AG Office Urges Vigilance as Data Breaches, Internet Fraud Rise During COVID Emergency

As October’s National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (“NCSAM”) gets underway, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today announced that data breaches, internet fraud, and threats from online child predators are on the rise in the state, making it especially important for New Jerseyans to take action to protect themselves and their children from cybercriminals.

With residents in the state facing a rise in cybercrime during the COVID-19 public health emergency, NCSAM’s annual month-long campaign to raise awareness of internet safety takes on a new sense of urgency this year.

“The pandemic has made us all more dependent on the internet. We are using it to conduct business, connect with friends, do our shopping, entertain our families, consult with our doctors, and even send our children back to school, creating fertile hunting ground for hackers, financial scammers, and other cyber predators,” Attorney General Grewal said. “Cybersecurity Awareness Month serves as an opportunity to remind everyone that we’re all connected on the internet and we share the responsibility for keeping it safe and secure. Working together toward this common goal has never been more important, as cybercriminals look to profit from the COVID-19 emergency.”

Nationwide, consumers have lost more than $156 million to COVID-related fraud this year, nearly a third of that over the internet, according to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”).

From websites hawking cures and soliciting donations for phony charities, to phishing emails promising unemployment and debt relief, cyber-thieves have been adapting and changing their tactics to exploit the latest news and public concerns related to the coronavirus.

New Jersey consumers alone have lost a reported $4.45 million to COVID fraud, and during the first three full months of the public health emergency (April through June), complaints of identity theft in the state are up by 66 percent compared to the same period in 2019, FTC data shows.

Public data breaches too, are on the rise in the state. Since March, the New Jersey Cybersecurity Communications and Integration Cell (“NJCCIC”) has seen a 33 percent uptick in reports of hackings and online security breaches, compared to the same period last year.

The data breaches — which have affected financial, medical, and retail industries, among others — exposed proprietary data belonging to the companies themselves as well as personal data belonging to their clients, patients, and customers.

In July, a surge in cyber threats against the remote workforce prompted the NJCCIC to issue a warning about malware attacks specifically aimed at breaching the network's employees are using use to access their business emails, documents, and files from home.

“For hackers and cyber scammers, the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they’re taking full advantage of it,” Paul Rodríguez, Acting Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, said. “It seems like every day brings a new scheme or attack. This can be overwhelming to consumers already suffering the effects of prolonged isolation, lost wages, and health concerns brought on by the COVID emergency. But at the end of the day, the scams we’re seeing now are just repackaged versions of the same old tricks con artists have been using for years to prey on the public’s fears and anxieties. By exercising caution and using common sense, consumers can avoid becoming the next victim.”

Children too are facing increased risks from cyber predators during the pandemic.

With homebound youngsters spending long hours online doing schoolwork, playing video games, and socializing with friends, reports of child luring, sextortion and other types of child exploitation are also on the rise in New Jersey.

Since March, tips to the New Jersey State Police’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) –including tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children - have increased up to 50 percent compared to the same period last year.

“The statistics derived from our analysis paint a troubling picture. Cybercriminals are capitalizing on our unprecedented reliance on the internet, targeting our businesses and our children in particular,” Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said. “As we ramp up our cybersecurity operations to protect New Jersey citizens and businesses, we urge the public to help us carry out our mission by exercising increased caution online. We also ask parents and guardians to closely monitor their child’s internet activity and to have open and honest discussions about the dangers of online predators. By working together, we can make the internet more secure for our youth.”

“Raising parental awareness is an important component in our strategy to confront the threat of online predators,” Veronica Allende, Director of the Division of Criminal Justice, said. “During Cyber Security Awareness Month, we are amplifying our message to stress the heightened risk children face as they spend increased hours online during COVID. Parents must be especially vigilant in safeguarding them from predators who use the internet to harm, abuse, and exploit children.”

Annual data reports issued by the State Police in conjunction with Cybersecurity Awareness Month show that even before the pandemic, cyber breaches and online threats to children were on the rise in New Jersey.

Last year, 1.8 million accounts held by New Jersey residents were compromised by data breaches— five times more than the number affected the year before.

Data breaches (991) and reports of online threats to children (4158) both reflected nearly ten percent increases from 2018 to 2019.

The following online resources can help New Jersey residents stay safe online during the COVID-19 emergency:

For tips on avoiding internet scams and schemes visit the Division of Consumer Affairs’ website.

To protect against hackers and data thieves while working from home visit the New Jersey Cybersecurity Communications and Integration Cell’s (“NCCIC”) Telecommuting Tips.

For information on addressing risks associated with virtual education and online learning visit the NCCIC’s Navigating New Challenges This Academic School Year.