German authorities have pledged to crack down on coronavirus fraud amid mounting evidence that scammers, many of them based in Eastern Europe, are hijacking the country’s generous aid program for companies affected by the disease. pandemic.
Hubertus Heil, Minister of Labor, said that all potential scammers will be investigated and prosecuted. “Most people will behave decently and black sheep who commit fraud will be caught and punished,” he told German public broadcaster ARD TV this week.
Berlin police said Thursday a man identified as Ahmad A was under investigation for “exploiting the crown crisis” to defraud 18,000 euros in financial aid from IBB, the bank development center.
The man, who police say has links to an Islamist militant movement in the capital, said he ran a business that was suffering from the coronavirus shutdown while he was living on benefits. The officers searched her apartment and confiscated money and electronic devices.
In the most dramatic abuse case to date, the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany, was forced to suspend its aid program for a week after discovering that criminals exploited it to embezzle hundreds of thousands of euros in their own country. pockets.
The fraudsters had built more than 90 fake websites who scoured data from companies requesting emergency funds, an activity known as “phishing.” They then used the information to request funds that flowed from the state coffers into their own accounts.
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Authorities said they are currently investigating 104 of these bogus sites, some of which have been traced to servers in Slovakia and the United States. “We are talking about absolute professionals with excellent IT expertise,” said the region’s interior minister, Herbert Reul.
He said the criminals boasted about the so-called dark web, part of the Internet accessible only using specialized software, of having successfully chopped 3,500 to 4,000 sets of data.
Isabel Skierka, a digital security researcher at the ESMT business school in Berlin, said that the pandemic had provided new lucrative opportunities for cybercriminals to exploit people’s fear. “People are less careful and more willing to download documents or open links related to the virus and their personal and financial situation in this crisis,” she said.
With more employees working from home, criminals were also better able to “access a company’s internal network through the precarious configuration of employees’ home offices,” she added.
Germany was one of the first countries to set up large aid programs for companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which the IMF says will lead to the worst global economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Production fell sharply after companies from all over Germany suspended production in a lockout that shut down tens of thousands of companies.
In recent weeks, the German government has set up a € 600 billion bailout fund for large companies, a state-backed program offering quick loans of up to € 500,000 to small and medium-sized businesses. businesses, and a € 50 billion proof fund that distributes money to small businesses, the self-employed and the self-employed.
Officials stressed from the outset that the speed and simplicity of the distribution of funds would be the priority. The Economy Ministry said it had approved 1.1 million applications for its fund for the self-employed within three weeks of its launch and granted a total of € 9 billion in aid.
Some states such as North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria have also established their own regimes. Hubert Aiwanger, the Bavarian economy minister, said last month that swift withdrawal of funds was the first priority.
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“But when we have air to breathe in a few months, we will of course check if there are charlatans who have deceived us [and] they will have to pay back, ”he said on Bavarian radio.
But Ms Skierka pointed out that in many cases aid programs had no way of properly verifying the identity of the applicants. Germany has “struggled with the digitization of government services. . . for years, and in times of crisis like these, such delays really wreak havoc, “she said.
The aid program in North Rhine-Westphalia resumed accepting requests with heightened security requirements on Friday after the week-long closure. Reul said the investigators were working “hard to find these treacherous schemes.”
The scams have spread to other parts of the country. In the eastern state of Saxony, local development bank SAB announced Thursday stopped paying grants to small businesses due to the prevalence of bogus websites. The bank said it had “taken all necessary measures to avoid misuse of public funds”.
German police have also warned the public to beware of fake emails believed to be from the World Health Organization or other organizations with ransomware attachments. Other scammers have sent fake cards claiming to show the spread of the disease in real time. Once opened, the email installed malware that reads the victim’s passwords and bank account details, police said.