How to avoid the cybercrime pandemic

Monday, 18 October 2021

Schalk Visser, Chief Technology Officer at Cell C
The pandemic forced everyone to spend more time online than they did before. This was out of necessity because of remote working and the need to buy services and products online. Networks of criminals are aware of this larger, captive online audience, and they have innovated and stepped up their attacks. It’s not outrageous as we mark cybersecurity awareness month to suggest that we are dealing with a cybercrime pandemic.

To deal with crime we take all the precautions we need to, alongside developing situational awareness so that we don’t fall victim to crime. We put burglar bars on our windows and lock our doors, but we also change our behaviour when we enter or exit doors or driveways. We develop a security-conscious mindset.

Now consider this: Every device you use and every website you interact with creates another door for cybercriminals to launch an attack. It’s not just you personally that is more at risk. From a business perspective, we used to be sure that everyone was connecting to the internet from within the business premises – behind one door and surrounded by a security net. Even then, savvy criminals had begun crafting smart ways in. Now, with remote and hybrid working, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of new doors that can grant unwanted access to criminals.

At Cell C, a company that is transitioning from telco to a techco, we believe in digital inclusion and bridging the digital divide. However, with this comes the responsibility of empowering users of the internet to practice safe surfing and adopt a security-conscious mindset that will reduce their risk of falling victim to cybercriminals. To be frank, criminals don’t care that millions of people have been hit hard by the pandemic and are struggling to make ends meet – they will use every advantage available and take everything you have given half the chance.

While there are lone wolves and opportunists, cybercriminals run advanced criminal syndicates and have research and development teams, always pushing the boundaries of advancement to make their attacks more likely to succeed.

So, how do we fight back? Practice good digital hygiene. This means:

  • Do not ever share your pin or passwords
  • Make these pins and passwords complicated and not easy to guess
  • Don’t click on links or visit URLs that you do not recognise
  • Never hand out personal information
  • Install reputable antivirus and antimalware software on your devices
  • Update your software regularly
  • Use multi-factor authentication
  • Back-up your computer regularly
  • Keep your hard drive clean
  • Don’t do personal or sensitive tasks using open networks such as those at airports or malls
  • Consider device encryption – imagine leaving a sensitive memory stick at the local coffee shop?

Many of these may be seen as soft skills, but when you compare it to being similar to not sitting in a car in a driveway chatting to friends to minimise the risk of being hijacked, it makes sense. 

What are some of the most common scams and how do we avoid them?

  • Phishing

Here, the criminals direct you to a legitimate-looking link to verify personal information, and once they have stolen passwords and usernames, your computer or device has been opened to attacks. These are among the most common types of attacks, and often the emails or messages you receive will look very similar to a company you trust. They will attempt to lure you by claiming problems with your account or the need to accept a voucher, among much more.
How do we avoid falling victim to these scams? Never click on links received in emails, SMSs, WhatsApp’s, in Messenger, or anywhere else. No reputable company will ever ask for your personal details in this way. Never click on links. No matter how tempted you feel.

  • Form-jacking

Many fake websites offer special deals for products you love. When you choose your product, you are directed to a fake payment page where all your payment details are stolen, and you can guess what happens next.

How do we avoid falling for this scam? Analyse the URL very closely, look for an extra letter, one change in spelling, something small. The tell-tale sign will be a modified URL. Beyond that, only shop through reputable retailers, and only use reputable payment gateways.

  • Call-centre (vishing) or support scams

Here, you will receive a call from someone claiming to work at your bank, cell phone operator, insurer and other similar entities. Invariably they will ask for payments or personal information. A reputable company will never ambush you in this way and ask for sensitive information.

Alternatively, you may get a pop-up on your screen saying your device is infected with a virus and you’re directed to “take action”. Never click on anything like this – if you have, change all your usernames and passwords immediately, update your antivirus and malware software, and then get assistance from a reputable professional to help you run a scan and delete anything suspicious.

  • 419 scams

We have all received an email saying we have won the lotto or have a deceased relative and there are millions waiting for us. It is too good to be true, and on the other side of that email, SMS, message or WhatsApp is a scammer waiting to ask for a payment advance – or, rather, to steal your money.

How do we avoid falling victim? Never respond to these types of messages.

  • Loan pre-approvals or scams offering credit relief

Especially during times such as these, people are desperate and may feel as though their prayers have been answered. Approach reputable relief companies or credit providers instead, and don’t interact with unsolicited messages you receive. Often these companies will want an upfront payment and that would be the end of your money.

  • Unsolicited messages or advertisement playing to your conscience

There have been reports from all over the world about scams related to Covid-19 that either try to solicit money, or use the pandemic or information related to it, to get you to click on a dangerous link. As with everything else, pay attention to the basics – never click on links you receive and never share any personal details online or over the phone.

The take-home message is this: the digital world is like the real world. There are good people and bad people. There is a lot we can do to minimise our risks of falling victim to the bad people and enjoying the wonderful benefits of being connected to a digital world.

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