Netsafe is warning New Zealanders to be aware of an expected spike in Covid-themed phishing, scamming and misinformation

An influx of online harm incidents is expected during the current Covid lockdown, if results from last year’s lockdowns repeat. 

Online safety bureau Netsafe announced on Monday it anticipates calls to its helpline to skyrocket as the country passes its second weekend at Alert Level 4, with Alert Level 3 coming for many regions.

Statistics released by Netsafe looking back on patterns of online harm during 2020 show:

  • Scam reports during the March – April 2020 Alert Level 4 Lockdown were up 74%
  • Sextortion reports were up 35%. 
  • Romance scams were up 69%.
  • Reports to Netsafe about intimidation during the 2020 Lockdown increased by 45%
  • Reports about the supply and distribution of objectionable content were up 66%.
  • Last Lockdown, demand for Netsafe’s online resources shot up by 167%. 
  • Netsafe saw a 155% increase in parents seeking help with online issues for their families. 

The last Level 4 and 3 lockdowns also saw rises in people being encouraged to try and hurt themselves and offensive comments about lifestyle or religious beliefs.

In total, Netsafe receives 23,000-25,000 reports of harm each year or 70 per day.

Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker spoke to theBit about the reasons behind the anticipated surge in complaints over online harm.  

Internet use is way up during the lockdown, and online harm categories appear to be twofold, with 1) Overseas-based scammers using Covid-related themes in their phishing, and 2) Kiwis abusing one another online.

Complaints about the cyberharm begin to rise sharply 7-10 days into each lockdown, Cocker said.

“Everybody is using the internet more frequently during this period,” Cocker said. “The more we use the internet, the more we’re exposed to online risks and challenges.” 

“The obvious [motivation] for scammers is lockdowns represent opportunity because people [victims] are using tech at home they might not be familiar with. In the first lockdown that was definitely the case. Lots of scams work well when you understand the parameters people are in: they are locked in their home, having to order everything, so we have scams focused on delivery and freight and there is a greater pool of people to target.” 

In terms of themed phishing, Covid and lockdowns have led to a rise in scams targeting vaccines, scams related to quarantine and scams related to business relief rebates. “It’s whatever the hook is for people. In the end they’re basic standard scams – but scammers use the topic of the day to get interest.” 

As for the reasons behind personally harmful digital communications, Cocker told theBit that in some cases, those who might want to intimidate another person by physically parking outside that person’s house, or making threats in person, now choose to do the same thing online. Lockdown stress compounds the motivations behind this, and this lockdown is also likely to see another spike in complaints around misinformation and disinformation particularly regarding vaccination. 

Worried about online harm? Netsafe offers a range of helpful resources including:

The Staying Safe Online Guide

The Online Safety Parent Toolkit

The TikTok Family Safety Toolkit 

The Online Gaming Whānau Toolkit.