PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The email from a political action committee seemed harmless: If you support Joe Biden, click here to make sure you’re registered to vote.
But Harvard University graduate student Maya James did not click. Instead, she Googled the name of the soliciting PAC. It didn’t exist — a clue the email was a phishing scam from swindlers trying to exploit the presidential election as a way to steal peoples’ personal information.
“There was not a trace of them,” James, 22, said. “It was a very inconspicuous email, but I noticed it used very emotional language, and that set off alarm bells.” She deleted the message, but related her experience on social media to warn others.
Voters face an especially pivotal, polarized election this year, and scammers here and abroad are taking notice — posing as fundraisers and pollsters, impersonating candidates and campaigns, and launching fake voter registration drives. It’s not votes they’re after, but to win a voter’s trust, personal information and maybe a bank routing number.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Better Business Bureau and cybersecurity experts have recently warned of new and increasingly sophisticated online fraud schemes that use the election as an entry, reflecting both the proliferation of political misinformation and intense interest in this year’s presidential and Senate races.
“Psychologically, these scams play to our desire to do something — to get involved, to donate, to take action,” said Sam Small, chief security officer at ZeroFOX, a Baltimore-based digital security firm.
Online grifters regularly shift tactics to fit current events, whether they are natural disasters, a pandemic or an election, according to Small. “Give them something to work with and they’ll find a way to make a dollar,” he said.
Foreign adversaries like Russia, China and Iran get much of the blame for creating fake social media accounts and spreading deceptive election information, largely because of efforts by groups linked to the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In many instances, foreign disinformation campaigns make use of the same tools pioneered by cybercriminals: fake social media accounts, realistic looking websites and and suspicious links.
Online scams have flourished as so many of life’s routines move online during the pandemic. The FBI reported that complaints to its cybercrime reporting site jumped from 1,000 a day to 3,000-4,000 a day since the pandemic began. Now, the final weeks of a contentious election are giving scammers yet another opportunity to strike.
“Every election is heated, but this one is very much so,” Paula Fleming, a chief marketing officer for the Better Business Bureau, said. “People are more trusting when they see it’s a political party or a candidate they like emailing them.”