When Hackers Use Disasters for Online Scams

Jason Hazlewood /
Hacker's Using Disasters for Online Scams

Disasters, emergencies, pandemics, and catastrophic events all strike without notice and create chaos for those experiencing them. Earthquakes, floods, COVID, hurricanes and tornado strikes are only a few examples of disasters we hear about in the news regularly. It’s bad enough that they happen and that people suffer from them, but for as long as there have been disasters there have been people seeking to profit from them in nefarious ways.

A perfect example of this in the pre-Internet era is the price gouging that often follows disasters such as hurricanes. With items like non-perishable food, drinkable water, and ice in short supply, dishonest actors stock up on these and sell them for ridiculously high prices to people who are desperate for them in time of need. Worse yet, scammers have been known to take high payments for repairs they never intend to perform. There are laws against doing this but it doesn’t stop scammers, many of whom get away because they collect the money and then leave town or go underground.

Now that the Internet is here, scammers have found other ways to scam the masses out of time, money, or even data and security. Many of us have heard jokes about the “Nigerian prince” scam because it was such a prevalent email scam for so long. It was a letter that often appeared in junk mail that claimed a Nigerian prince needed your help stashing his fortune, for which he would reward you handsomely. Respondents would receive a cashier’s check in the mail that would bounce, stealing money from their bank accounts and shuttling it off to the scammers. Later scams preyed on desperate job seekers, offering them high-paying jobs for performing the same services, such as using the alleged money to set up an office or mail out merchandise.

However, some of the most insidious Internet scams prey on people suffering from pandemics and natural disasters, or the sympathies of those who would lend aid in these situations. Solicitations for charity could be disguising phishing emails, which suck up your personal information if you click on the links they contain. Sometimes emails claiming to be from the federal government are actually hackers sending you malware, which installs directly to your computer as soon as you open an attachment. Scams like these trick people easily because they often claim to contain important information pertaining to disaster relief, economic stimulus payment, or submitting insurance claims.

Sending money is a common mistake the unwary make when faced with disaster scams. Many scams either ask you to wire money or use a credit card, often to help “people in need.” Really, the people you are “helping” are people helping themselves to your information. Another method used by scammers is to set up fake websites that solicit your information, which can be used to drain your bank account, spend your credit cards, and steal your identity. A lot of these look reputable, but may not be.

Scams that spread malware to your computer can do a variety of things to your entire home, especially if you have a smart home or a lot of WiFi devices. Malware takes many forms, from viruses that take up your memory to ransomware and keyloggers, which hold your computer hostage or steal your password information and anything else you type in. Some malware takes over your devices entirely, using their memory to commit other crimes such as computer fraud or large-scale theft. Others are just malicious jokers who spread malware to shut down your devices entirely, a phenomenon called “bricking.”

Guarding against such scams is very simple. The most important thing is to never open attachments from people you don’t know. Even attachments from people you do know may have malware attached to them, as often malware attaches itself to email programs and sends itself to everyone on their contacts lists. A good antivirus program can help spot these, and a lot of email services, as well as many current operating systems, have built-in antivirus detection. Being smart about your emails and any attachments or links within them is one way to avoid scams that take advantage of catastrophic events.

Internet providers also often have packages that offer protection against viruses, malware, and identity theft. These packages are often very affordable add-ons to your basic Internet, but can be invaluable services for anti-fraud purposes. When looking for an Internet connection, this is something you might want to consider, and if you already have Internet, you may want to check if your provider has such a package available.

You could also see all the providers and packages available in your area, as well as their rates, by telling our comparison site your zip code. With just that information, and nothing else, we can tell you if you’re getting the  best deal on Internet, including security.

Protect yourself during times of catastrophe by being mindful of what you receive in your email, and by scanning it for potential threats!