Coronavirus: 'Opportunistic' hackers exploiting global fear

As the fear of coronavirus spreads around the world, there are warnings to watch out for online scams capitalising on the outbreak.

Tech expert Danu Abeysuriya, founder of Rush Digital, says international gangs are sending emails that claim to be from Government agencies with information on the virus, but actually contain malware.

"Some of these emails look very legitimate," Abeysuriya told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

"The form of this scam is basically that you'll receive an email that looks like it's a Government announcement. You'll open it, there's a couple of instructions there that seem innocuous, but actually what they're doing is installing malware on your computer which steals personal information including banking details."

The technology behind the scam is nothing new, Abeysuriya said, but due to the fear surrounding coronavirus, many people may be more vulnerable than usual.

"The actual software that's been doing this has been doing it for 15 years and criminals have been outsourcing the availability to any criminal gang that wants it," he said. 

"Any kind of topical news item like this that creates a bit of fear, they've created the infrastructure so that they can just jump on it in a couple of days."

Although it was most likely international gangs behind the scam, Abeysuriya did not rule out a source closer to home.

"You can literally operate from anywhere these days - they could be here," he said.

"They're very sophisticated and they know they can make big bucks."

Much of the information comes from data collected by large companies such as Facebook and Google.

"It wasn't initially meant to be malicious but when that data is given away you don't actually know where it ends up - you've got to be really careful with this stuff."

A recent post by IBM Security, said hackers were sending people in Japan emails supposedly warning about a new strain of coronavirus circulating in the country.  

The messages had a Word document attached that contained the malware Emotet.

Although the IBM report focused only on Japan, the company said it expected "to see more malicious email traffic based on the coronavirus in the future, as the infection spreads".

"Unfortunately, it is quite common for threat actors to exploit basic human emotions such as fear - especially if a global event has already caused terror and panic."

There have been more than 14,000 cases of coronavirus so far - mostly in China - and at least 362 deaths.

As of Tuesday, no cases have been confirmed in New Zealand.