by Lynette Owens

As of today, more than 185K global cases of COVID-19 have been documented, according to Johns Hopkins University. Travel has been restricted in many countries, restaurants, bars, and schools have shuttered their doors and many companies have moved to a remote workforce to limit exposure from gathering in groups.  We urge everyone to take seriously the precautions as directed by the World Health Organization and your local government officials.  It’s a global issue we should all take seriously and play a role in helping to fight.

Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids & Families (ISKF) program has decided to take action to avoid the spread of the virus. Effective immediately, we will suspend all our in-person school and community events around the world through at least the end of April, or until further notice.  We are working on ways to continue holding events virtually for parents and kids and will share more details here and on our social media channels when we finalize our plans.

In the meantime, we want to raise awareness of some immediate issues facing us online regarding COVID-19.  As we’ve seen so many times over the last three decades, there are people and organizations with bad intentions using this world health crisis to cause digital harm.  We may not yet have an answer to cure those with COVID-19, but we have a way to fight the havoc it is causing online.

Hackers and Peddlers Prey on Our Search for Answers

Cybersecurity companies like Trend Micro along with news outlets like Tech Crunch and BBC, have reported an uptick in cyberattacks that use the COVID-19 pandemic to trick victims into clicking on links to hacked sites or downloading malicious software designed to spy on them or steal personal information. We’ve seen examples of emails from seemingly legitimate sources, such as a government health organization, with alluring subject lines about Coronavirus updates.  The goal: to get people to open the emails and attachments that actually contain malicious software, designed to steal your personal information or spy on your online actions.  There are also examples of fake maps showing the spread of the virus that hide malicious software downloaded by you when you click on them.  And these criminal acts are not just happening in one country or one language, either.  Have a look at examples of these from our researchers.

It’s important to know that in our rush to fill the void of information and ease our minds to better understand this unprecedented world event, we should keep our online safety skills sharp.  Remind your kids to do the same.  In addition to having updated, security software on every device you use to connect to the internet, remember these key tips and share them with your kids:

  • Be suspicious of requests for secrecy or pressure to take action quickly.
  • Immediately report and delete unsolicited email (spam) from unknown parties. DO NOT open spam email, click on links in the email or open their attachments.
  • Carefully scrutinize all email requests for transfers of funds to determine if the requests are out of the ordinary.

Another COVID-19 Harm: Misinformation

In addition to these types of criminal online acts, we also see a rise in false claims and misinformation.  The World Health Organization has raised the alarm of this infodemic or “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”  From rumors to false stats to racist propaganda, the spread of misinformation is rampant.  This is dangerous as people may respond to what they see in ways that could escalate the spread of the virus or put many people’s lives or livelihood at risk.  Although major platforms like Twitter and Facebook are pledging to stop the spreading of false information, we are all responsible to help. Rely on credible sources of information, such as the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, or your local government officials.  As you may spend more time on social media, scrolling through posts or receiving numerous emails about COVID-19, be critical of what you’re reading, believing, and sharing.  And talk to your kids about doing the same.

Fight Back with Media Literacy Skills

Like washing hands frequently to prevent the spread of the Novel coronavirus, there is a way to prevent cybercriminals and purveyors of misinformation about the virus from succeeding.  Supporting media literacy skills in your own home can seem like a daunting task in a world of information overload. However, as explained in A Parent’s Guide to Media Literacy, developed by the National Association for Media Literacy Education with support from Trend Micro, it can be boiled down to one concept: Teach yourself and your kids to ask the tough questions.  When reading updates on COVID-19 or related content in your networking circles, be sure to ask yourself:

  • Why was this piece of content or article created?
  • Who made it?
  • How do I know if it’s true?
  • What’s missing?
  • Who might benefit from the message behind it?
  • Who might be harmed by the message?

We also recently covered deepfakes, another method that can be used to misinform or spread propaganda, and the actions we outlined to combat them are just as important for this conversation.

  • Stop. Don’t immediately take action such as believe, react, share or comment on articles if they seem suspicious in any way.
  • Question. Where did the content originally come from?  Why is the person or organization sharing it online?
  • Report. Whenever you see anything suspicious online, ignoring it is always an option. But if you’re really concerned about it and believe it might be fake, report it to the site or app you saw it on.  While YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are trying to remove content on their own, we as a community can help by flagging them too.

Please take extra caution during these troubling times. In addition to safeguarding your own health and practicing good hygiene and social distancing, be sure to do the same online.  Narrow down the sources of information on COVID-19 that you depend on to the most credible ones, and refrain from sharing anything beyond these with others.

In times like these, we may feel less in control over what is going on around us, but we can take some control over what we and our kids are consuming online.  Consider limiting your news consumption and endless social media scrolling so you’re not overwhelmed with all the COVID-19 news and help your kids to do the same.  Make time together to watch fun movies, play card games, bake some treats or take a walk as a family – things you may not have had time to do before this moment.

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens

Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro's ISKF

Lynette Owens is the Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 20+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support digital literacy and citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association of Media Literacy Education and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day, and on the national advisor council of Media Literacy Now.

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens is Vice President of Global Consumer Education & Marketing at Trend Micro and Founder of the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 25+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.

Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens.