As numerous countries around the world continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for governments and law enforcement to maintain a steady and comprehensive focus on the trends in COVID-related crime. While reported rates for crimes involving physical force, such as assaults and property crimes, have dropped this year in multiple countries such as the United States, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, a number of those countries have also seen substantial increases in reported rates for cyberattacks and other cybercrimes exploiting the pandemic. For example, Canadian firms reportedly have been “bombarded” by COVID-related cyberattacks, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has reported on upsurges in COVID-related online fraud and various categories of cyberattacks (malware, phishing, and ransomware).
One country that is seeing a marked disparity between the reported incidence of physical crimes and COVID-themed cybercrimes is Japan. This past summer, the Japanese National Police Agency (NPA) released statistics showing that for the first half of 2020, Japan was “on course to set a record for the fewest criminal cases in a postwar year,” with an overall 15.4 percent decrease in crime compared to the first half of 2020.
On October 1, however, the NPA released statistics showing that in the first half of 2020, police across Japan had handled 608 COVID-19 cybercrime cases. The principal categories of those cases included the following:
- Face Mask Order Fraud: 286 cases (47 percent) were fraud cases that involved members of the public failing to receive face masks that they had ordered online.
- Government-Benefit Fraud: 155 cases (25 percent) were apparent fraud cases in which people were sent suspicious emails, from alleged mobile phone companies, that instructed recipients to apply for government-offered cash benefits via a website link.
- Credit-Card Theft: 55 cases (9 percent) involved the theft of credit-card data that would-be purchasers of face masks had provided.
- Obstruction of Business: 57 cases (9 percent) involved obstruction of business, “such as false information posted online claiming that infected people were in certain eateries.” Some of these cases reportedly led to police action.
- Malware: The NPA also confirmed multiple cyberattacks on companies, which included hackers reportedly posing as a public health center and urging email recipients to open files attached to those emails.
In addition, the NPA reported a total of 885 fraudulent-money transfer cases in the first half of 2020 involving Internet banking services, with losses totaling approximately ¥512 million (US$4.8 million). The NPA indicated that a majority of those cases involve cybercriminals falsely representing themselves as financial institutions or parcel delivery firms and urging victims to access phishing sites where their personal data can be stolen. Japanese police reportedly have arrested a small number of individuals who fraudulently applied for government funds intended to assist businesses during the pandemic. So far, however, there are no indications that Japan, or any other country for that matter, can successfully track and apprehend a significant number of those responsible for COVID-related online crimes.