With over a million confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 virus across more than 200 nations and territories, coronavirus has spread its filthy feathers across the whole world. Globally, the total number of coronavirus cases neared 1.35 million while the death toll crossed 74,000, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University. The US with over 3.6 lakh cases was the worst affected country while the death toll in the country has surpassed 10,000.
However, some people are out there who seek to gain advantage from crisis. According to an Interpol warning, cybercriminals are exploiting the coronavirus crisis and threatening to hold hospitals to ransom despite the life-saving work they are carrying out. The International Criminal Police Organisation has issued a global alert to health care organizations about the ransomware attacks, often disguised as official advice from government agencies, which are designed to lock administrators out of the critical IT systems they need.
The warning said that the criminals will demand payment before the hospital staff is allowed back in, like the way the UK’s National Health Service was attacked with the WannaCry virus in 2017. Interpol’s Cybercrime Threat Response has detected a “significant increase” in the number of attempted ransomware attacks against key organizations around the world.
The international organization has alerted all 194 of its member countries and is working with the cybersecurity industry to gather information about the attacks as well as assisting national police forces. Interpol secretary Jurgen Stock said the malware attacks could be deadly, coming as they do as the coronavirus outbreak response reaches a critical level around the world. He further said, “As hospitals and medical organizations around the world are working non-stop to preserve the well-being of individuals stricken with the coronavirus, they have become targets for ruthless cybercriminals who are looking to make a profit at the expense of sick patients… Locking hospitals out of their critical systems will not only delay the swift medical response required during these unprecedented times, it could directly lead to deaths.”
According to the International Police Organization, prevention and mitigation were key, with the malware mainly being spread by emails. They often claim to contain information about the outbreak from an official source, encouraging the recipient to open an attachment which can then infect their system.
Interpol is advising hospitals and healthcare companies to ensure hardware and software are kept up to date, and that essential files are backed up.
Moreover, Interpol is encouraging the public to exercise caution when buying medical supplies online during the current health crisis, with criminals capitalizing on the situation to run a range of financial scams.
With surgical masks and other medical supplies in high demand yet difficult to find in retail stores as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, fake shops, websites, social media accounts and email addresses claiming to sell these items have sprung up online.
But instead of receiving the promised masks and supplies, unsuspecting victims have seen their money disappear into the hands of the criminals involved.
This is one of several types of financial fraud schemes connected to the ongoing global health crisis which have been reported to INTERPOL by authorities in its member countries.
COVID-19 fraud schemes: Scams linked to the virus
· Telephone fraud – criminals call victims pretending to be a clinic or hospital officials, who claim that a relative of the victim has fallen sick with the virus and request payments for medical treatment;
· Phishing – emails claiming to be from national or global health authorities, with the aim of tricking victims to provide personal credentials or payment details, or to open an attachment containing malware.
In many cases, the fraudsters impersonate legitimate companies, using similar names, websites and email addresses in their attempt to trick unsuspecting members of the public, even reaching out proactively via emails and messages on social media platforms.
“Criminals are exploiting the fear and uncertainty created by COVID-19 to prey on innocent citizens who are only looking to protect their health and that of their loved ones,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.
“Anyone who is thinking of buying medical supplies online should take a moment and verify that you are in fact dealing with a legitimate, reputable company, otherwise your money could be lost to unscrupulous criminals,” concluded the INTERPOL Chief.
Blocking and recovering fraudulent payments
Monetary losses reported to INTERPOL have been as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single case, and these crimes are crossing international borders.
INTERPOL’s Financial Crimes Unit is receiving information from member countries on a near-daily basis regarding fraud cases and requests to assist with stopping fraudulent payments. Targeted victims have primarily been located in Asia, but the criminals have used bank accounts located in other regions such as Europe, to appear as legitimate accounts linked to the company which is being impersonated.
In one case, a victim in Asia made payments to several bank accounts unknowingly controlled by criminals in multiple European countries. With INTERPOL’s assistance, national authorities were able to block some of the payments, but others were quickly transferred by the criminals to second and even third bank accounts before they could be traced and blocked.
To date, INTERPOL has assisted with some 30 COVID-19 related fraud scam cases with links to Asia and Europe, leading to the blocking of 18 bank accounts and freezing of more than USD 730,000 in suspected fraudulent transactions.
INTERPOL has also issued a Purple Notice alerting police in all its 194 member countries to this new type of fraud.
If you are looking to buy medical supplies online, or receive emails or links offering medical support, be alert to the signs of a potential scam to protect yourself and your money.
· Independently verify the company/individual offering the items before making any purchases;
· Be aware of bogus websites – criminals will often use a web address which looks almost identical to the legitimate one, e.g. ‘abc.org’ instead of ‘abc.com’;
· Check online reviews of a company before making a purchase – for example, have there been complaints of other customers not receiving the promised items?
· Be wary if asked to make a payment to a bank account located in a different country than where the company is located;
· If you believe you have been the victim of fraud, alert your bank immediately so the payment can be stopped.
· Do not click on links or open attachments which you were not expecting to receive, or come from an unknown sender;
· Be wary of unsolicited emails offering medical equipment or requesting your personal information for medical checks – legitimate health authorities do not normally contact the general public in this manner.