Few national emergencies have the ability to strike panic into the populace quite like a virus pandemic. It’s fortunately something most of us have never had to experience, until now. At the time of writing, the number of global confirmed cases of Coronavirus infection, or COVID-19, has reached nearly 174,000 worldwide. Although the official US total currently remains a fraction of that (around 4,000), problems with testing mean many cases are likely to be going unreported here.
This is a difficult time for many Americans, as it is for citizens all over the world. But unfortunately it’s extraordinary global events like this that cyber-criminals look for in order to make their schemes more successful. True to form, they’re using mass awareness of the outbreak and a popular desire for more information on the virus, to trick users into giving away personal information and log-ins, or to unwittingly install malware on their devices.
(See the government warning: The U.S. Secret Service Issues COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Phishing Alert.)
As organizations enforce remote working to reduce the impact of the virus, many of you will be logging-on from home or your mobile computing devices, which may have fewer built-in protections from such threats. This makes it more important than ever to know how the bad guys are trying to cash in on COVID-19 and what you can do to stay safe.
Here’s a quick guide to the key online threats and security tips:
Phishing for trouble
Decades before COVID-19 burst onto the scene, a different kind of pandemic was spreading across the globe. Phishing messages have been one of the most popular tools in the hackers’ arsenal for years. In fact, Trend Micro blocked nearly 48 billion email-borne threats in 2019, 91% of the total we detected. Phishing is designed to trick the user into handing over their log-ins or personal and financial details, or persuading them to unwittingly download malware. Cyber-criminals typically achieve this by spoofing an email to make it appear as if sent from a legitimate and trustworthy source.
Once a user has been hooked, they are enticed into clicking on a malicious link or opening a malware-laden attachment. This could be anything from a banking trojan designed to steal online banking log-ins, to a piece of ransomware which will lock the user out of their PC until they pay a fee. It could even be cryptojacking malware which sits on the infected machine, quietly mining for Bitcoin while running up large energy bills and slowing down your PC.
The bad news is that phishing messages — whether sent by email, social media, text or messaging app — are getting harder to spot. Many now feature perfect English, and official logos and sender domains. They also often use current newsworthy events to trick the user into clicking. And they don’t get more high-profile than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Depending on how well protected your computing devices are, you may be more likely to receive one of these scam messages than be exposed to the virus itself. So, it pays to know what’s out there.
Watch out for these scams
The phishing landscape is evolving all the time. But here is a selection of some of the most common scams doing the rounds at the moment:
Many of these emails purport to come from official organizations such as the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or the World Health Organization (WHO). They claim to contain key updates on the spread of the virus and must-read recommendations on how to avoid infection. Booby-trapped links and attachments carry malware and/or could redirect users to phishing sites.
Sometimes legitimate tools can be hijacked to spread malware. Researchers have spotted a version of the interactive Coronavirus dashboard created by Johns Hopkins University which was altered to contain information-stealing malware known as AZORult. If emails arrive with links to such sites, users should exercise extreme caution.
Many big brands are proactively contacting their customer base to reassure them of the steps they are taking to keep staff and customers safe from the virus. But here too, the hackers are jumping in with spoof messages of their own purporting to come from the companies you may do business with. FedEx is one such global brand that has been spoofed in this way.
Another trick is to send phishing emails calling for donations to help fund research into the virus. One, claiming to come from the “Department of Health” has a subject line, “URGENT: Coronavirus, Can we count on your support today?” A key tactic in phishing emails is to create a sense of urgency like this to rush the reader into making hasty decisions.
Click here for a cure
One scam email claims to come from a medical professional and contains details about a vaccine for COVID-19 which has been “hushed up” by global governments. Of course, clicking through to find the non-existent ‘cure’ will bring the recipient nothing but trouble.
In the UK, users have received emails spoofed to appear as if sent from the government, and promising a tax refund to help citizens cope with the financial shock of the pandemic. As governments in the US and elsewhere start to take more interventionist measures to prop up their economies, we can expect more of these types of phishing email.
How to stay safe
The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to protect you and your family from phishing emails like these. A blend of the following technical and human fixes will go a long way to minimizing the threat:
- Be cautious of any unsolicited emails/social media messages etc, even if they appear to come from a reputable organization or a known contact.
- Don’t click through on any links/buttons in unsolicited emails, or download attachments.
- If an email asks you for personal data, check directly with the sender rather than clicking through and entering those details.
- Invest in cybersecurity tools from a trusted vendor like Trend Micro, to spot and block scam emails and block malicious downloads and websites.
- Disable macros in Office files – these are often used by hackers to run malware.
How Trend Micro can help
Fortunately, Trend Micro Security can also help. Among its anti-phishing features are the following:
Antispam for Outlook: includes checks on email sender reputation, employs web threat protection to block malicious URLs in messages, and scans for threats in files attached to email messages.
Email Defender: uses leading-edge AI technology to detect fake emails in Gmail and Outlook webmail that don’t contain malicious URLs or attachments, but still pose a risk to the user.
To find out more about how Trend Micro can help keep your family safe from online threats and phishing, go to our Trend Micro Security homepage, or watch our video series: How to Prevent Phishing, Part 1 and Part 2.