Hackers have raked in £34.5 million from COVID-related scams

City of London Police told IT Pro that a spike in January was caused by vaccine phishing emails

Cyber criminals have managed to rake in £34.5 million from COVID-related scams since the start of the pandemic, according the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) operated by the City of London Police.

Hackers have moved to exploit the coronavirus crisis for personal gain on a mass scale, with the NFIB’s reporting centre Action Fraud receiving 6,073 reports of COVID-related fraud and cyber crime over the past 12 months.

Examples include scams that impersonate public health bodies such as the NHS, often duping victims with promises of receiving life-saving medication, vaccines, or financial support.

Most of the fraud incidents occurred during the start of the first national UK lockdown in spring 2020. However, following a steady decline, cases dramatically resurged again at the beginning of 2021, with a City of London Police spokesperson telling IT Pro that the “spike in January was in relation to a coronavirus vaccine phishing email”.

Covid-related fraud graph

Other examples of COVID-related fraud include setting up fake websites in order to impersonate shops selling items that were in demand over the course of the pandemic, such as testing kits and face masks.

The City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) was forced to take several of these websites down, while NFIB managed to suspend over 2,000 fraudulent websites, phone numbers, and email addresses, arresting 156 people.

City of London police commissioner Ian Dyson said that “the past year has been incredibly challenging for every single one of us”. 

“Sadly, we have seen devious criminals taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic as a means to commit fraud, often honing in on people’s anxieties and the changes that have occurred to their daily lives. Policing has had to adapt quickly to what is an ever-changing public health situation, but nothing has stopped us from pursuing these individuals and disrupting their activity.

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Commenting on the news, Mimecast’s head of E-crime Carl Wearn told IT Pro that “attack volume surged by 48% during the first year of the pandemic, with 358.96 million malicious detections in the UK during 2020”.

“Even though vaccine rollouts have begun and organizations may soon start making plans for people to return to offices in the months ahead,  the likelihood of threat actors continuing to exploit the unsettled work situation is very likely," he said. 

"We are now seeing sophisticated digital-deception campaigns where threat actors combine COVID-19-related social engineering with multi-channel campaigns – including email, social media, collaboration tools, and even phone – to gain credibility with their targets so they can then be tricked into giving away valuable information or credentials. People must be aware of these scams and stay alert to ensure they are not duped."

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