Coronavirus, the contagion which gave birth in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a city prior to this pandemic was known for several attractions, such as home for the first Bridge over River Yangtze, the famous Provincial Museum, the Guiyuan Bhuddhis temple, the Yellow Crane tower, the East Lake park etc. had literally ripped the world apart and brought human activities to grinding halt. Apart from the colossal human casualty the world over, the virus has flattened the economic curves of countries without exception. In a matter of days, share markets crashed like old buildings crumpling, even as investors watched them fall in front of their own eyes. With selling pressure mounting, shareholders were unable to salvage their own holdings even if they wanted to dispose them of at 50% of the holding price. Though differently, the rich, the poor and very poor, felt this all – encompassing economic impact. The response to the outbreak was the only aspect which differed from country to country.
In India, the social response to the coronavirus has been a mix bag of compassion and indifference. It all started off with many mainland Indians racially slurring people from North east region as “Coronavirus”, including Doctors, Nurses and other front line workers. We then heard stories of compassion from cities and towns, about people from very humble backgrounds playing the good Samaritans, feeding and sheltering helpless fellow human beings, stories of Doctors and Nurses sacrificing their own interests and fighting the deadly virus. For the first time ever, the men in Khaki, who often made news for wrong reasons, were also applauded across the country not only for their dogged commitment towards ensuring the success of lockdown, but also for reaching out to people with food and accessories even as many of their colleagues have either died of the virus or got targeted by few mindless individuals. Then comes stories of senseless targeting of Doctors and Nurses; greedy businessmen trying to make the most of human sufferings; tales of hungry workers walking homeward, and many other unbelievable stories of human sufferings that bled our hearts. In short, Covid uncovered the good, the bad and the ugly sides of human beings.
In the midst of all these, cyber criminals stealthily prowl to target already beleaguered and hapless public. With lockdown forcing people to remain within confines of their homes, use of social media – WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter etc. by Indian citizens increased by 75%, with average Indians spending close to 4 hours a day on the internet. Also within days of the lockdown, about 65% of workers across India’s metropolis switched over to working from home, while 35% of them did so in smaller towns and cities. The cyber criminals took advantage of this exponential jump in use of the internet and started targeting not only the bigger establishments, but even individual end users. Tactics such as impersonation and social engineering were used among others, to commit fraud and steal vital details of end users. In the former, the hacker sends a message by replicating government of India official logos, notifying users to furnish their details to avail Covid related aids. Once these details are in their possession, they start stealing personal data, and also money from their Bank accounts.
In Social engineering tactics, hackers create attractive or appealing messages both in text and video format and sent out to number(s) known to the hacker, with request to forward the same to friends and relatives. When the unsuspecting user forward/share the text or video to his contacts or groups, mobile numbers the hacker could lay hands on increases. From one user to ten, to fifty, to hundred etc. and in a matter of days, the hacker has access to mobile numbers of several thousands of people, which is compiled automatically through use of specifically designed software. These numbers are targeted by an idle team, who sit down and call up users posing themselves as employees of Banks, Phone service provider, insurance etc. and the careless few amongst thousands give away details. Besides, when any of these numbers are connected to a computer or laptop, the software enables transfer of personal data from the PC or Laptop to which the phone is connected to. With awareness level so low on aspects of cyber-crime amongst users, social engineering tactics is said to be the most preferred medium of hacking, and those falling into their net included individuals as well as firms. Hackers successfully fooling people to donate money into fake accounts of government agencies have been rampant.
The National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), one of the Cyber watchdogs of the government of India, in a recent report stated that, “These impersonators are seeking donations for Covid-19 and trying to steal credentials for online fraud. Recently, the government had to issue a clarification over cyber criminals sending e-mails and WhatsApp messages stating that the government of India was giving Rs 1,000 to those under the so-called Corona Sahayata Yojana scheme”. Likewise report from the National Critical Information Protection Centre (NCIIPC) says another modus operandi used by hackers was “to send out legitimate – looking Corona related advisories impersonating as officials from the government and health organisations, through malicious e-mail attachments to tempt end users to respond to such emails.” There is no full proof security against these prowling hackers, particularly when one is using the internet on smart phones and other devices. However, judicious use of the social media could reduce chances of being targeted. Avoiding random forwarding or sharing of messages from unconfirmed sources, deleting emails which are suspicious in nature and none disclosure of Bank account details to persons calling on behalf banks etc. are some steps that users could keep in mind. Remembers, Banks normally don’t call customers and seek their details, therefore any call claimed to have been made from them should raise suspicion. Also by forwarding messages/videos from unconfirmed sources, you are risking yourself and others whose numbers are exposed.
The writer is a retirned IPS officer from Manipur, and author