Criminals exploit crucial COVID-19 SMSes to commit fraud

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South Africans are being cautioned to be vigilant, as opportunistic criminals may try to exploit the dissemination of educational COVID-19 pandemic information by mobile operators.

Under powers granted to the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) in terms of the Disaster Management Act, mobile network operators are required to send "at least two public announcements per day regarding the prevention and management of COVID-19".

However, the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (WASPA) warns it is likely fraudsters will attempt to take advantage of this requirement. “Therefore, WASPA advises SA’s mobile users to exercise caution and their own common sense when receiving any message on their mobiles related to the virus.”

For instance, WASPA says, legitimate educational text messages will never request any personal or financial information from the receiver.

“In addition, any links that may be included within government-mandated text messages will almost always only redirect to government-sanctioned COVID-19 resources.”

The warning from WASPA comes as criminals globally use the Internet and telephone calls to exploit fear of the deadly virus.

Last week, the South African Banking Risk Information Centre warned bank consumers of cyber criminals exploiting the COVID-19 outbreak to spread online scams.

According to the centre, scammers are exploiting people’s concerns and fear for their health and safety in light of the outbreak, falling victim to using social engineering tactics.

South Africans are already receiving daily COVID-19 messages encouraging them to protect themselves and reduce the spread of the deadly virus.

“Aside from expecting these messages disseminated by the country’s mobile network operators (MNOs) and wireless application service providers, mobile consumers should also be aware they cannot opt-out of these vital communications,” says Ilonka Badenhorst, general manager of WASPA.

The organisation says government has mandated that MNOs, in particular, should twice daily transmit educational text messages relating to combatting the current pandemic.

In this regard, WASPA draws the public’s attention to Clause 17.3 of the WASPA code of conduct: “Members are not obliged to honour an opt-out or block request for communications required by law.”

The warning comes as the World Health Organisation (WHO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and United Nations Children's Fund announced plans to work with telecommunication companies, to text people directly on their mobile phones with vital health messaging to help protect them from COVID-19.

The ITU says: “Now, more than ever, technology must ensure everyone can access the information they need. The collaboration will start in the Asia Pacific region and then roll out globally. The goal is to reach everyone with vital health messages, whatever their connectivity level.”

The ITU and WHO are urging all telecommunication companies worldwide to join this initiative, as it builds on current efforts to disseminate health messages through the joint WHO-ITU BeHe@lthy BeMobile initiative.

According to the ITU, COVID-19 is the first pandemic in human history where technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, productive and connected while being physically apart.

“Health workers are utilising telemedicine to diagnose patients, and hospitals rely on being connected to coordinate and triage them. Resilient and trustworthy telecommunication networks and services are essential, as more countries, companies and individuals turn to digital technologies to respond to and cope with the impact of COVID-19.

“Building on their longstanding collaboration, ITU and WHO are committed to identifying and scaling best evidence-based digital health solutions and to leveraging frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data to diagnose, contain and predict outbreaks better and faster,” notes the ITU.

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