Since early March 2020, there has been a significant increase in COVID-19 themed malicious cyber activity across Australia. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch has received more than 100 reports of scams about COVID-19 in the last three months, and the volumes continue to rise. Between 10 and 26 March, the ACSC has received over 45 cybercrime and cyber security incident reports from individuals and businesses, all related to COVID-19 themed scam and phishing activity. The true extent of this malicious activity is likely to be much higher, as these numbers only represent those cases reported to the ACSC and ACCC. 

COVID-19 themed phishing and spear-phishing

Malicious cyber actors are spreading phishing emails that pretend to be from reputable organisations, seeking to deceive recipients into visiting websites that host computer viruses or malware designed to steal their personal information. To increase the appearance of legitimacy, these phishing emails are sent from addresses that closely resemble the official organisations or entities, often adopting the official message format and including well-known branding and logos. 

Case study 1: SMS phishing campaign

On Monday 16 March 2020, a malicious cyber actor registered a COVID-19 themed website in the United States. Shortly afterwards members of the public in Australia began reporting receiving text messages that re-directed them to a malicious website. The text message appeared as though it came from the government. This technique is designed to increase the legitimacy of the message and the likelihood that the recipient will click the link.

Assessment by the ACSC identified that the website was hosting a well-known banking Trojan (Cerberus) that targets Android devices and is designed to steal people’s financial information. This form of malware is easily available for purchase online through cybercrime forums. 

The ACSC formally lodged a take-down request with the domain registrar in the United States. The ACSC also reached out to Australia’s six major telecommunications providers, as well as Google and Microsoft, to block this website from being accessed and have it flagged at the browser level as being malicious.

On 19 March 2020, the ACSC received a report from a telecommunications partner that this COVID-19 themed SMS phishing campaign had recommenced. After their website had been shut-down, the malicious actor had registered a new one and was using a different phone number and sender name (‘GMAIL’). Anyone who receives these types of COVID-19 themed SMS phishing attempts should simply delete the message.

On 20 March 2020, the ACCC alerted the ACSC to a new variant of this SMS phishing campaign. In this instance, the malicious actor had utilised an alpha tag of ‘myGov’, meaning the text messages appeared on recipients’ phones below previous official messages from myGov. This adaptation shows how quickly cyber criminals react to disruption and education campaigns by government and business.

Case study 2: Phishing campaign impersonating Australia Post to steal personal information

On Thursday 19 March, the ACSC received a report from Australia Post about a COVID-19 phishing email that was impersonating their organisation. Under the guise of providing advice about travelling to countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19, the email aims to deceive the recipient into visiting a website that will harvest their personal identifying information (PII). Once the cybercriminals have obtained the PII, historically they often open bank accounts or credit cards in the person’s name, using the illicit funds to purchase luxury items or transfer the money into untraceable crypto-currencies such as bitcoin.

Case study 3: Phishing campaign pretending to be international health organisation

This is an example of one COVID-19 themed phishing email where the sender is pretending to be a well-known international health organisation, inviting recipients to click on the link, to access information about new cases of the COVID-19 virus in their local area.

Case study 4: COVID-19 phishing emails containing malicious attachments

The ACSC has also received reports of COVID-19 phishing emails that have malicious Word documents or other attachments containing embedded computer viruses.

In this example, the phishing email pretends to originate from the World Health Organisation and invites the recipient to open the attachment for advice on safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. When opened, the attached file contains malicious software that automatically downloads onto the recipient’s device, providing the malicious actor with ongoing access which is commonly used to install other types of malware, such as spyware (used to track everything the user does) or personal contact details (in order to target friends and family with further scams).

Case study 5: COVID-19 relief payment scam

On 20 March 2020, the ACCC warned Australians about a phishing email that offers recipients $2,500 in COVID-19 assistance payments if they complete an attached application form. The attachment contains an embedded macro that downloads malicious software onto the recipient’s device. If you receive these types of phishing emails, do not open the attachments and simply delete the message.

Mitigation strategies for combatting COVID-19 scams

How to spot if an email or text message is phishing?

There are some key things to look for to determine if the text message or email is phishing:

  • Read the message carefully, look for anything that isn’t quite right, such as tracking numbers, names, attachment names, sender, message subject and URLs.
  • On a PC or laptop, hover your mouse over links to see if the embedded URL is legitimate, but don’t click.
  • Google information such as the sender address or subject line to see if others have reported it as malicious.
  • Call the organisation on their official number as it appears on their website (separate to any contact details in the received message) and double-check the details or confirm the request is legitimate. Do not contact the phone number or email address contained in the message, as this most likely belongs to the scammer.
  • Use sources such as the organisation’s mobile phone app, web site or social media page to verify the message.

Protecting yourself against phishing emails

As the examples above illustrate, cybercriminals and scammers can produce phishing emails that look very legitimate. By following these simple steps, you can assist in protecting yourself against phishing emails:

  • Before opening an email, consider who is sending it to you and what they’re asking you to do. If you are unsure, call the organisation you suspect the suspicious message is from, using contact details from a verified website or other trusted source.
  • Do not open attachments or click on links in unsolicited emails or messages.
  • Do not provide personal information to unverified sources and never provide remote access to your computer.
  • Remember that reputable organisations locally and overseas – including banks, government departments, Amazon, PayPal, Google, Apple and Facebook – will not call or email to verify or update your personal information.
  • Use email, SMS or social media providers that offer spam and message scanning.
  • Use two-factor authentication (2FA) on all essential services such as email, bank and social media accounts, as this way of ‘double checking’ identity is stronger than a simple password. 2FA requires you to provide two things, your password and something else (such as a code sent to your mobile device or your fingerprint) before you – or anyone pretending to be you – can access your account.

How to get help?

For clients of MaxIT, you can forward any suspicious emails to our Service Team’s support address so we can review and act accordingly, or call us on 1300 557 127 any time if you feel there is a high cause for concern that needs addressing more urgently.

To report a cyber security incident, email or call 1300 CYBER1 (1300 292 371). 

Individuals and small businesses can report cybercrime activity to the ACSC and law enforcement agencies via

Together we can ensure Australia is the safest place to work online.

Source: ACSC Website

Leave a Reply