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Covid-19: Be smart online and stay away from cybercriminals, warn UAE police

Afkar Abdullah /Sharjah
afkarali@khaleejtimes.com Filed on July 18, 2020 | Last updated on July 18, 2020 at 06.30 am

(AFP file)

Police authorities in Sharjah and Ajman intensified cyber patrols to track and detect suspicious social media accounts.

As people stayed home and life moved more into online activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, fraudsters also became active in the cyber world, targeting online users.

With movement restrictions and other precautionary measures effective during the Covid-19 period, remote work, distance learning, online shopping and other activities kept people more active in the cyber world, which gave more opportunities for the fraudsters, police officials have revealed.

Police authorities in Sharjah and Ajman intensified cyber patrols to track and detect suspicious social media accounts, fake accounts of prominent personalities and those promoting narcotic drugs and restricted medicines in the emirates.

Captain Mohsin Ahmed, director of the anti-cybercrime department at the Sharjah Police, said the launch of the cyber patrols aims at eliminating cybercrimes in the emirate.

Most popular cybercrimes

The most prominent cases being reported in the UAE include phone credit transfer, blackmailing, collecting bank information and promoting drugs via social media and other websites.

Among the cases reported in the emirate, one of the most common crimes is cyber blackmailing, Cap Ahmed said.

"It is as an act of threat to share some information about a person to the public, their friends or family unless a demand is met. This can be committed against individuals, companies and even governments and often involve financial gain, sexual exploitation or defamation."

Among every 100 people using the Internet, there is a victim of cyber blackmailing, who trusted the blackmailers and sent them their video or images.

In many cases, abusers lure their victims into chats or sharing images and then threaten them saying the pictures would be circulated among their family and friends on social media. Then they start demanding money continuously, to which, the victims unwillingly comply with. Fearing disgrace, many of the victims do not report the matter to the police.

Mobile phone credit fraud declined

After the police started taking stringent action against the gangs that were active in duping people into transferring phone balance into certain phone numbers, this type of fraud saw a decline in the emirate, the officer said.

The fraudsters call residents, saying that the telecom provider had randomly chosen their number for a grand prize. To claim the prize, residents were asked to transfer a certain amount of mobile phone credit to a given number. As soon as the victims do that the scammers switch off the mobile phone. The fraudsters would then sell the balance at half price to others, said the police.

"Phone credit transfer fraud has come down by almost 50 per cent this year after the police busted many gangs. A large number of Asians involved in the crime were arrested and thousands of SIM cards smartphones used in the crime were seized. The police had also seized a document in which the gang had detailed instructions on how to talk to potential victims."

Impersonating government officials

Last year, the police arrested many fraudsters who posed as government officials to extract personal information from residents, including their bank account details and Emirates ID numbers. Cyber patrols made great efforts following complaints received from people of various nationalities, stating that they are receiving calls and messages from anonymous numbers claiming to be government departments or banks.

"The victims were told that their credit and debit cards had been blocked by the government for certain reasons, and personal details are required to unblock the cards. Some unsuspecting residents provide the fraudsters with all the required information, which they use to steal money or other criminal activities," said the officer.

Fake SMS from banks

In this crime, scammers send text messages to potential victims, claiming to be from their banks. Through making them click on the links provided in the message, the fraudsters collect their bank information, hack into their accounts and steal money. "Despite awareness campaigns being carried out by the Ministry of Interior across the UAE, there are still people who fall victim to such crimes," said Capt Ahmed.

Recently, this crime has increased tremendously, so that police authorities across the world are working jointly to bust the gangs behind such activities. In the UAE, a number of gangs were arrested from across the emirates after the authorities intensifies measures to stop the crime.

"Three gangs were busted in coordinated efforts by the force in Sharjah and Ajman. The first two gangs, comprising 14 people, were arrested in Sharjah while the third gang, which was composed of 11 people, was arrested in Ajman.

Dating websites target teenagers

Police authorities urged the residents to avoid accessing illegal dating websites and ads on social media which show female profiles to lure youths and men into their trap. "When the victims communicate with the gang members, they would be provided with the address of an apartment to meet the woman in the picture.

"However, when the victim reach the address, he would find a different woman and the gang would rob him of all the valuables. They even take his credit and debit cards and withdraw the money from his account. The authorities across the country are working jointly to arrest these gangs," said the officer.

Rise in websites selling fake goods

During Covid-19 period, when people depended mostly on online shopping, a large number of websites came up, promoting their fake goods through social media platforms. These websites are operated by people from abroad, who show goods in their ads to tempt the customers to order with high prices. When they receive the order, they realise that it is different from the goods shown in the advertisements.

Messages in the name of security authorities

Abdullah Al Zarouni from the Information Security Authority of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), said the latest method being used by the scammers include sending messages to residents in the name of police or other security authorities of the country.

"They choose potential victims and contact them via WhatsApp to tell them that they are accused of certain crimes. This is done with giving the name and other details of the victims to convince them that the message is genuine. They are told that the charges are filed against them as they accessed prohibited websites in the country. They are asked to pay money to avoid arrest."

Al Zarouni emphasised that the fraudsters mainly target youths as they are stuck to their smartphones during the summer vacation. Downloading some games after paying money can also help the fraudsters in certain cases, he said, adding that sometimes, this enables fraudsters to access users' data and get their money illegally. People need to follow safe methods when purchasing any games through Internet, he warned.

He said that the fraudsters target popular social media platforms like Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook as many victims publish pictures of their homes, dresses, cars and travel plans to show the luxurious lives they are enjoying. This act invites thieves and fraudsters to carry out burglary crimes, especially during the summer.

In some other cases tracked by the authorities, scammers impersonate bank employees who communicate with victims to inform them that they have obtained the approval of cash funds, and to complete the process and activating the rest of the steps related to it they should provide their data, such as Emirates ID number and bank account numbers. Some other popular cybercrimes include offers of free tour packages, air tickets or accommodation in hotels.

Workers among the targeted groups

Capt Ahmed pointed out that the fraudsters target easy groups including workers and those in the low-income groups. They exploit the lack of awareness and convince them that they are winners of cash prizes to make them disclose their bank details to transfer the prizes.

He urged the victims to immediately notify the banks to block the accounts and debit cards and report the matter to police.

Zero tolerance against cybercrimes

Major-General Saif Al Zari Al Shamsi, Commander-in-Chief of the Sharjah Police, stressed that the police authorities have zero tolerance for anyone who tries to jeopardise the security of society or to steal people's money in any way. We will be always a deterrent to these gangs and their crimes, he said.

They urged the public to report any kind of cybercrimes immediately to the authorities. "The UAE Penal Code stipulates that people who fail to report those crimes shall be penalised with fines. The victim should report such violations to protect the community to prevent the blackmailers from harming people," said Maj-Gen Al Shamsi.

He assured that all blackmailing cases are handled with confidentiality. "But for the victims who refuse to report to the police, the threats and blackmailing tend to continue for months. The best and safest option is to inform the police."

What the law says

The UAE Penal Code and the Cybercrime Law impose hefty penalties on cybercriminals, including jail time, a fine of up to Dh1 million and deportation.

To report an incident, the public can call the Sharjah Police's dedicated number and e-mail for cybercrimes: 065943228 or at tech_crimes@shjpolice.gov.ae.

afkarali@khaleejtimes.com

Afkar Abdullah


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