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Criminals are taking advantage of fear over COVID-19

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing Writer

Where some people see calamity, criminals see opportunity. As concern grows over the outbreak of COVID-19 in Japan, the denizens of the underworld haven’t lost any time trying to find a way to profit from the situation. Crime, like the virus, never sleeps.

The Japan Cybercrime Control Center has sounded an alarm over cybercrimes that piggyback on concerns surrounding the virus. Established in 2014, the center is a nonprofit organization that tackles cyberspace threats.

The good news is that the biological virus has yet to inspire a digital counterpart — although perhaps that’s just a matter of time. The bad news is that criminals are using the virus to lure victims into what turns out to be a fairly elaborate trap.

Those connected to the underworld have noticed that surgical masks are in short supply nationwide as a result of hoarding.

As a result, hackers have started sending emails to mobile phones that appear to come from a home delivery service.

The message in Japanese says: “Pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus is a problem that is spreading. We’ve sent you free surgical masks. Please confirm.”

The mail concludes with a hyperlink that the recipient is encouraged to click. If the recipient clicks on the hyperlink, they’ll be taken to what appears to be a legitimate website and asked to install an app that then leaves the phone vulnerable to hackers, enabling them to steal their Apple ID and password, and perhaps even their credit card details. It’s a new twist on phishing.

The Financial Services Agency defines phishing as an “act of fraud committed by criminals who assume the identity of established financial institutions such as banks or service providers, and then contact victims through email, instructing them to access counterfeit websites to enter personal information, including their credit card numbers and passwords.”

But that’s not all.

The center has also received reports from people who have tried to buy anti-viral face masks but were led to fake shopping sites. Such websites are designed to look like legitimate shopping sites, sometimes imitating the URL of known companies.

When consumers visit the website, it appears it has masks and other anti-viral supplies in stock. After paying for the product and shipping fees, however, the delivery is never sent.

These fake shopping sites are typically designed to collect personal information and steal your credit card details. Consumers should proceed with caution.

The center recommends checking a website’s top-level domain for anything that might appear suspicious. The top-level domain is the last part of an address, usually something along the lines of .com or .org.

Scam sites frequently include top-level domains such as .top, .xyz, .bid and other unfamiliar combinations.

It’s a good idea to check the website to see if a company’s address and phone number are listed, although fake sites sometimes use real addresses. And if the site only lists a free email provider such as gmail as a contact point, tread with caution.

Last but not least, if the deal does seem to be too good to be true and the prices far too low, it probably is. If you ignore the signs and order anyway, don’t be too surprised when nothing turns up as expected.

It’s possible that some shady characters might attempt to sell some surgical masks on a street corner in the near future. While one might be tempted, it’s better to avoid them in case they’re stolen.

On Feb. 17, police in Kobe were informed by the Japanese Red Cross Kobe Hospital that 6,000 surgical masks had been stolen from a room on the third floor. The hospital still has enough masks on hand to deal with present needs but, somewhere out there, someone is hawking the goods.

Perhaps keep in mind that it’s not only ethically wrong to purchase stolen goods, but it’s also a crime to do so knowingly. Article 256 of Japan’s Penal Code stipulates that buyers of stolen contraband can face imprisonment of up to 10 years and/or a fine worth ¥500,000.

Trust me, being sent to prison probably isn’t the best way to be quarantined.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

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