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When cybersecurity experts at security firm ESET wanted to better understand how people fall prey to online fraud, they decided to set up an online challenge.

Thousands of participants were given multiple examples of an online phishing scam, as well as some ordinary e-mails and texts from banks and the government. Less than one-third of them were actually able to identify which communications were scams and which were real.

At a time when more people than ever are looking online to get important information about the pandemic and vaccines, Tony Anscombe, chief security evangelist at ESET, said people are at risk of their personal information being compromised.

“Scammers are using the technology that’s available to them to make these [fraudulent communications] look more and more real every day,” he said.

Fraud experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has created a ripe environment for cybercriminals to defraud both individuals and small businesses, especially when many people are being forced to shop and interact online for the first time.

“The pandemic has been an opportunity for cybercriminals. It’s given them a topic to actually attack,” Mr. Anscombe said.

“If you look back over time, even prepandemic, when there’s a significant happening, cybercriminals are quick to leech on it.”

Data from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre shows online fraud activity spiked in 2020, with more than double the amount of extortion incidents and nearly double the amount of merchandise fraud incidents compared with 2019.

Jeff Thomson, a senior RCMP intelligence officer with the centre, said there was a huge increase in fraud activity around e-commerce, including fake e-mails that look like they’re from a corporation asking for more data to verify a purchase or membership.

With people feeling lonely in isolation, Mr. Thomson said there was also a noted increase in puppy scams and romance cons.

Many scammers also took advantage of the deluge of information about physical distancing, economic recovery benefits and vaccine deployment, and used people’s confusion to extract personal information from fake webpages and forms.

With so much fraud activity around personal information extraction, Carl Davies, head of fraud and identity at Equifax Canada, said he’s seeing a concerning rise in people’s bank accounts being compromised and commandeered.

Mr. Davies said fraudsters gain access by acquiring your personal information and getting control of your phone or e-mail address – the starting point to compile enough information to reset your banking passwords.

“They’ll use that account to start opening accounts at other branches, applying for credit cards, anything where they can extract the most amount of value that they can,” Mr. Davies said.

To avoid falling prey to fraud like this, Mr. Davies said people should be extremely careful whenever they receive any communication that leads to them giving away personal information.

“If you’re ever receiving an e-mail asking for info, always check if it looks right, check the link if there’s anything wrong, close the e-mail down and call the bank itself,” not the number provided by the e-mail, Mr. Davies said.

He said people should also be careful about the personal information they freely put out into the public sphere, such as birthdates on social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook.

Cybersecurity experts noted that millennials are actually some of the highest-risk individuals because of the amount of information they have made publicly available on social media, and because their guards are down on the internet, a space which they see as familiar.

On the other hand, older populations are also at a high risk because they may not be as familiar with online interactions, and have been forced to interact with the online world more during the pandemic.

Mr. Thomson, from the RCMP, said one of the best ways to identify a scam is to think about whether a certain webpage or communication is trying to make you think with your emotions, or if it’s trying to get you to act quickly.

“A lot of scams are designed to get people to react based on their emotions, and that makes people’s thinking change, such as with ‘last chance offers,’” Mr. Thomson said.

“Slow down and do your due diligence.”

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