Fears and vulnerabilities of people in the time of COVID-19 pandemic are increasingly being exploited by cyber criminals, officials from the Cyber Crime wing of the Maharashtra Police said. Fraudulent messages about remedies, financial assistance, shopping offers, along with fake news, are being used to target people, officials said.
In the initial days of the lockdown, The Indian Express had reported about a significant fall in the number of cyber crime cases, mainly due to shutting down of establishments like call centres or IT-related services in ‘cyber crime hotspots’, from where fraudulent rackets would operate. Over the last three weeks of the lockdown, the police said they have come across messages and social media posts pertaining to COVID-19, which seem to target fears, vulnerabilities and changing habits of people.
According to the Maharashtra Cyber – the Cyber Security and Cyber Crime wing of Maharashtra Police – a large number of social media posts, WhatsApp messages directing users to fraudulent links about COVID-19 and issues surrounding it have come to their notice. Officials said messages are being circulated, promising unemployed people in the age group of 18-40 years with Class X certificate Rs 3,500 per month during the lockdown, however, those messages have malicious links. There are fraud messages in circulation claiming remedies of COVID-19, free recharge of Netflix or other video streaming services, free Internet data, offers on shopping or sale of liquor, additional insurance for COVID-19, while directing users to dubious sites, said officials. There are also messages in circulation about a fake timeline, claiming to be the timetable of the World Health Organisation for COVID-19.
“There is a clear pattern among these fraudulent messages – fears and vulnerabilities of citizens about coronavirus are being exploited. These links direct people to malicious webpages that have been created to collect information, including sensitive personal ones, saved in people’s devices. These links harvest the data of people without their consent. The links can facilitate various phishing and malware attacks and compromise the safety of your device and the data within. During the lockdown, people have increased use of Internet, including for emails, WhatsApp, social media sites, video streaming services etc, which is being misused,” said Balsing Rajput, Superintendent of Police with Maharashtra Cyber.
Officials said there has also been a case where a ransomware named coronavirus was used to target a private entity in the state. Many people have also received fraudulent messages claiming that their email passwords have been stolen or that the sender has information about pornographic sites that they have accessed, said officials.
Rajput added: “In the initial days of the lockdown, there was a decrease in the Internet-based frauds, possibly due to closure of some places from where these rackets were being operated. But now, it seems that cyber criminals are targeting people over COVID-19 and related issues. Even the spread of the fake news, rumours and hate messages on social media platforms for some or the other purpose is another way of preying on apprehensions about the disease in the minds of people. Maharashtra Cyber has issued detailed advisories about the use of social media, WhatsApp and also about fake news. We appeal to people to follow them and not to click, download, install or share information from or on any unidentified link. People should report suspicious links to ‘www.cybercrime.gov.in’. Teams from Maharashtra Cyber and individual cyber units of police jurisdictions across Maharashtra are monitoring the social media and Internet activities.”
In the lockdown period till date, a total of 218 cases have been registered regarding fake news, rumors and hate speech over social media in Maharashtra. A total of 45 accused have been arrested and 160 have been identified. Maharashtra Cyber has also observed a rising trend in hate speech cases and of the total 218 cases, 115 are about hate speech on social media platforms.
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