TechnologySocial Issues

Increase in Scam Calls, Emails and Texts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Are you spending more time online during the pandemic? You aren’t the only one. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 75% of Canadians spent more time online for school, work or leisure purposes. While technology has allowed many of us to continue somewhat of a normal life online, this increase has made us easy prey for scammers.

A close-up photo of the side view of a laptop, with one person's hand typing with their right hand, and the other holding a debit or credit card.


Image Source: Fusion Credit Union


What are Internet Scams?

Also known as internet fraud, online scams are various methods of fraud committed by cybercriminals. They are designed to deceive and take advantage of victims to gain millions of dollars per year. 

Common types of online scams designed to obtain our personal information include spam, phishing and spoofing. These can be delivered via social media applications, text messages and phone calls. Others are catered towards technological devices – tech support scams claim that there is a problem with the user’s device and use the same delivery methods as online scams to gain money.

Spam is unsolicited electronic communications, commonly sent for commercial purposes. Common senders of commercial spam can include retail stores, consulting and educational services, real estate agents or marketers that have purchased an email list. The upside is that these forms of spam are usually just a nuisance. However, some emails can be malicious and actually be considered phishing. As the most common type of spam, phishing is when emails are sent to victims to gain personal information by creating fake websites to get people to log in. Phishing emails can pretend to be online shopping sites, cloud storage companies, shipping companies, your bank or various social media sites. If the personal information is obtained from victims, it can be used to invade existing accounts or create new accounts. 

Similar to phishing, spoofing is when cybercriminals pretend to be a reputable source to obtain money, personal information and get victims to download malware. Spoofing can also be used for phishing attacks. However, one difference is that it is personalized and may be harder to distinguish its legitimacy. They can pretend to be your friend or colleague and will contact people via email, text messages and phone calls. This is often done by changing one letter, number or symbol in phone numbers, email addresses, website URLs and sender names.    

A photo of a hooded figure behind an open laptop.

Image Source: North Country Savings Bank

Commonly, tech support scams may occur when a user visits a website and there is a pop-up that prompts the user to call a number or visit another website because there is a problem, like a ‘suspicious activity’, or a virus in the device. If this issue is addressed by following through with the pop-up, the user is then told to contact a toll-free number or website where the scammer will ask for remote access to the computer to do a diagnostic test. If permission is given, the scammer will claim that they’ve discovered a security issue or virus to sell security subscriptions or repair services. These “services” are designed to install malware or steal personal information. 

What are the Negative Outcomes of a Scam? 

The most obvious answers are the loss of money and privacy. These two are detrimental, especially during the pandemic, where most people are going through economic hardship. A loss of privacy can increase your chances of scam in the future, as your personal information can be sold and shared to other scammers. 

Scam calls have also increased in Canada during the pandemic by 25% in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. This may cause people to stop answering calls or mistake genuine calls for scam, since scam call phone numbers can look legitimate or similar to that of someone you know. Thus, people may ignore or avoid calls and text messages from personal contacts, but also important organizations such as Statistics Canada, which contacts people with reminders to complete the census questionnaire

Did Online Scams Increase During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

In short, yes — scammers have been using the fear and uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic to lure victims. Scams can pretend to be charity organizations, government programs, and cleaning products. Scams can even involve threats that claim users have been outside when they should’ve been at home quarantining.

A close-up photo of the side view of a laptop, with one person's hand typing with their right hand, and the other holding a debit or credit card.

Image Source: Regions

Recently, scammers have been spoofing Canadians by impersonating the Government of Canada with text messages regarding a “Vaccine Relief Fund” for recently vaccinated Canadians. There is a link in the text message for people to provide personal information to claim the funds. Other scams include prompting people to download COVID-19 apps, purchase at-home kits to test for COVID-19, help with signing up for CERB and selling counterfeit vaccines or unapproved drugs.

Furthermore, more people have been shopping online more.  Compared to 2019, online shopping in the United States in 2020 has increased by 36% in the third quarter. With the increase of online shopping, delivery or shipping notifications have increased as well. Delivery scams usually include a tracking link which may ask for personal information. 

Examples of Scam Content

As mentioned above, most scam text messages that I’ve received were related to delivery notifications. Examples include: 

Increase in Scam Calls, Emails and Texts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Image Source: Text messages that I’ve received

Spam or phishing emails also included tracking numbers for online orders, bitcoin, and spoofing of well-known companies (Shoppers Drug Mart, Canada Post, Air Canada, Paypal, UPS etc).

Increase in Scam Calls, Emails and Texts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Image Source: Emails that I’ve received

There has also been an influx of emails targeting health concerns related to liver health, dermatology and even tinnitus. This is likely due to existing fears and uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and because people may be hesitant to go to the hospital for medical issues that aren’t related to COVID-19.

Increase in Scam Calls, Emails and Texts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Image Source: Emails that I’ve received

As seen in the examples above, many scams have similarities: they may have mistakes (spelling, slightly different logos, etc.), tell stories (they’ve noticed suspicious activities, claim you’ve won a prize even if you’ve never entered one), give a sense of urgency or use very generic salutations (such as Hello Dear, Salute, etc.) and include links or attachments. For further examples of scam, the Government of Canada has listed some samples of telephone scams

For examples and instructions on how to report and block scam content, try following instructions from Microsoft Support and Apple Support (or other websites depending on your device).   

What If You Sent Your Personal Information? 

If you were to send your bank information to a scammer by paying with your credit card or through a wire transfer, you must contact your bank immediately, let them know that it was fraudulent and ask them to reverse the charge. If scammers have your personal information, look into your country’s policies/laws on identity theft. For the United States, check out the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft website, and for Canada, see Canada’s Anti-Fraud Centre. While each country may have slightly different procedures, one thing is the same: the worst thing to do is panic and delay getting help.    Increase in Scam Calls, Emails and Texts During the COVID-19 PandemicImage Source: RBC

If you clicked on a link and it asks for your information, the first thing to do is not enter any information, then disconnect your device from the internet. On a mobile device, run anti-malware software and see if it finds suspicious apps even if you don’t notice any strange activity. Delete any apps that were found. If you notice strange activity such as a draining battery despite normal use, new or unrecognizable apps, strange pop-ups, an unusual increase in data usage, and calls or texts not made by you, your phone may be hacked. If this is the case, let your contacts know and perform a factory reset. This will fix most malware, but make sure to back-up your data. Finally, change all passwords and make them unique.

On a computer, open an antivirus software and do a full scan. Change all passwords that you can and check frequently for suspicious activities. These can be similar to strange activities on a mobile device and can include: frequent crashes or unusually slow performance, mass emails sent from your email account, frequent pop-ups that direct you to unusual sites or download software, programs connecting to the internet, changes to your home page, unknown programs that open when turning on the computer, and unusual activities such as changes to your password. If the antivirus software is unable to work properly because it’s being attacked by the malware, check for do-it-yourself support options from the antivirus software, or pay for a virus removal service.  

Receiving more scams during a time of economic and personal hardship has increased can have devastating outcomes if you’re not careful. Know how to avoid being scammed by being aware of new and current scams, using antivirus software, not interacting with any suspicious material and fact-checking with organizations.



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Want to learn more about INKspire? Check out our organization's website.
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