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Wednesday, 13 January 2021 08:33

Avast warns of COVID-19 QR code and vaccination scams

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Given the continuing COVID-19 outbreaks and fluctuating restrictions in Australia, security firm Avast is “urging individuals and businesses to be aware of the cyber threats around QR codes and potential COVID-19 vaccination online scams.”

2020 saw incredible growth in many things, from virus outbreaks to working from home, to soaring cloud usage and ever bolder cyber attacks.

Another thing that grew massively in 2020 was the humble QR code, in use for years but never quite seeming to take off or truly penetrate the public’s consciousness, but now all of that has changed dramatically.

QR codes saw a huge increase in usage due to COVID-19, allowing guests to scan the square barcode to quickly access forms or tracking apps to check-in to businesses for contact tracing as required by Australian State and Territory governments.

However, Avast warns that “Australians should be aware of cyber threats that can occur when using QR codes”, which is no surprise given the warnings for years that cyber criminals could simply print out a QR code pointing to a malicious site and stick it over QR codes in public areas - but of course, today’s QR code attacks are more sophisticated, and looking at a QR code with your eyes gives no hint to its safety, or otherwise.

Luis Corrons, a security expert at Avast, said: “The bottom line is that tracking COVID-19 is still far from perfect, and unfortunately, the process remains fraught with privacy risks.

“While the Government apps have so far done a good job at keeping users’ data private, non-government websites that you might be directed to may not be as secure.

“We are also seeing a comeback of QR code scams because Australians have become complacent around scanning QR codes and providing their details to any website to enter premises, and scammers are taking opportunity of this.

“QR codes can lead you to fraudulent websites set up by scammers to capture your personal information or install dangerous fake ‘tracking’ apps that include malware.

“Only scan QR codes, including restaurant menus, in prominent locations or as directed by business staff, and only download government tracking apps directly from government websites.

“If the business isn’t providing a check-in option through government apps, then only provide the minimum amount of personal information required and if you want to be extra cautious, ask the business about their privacy policy around how your information will be stored and used.

“Also, consider setting up a separate email address to use specifically for COVID-19 check-ins to protect your personal or work email from being spammed or leaked through a data breach,” added Corrons.

So, what about COVID-19 vaccination scams, which Avast is also warning about?

Corrons explained: “With COVID-19 vaccinations starting in Australia in February, Avast experts are also predicting a surge in online vaccination scams, presented to users via fake shops and ads on social media.

“If people see vaccination offerings circulating on the internet, they need to keep in mind that the sale is likely too good to be true, as vaccinations should be distributed through official sources only.

“Instead of falling for shady scams, people should trust their local doctors and medical institutions for COVID-19 information and vaccinations,” said Corrons.

COVID-19 vaccination scams aren’t new, either, with the first reports of scams being so-called vaccinations sold on the dark web several months ago, long before vaccines were approved or officially available.

Of course, now that we know vaccines are finally here, my thoughts are that even if, by some miracle, the vaccine you’re offered somewhere online is real, the requirement for vaccines to be kept at cold and even very cold temperatures means you’d be crazy to trust some liquid that just turns up in the post at room temperature.

Corrons’ advice is sound, and we can only hope that someone who has avoided getting a COVID-19 infection doesn’t sadly end up dying from a fake vaccine instead, a feat that would only make the Darwin Awards people proud, and no-one else.

Avast naturally has posted its 2021 Cybersecurity Predictions, which are definitely worth reading, with Avast’s review of prominent COVID-19 tracking apps here, and Avast’s Hack Check service here, which lets you determine whether one of your passwords has been stolen as part of a security breach or other online activity.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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