Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 1 November 2020


Coronavirus: cyber experts warn of 'sharp spike' in criminal activity

Richard Benham said fraudsters were seeking to take advantage of the pandemic

Criminals are advertising "miracle cures" for the Covid-19 on the dark web. istockphoto.com
Criminals are advertising "miracle cures" for the Covid-19 on the dark web. istockphoto.com

Cyber experts have warned of a “sharp spike” in criminal activity online as fraudsters seek to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Richard Benham, chairman of UK’s National Cyber Management Centre, said the UAE was a prime target for offenders owing to a combination of its relative wealth and robust internet usage.

He revealed that since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, more people were accessing the so-called ‘dark web’ in the hope of obtaining medicine billed as “miracle cures” for the virus.

But he warned the public to be wary of using illicit websites, pointing out the risk of data theft and financial fraud.

The danger of accessing the dark web is that every time you enter it, the criminal sets little traps

Richard Benham

“With the recent publicity around miracle cures for Covid-19, we’ve seen an awful lot of people going into the dark web to purchase these substances,” Mr Benham said.

“The danger of accessing the dark web is that every time you enter it, the criminal sets little traps to…infect your machine.”

Following the emergence of the coronavirus in China in late December last year, speculation and rumour over potential cures for the virus have been rife.

Among the more contentious, dangerous contenders have been ingesting an infected patient’s blood or saliva.

Other rumours, also with no evidence of success, have included swallowing Colloidal silver products which contain tiny silver particles suspended in liquid.

Colloidal silver is often touted as an antibacterial agent which can boost the body’s immune system, but no sound scientific study has confirmed the claim.

In an interview with The National, Mr Benham said some members of the public were also attempting to buy Hydroxychloroquine over the dark web.

Hydroxychloroquine is a long-established anti-malarial which is being used by some hospitals to care for Covid-19 patients.

“There’s certainly a large number of conspiracy theories going around, but the reality of the situation is that all of us, including in the UAE, are highly vulnerable,” Mr Benham said.

“We’ve experienced a sharp spike in activity [but] it’ll be a few months when we’ll be able to see the actual numbers.”

The dark web functions by providing anonymous access to the Internet, ensuring the identities and locations of users cannot be traced due to layers of sophisticated encryption.

Its anonymity allows criminals to buy and sell illicit goods more freely.

According to a report out on Tuesday by cybersecurity firm Trend Micro Incorporated, GCC countries recorded more than 3,000 separate attacks related to Covid-19 in the first quarter of this year.

The UAE had the highest number in the Middle East, with 1,541 coronavirus-related attacks, including 775 malware threats, 621 email spam attacks, and 145 URL attacks.

Mr Benham, who is due to be addressing UAE business leaders on the dangers of the dark web during an online seminar hosted by Capital Club Dubai - a private members organisation - on Tuesday, urged residents to exercise caution at all times.

“I think the Middle East is very keen on creating smart cities and the vision to embrace the internet and networks that use artificial intelligence to make things better,” he said.

“That, of course, brings huge benefits but it also produces risks.

“People should be wary. Every time you put your credit card details in or someone is asking for details for payment, there’s a vulnerability there.

“It’s very surprising that the vast majority of problems that happen are from people who aren’t reading emails properly and clicking on links.

“Even by doing that, we can reduce a large proportion of fraud.”

Updated: April 21, 2020 01:43 PM

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