Criminals cashing in on coronavirus fear, says Europol

Europol has warned that criminal networks are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic with a surge in cybercrime, targeted thefts and counterfeiting.

In a new report, the international police agency says criminals are cashing in on high demand for protective gear and pharmaceutical products, for example by counterfeiting or stealing scarce goods to order.

Meanwhile, with so many people stuck at home in lockdown, there’s also been a spike in cybercrime, trying to exploit people having to work, shop and bank online, sometimes using unfamiliar processes that can leave them vulnerable.

“Criminals swiftly took advantage of the virus proliferation and are abusing the demand people have for information and supplies, says the report, which expects this activity to increase in the coming months.

They are using the crisis “to carry out social engineering attacks, namely phishing emails through spam campaigns and more targeted attempts such as business email compromise (BEC).”

In one case, a cyber-attack was launched on Brno University Hospital Brno, in Czechia amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, shutting down its IT networks and resulting in the postponing of urgent surgeries and rerouting of new acute patients to a nearby alternative facility.

Fraudsters meanwhile have been quick to adapt well-known fraud schemes to capitalise on the anxieties and fears of victims throughout the crisis.

A Europol-led investigation found one case in which a company ordered €6.6m-worth of alcohol gels and FFP3/2 masks from a company in Singapore. The payment was taken, but the goods were never received.

“A large number of new or adapted fraud schemes can be expected to emerge over the coming weeks are fraudsters will attempt to capitalise further on the anxieties of people across Europe,” says the agency.

There no need to look further than the sharp increase in falsified medicinal and healthcare products claiming to diagnose, treat or prevent coronavirus infections in the last Operation Pangea, reported last week, to see how counterfeiters are trying to exploit the crisis.

And finally, commercial premises and medical facilities are expected to be increasingly targeted for organised burglaries, says Europol.

“Multiple EU member states have reported on a similar modus operandi for theft,” notes the report.

“The perpetrators gain access to private homes by impersonating medical staff providing information material or hygiene products or conducting a ‘Corona test’.”

Responding to the findings, Europol’s executive director Catherine De Bolle said: “Such criminal activities during a public health crisis are particularly threatening and can carry real risks to human lives.”

“That is why it is relevant more than ever to reinforce the fight against crime. Europol and its law enforcement partners are working closely together to ensure the health and safety of all citizens.”

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