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Online scams will spike in 2021, here's how to avoid them

Concept of cyber crime, hand holding smartphone and show malware screen that comes with email, hack password from bank accounts and personal data.

Senior officials from Canada’s top cybersecurity and scam detection agencies are warning Canadians scams are expected to spike in 2021, but add that reporting by victims will likely go down because more people are becoming aware and taking precautions.

Jeff Thomson, a senior intelligence analyst at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), said in an interview that in 2020 scam reporting was up, and ranged from merchandise scams, job scams, to soliciting personal information.

“We expect this to continue into 2021,” he said. “[COVID-19] has created the right market for online fraud.”

Scott Jones, head of the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, agreed with Thomson and said in an interview that fraudsters will continue to “prey on our emotions and the news of the day.”

Scams in 2021: What to watch

Thomson said that because of the pandemic and resulting in job losses, more people will be pounding the pavement for jobs. “You’re seeing more people looking for work at the end of the day and what we’re seeing is fraudsters creating fake ads offering jobs or fake websites offering jobs,” he said.

Thomson highlighted that fraudsters will still send phishing scam emails, so paying attention to email from unknown individuals is important. “These targeted attacks are, from what we know in a lot of cases, coming from compromised or spoofed email accounts that are being used to send emails to potential victims,” he said. “So it looks like it’s coming from somebody they know.”

Thomson said that fraud around COVID-19 and vaccines is expected to increase. He said the CAFC put out a notice warning consumers of ongoing fraud tied to the COVID-19 vaccines.

The notice warns users of private companies selling fraudulent products that claim to treat or prevent the virus; getting unsolicited calls claiming to be from a private company that offers home vaccination kits; and COVID-19 vaccine emails that have malicious attachments tricking users to reveal personal and financial information.

Recognize, Reject, Report: How to avoid scams

Thomson noted that fraudsters will use every avenue available to execute scams.

“Whether it’s a telephone, text message, email, social media, classified sites, romance or dating websites, our list goes on, they are using every means at their disposal,” he said.

“We want people to recognize that you could get one of these solicitations. The next step is rejecting. That’s why we talk about not reacting impulsively and scrutinizing all requests. Don’t be intimidated by high-pressure sales tactics, or high-pressure urgent requests.”

Jones said the Cyber Security Centre focuses on awareness campaigns that are easy to understand and get right to the point.

“One of the most effective campaigns is the commercial on listening to your voice of reason,” he said. “Sometimes we do [campaigns] in fun ways. We’re not treating them in a way to scare them, we’re saying ‘hey do this simple thing.’”

More importantly, Jones said it’s important for Canadians to pay attention to those small tips, like changing your password frequently, using two-factor authentication, and practising safe online habits.

Looking at 2021 campaigns, the Cyber Security Centre plans to release a cybersecurity guide for small-and-medium-sized businesses and a campaign for children to understand cyber hygiene.

Canadians are less afraid to report

Thomson said that because of so many awareness campaigns in 2020, reporting of scams is increasing.

“I see more happening today than ever before,” he said. “While fraud is being reported, there’s more being done to bring fraud awareness and prevention.”

Jones added that educating Canadians isn’t about making them feel afraid, but helping them understand how to avoid scams.

“We noticed an uptick in people reporting, which is great. The more people report, the more we can do something ahead of time,” he said.

Jones said that while it’s a good thing fewer people will report being victimized because they are more educated, it means fraudsters will become more sophisticated.

“The actor will then start to increase their sophistication, which means we always have to be prepared,” he said.