The coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect storm for scammers seeking to defraud panicked, isolated and emotionally vulnerable targets, experts say.
“I think we are in for a wild ride,” said Frank McKenna, an anti-fraud expert who has studied organized fraud networks in Canada and the United States. “We have this unprecedented global fear and panic. I’ve never seen an environment quite as ripe for fraud as now.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic rise in unemployment and financial stress, which is an optimal market disruption for scammers to exploit, according to McKenna. Meanwhile, most of the world has been put into physical isolation — creating a divide-and-conquer environment that predators thrive in.
McKenna said in his studies, fraudsters in Canada work in well-organized rings that share information about successful scams. And it’s believed these networks are swinging into overdrive because of an increased supply of victims who are separated from normal social networks, which tend to offer support and advice.
And yet the world is extremely interconnected online, and a great deal of fraud now takes place in cyberspace, meaning fraudsters have a captive and receptive audience.
“People are inundated,” McKenna said. “They are on the internet looking for answers and they don’t know what’s real.”
This target-rich environment is compounded because the world is awash in promises of stimulus spending and financial assistance, McKenna said. Meanwhile, government agencies are issuing alerts regarding COVID-19 circumstances.
This allows cyber-criminals numerous opportunities to craft fake government websites and messages, McKenna said, and exploit prevalent fears and needs.
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The present threat was underlined Thursday afternoon with a tweet from Canada’s finance minister Bill Morneau.
“#ScamAlert: The Government is NOT sending text messages regarding the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit. If you have received a text message regarding the benefit, do not click the link,” Morneau tweeted.
And Finance Canada followed up, with advice: “If you get a text message saying you received a deposit for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Beware it is a scam! Do not reply or click on the link, delete the text and warn others.”