Amid pandemic, cyber scams a growing threat

Published 2:09 pm Saturday, March 28, 2020

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By Tom Purcell

The dirty rotten crooks.

While the rest of the world is doing its best to sacrifice to beat an unseen biological virus, cyber scammers are trying to attack us with a variety of digital viruses.

Before the start of 2020, I warned about the rapid increase in cyber attacks. The more we live our lives online, the more vulnerable we all are to email phishing attacks (fake emails), ransomware attacks (when bad guys gain illegal access to our computers and lock up our devices until we pay them a fee), scammers who pose as government representatives and many other schemes.

Last July, I warned about another worrisome cyber threat: attacks on the elderly. People 80 or older are especially at risk and reported a median loss of $2,700 per scam — and there are many regrettable stories about older people who have been taken for their life savings.

But in the midst of our current crisis — as millions are working from home — scammers are busier than ever.

First of all, the “virtual private networks” companies use for remote workers are not set up to handle the massive number of people now working from home. The systems run so slowly, employees are avoiding them — opening up security gaps for the scammers to exploit.

Second of all, anyone with ill intent can become a scammer now. Even 10 years ago, one had to be highly skilled to run cyber scams, but today, any fool can purchase and operate an off-the-shelf digital scam.

Digital Shadows, a cyber threat intelligence firm, identified a “for-sale” email scam that mimics an actual Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering distribution map of the coronavirus’s outbreak. Click the link in the email and you will download malicious software.

The asking price for the sophisticated scam? A lousy 200 bucks.

Fear is the scammer’s most potent weapon. Scammers are peddling fake coronavirus test kits and cures. Some pretend to be from government agencies offering information on the number of people afflicted with COVID-19 in your city. Others set up fake charitable organizations.

Their goal? To “send emails with malicious attachments or links to fraudulent websites to trick victims into revealing sensitive information or donating to fraudulent charities or causes,” says the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

It makes my blood boil to know that heartless cybercrooks are adding to the woes many are experiencing. We all need to understand that we must increase our ability to detect and thwart their scams to protect ourselves and our families — in particular, our elderly family members and neighbors.

There are steps we can take right now to get started.

CISA’s “Stop.Think.Connect” program offers basic cyber tips that we can begin using today; tip sheets on detecting threats and protecting our computers, smartphones and other devices; and tips for protecting older Americans.

And for helpful videos, look to’s YouTube offerings.

It’s regrettable that those of us who are staying at home to limit the spread of the coronavirus are at increasing risk as we conduct our daily business on our computers.

Let’s make it harder for those dirty rotten online crooks to exploit us.

TOM PURCELL, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood,” a humorous memoir available at, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. Send comments to Tom at