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Online learning cybercrime warning

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Increase in online usage since the Covid-19 pandemic hit has resulted in a major spike in cybercrimes

CYBER experts in the country have warned students and learning institutions about the increased cyber risks involved with online schooling, as pupils are forced to turn to online lessons during lockdown.

Over 70% of pupils worldwide are doing some form of online education but for many schools and institutions in South Africa, the switch to remote learning has been unexpected, leaving little time for them to mitigate against cyber risks.

The increase in online usage since the Covid-19 pandemic hit has resulted in a major spike in cybercrimes such as cyberbullying, phishing and hacking.

Cybercrime expert Doros Hadjizenonos, of American multinational corporation Fortinet, said there are plenty of risks that come with online schooling that both students and parents need to be aware of.

“There is obviously a higher risk to the student device and their home network. Students have been exposed to online collaboration tools, such as video conferencing and chat applications, of which many students have little experience in using.

“This has created a higher risk due to some of the students not being aware of using the tools correctly and in a safe manner.

“As with many of the collaboration tools, it allows for group chats and private chats which exposes the students to cyberbullying and to potential hackers seeking to get private user account information or even access to home networks,” Hadjizenonos said.

He said in many cases, students were accessing the internet via their personal devices (from tablets to PC and laptops) that may or may not be up to date with latest security patches and recommendations. Such devices are more at risk of being compromised.

And that the fact that students are now spending more time on the internet makes them more vulnerable.

“The risk includes the possibility of a hacker planting malicious software on a digital device that can either steal user information or use the device to launch an attack on any other target.”

He said students need to ensure they use the online schooling platform purely for school activities and to avoid having social interaction other than with their peers and their teachers.

“Students need to be cognisant of social engineering and how to look out for signs of people attempting to steal personal or proprietary information. These school networks have to be secured on premises as well as in the cloud as this is where these learners applications, user accounts and information reside.

“Schools should have a procedure and process in place to report any cyberbullying, compromises and attacks from inside and outside the network, that may occur in order to address these breaches and other vulnerabilities as soon as possible.”

Hadjizenonos said they’ve seen a noticeable increase in cybercrime during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Dark Web has revealed an alarming number of advertisements pitching pandemic-related scams, such as offers to provide Chloroquine and other medicines and medical devices, all preying on fears about the current pandemic.

“We have also seen money scams, shared riding service scams, money transfer scams, credit card scams, and even scam kits designed for novice cybercriminals known as script kiddies.

“During the first quarter of 2020, we have documented a 17% increase in viruses for January, a 52% increase for February, and an alarming 131% increase for March compared to the same months in 2019.”

Anna Collard, managing director at KnowBe4 Africa, a company that specialises in security awareness, said they too have seen a huge increase in cybercrime.

“When global phenomena such as natural disasters, or pandemics occur, there is always an increase of opportunistic criminal activity on the internet. Cybercriminals are preying on people’s fear and curiosity and are sending out scams related to the coronavirus (Covid-19).

“This is why phishing schemes have exploded in the first quarter of 2020, with security firm Zscaler claiming to have seen a staggering 30 000% increase since January in detected phishing, malicious websites and malware related to Covid-19 themes.”

Collard said pupils are particularly vulnerable now.

“The rapid move to online schooling due to the Covid-19 pandemic, meant that children have been exposed to using the internet at much higher rates than before. The majority of teachers are not properly trained in ICT and not knowledgeable enough to assist the learners in cyber safety. Teachers are just like the rest of us, overwhelmed by the new situation, trying their best to adjust to technology and the new way of doing things.

“And then, there is the risk of the students themselves misbehaving by accessing inappropriate sites, over-sharing on social media or engaging in cyberbullying.”

Collard said students need to understand the basic principles of cybersecurity.

“Some of the things students should watch out for is not to trust anything they haven’t expected, even if it comes from someone they think they know or trust. Texts, e-mails or social media messages that sound too good to be true, raise our curiosity or just seem slightly off may be a phishing attack. Rather don’t click on links if you are unsure and double check with the sender via WhatsApp or phone.

“Students should also feel confident to report any suspicious behaviour or cyberbullying to the school, their parents or the website in question. Another important point is how to protect their online identity.

“Set strong and unique passwords for each account or use a password manager. Be mindful about what you post online – anything that can’t live on a public billboard shouldn’t be shared.

“The first thing parents should do is educate themselves about the dangers of cybercrime and then share this with their children.”