Everything about coronavirus life feels unprecedented. And that’s the adjective United States Attorney Scott Brady used when talking to Forbes about the level of COVID-19 scams he and his law enforcement colleagues are expecting. “The closest analogy is the kind of fraud that we saw relating to Hurricane Katrina,” he says. “I think we are really going to see an unprecedented wave of cyber attacks and cyber fraud. And that’s what we’re trying to prepare our partners and the public for.”
He’s been one of the more active prosecutors preparing for the deluge of cases related to coronavirus-capitalizing crooks. On Tuesday, after attorney general William Barr called on U.S. attorneys to double down on efforts to counter such criminality, he announced America’s first COVID-19 fraud coordinator. He gave the job to assistant attorney Shaun Sweeney, who will oversee the prosecution of fraud resulting from coronavirus scammers. On the homepage of the Western District of Pennsylvania’s DOJ office website, there’s also a handy button that takes the user through to a page where scam victims can find out how best to report crimes and how to avoid them in the first place.
Brady is also following Dave DeVillers, attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, in announcing that the threshold for initiating fraud cases is being ignored for coronavirus-related scams. For any other fraud, DeVillers told Forbes on Monday, there’s a minimum fraud cost required before any investigation is launched, which is usually in the tens of thousands.
Despite the changes in how the DOJ and investigating agencies like the FBI are having to operate because of orders to distance themselves from one another, Brady thinks it won’t make much of an impact on their work. “We all have telecommuting capabilities, and can coordinate and investigate remotely,” he adds, saying that where they get subpoenas or search warrants, they’re executing them with all “the same precautions of self-distancing that the public should be taking.”
Brady says that his team’s efforts are there to make it as simple as possible for the public to report scams. “The most vulnerable population to COVID-19 scams are people who are maybe 60 and older,” Brady says. “So we want to make sure that they have information on what we’re seeing, the types of fraud and scams to be aware of, and then most importantly, just having a contact for our office for the FBI for some of our other federal partners so that we can you know, they can contact us and we can start investigations and stop that kind of problem.”
Brady’s office has only received a couple of calls since launching the COVID-19 fraud page on Tuesday. But he’s keen to hear from the public about the kinds of illicit activity they’re seeing. “We want to know all the types of scams that are out there, because the reality is any one individual victim might only be victimised for, you know, some of the ransomware schemes that might be $100 of Bitcoin. But undoubtedly, that is not the only victim,” he adds. “Most of these frauds are going to be broader and have a more significant financial harm.”
Onslaught of COVID-19 fraud
Coronavirus-themed frauds have been varied and pervasive. On Wednesday, a new strain of Android malware was seen mimicking a coronavirus map, whilst having the power to spy on victims through their smartphone camera or microphone. Phishing emails claiming to come from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations, promising information on coronavirus treatments and information, have also been spreading fast. And one group of researchers said on Tuesday they saw more than 2,500 successful attacks on Windows PCs using coronavirus information as a lure in less than 24 hours.
Brady’s team will also be dealing with attacks by nation state-sponsored hacking crews and hits on healthcare bodies. Earlier this week, the Health and Human Services (HHS) department said it had fought off an attempted attack on its systems. “We have not seen anything like that yet in Western Pennsylvania, but we’re prepared for that,” adds Brady.
Forbes has been maintaining a list of coronavirus-themed online attacks out there, which you can find here.