GCHQ calls on public to report coronavirus-related phishing emails | Technology

GCHQ is asking members of the public to report suspicious emails they have received amid a wave of scams and hacking attacks that seek to exploit fear of Covid-19 to enrich cybercriminals.

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back elsewhere?

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

What are experts worried about?

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

The National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of the intelligence agency, has launched the suspicious email reporting service with a simple request of the public: forward any dubious emails to report@phishing.gov.uk, and the NCSC’s automated scanning system will check for scam emails and immediately remove criminal sites.

“Technology is helping us cope with the coronavirus crisis and will play a role helping us out of it, but that means cybersecurity is more important than ever,” said Ciaran Martin, chief executive officer of the NCSC. “That’s why we have created a new national reporting service for suspicious emails – and if they link to malicious content, it will be taken down or blocked. By forwarding messages to us, you will be protecting the UK from email scams and cybercrime.”

The reporting service has been launched after the organisation removed more than 2,000 online scams related to coronavirus in the last month, including:

  • 471 fake online shops selling fraudulent coronavirus-related items

  • 555 malware distribution sites set up to cause significant damage to visitors

  • 200 phishing sites seeking personal information such as passwords and credit card details

  • 832 advance-fee frauds where a large sum of money is promised in return for a set-up payment

Some scams prey on the fear of the virus, according to information security experts FireEye: many phishing attacks purport to share tips on how to avoid being infected with the disease, or reports on fellow employees or students with Covid-19, in order to encourage victims to enter their credentials to see the information.

Others appealed to a sense of greed. One widespread scam, uncovered in March by the journalist Brain Krebs, employed victims as “money mules”: people used to launder the proceeds of cybercrime through their own bank accounts. They were recruited through the pretence that they were helping process donations for a Coronavirus relief fund, and asked to turn a blind eye to the disproportionately large “commission” they received to “cover their expenses”.

“If you receive a job solicitation via email that sounds too good to be true, it probably is related in some way to one of these money-laundering schemes,” Krebs said.

The NCSC has also published new guidance on how to use videoconferencing tools securely, following the rise in “Zoombombing” attacks: pranksters taking advantage of lax default settings on the popular video chat app Zoom to invade and disrupt private meetings.

It recommends that users not make meetings public, connect only to people through their contacts or address book, and never post the link or password publicly.

“If you are organising the chat for your family or friends, consider using the lobby feature to ensure you know who has arrived,” the NCSC says. “This is especially useful if individuals are joining the meeting via an unrecognised phone number. Verify participants’ identity when they join the meeting.”

At the beginning of April, Zoom’s founder and CEO, Eric Yuan, committed to a freeze on new development while the platform focused on solving the privacy and security issues uncovered after a burst of new users. “We have fallen short of the community’s, and our own, privacy and security expectations,” Yuan said. “For that, I am deeply sorry.”

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