Coronavirus scams and other risks for side hustlers have emerged as the disease’s spread has hit headlines and slammed stock markets around the world.

Remote workers — freelancers, as well as corporate employees newly allowed to work from home — are the main target of an emerging raft of cyber criminals. Side hustlers in people-facing industries, like ride share, are also on the front lines as the virus spreads.

“Con artists are keen students of the news,” says Daniel Eliot, director of education at the National Cyber Security Alliance. “They’re looking for ways to play on your fears and emotions. If the topic is relevant, it is far more likely that you are going to click.”

Coronavirus scams

The latest of these cyber scams is disguised as an advisory from the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC is a government agency charged with protecting Americans from health and safety threats. The scam emails vary. Some say that a Coronavirus pocket has been found in the victim’s town. Victims are urged to click on a link to get more information. Others contain salacious headlines — much like the real headlines in the news — to lure victims to malicious websites.

The real CDC has an active Coronavirus web page with information on symptoms, prevention and infection news. But the agency does not send personal emails to consumers. Naturally, links in the scam emails do not take you to the CDC. They typically lead you to insecure sites that download malware onto your computer systems. Some also prod for personal information, such as credit card numbers.

Target: remote workers

Crooks target remote workers in the hope that they’ll be less prepared for cyber threats than their employers, Eliot says.

Most corporations have sophisticated security systems to block malware attacks. However, big companies are encouraging employees to work at home to avoid regional outbreaks.  

Workers affected by this sudden shift may not have the requisite anti-virus software loaded on their personal computers and phones. In addition, they may be less experienced with the increasingly sophisticated nature of cyber security attacks.

Other companies are leaning on freelancers to pick up the slack for workers sidelined by the virus or by repercussions of the scare. Several schools have closed because of localized outbreaks, for example. That’s got working parents on forced holidays or scrambling for other child care solutions. Because these freelancers may not be as familiar with corporate protocols, they may be more vulnerable for scams that appear to be coming from higher-ups in the company.

“We know that home networks are much less secure than a corporate or enterprise network,” says Eliot. “We have to take the concept of cybersecurity much more seriously when you work remotely.”

Sophisticated scams

While some cyber scams are pretty easy to spot, others have become increasingly sophisticated. Thanks to a raft of recent data breaches, criminals are able to compile a wealth of real data on their victims. This can include everything from personal addresses to the victims’ account relationships. By using this data, the crook appears legitimate. 

Additionally, crooks are increasingly sending their malware links through text messages, Facebook and other social media platforms. By taking over social media accounts, crooks get the real users’ friends to let down their guard and click on suspicious links.

Skepticism is your best defense

The best way to protect yourself from cyber scams is to maintain up-to-date security software on both computers and cell phones, and exercise plenty of skepticism. Don’t automatically click on links sent to you via email or text — even when they appear to be coming from a friend or government agency. 

If an email is supposedly coming from an official government body or a corporation, use a Google search to find the agency or company directly. 

You can also see where a link is going by scrolling your cursor over the linked segment. (If you do that with the copy saying “schools have closed” above, for instance, you’ll see it goes to an National Public Radio story talking about worldwide school closures.) 

Other risks for side hustlers

However, what may be the bigger risk for side hustlers is that they’re often in consumer-facing jobs, which puts them on the front lines of every pandemic. And, where corporate employees typically get paid sick days and health insurance, freelancers do not. Even a short illness can cause real economic pain when you are self-employed.

Ride share drivers are possibly most at risk given that they shuttle travelers to and from ports and airports. The U.S. is taking extreme precautions, including putting some travelers in quarantine. But it’s unclear whether people who are infected but currently asymptomatic can transmit the disease. 

A few ride share drivers say they’ve acted to protect themselves. Some have scaled back on the number of fares they’re taking and are avoiding pick-ups at airports and ports,. Others have switched to driving for delivery platforms, such as GrubHub and AmazonFlex. However, most say they’re taking the scare in stride.

“It’s a gamble, but it has always existed,” says Chaz Herrera of South Gate.  “Even before the Coronavirus frenzy began– and after it’s finished — your passenger could have a cold or flu.”

Uber and Lyft, have been urging their drivers to take precautions, like sterilizing seatbelts after each use. But, some drivers say they’re getting their advice solely from the CDC.

“I’m doing exactly what the CDC told us to do — washing my hands,” says Thomas OHara-Sun. “Been doing that since I was a year old, so it’s not difficult.”