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Online criminals are taking advantage of the pandemic – how you can stay safe?

The COVID 19 pandemic has unfortunately proven to be fertile ground for unscrupulous individuals looking to profit from these uncertain and worrying times.

Online criminals have been exploiting opportunities to try and trick us into giving up valuable personal data or even steal our money.  The BBC recently reported on some of these.

We’ve taken a look at five of the most prevalent scams currently being used so you can be aware and take action to avoid becoming one of their victims.

Click here to see the latest information from the Police about current online scams.

Spreading Panic To Make You Click

With daily updates being issued by health organisations and Governments around the world it would be easy to be taken in by emails or social media posts purporting to have the latest information.

Unfortunately our thirst for the latest COVID 19 information has not gone unnoticed by criminals around the world.  This has given rise to the use of seemingly urgent email headers trying to trick us into first opening the emails and then clicking on links therein which claim to take you to longer, detailed research that you need to know. 

The number one rule with unsolicited emails is to never click on links that are contained within them unless you know the sender is legitimate.  Simply opening a scam email like this is unlikely to cause any issues, but if you click on any links or documents in these emails, this is when problem can occur.  Put simply, these actions open your computer up to problems such as viruses and malware.

So if you receive an email with a headline stating something scary about COVID 19, don’t open it.  If the information is legitimate and correct it will be available across a wide range of trustworthy news outlets, so you can read about it safely, elsewhere on the internet.

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There is no cure (yet) and when there is, it won’t be delivered by email

Related to this is a similar email tactic used by criminals but instead of trying to scare you this tries to entice you with the promise of a cure.

At the time of writing there is no cure.  And there is no licensed vaccine.  You can be sure that as soon as there is one you will know about it because every news outlet will be reporting on it.  Most likely there will be dancing in the streets and very loud celebrations taking place up and down the country too!

The likelihood that you find out about it first in an email from a random sender is almost non-existent.  So, again, the rule is: if you receive an email promising you access to a cure or a vaccine, don’t open it.

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Beware people pretending to be something they are not

One of the most heinous methods employed by online criminals during the COVID 19 pandemic has been to send out emails pretending to be from trusted sources such as the NHS or the WHO.

Sometimes the email addresses can easily be identified as fake, but sometimes they cannot.  Don’t rely on this as your only way to make sure you are opening a legitimate email.

Popular ways to dupe people using this technique is for emails to look as though they are offering useful information, or worse, that they are part of a track and trace system.  Others are offering assistance whether it is practical help such as meals on wheels services or financial assistance (more on this below).  

If you are in any doubt whatsoever about the trustworthiness of an email you receive of this nature then follow the golden rule of not opening any attachments or clicking on any links before you double check if it is legitimate.  If you receive something of this nature telephone the authority which would usually offer you these lines of assistance – such as your GP or your local Council to make sure it is what it says it is. 

Business loans, personal loans, tax credits and fines

One of the most successful methods used by criminals is the offer of money or the threat of a fine.  These can be things like offering discounts on TV licenses, favourable rates on business or personal loans, tax credits from HMRC or payments that are required for breaches of COVID 19 related legislation.

At a time when many are concerned about income shortfalls the types of email offering financial assistance or the risk of financial punishment can be extremely stressful.

Rest assured all of these types of emails can be easily checked.  Again, don’t rely on simply checking the email address of the sender – criminals can be very sneaky.  Instead call the organisation involved using a telephone number you have sourced yourself from the internet (not any numbers given in the email itself).  You’ll find out easily whether the email is real and if you need to take any action.

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Charities that are actually criminal organisations

The last example takes advantage of the Dunkirk Spirit that so many people have shown since the pandemic began earlier this year.  Many of us are trying to do what we can to help and communities have pulled together to protect each other and soften the blows exerted by this relentless disease.

No wonder then that charities are asking for donations either to assist with their normal on-going activities or specifically to tackle issues arising from the pandemic.  But beware.  Not all of those asking for donations are actually what they say they are. 

Criminal organisations have been setting up bogus fundraising pages and even creating fund raising campaigns that closely resemble legitimate charity donation sites.  So be aware.  Either restrict your generous giving to charities you know well, or do some due diligence first, checking on those you want to support but have not heard of before.  There are several ways to do this, for example by looking at their website, checking if they are affiliated to any better known organisations, or the best way is to search on the Government charity database to see if it is listed.

For more information the search engine Google maintains a list of security tips based on all the latest scams being used by criminals from around the world.  Check it out to make sure you don’t become a victim.

November 2020