While coronavirus lockdowns may be slowly starting to unwind, the attempts to use the pandemic to scam people continues to gain steam.
According to an analysis of coronavirus-related domain names by cybersecurity firm Cujo.AI, these scams fall into three general categories: fake products, financial fraud, and impersonating health organizations.
The findings are the latest reminder that the global spread of the coronavirus has left millions vulnerable to fake or misleading information. Whether it’s disinformation campaigns or weak security surrounding remote working, the frenzied search for reliable information combined with growing mistrust of digital information has created the ideal conditions for preying on frightened internet users.
“These scams are basically attempts to directly entice people so that they would pay money for some charity related to COVID-19 for health care, protection, or to buy some products that do not exist,” Leonardas Marozas, a Cujo AI security research laboratory manager, said.
Cujo AI is based in El Segundo, California and provides a cybersecurity and device management platform for network operators such as Comcast and Charter. Its service covers more than 20 million homes and reaches 500 million endpoints.
According to Marozas, starting in February, Cujo began tracking an increase in domain names being registered that included some version of “COVID” or “coronavirus.” An analysis of these domain names showed that the largest category is dedicated to some kind of news and information. While many news and news aggregation sites could be legitimate, many others are sites that install malware, and it’s difficult for consumers to distinguish between the two, he said.
Within this new crop of websites lurk scam artists who are doing their best to dupe people using three broad strategies.
The most frequent coronavirus scams involved fake products and services, according to Cujo. The fake products included a Coronavirus Frequency Defense, which claimed to use sound and noise to ward off the virus, and a COVID-19 sterilizer that uses UV light to clean your home or office. There were also a variety of disinfection services that claimed to be licensed to perform such work, but clearly had created a website in haste. Marozas acknowledged that separating the real from the phony is a challenge for both consumers and even for Cujo’s system, which attempts to warn people when they may be accessing a site that poses a security risk.
With governments around the world implementing delays in paying taxes, or offering rebates or subsidies to individuals and businesses, scammers are using these programs to get people to turn over their personal and financial information. Cujo spotted several versions of this, including a phony tax site set up in Lithuania and fake revenue agencies appearing online in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada.
In addition, Cujo has spotted a growing number of charity scams that try to induce people to give to a cause such as research or crowdfunding health care for someone who has been diagnosed.
Impersonating health organizations
The third major category is sites that pretend to be health organizations, with the World Health Organization being the most popular target. In some cases, these sites are really phishing campaigns trying to obtain personal information, and in other cases they are secretly installing malware. In addition, while some copy legitimate health information, others include advice or news about the spread of the virus that is misleading or wrong.
Marozas said that even when these scams fail, their existence is only adding to the idea that information online can’t be trusted. And that notion is even more troubling during a global pandemic. “We’re basically putting into danger the global community,” he said.