It’s hard to make best use of the internet without sharing a considerable amount of information about yourself, but what happens when that data is stolen, leaked or unsuspectingly surrendered? Even the most vigilant of us can become victims of cyber crime.

Life is moving online at an unprecedented pace and most of us are now unfazed by the prospect of inputting credit card details to shop online, using our email addresses to sign up for newsletters or recycling passwords to access different online services.

Fraud, however, evolves simultaneously and criminals are always using nasty new tricks to dupe us into divulging confidential information that allows them to steal our IDs. In a particularly devious twist of fate, they’ve even managed to profit out of the Covid pandemic.

As more people are working from home and spending time online, it’s never been so important to stay cyber secure.

Antivirus technology is good – awareness of human factors makes it even better

First of all, it’s always advised to install antivirus software on your devices, which provides passive protection while you browse the internet and download files. It scans your web pages, files and applications for malware (short for malicious software), which is infected code designed to steal or erase your data, or lock you out of systems.

Many tools on the market provide a decent level of protection for free and, when run regularly, antivirus checks can be very effective.

But it’s not just bots and bugs in code that do the damage – ‘social engineering’ is on the rise and fending off attacks requires more than just antivirus software. These attacks exploit human psychology – namely, our reaction to pressure, emotional stress and crises – to gain access to personal data or systems.

One such tactic is impersonation, whereby fraudsters pose as government officials, banking executives, travel agents or other service providers and try to convince victims of an urgency that seemingly requires them to give out personal details such as credit card information or send money online.

Why are these fraudsters so believable? Because they use data that’s familiar to you. You may have heard their name before or they may have some of your personal data to hand in order to validate their identity.

That’s where awareness is key. Personal data is a commodity that cyber criminals buy, sell and circulate in the dark underbelly of the internet.

Last year alone, a hacker was found selling 773 million emails and 21 million passwords, a sizable loot acquired through data breaches. With all this data out there, it’s no surprise fraud has been on the rise in recent years.

Then came a global pandemic.

Beware Covid scams

We’ve all made huge adjustments to our day-to-day lives to cope with Covid-19 and the uncertainty that reigned supreme this year. To add to this, cyber criminals didn’t have to think too hard to come up with new ways to deploy their usual tactics – phishing emails, text messages and unsolicited calls – to pry on our fears. Already between January and April this year Interpol detected 907,000 spam emails, 737 incidents with malware and 48,000 malicious URLs, all of which were related to Covid.

Emails about medical supplies, PPE, home testing kits and non-existent drugs or products were top categories for purchase scams this year, but inboxes were also bombarded by fake promotions for financial aid and emergency services.

Websites sprung up from thin air to facilitate these transactions – just by March over 40,000 new Covid-related websites were found to be “high risk”, meaning potentially harmful. Even social media was not exempt – while it’s possible to report spam or false advertising on these platforms, UK Finance warns of a “rise in investment scams, with FCA-regulated firms often spoofed in advertising on search engines and social media sites.”

Simple steps you can take to stay cybersecure

First of all, awareness is key, so well done if you’ve read this far – you’ve already made steps in the right direction by familiarising yourself with different kinds of scams out there at the moment. But remember: fraud is evolving and the holidays are upon us. To keep your data and savings secure, the government’s latest Cyber Aware campaign is advising on six essential behaviours to protect online accounts and devices. These are:

  • Use a strong and separate password for your email
  • Create strong passwords using three random words
  • Save your passwords in your browser
  • Turn on two-factor authentication (2FA) – click here to learn how
  • Update your devices and applications
  • Back up your data

The Take Five to Stop Fraud’ campaign has a wealth of resources and great advice on avoiding scams – including a quiz to test how scam-savvy you are – which include:

  • Avoid clicking on links or attachments in unsolicited emails or texts. Instead, log into your account directly to update your information or make any legitimate payments
  • Be suspicious of any “too good to be true” offers or prices
  • It could be a scam if you’re being pressurised to act quickly
  • Be cautious of unsolicited approaches presenting you with exclusive opportunities
  • Avoid clicking on investment opportunities advertised on search engines, social media or email. Instead check the Financial Conduct Authority’s register for regulated firms, individuals and bodies. You can check their website is genuine by checking their web address

Finally, if you find yourself in a situation you suspect to be a scam, Take Five to Stop Fraud suggests you take the following three steps:

  1. Stop: Take a moment to stop and think before parting with your money or information.
  2. Challenge: Could it be fake? It is OK to reject, refuse or ignore any requests. Remember, only criminals will try to rush or panic you!
  3. Protect: If you believe you’ve fallen for a scam, contact your bank immediately on a number you know to be correct, such as the one listed on your statement, their website or on the back of your debit or credit card, and report it to the police.

If you have some more appetite to learn then check out Martin Lewis’ 20 tips on how to spot and avoid scams – and stay savvy!