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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Cyber criminal networks and individual opportunists have leveraged the coronavirus crisis to ramp up schemes to defraud businesses, credulous consumers and governments at all levels.

The big picture: This new wave of cyber crime, documented in a series of indictments, public disclosures and statements from U.S. officials, illustrates why the U.S. government sometimes refers to the “big four plus one” of cyber threats.

  • The big four are the traditional quartet of states known for their cyber capabilities: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
  • The “plus one” refers to cash-rich and increasingly adept cyber criminal operations that have now earned equal footing with nation-states.

What’s happening: Since the coronavirus crisis exploded domestically in March, U.S. authorities have mobilized to combat a torrent of related cyber crime. The Justice Department and FBI convened a COVID-19 Working Group, which coordinates closely with the U.S. Secret Service, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and other agencies.

By the numbers: The scope of the problem is overwhelming. By late May, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center had received 320,000 complaints over the course of the year, compared to roughly 400,000 complaints in all of 2019.

The FBI: The agency has tracked an increase in online and other fraud related to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which gives loans to small businesses to keep employees on the payroll.

  • The FBI has launched nearly 100 investigations into PPP-related fraud that involve $42 million in funds, and it's clawed back $900,000 from fraudsters.
  • But in some cases, cyber criminals have successfully had victims wire funds to international bank accounts shielded from U.S. law enforcement.

The Secret Service: The acute nature of coronavirus-related fraud has led the U.S. Secret Service, which plays a major role in federal cyber crime investigations, to focus on quickly disrupting these schemes and protecting victims, rather than building prosecutable cases against offenders.

  • Investigators are returning to the question of prosecution after these disruptions have taken place, knowing that quick action may have affected their ability to arrest wrongdoers.

Health care targets: Earlier this year, some cyber criminal groups announced that they were suspending their targeting of the health care sector during the coronavirus crisis. But attacks haven’t stopped.

Stimulus targets: Recently, large-scale stimulus fraud has become a major focus for cyber criminal groups.

  • For instance, cyber criminals, aware of U.S. government efforts to prop up consumer spending, have crafted their messages around recent individual payments to taxpayers, with these groups engaging in stimulus-themed spear-phishing campaigns.

PPE targets: Earlier in the outbreak, much coronavirus-related fraud involved the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE), which cities and states scrambled to acquire in the initial aftermath of the outbreak in the United States.

  • Using middlemen, states and cities made PPE purchases, sometimes worth many millions of dollars, to procure PPE from foreign countries.
  • Price gouging has been common, and sometimes the transactions have been fraudulent — leading the FBI to step in and stop entire bulk purchases. (In some cases, the federal government and U.S. states battled over PPE orders, leading to charges of political intervention.)

The bottom line: The types of attacks and vectors used by cyber criminals haven't changed in the COVID-19 era.

  • These groups still favor business email compromise and ransomware, for example, often via social engineering schemes, but are updating their content to relate to the coronavirus.
  • From 2014 to late 2019, complaints to the FBI regarding business email compromise scams totaled “more than $2.1 billion in actual losses.”

Go deeper

Christopher Wray: FBI has not seen evidence of national voter fraud effort by mail

FBI Director Christopher Wray responded to a question on the security of mail-in voting to the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Thursday by saying that the agency has "not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise."

Why it matters: President Trump has ramped up his claims, without evidence, that widespread mail-in voting would rig the 2020 election against him. On Wednesday, after declining to say whether he would commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election to Joe Biden, Trump said that "the ballots are out of control."

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden readies massive shifts in policy for his first days in office.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.
  6. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.
Dave Lawler, author of World
3 hours ago - World

Alexey Navalny detained after landing back in Moscow

Navalny and his wife shortly before he was detained. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was detained upon his return to Moscow on Sunday, which came five months after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He returned despite being warned that he would be arrested.

The latest: Navalny was stopped at a customs checkpoint and led away alone by officers. He appeared to hug his wife goodbye, and his spokesman reports that his lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.