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European Union police agency warns of increase in cybercrime due to pandemic

European Union police agency warns of increase in cybercrime due to pandemic
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Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, warns that cybercrime has spiked over the past year in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Europol’s findings were detailed in its annual Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment, released Monday. The assessment highlighted ransomware attacks, such as those targeting health care organizations, as one of the most persistent cyber threats during the pandemic, including attacks involving hackers threatening to auction off data if a ransom is not paid.

The distribution of child abuse material online has also increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, including livestreaming of sexual abuse. Other concerns have involved SIM swapping, in which the hacker takes over a SIM card on the individual’s phone to intercept a two-factor authentication code, and the increased use of the dark web for criminal activities. 

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“Ransomware in particular remains a priority threat encountered by cyber investigators across the EU,” Europol Executive Director Catherine De Bolle wrote in an introduction to the report. “The amount of online child sexual abuse material detected continues to increase, further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had serious consequences for the investigative capacity of law enforcement authorities.”

Phishing emails and online scams have increased, with Europol noting that cyber criminals are increasingly targeting the vulnerable online during the pandemic and that disinformation has become easier to spread during the period of uncertainty. 

“Users become vulnerable and receptive to disinformation and fake news due to the paradoxical oversaturation with available information combined with a perceived lack of trustworthy sources of news that reinforce some of the users’ preconceived notions and beliefs,” Europol wrote in the report. “Disinformation can also be linked to cybercrime in efforts to make social engineering and phishing attacks more impactful.”

Edvardas Šileris, head of the European Cybercrime Centre, said in a statement that the report is “an essential resource for EU’s law enforcement and policy makers,” emphasizing that “cybercrime is an evolution, not a revolution.”

Europol’s report was released the same day Interpol, an international law enforcement agency, launched a new campaign to warn individuals of ongoing online cyber crime, highlighting phishing emails, ransomware and online crimes against children as key threats. 

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“Even the most Internet-savvy person can fall for a cybercriminal’s tricks, so it’s important that everyone keeps their guard up when navigating the virtual world,” Craig Jones, Interpol's director of cyber crime, said in a statement. 

Cyber threats have increased around the globe during the pandemic, with health care groups and other organizations involved in responding to COVID-19 particularly targeted. 

Microsoft reported last week that “COVID-themed attacks” were targeting health care and vaccine research groups, with attacks observed by at least 16 “nation states actors.”  

The Treasury Department also warned of the dangers of ransomware attacks, which have become increasingly widespread over the past two years and have brought the city governments of Atlanta, Baltimore and New Orleans temporarily to their knees.