Online predators are exploiting coronavirus to lure children, expert warns

Cyber bullying expert says what was once sporadic online blackmail is how happening daily

DUBAI ,  UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , May 16 – 2019 :- Barry Lee Cummings, Chief Awareness Officer, Beat the Cyberbully at the Starbuck’s café in the Town Square Dubai on Al Qudra road in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News POAN. Story by Patrick
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There has been an alarming rise in the number of predators targeting children online during the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the country’s leading cyber security experts has warned.

Barry Lee Cummings, co-founder of support group Beat the Cyber Bully, said predators and criminals are stepping up efforts to exploit people who are spending more time than ever online.

Children were particularly vulnerable on TikTok and other social media platforms, he said.

"What was happening sporadically in the past is now happening daily, especially with teens being blackmailed into sharing nude pictures of themselves," said Mr Cummings.

“Children are afraid to talk to mum and dad ... as they afraid they will take their phones off them.”

The Covid-19 lockdown is prime hunting for predators

Cyber bullying was also evolving, according to Mr Cummings, with children using the likes of Google Docs to ridicule fellow classmates, while unsuspecting parents looked on.

Mr Cummings said cyber bullying was a problem across the globe.

He added that predators were using every avenue at their disposal to contact children, with many exploiting the newfound popularity of the TikTok social media channel.

“Predators are pretending to be children and contacting other children to sing duets with them on TikTok,” he said.

“Unfortunately the parental settings are not always in place on a child’s phone which means predators are able to contact them.”

He said part of the problem was children are being given access to smart devices when they were too young to fully understand the dangers.

A 2018 report from cyber security firm, Norton, found that children in the UAE were among the youngest in the world to receive smart devices.

In some instances, children as young as seven were being given phones.

Icons for the smartphone apps TikTok and WeChat are seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. President Donald Trump has ordered a sweeping but unspecified ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of the consumer apps TikTok and WeChat, although it remains unclear if he has the legal authority to actually ban the apps from the U.S. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

"Children are having social media accounts set up by parents or well-meaning siblings and I don’t think they are fully aware of the risks," said Mr Cummings.

"Social media companies have a policy that users need to be over the age of 12, I still think that’s too young."

He also warned that cyber bullying was still happening right under the noses of parents, even though they are often working from home in the same rooms as their children.

"There are cases where children are bullying others online by using Google Docs," he said.

"They make comments about the child who is being bullied and share it through the group. To parents it just looks like they are doing their school work but they need to be vigilant."

He urged parents to have honest discussions with their children and ensure the appropriate security settings were in place.

"Parents also need to look at their own behaviour," said Mr Cummings. "If they see you scrolling through your phone or computer all day they are likely to do the same themselves.

"Their minds are like sponges so you need to be alert to their behaviour."

It is not just sexual predators who are exploiting the pandemic online.

"Covid-19 has brought out the worst element when it comes to cyber scams," he said.

"There are phishing scams online now involving sanitisers and face masks.

"I even saw one where someone was claiming to be selling the blood of Covid-19 survivors [which it is claimed cures the virus]."

Cyber security firm, Kaspersky, said there were more than 617,000 phishing attacks in the UAE from April to June of this year.

Another senior figure from a security firm said there had been an 80 per cent rise in the number of cyber attacks on mobile phones and other smart devices in the UAE, during the second quarter of 2020.

“We are still seeing a high volume of cyber attacks that aim to exploit the fear and uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Candid Wuest, vice president of cyber protection research at Acronis.

“The threat has moved ... to emails claiming to provide relief money or disguised as video meeting invitations. “The cyber criminals are ... providing seemingly relevant information to the victims.”

Meanwhile, a TikTok representative said the company had a zero tolerance policy towards child abuse and bullying.

"TikTok is a platform for those aged 13 and above, and direct messaging is disabled for all accounts under the age of 16," a representative said.

"Flagged and suspected abusive behavior is escalated for immediate investigation and action including removing content, terminating accounts, and reporting cases to law enforcement as appropriate."