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A Different Kind of Virus: Online safety in the age of COVID-19

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In the early morning hours of May 1, the Ballwin Police Department shut down Holloway Road in response to a reported police tip about a barricaded subject inside a local residence. The tip was reported to the department’s 911 call center, but after authorities responded to the home in question, it was quickly discerned that the tip had been a hoax.

This form of online harassment is known as “swatting.” It occurs when an anonymous individual prank calls or sends a fake tip to an emergency service that results in the dispatch of police and emergency service response teams to another person’s address. In extreme cases, armed law enforcement officers or a SWAT team may be sent in to investigate the claim, hence the name.

The victim of the call, as is the case with many similar cases, was cleared of any suspicion and not charged.

According to Ballwin Public Information Officer Scott Stephens, the victims of these attacks, including the most recent one, are usually online gamers that become involved in heated discourse or trash talk on servers or in online chat rooms.

“They [swatting calls] are pretty popular throughout the country,” Stephens said. “Most of the time, it happens through or originates from video game chats. We personally don’t get them a lot here, which is good, but we are aware of them.”

While this is not the first swatting call the department has received, it is the first one in a while and the only one reported to the department during the COVID-19 quarantine.

“This is the first one we’ve seen in quite a while,” Stephens said.

The origin of the call, in the early morning hours of May 1, is still being investigated by Ballwin detectives. While the fake call came through the department’s phone line, these fake tips can also be submitted via email or even via social media channels like Facebook.

Sometimes, swatting calls can be a result of doxing. Doxing is another form of harassment where the private information of an online user, such as their phone number or home address, is leaked publicly online.  This information can include details such as someone’s real name and financial records.

According to Stephens, swatting calls are rarely one-off situations. They usually occur between two individuals who are aware of each other. He added that there’s not necessarily a [target] age demographic.

“Any of these games that we see where there’s trash talk or anything like that, that’s what tends to get out of hand, and it goes from there,” Stephens said.

In some cases, swatting is possible when individuals share too much personal information online. Other times, it is made possible when the offenders use malicious means to backtrace an individual’s location or account registration details via hacking techniques or software.

This means that, while swatting calls and other forms of online harassment are hardly random, they can literally occur from anywhere in the world.

“These calls come from around the country, sometimes from the other side of the world,” Stephens said. “Our world is a lot more connected than it used to be. Especially for our younger people and people involved in online worlds. Some of their closest friends are people they have never met before or in-person. Sometimes this can be a one-off, but typically not. Usually, they’ve met online before.”

Due to the fact that many of these cases are the result of heated online discourse, according to Stephens, one of the best ways for individuals to stay safe online is to avoid negative confrontations and remain as anonymous as possible. Sometimes, this includes extra security steps to secure your information from various websites and even internet providers.

“Always be cautious of what information you are giving to your providers and that, if you want to remain anonymous, you can do it as best as possible,” Stephens said. “The other potential solution to this is just not to start fights online or engage in any situations that could potentially escalate from there.”

Discussions about cybersecurity and data protection have been at the forefront for many individuals, businesses and organizations as employees have been tasked with working and potentially handling confidential information from their homes during the quarantine.

Cybersecurity while working, learning from home

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], an anticipated increase in fraud schemes related to COVID-19 was anticipated back in mid-April. These types of schemes run the gamut from blackmail attempts to work-at-home schemes that target unsuspecting individuals through fictitious phone calls or emails that solicit information or spread malware through suspicious links or infected downloadable files.

According to Jeff Minnis, owner of Jeff Computers in Manchester, more individuals have reported cybersecurity breaches and scams related to COVID-19 during the quarantine.

“Right now, there’s a lot more usage and there are also a lot of people working from home, and so they’re a little more vulnerable to social engineering and those types of things,” Minnis said.

While some scams target individuals, others have attacked larger companies. This is due to the fact that more corporations’ networks have become vulnerable due to increased out-of-office communications.

According to Minnis, VPNs [virtual private networks] are being implemented by individuals looking to keep their data private while working in public settings. Two-factor authentication can also help prevent hackers from breaking into accounts.

Whether it’s through online gaming or working from home, online vulnerabilities could potentially lead to issues like the previously mentioned backtracing, hacking or the infection of a personal computer with malware. The latter group includes debilitating programs like ransomware, a type of malicious virus that encrypts all the information on a personal computer and locks the encryption key behind a paywall that’s only lifted if a victim sends money, usually bitcoin or another form of cryptocurrency, to the attacker.

According to the FBI, many traditional money laundering schemes have now been optimized due to the growing popularity of cryptocurrency kiosks across the internet.

It should be known that legitimate charities, investment platforms and e-commerce sites do not typically accept or pressure individuals to submit payments or donations in the form of cryptocurrency.

When it comes to combating scammers or fraudsters, Minnis said the biggest safeguard is verifying the legitimacy of any phone calls or emails upfront.

“The best way to do that is to just research the proper phone numbers, email addresses or contacts, and not trust the information you receive from a phone call, an email or something that just pops up on your screen,” Minnis said. “A lot of times people end up calling that number on the screen, and that’s not a good idea.”

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