Scammers, cyber criminals using COVID-19 to take advantage of victims

March 27, 2020

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. – It’s no secret that scammers and cyber criminals will use any means necessary to take advantage of their prey.

In the latest example, they are using fears associated with the COVID-19 outbreak to take advantage of victims.

That doesn’t come as a surprise, said Col. Robert Cameron, state judge advocate for Pennsylvania. Taking advantage of people during an emergency is standard operating procedure for scammers, Cameron said.

“These guys do this all the time,” he said. “They find some piece of weakness or vulnerability, and when everyone else is working together, they exploit it. It’s disgusting, but there’s people out there that do it, and they’re reacting pretty quickly to it.”

The scams aren’t necessarily specific to military service members, civilian employees or their families, but those are people scammers can and will target, Cameron said.

“They attack vulnerable populations, and those vulnerable populations include service members, the elderly, people going through divorce and others,” he said. “Whatever vulnerable population is out there, they find it and they exploit it.”

Cameron said scammers will collect information on potential targets from different sources, such as social media, data breaches and third-party data aggregators, and use that information to make their scams seem more believable.

“They will probably have your name, address, information about your accounts,” he said. “They have so much information and such detail that people think they’re legitimate.”

Maj. Christine Pierce, cyber branch chief for the Pennsylvania National Guard, said cyber threats associated with COVID-19 have become a serious problem in recent weeks. Cyber criminals are capitalizing on the uncertainty and fear brought about by the outbreak and using it to conduct various online scams, she said.

“Cyber criminals are very aware of how vulnerable we are right now,” she said.

Among the tactics being used by scammers and cyber criminals are spear phishing campaigns, financial scams and disinformation campaigns spread via emails, robocalls, text messages and social media websites, Pierce said.

“Malicious actors are tailoring campaigns to target specific countries or groups in order to collect sensitive information, steal money via fake donation websites, spread false information and deliver malware to victims,” she said.

Phishing emails appear to be the cyber attack method of choice for cyber criminals during the COVID-19 outbreak because they have proven successful, Pierce said. Phishing emails are fraudulent emails that are disguised to look legitimate in order to obtain sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details or to deliver malware.

In the few months since the COVID-19 outbreak was reported, there has been a sharp increase in malware distributed via phishing from cybercrime and foreign governments seeking to capitalize on the pandemic, Pierce said.

She recommends being suspicious of any unsolicited emails, text messages or phone calls regarding COVID-19 from unknown senders.

“Verify any information before you agree to anything that puts you personally or financially at risk or before giving any personally identifying information to anyone you do not know,” she said.

Tips to Defend Against COVID-19 Themed Cyber Threats:
• Be wary of unsolicited and COVID-19 themed emails
• Refrain from opening any file attachments or clicking on any embedded hyperlinks
• Always inspect the website address to ensure the legitimate website is properly displayed
• Ensure operating systems and applications are updated with the latest patches
• Use an antivirus and firewall solution and make sure they are always up-to-date
• Hang up on robocalls. Don’t press any numbers. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam COVID-19 treatments to work-at-home schemes.
• Fact-check information. Scammers, and sometimes well-meaning people, share information that hasn’t been verified. Before you pass on any messages, contact trusted sources.
• Know who you’re buying from. Online sellers may claim to have in-demand products, like cleaning, household, and health and medical supplies when, in fact, they don’t.
• Don’t respond to texts and emails about checks from the government. The details are still being worked out. Anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a scammer.
• Don’t click on links from sources you don’t know. It could download a virus onto your computer or device. Make sure the anti-malware and anti-virus software on your computer is up to date.
• Watch for emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or experts saying that have information about the virus.
• Ignore online offers for vaccinations, treatments or cures for COVID-19. If there’s been a medical breakthrough, would you be hearing about it for the first time through an ad or sales pitch?
• Do your homework when it comes to donations, especially through or crowdfunding sites. Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, don’t do it.