How to protect yourself from cybercrime this Christmas

Criminals are hoping to cash in on numbers of people shopping online this festive season

The Nair family celebrates Christmas Eve in Dubai, UAE.
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Cyber attacks are expected to rise over the coming month as Christmas online shopping gets under way.

Experts have warned that cybercrime is likely to increase as more people prioritise online shopping over in-store purchases due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

People must be on full alert and become “cyber fit” to protect themselves from the threat posed by cybercriminals in the run-up to the New Year.

Seasonal themed email-based attacks are likely to be high during this festive period

“Seasonal themed email-based attacks are likely to be high during this festive period,” said Vijay Chandnani, executive director of Techware Services and Solutions.

“You have Diwali and Christmas in quick succession. As the festive season approaches, buying trends today are more tilted towards e-commerce and online shopping rather than in-store purchases.

“Attacks on individual shoppers are likely to be higher, especially now that more people are working remotely during the pandemic and some are not on secure networks. I would not be surprised if the attacks are 10-15 per cent higher this year.”

The UAE has already reported a significant increase in the number of cyber attacks since the pandemic began.

Dubai Future Foundation said there was a 600 per cent increase in the number of phishing emails that hoped to lure users into giving up sensitive data from February to June.

The National spoke to a number of cyber security experts who offered readers tips to help keep the online criminals at bay.

Close up male shopper paying with smart watch contactless payment at plant shop
Consumers have been urged to be vigilant about online transactions and how they pay for their goods with cybercriminals stepping up their efforts. Getty

Set strong and varied passwords

Strong passwords are key when keeping personal data safe, said Candid Wüest, vice president of tech firm Acronis.

“You need to use a strong password and have a different one for each service that you have,” he said.

“Don’t use the same password that you would use on your Twitter account for your email account or online banking.

“If you cannot remember all the different passwords then make use of a password manager, there are many free apps on phones and laptops that you can use for this.”

Look out for dodgy emails

He said consumers needed to be fully alert when receiving emails with offers that seemed too good to resist.

“You have to be vigilant and be cyber fit and by that I mean you need to show good judgment when you getting an email with a deal that’s too good to be true,” he said.

“You can’t let greed cloud your better judgment and think twice before responding with personal information.”

Some of the most popular scams at the moment from cybercriminals are offers involving the latest model of the iPhone and the new PlayStation 5.

Mr Wüest said his company had noticed a 400 per cent increase in the number of remote desktop protocol cyber attacks in Q2 of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

These attacks, if successful, allow criminals to access a computer and operate Windows on a device in another location.

“We are expecting to see those numbers increase over Christmas as there will be even more people shopping online,” he said.

Be mindful of your Wi-Fi connection

Mr Wüest urged consumers to be careful about which Wi-Fi connection they use when making online transactions.

“If you are on a public Wi-Fi like in a mall or an airport don’t do anything sensitive like banking as a lot of these networks can be compromised,” he said.

“It’s a lot safer to do it through the 4G on your mobile phone or use a VPN.

“It might even be better to wait a few minutes and just do it at home.”

Other experts said there were a number of methods people could use to reduce the risk of being scammed by cybercriminals.

Online shopping has gained significant traction in the UAE and is expecting to pick up as the holiday season begins. Getty
Online shopping has gained significant traction in the UAE and is expecting to pick up as the holiday season begins. Getty

Use a credit card, not a debit card

“I would recommend not purchasing any merchandise online with a debit card and minimise any direct credit card usage,” said Morey Haber, chief technical officer with BeyondTrust.

“Make online purchases with a third party proxy like PayPal or Apple Pay that is linked to a credit card or debit card to provide an extra layer of financial protection.

“I would also recommend not allowing the merchant to save your payment information for future usage.”

How an individual pays for their transactions online is another crucial factor in minimising the likelihood of falling foul of cyber crime.

Consider using a mobile app

“Something that consumers don’t realise is that websites are not as secure as mobile apps,” said Matt Walmsley, director for the EMEA region with tech company Vectra.

The FBI put out a warning in the US last year about e-skimming. This involves attackers hacking websites of prominent retailers and compromising the back end to steal consumer credit card information.

“That is a problem with websites but not in mobile apps,” said Mr Walmsley.

“So, in so much as is possible, use retailer mobile apps for online shopping.”

Look out for fake websites

Cybercriminals are also stepping up their efforts by creating fake websites that appear to belong to popular international retailers, hoping to trick consumers into entering sensitive personal details.

“Cybercriminals create a copy of a web page that looks exactly like the landing page of popular streaming platforms and retailers,” said Maher Yamout, senior security researcher with Kaspersky.

“Sometimes, cybercriminals also create new landing pages that provide users with free access in exchange for their credentials or bank account details.

“To an untrained eye, they will not be able to distinguish between a legitimate website and one disguised as a phishing website.

“Internet users must stay vigilant while browsing the internet for their favourite TV shows or buying things online,” he added.