Online scammers are using the pandemic to prey on people’s fears about COVID-19 to swindle them out of money or steal vital information.
Experts warned Tuesday that Canadians face an increasing threat from sophisticated cyber criminals, even as Statistics Canada reported cyber crime exploded by almost 50 per cent in Winnipeg in 2019 — well before the pandemic.
Data show 1,040 incidents were recorded, a jump from 556 reports in 2018. That translates to 125.6 incidents per 100,000 people, and makes Winnipeg worse than the national average of 117.8 reports per 100,000 people.
The number of cyber crimes reported to Winnipeg police has increased every year since 2015.
Cyber crime refer to many offences – from harassment and identity theft, to extortion, child pornography and fraud. While Stats Canada did not release a full breakdown of the reported cybercrimes per province, fraud reports accounted for nearly half of the 44,136 cyber-related violations in 2019.
Even the tens of thousands of fraud reports made in Canada annually are just a drop in the ocean of actual cases, said senior RCMP intelligence analyst Jeff Thomson of the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. He said both the incidents of cybercrime and the reporting of it have increased in recent years.
"While there has certainly been a lot of work done to increase reporting on fraud (more online reporting tools at local level) and more media and awareness around the importance of reporting, we have also noted an increase in some scam campaigns such as telephone extortion campaigns, email extortion campaigns, phishing scams, merchandise scams and so on," Thomson said in an email.
Fraudulent solicitations over email, social networks and other online spaces reported to the centre are expected to be higher this year. Part of the reason such crimes have spiked over the years is that the capability and intention of cybercrimes has changed.
"Technology has allowed scammers to develop more authentic-looking scam emails, websites or ads on social media – their ability to spoof real emails, websites, etc., has improved. Now we are paying attention to deep fakes," Thomson said.
"Similarly, virtual currencies, fintech, third-party payment processors make it harder to track victim losses."
Cyber threats to Canadians are evolving as Canadians embrace new technology. A spokesperson from the Communications Security Establishment of Canada – which acts as the lead technical authority for cyber security in the country – said this year will be unique because scams that seek to take advantage of COVID-19 fears have become increasingly prevalent.
"Phishing attempts and fakes websites related to COVID-19 have risen as cyber criminals have taken advantage of the pandemic to infect devices and steal sensitive information," the spokesperson said in an email. "As many Canadians are working from home, protecting home networks and personal devices is more important than ever."
It’s recommended Canadians take steps to protect personal devices – including using strong passwords, refusing to give out personal information on unsolicited calls, and using a DNS service that blocks malicious websites.
"Frauds are no longer just designed to steal money, they are designed to compromise personal and financial information," Thomson said.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.