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Expert Explanation: COVID-19; More Screen Time – More Fake Apps

posted by: Paula Boyden date: Jan 29, 2021 category: All, Expert Explanations comments: 0

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 Global Pandemic has claimed many lives, and brought economies around the world to a halt, as countries close their borders, tell citizens to stay at home, and give businesses the bad news that they have to close their doors to customers.  This has led to unemployment rates skyrocketing and more people being stuck at home with very little to do.

As a result, people are spending more time on their devices, with many of them downloading new apps to pass the time.  And boy are the cyber-criminals having a field day with this. Our cyber security analysts here at FraudWatch International, found that mobile users were prime targets during most of 2020, with the number of malicious apps doubling in the first quarter of the year. A spike was also detected in malware-infected mobile devices.

Statistics published by Amy Watson (Statista) on Jun 18, 2020 stated:

“Data from a global survey held in March 2020 revealed that 70 percent of responding internet users worldwide were using their smartphones or mobile phones more as a direct result of the coronavirus outbreak, though this varied significantly by country. In Germany, Australia, and the United Kingdom, less than 40 percent of survey participants said that they were using their phone more, but for China and the Philippines the percentage stood at 86 percent. Smart TV and media streaming service usage also varied, with 44 percent of Brazilians using these devices more due to the COVID-19 pandemic compared to just 11 percent of Japanese respondents.”

In July 2020, Amy Watson reported on another global survey that was held to analyse device usage across generations. Over 10,000 participants, within the age bracket of 16-64 years old, were asked the question: “Which device(s) have you been spending more time using since the start of the coronavirus / COVID-19 outbreak?”

A number of countries took part in the survey, with the sample sizes for each country being: 1,004 (Australia), 1,001 (Brazil), 1,003 (China), 1,016 (France), 1,010 (Germany), 1,010 (Italy), 1,079 (Japan), 1,008 (Philippines), 1,008 (Singapore), 573 (South Africa), 1,005 (Spain), 1,040 (UK) and 1,088 (USA).

“The survey results revealed that 79 percent of Gen Z internet users worldwide were using their smartphones or mobile phones more as a direct result of the coronavirus outbreak. An increase of phone usage was seen across all generations, although only 49 percent of Baby Boomers said that they were using their phone more. There was also a significant increase in the usage of laptops, with 62 percent of respondents from Gen Z reporting using their laptop more since the start of the pandemic.”

Figure 1: Worldwide percentage increase in media device usage, by generation, due to the coronavirus outbreak, as at July 2020. (Source: Statista)

This increase in mobile device usage, focussed heavily around online entertainment.  Online streaming services boomed, as more and more people flitted away lockdown hours by binge-watching shows from their “watch list”. At FraudWatch International, we found that 6 out of 10 malicious apps came from entertainment/leisure categories including gaming, news, video streaming and social.

Cybersecurity business, Buguroo, reported that free content, like unlimited book downloads, and streaming services offering downloads of your favourite series, are also effective bait which criminals use to steal data or deliver malware payloads.

As the report explains, humans don’t handle uncertainty well; we’re hardwired to predict outcomes, which is how our species has survived for centuries.  However, this fear of uncertainty makes us vulnerable to scams and the criminals know it and profit from it. Online sales naturally shot up during the pandemic, with masks, hand-sanitiser, toilet paper, etc, being in high-demand.  There were plenty of consumers who fell victim to fake websites and purchased products that never arrive.

Figure 2: Example of a fake website (Source: Buguroo)

In dangerous times, like when a deadly virus is killing thousands of our fellow humans every day, we take action just to survive. We let our reptilian brain take over (which allows us make split-second decisions to escape the danger), and this means we don’t waste time on thinking rationally and investigating if the purchase we’re making is from a legitimate company.

We also have a need to be seen as decent human beings and protect our tribe.  Our altruistic side is strong and we want to help where we can.  The criminals have cottoned onto this too, and there have been plenty of scams involving donations to healthcare professionals.

Buguroo detailed the emergence of “internet fraud attacks that use WhatsApp to spread viral messages offering advice to stop the virus, information being concealed by the authorities, or first-hand accounts from people who have caught the virus.”  These messages often contain malicious links, redirect us to make a financial donations or download a COVID-19 information app.

These are messages which, in normal times, we would simply dismiss as rubbish, however, during a global pandemic, we’re hitting “send” without even thinking twice. Why would we just sit on this information if we can help our friends and family to stay safe from Covid-19?

Figure 3: Example of the bait being created by online attackers (Source: Buguroo)

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