Coronavirus spawns online scams targeting African users

The pandemic has created an opportunity for scammers, who are targeting people looking for information about the coronavirus online. IT leaders should warn remote workers about online scams such as phishing.

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In April, Mzolisi Toni, the acting director of South Africa's Ministry of Social Development, was alerted to an odd social media posting.  It claimed that he had authorised members of the Scientology Volunteer Ministries to go door-to-door for the purposes of sanitising homes against the coronavirus. He was forced to quickly issue a statement that this was completely false and was likely to be an attempt by people to gain entry to private homes. 

A few weeks later, the head of Listed Property at South Afrrican asset management firm Stanlib, Killien Ndlovu, found out that there were Whatsapp messages circulating in his name that encouraged people to make specific investments to a coronavirus fund he was managing. Again, this was completely false and had nothing to do with him. 

As the coronavirus crisis sinks its claws deeper into the African continent, the generosity and goodwill of members of the public is being tested and undermined by a spike in fraudulent schemes that have arisen to take advantage of the situation.

Phishing email attacks were up 600 percent in the first quarter 2020, according to security awareness firm KnowBe4, and 10 percent of those phishing attempts were using coronavirus messaging directly to solicit a response. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Fraudsters realized quickly that the amount of online traffic seeking information about the pandemic would skyrocket. It's a fertile hunting ground in a continent like Africa where poverty and hunger are guaranteed to surge in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdowns being used to battle the virus -- desperate people with sophisticated mobile devices are an easy mark for determined scammers. 

Local Scams With Global Footprints

While Africans are clearly being targeted for exploitation, the phenomenon is global in nature. "Cybercrime is a global issue," said Susan Potgieter, the acting CEO of SABRIC, the South African Banking Risk Information Center. "Criminals use social engineering and target their victims on digital channels so it makes no difference where the victim is situated physically, as long as they are accessible on digital channels."

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