the streets, and fighting fires would suffer. That said, there’s a great deal of exciting stuff going on in the area of remote medical care. Medical professionals can provide a lot of service via computers and phones. That is a tangential discussion for another day.
I want to now delve a little deeper into the other force de jour so I’ll turn to how the global disruptions that rippled out from the COVID-19 outbreak created a land of opportunities for criminals. Those with a toolkit of online scams, and the misplaced innovative mindset that noticed the opportunities amidst the mess, are my subjects. If you read last week about this, or have seen or heard others opining on it, you know that criminals are busy. I explained that some of the world’s most fearful actors, government sponsored hacking teams, have also gotten in on the game. For the time being, let’s put aside those big, well-funded, politically motivated players. Let me home in on the more commercially focused crimes ongoing.
Personal gain, for we moral actors, seems to be at lower levels of importance lately. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is at work. That’s the theory that says, basically, we first focus our concerns and industry on the physiological needs that keep us alive. Only once we’re alive and conceivably have figured out the food, shelter, clothing issues can we progress upwards along the hierarchy to safety and security, then love and belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization. That was a roundabout way of saying that in the throes of a pandemic our collective focus shifts more toward the baseline of Prof. Maslow’s pyramid and that necessarily implies that most of us are less focused on the material things and personal gains. It’s partially that refocus that makes more opportunities for criminals, social deviants that they are, who no matter the surroundings such as a pandemic are self-absorbed into their own gains. Take, for example, the ring of cybercriminals who are currently spreading a fake email around the U.S. and throughout the world.
The phony email looks like it came from the World Health Organization. Their logo is part of it. It’s signed by Dr. So-and-so, M.D., Specialist, Wuhan Virus Advisory Board. Shocker … It’s not the WHO and the good doctor ain’t so. The example I saw had as its subject, “SAFTY CORONA VIRUS AWARENESS WHO.” The body of the email read, “Go through the attached document on safety measures regarding the spreading of the corona virus.” First off, it’s “safety,” silly crook. You have to set your spellcheck to catch ALL CAPS, too. Lazy crook. Secondly, it’s coronavirus, all one word. Now, maybe you and I shouldn’t know that detail, but the WHO should have that down, I’d say. Same with the “Wuhan Virus” business. It’s “COVID-19” or “coronavirus.” I know someone pretty high up has been called to the carpet for referring to it geographically. That’s politics. Again, the WHO ostensibly is not about politics and, to the extent that it is, the WHO knows better than to incorporate that into correspondence with the public. Fake! Don’t click it. If you do, I hope that moments earlier you backed up your laptop or device. This scam installs malware that steals information from the victim’s computer. Frankly, it’s so basic it likely won’t be around long.
The Federal Trade Commission reported another scam that you may see. It again appears bona fide, as it looks to be from Johns Hopkins University, an authority for media right now because of the live tracking of the pandemic and its effects. This one is not an email, but rather what criminals are doing is to poach Johns Hopkins’ legitimate COVID-19 statistics dashboard and incorporate it into a malicious website. We in the public want to track the virus’s expanse and death rates. We want to know where it’s growing and receding. How soon will it end? To learn some of the facts, then, assuming we don’t know to go directly to Johns Hopkins, we just Google some terms. Then, some scam-driven website, which includes the information we’re seeking, gives us the numbers. Doubly helpful, we think, because it’s an interactive dashboard. It’s actually quite impressive and intuitive. Go the real one here: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html. However, if you’re elsewhere, say at a malicious website that copied the dashboard, and you’re clicking around the map, seeing whether Greenland has cases (four, as of this writing), you may also be downloading software that compromises your personal data.
Fake charities popped up. Charity is a virtue we must embrace, especially now. Just, before you click “submit,” visit Charity Navigator, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, or the FTC for some ways to vet the charity you’re about to donate to. Gougers are still ever-present. Did you order cleaning goods, Charmin, or COVID-19 “test kits” online and they never arrived? Join the crowd. Not only are criminals gouging with prices of these high demand items but, go figure, you’ll never receive them.
Think twice, research, verify. I can’t offer every solution to every scam. Your guard’s way up if you happen to be around someone who coughs right now. Keep a greater guard up when you’re online. Both circumstances facilitate the spread of viruses, and I can’t honestly tell yet which version is worse for us.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.