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Cybercrime spikes during coronavirus pandemic, says Europol

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Cyber crime spikes during coronavirus pandemic, Europol has claimed
Cyber crime spikes during coronavirus pandemic, Europol has claimed   -   Copyright  Michel Spingler/AP Photos
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Just like everyone else in the face of a pandemic, criminals seem to be staying home — but they're just turning to different methods to make a buck.

That's the message from a new Europol report out on Friday, which reveals that criminals are adapting to exploit the global chaos.

While many police departments are reporting a lull in physical crime, other types of crime are having a heyday — and those numbers are only expected to increase.

Europol identified cybercrime, fraud, counterfeit goods and organised property crime as categories of particular concern.

"What we see is that criminal business continues, and not as usual," said Catherine de Bolle, the executive director of Europol.

"Criminals abuse, really, the pandemic situation."

Supplies like gloves, face masks and hand sanitiser are now difficult to find in pharmacies, leaving the door open to fraudsters who claim to be selling the products online.

They take your money, but never send through the goods. Substandard or counterfeit products might also be substituted — you might have tried to purchase an N95 mask, a medical grade product meant to filter the air. But unless it's come from a reputable seller, you could be getting a cheap knockoff instead.

In many countries, governments are promising money to get citizens through the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic. But many of the programmes aren't fully set up yet, leaving people in the dark on how to connect to the cash. In Canada, there are reports of fraudulent text messages promising to link the recipients to government funds. The scam is aimed at getting bank details from the unsuspecting victims.

Some crimes are significantly more malicious. On 13 March, a cyberattack targeted the Brno University Hospital in the Czech Republic, forcing them to postpone surgeries and send acute patients to a nearby alternative hospital. The entire IT department had to be shut down, crippling the major care centre just as the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up.

De Bolle said it's critical that citizens protect themselves against the kinds of crimes that are on the rise.

"You really have to be careful when you access the internet at home," she said. "You have to protect your computer as you protect your house.

"Criminals will always try to get your identity, they will always be after your money. So you have to be very careful when you open emails, when you want to buy something on the internet, for instance, masks and gloves are very in demand at the moment.

"So you have to be very careful that you buy the right stuff. Do not buy online COVID-19 tests, because all the time these are false tests.

"It’s very important that you listen to governments, about what are the measures they take, and you listen to specialists who know what they are talking about when they’re talking about treatment, regarding COVID-19."

And while personal responsibility is key, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU is doing its level best to fight back and contain the problem.

"What’s happening right now is that Europol is taking this coordinating role, and governing this information and helping the law enforcement in each member state and I think this is a very important role for Europol right now," said Johansson.

"We are preparing in the Commission proposals that would focus on the fight against terrorists, fight against organised crimes, and how to adapt law enforcement to the digital age. This is already ongoing work, but this situation shows the importance that we continue with a high speed to work on these new initiatives."

Johansson said that fighting criminals taking advantage of the pandemic is key to fighting the pandemic itself.

"We can’t afford to be blind in one eye, we have to look with both," she said. "Of course we have to fight the pandemic and limit the contagion, and protect capacity. But at the same time, we have to fight these criminal groups, they are very, very swift to adapt to the new situation. So these must go hand in hand, we have to do both."