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As we have all done our bit and stayed home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, we have spent more time online. While this may have helped to wile away the hours as we lose track of time and wait patiently to be told that we can safely venture outside and begin work once again, it has also created an opening for fraudsters. Cyber criminals have been taking advantage of peoples concerns about the coronavirus and using it to scam people out of money and data. The boost in online criminal activity has caught many people out. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, part of the City of London Police, have stated that in April scammers defrauded over £1.6 million from victims in the UK, with some of these even pretending to be suppliers of medical PPE.(1)
While there are countless ways that fraudsters can try to scam you, there are some simple steps you can take to help make sure that you can identify or steer clear of getting caught in their trap. But first things first, what are the most common types of online scams?
This is traditionally through email, but there has been a rise in phishing scams being sent in text or messaging apps. These will usually try to evoke an action from you by scaring you or making you nervous, so that you feel that you need to act on the message, and act quickly. For example a popular one is that your TV licence, or streaming service is about to run out and you need to follow the link to renew. Instead of taking you to the TV licence or streaming service website it will take you to a replica and use your information once you have entered it. This is the main method used during the COVID-19 pandemic to defraud the general public and businesses.
Malware is a contraction of malicious software, and it can work in many ways such as locking your device, stealing and deleting all your data and even using services that may cost you money. For malware to work, it needs to be able to run on your computer.
This is a type of malware that will stop you from using your computer, essentially it will lock you out until you pay a ransom. Sometimes it will even steal all of the data held on your computer. Usually a ransom will be demanded in form of a cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin (this is because BitCoin is untraceable and therefore they are less likely to get caught as they would with an official currency). A well known example of ransomware is the Wannacry malware that affected the NHS in 2017.
While this is not an exhaustive list of cyber crime, these are the most common and so it is important to be aware of them. So now you know the basics, don't panic- all is not lost, there are some simple steps you can take to minimise your risk of falling prey to their unscrupulous intentions.
As more and more of us are using new technology to keep in touch with loved ones, or to work remotely this creates an opening that scammers have been utilising to catch unaware users. They have created apps or even copied websites that look so incredibly similar to the original that users will sign in and simple as that, your details have been compromised. But how do you prevent it? Firstly if this is the first time you are using a new app or website make sure you download the official app, or visit the official website. The App Store and Google Play also list the company that has created the app, so it is easy to make sure you have the right one. Another thing to look for on a website is the little padlock icon in the search bar next to the web address, this means that it has an SSL certificate, and this is a good sign that the website is trustworthy.
You don't need to spend a penny to make sure that your device is safe from viruses. There are lots of trusted names to pick from, but the one we tend to use on our computers and devices is Avast. There is a free version that is easy to install and will protect you from the vast majority of viruses lurking out there this is suitable for the vast majority of users, or you can pay and get more features to help really secure your device (Please note, we have no affiliation with Avast and you are free to use any respectable antivirus software that suits your needs). Once you have installed your antivirus make sure that it is kept up to date! As new viruses come along they will be added to the software, but without updating it, your software wont be aware of them and could put you at risk.
Let's say you get sent an email, and you're pretty certain it's real, before you even click the link, did you know that you can check links by hovering your mouse over them. The destination of the link will show, usually in the bottom left corner of your screen (this might be different depending on your browser). If it has any spelling mistakes or simply just goes somewhere other than where it says it will go, do not click on it. If this is an email mark it as spam and delete it. If it has been sent via text or messaging app block the number so you can't receive any more. You can even report these messages to the company the sender is claiming to be from, this can help them to reduce the risk to their customers. If you are in doubt, contact the supposed sender by another means (don't use the contact information provided in the message) to check if it is a valid message.
If you are sent an email that you are not sure about, one way you can check if it is real is to check the email address. This may sound simple but in some email clients you will need to hover over the senders name for it to properly display the email address. Similar to checking links, if you see any spelling or grammar mistakes in the email address, then it may be a phishing message and best to contact the individual or company who was is claiming to contact you through their website to check if the email is valid. In some cases it will be easy to identify that a message is a phishing scam as the email address of the sender is very clearly not from the company they claim to be. If this happens mark the email as spam and delete it, or if it is a text block the number and delete it.
I'm sure you have heard this one before; never click to open an attachment in an email or messaging app unless you are expecting the file; it might be the document you have been waiting for or it could be something with a bit more bite. It pays to quickly check with the sender (where possible using a different method of communication) what it is they are sending you, if they have no knowledge of sending you anything it could be that they have had their account hacked. It may seem harmless but the act of opening the attached file gives it permission to be on your device, from here it can wreak havoc and it becomes a lot harder to control.
This doesn't exactly stop you from getting caught out, but it means that if you do, you still have a copy of your data and so it is easier to start again. This is especially so if you have been a victim of malware or ransomware where everything stored on your computer or device could become unreachable to you.
Unfortunately, apart from having no online presence there is no fail safe way to ensure that you don't fall foul to scams, hacks, and virus and malware attacks, but a little knowledge goes a long way to keep you and your accounts safe. You can find out more about how to stay safe online, as an individual, as a family or even as a business at the National Cyber Security Centre website or Which who also provide in depth guides to help you identify online scams.