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Cyber Crime Increases During COVID-19 Pandemic

With the continuous spread of COVID-19, more and more industries and institutions must turn to digital platforms to carry out their work remotely. As a result, users have grown especially sensitive to cyber crimes and are quick to report any unfamiliar online activity. Keep reading to learn more about what areas have seen the most cyber crime charges during this pandemic and whether your online activity might suggest these charges.

What Is Considered a Cyber Crime?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FBI anticipates a spike in cyber crimes targeted at exploiting the increased use of virtual environments by government agencies, the private sector, private organizations, and individuals. Cyber actors take advantage of vulnerabilities in these digital systems to:

  • steal sensitive information,
  • target individuals and businesses performing financial transactions, and
  • engage in extortion.

The FBI has reported that as of March 30, 2020, their Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) had received and reviewed more than 1,200 complaints related to COVID-19 scams, the most common of which involved:

  • phishing campaigns against first responders,
  • denial of service (DDoS) attacks against government agencies,
  • deployment of ransomware at medical facilities, and
  • creation of fake COVID-19 websites that download malware to victims’ devices.

Based on recent trends, the FBI predicts that these same groups will target businesses and individuals working from home via telework software vulnerabilities, education technology platforms, and new Business Email Compromise (BEC) schemes. As you engage in online activity involving these industries, be alert that even a slight misstep might signal criminal activity as the FBI grows increasingly sensitive to potential cyber attacks. So, it might be helpful to know a little more about what these online platforms do and whether you might be performing similar actions that could mimic criminal activity.

Telework Applications

Telework applications relating to video conferencing software and voice-over Internet Protocol (VOIP) conference call systems have been the most common platforms for cyber crimes. Malicious cyber attackers usually look for ways to:

  • obtain sensitive information,
  • eavesdrop on conference calls or virtual meetings, and/or
  • conduct other malicious activities.

Examples of criminal activity the FBI identifies include:

  • encouraging users to download legitimate-looking telework software that introduces viruses into their devices;
  • using phishing links or malicious mobile applications; and
  • using video-teleconferencing (VTC) hijacking and inserting pornographic images, hate images, or threatening language.

While telework software provides individuals, businesses, and academic institutions with the tools to work remotely, users are growing increasingly aware of the risks associated with them and any online behavior that pose the above threats to their remote systems.

Education Technology

With the new normal of remote schooling, students and parents have been vigilant about safeguarding their personal information and online activity through education technology (edtech) platforms that institutions are using. Edtech users have been particularly alert of criminal activity suggestive of a large cyber crime scandal reported in 2017, when cyber actors exploited school information technology (IT) systems and accessed:

  • student contact information,
  • education plans,
  • homework assignments,
  • medical records, and
  • counselor reports.

Cyber attackers then used that information to contact, extort, and threaten students with physical violence and release their personal information. They blackmailed students by:

  • sending text messages to parents and local law enforcement,
  • publicizing students' private information,
  • posting students’ personally identifiable information on social media, and
  • stating how the release of such information could help child predators identify new targets.

If you are work digitally with edtech platforms or educational institutions, be aware of any behavior that might suggest the above cyber crime actions. With larger access to their digital systems, you also have a larger risk for violating cyber security norms, even if you did not intend to.

Business Email Compromise

Business Email Compromise (BEC) is another common scam the FBI identifies that targets individuals and businesses that send wire transfers, checks, and automated clearing house (ACH) transfers. During this pandemic, BEC fraudsters have been known to impersonate vendors and ask for payment outside the normal course of business due to COVID-19.

The FBI identifies the following actions that suggest a possible BEC scheme:

  • urgency and last-minute changes in requested wire instructions or recipient account information;
  • last-minute changes in established communication platforms or email addresses;
  • communications only in email and refusal to communicate via telephone;
  • requests for advanced payment of services when not previously required; and
  • requests from employees to change direct deposit information.

Defenses Against a Cyber Crime Charge

If you have been falsely accused of committing a cyber crime or are unaware you have done so, you have a few defense options to argue your case. Potential defenses against a cyber crime charge could be claiming:

  • Authorization
  • Coercion
  • Lack of Knowledge

You could argue that you were actually authorized to access the information in question or communicate changes to the system. Another defense tactic would be claiming you were forced to commit the cyber act under threat of harm or punishment to yourself or a loved one. While this might not entirely exempt you from committing the act, it does complicate the requirement of intent that would have convicted you.

Another strong defense strategy is claiming your lack of knowledge of the actual situation at hand, as many cyber crimes like internet fraud require that you knew what they were doing and intended to engage in fraud. For instance, you might realize that you didn’t know a certain form was fake when you distributed or signed it.

As COVID-19 thrusts much of the world into remote work, the digital user base is steadily increasing and, with it, the prevalence of cyber crimes. The broad range of people who have transferred work to online platforms, such as teachers, government officials, and private corporations are wary and ever alert of online activity. Even a slight misstep in your online communication or behavior might be perceived as a potential threat. If you have been falsely accused of committing a cyber crime, contact our firm immediately for legal representation in your case, especially in this unprecedented time in the digital era of COVID-19.

Contact us at Appel & Morse today to speak with a criminal attorney.