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IT Alert: COVID-19 Exploited by Malicious Cyber Actors

April 8, 2020

Dear Faculty and Staff,

IT Services is seeing an advanced persistent threat and increase in phishing and social engineering scams due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic. Cybercriminals are using the pandemic for commercial gain, deploying a variety of ransomware and other malware.

IT services advises the College community to remain vigilant for scams related to COVID-19. Cyber actors may send emails with malicious attachments or links to fraudulent websites to trick victims into revealing sensitive information or donating to fraudulent charities or causes. Please exercise caution in handling any email with a coronavirus or COVID-19-related subject line, attachment, or hyperlink, and be wary of social media pleas, texts, or calls related to coronavirus or COVID-19.

Summary of Attacks

Cybercriminals will often masquerade as trusted entities, and their activity includes using coronavirus-themed phishing messages or malicious applications, often masquerading as trusted entities. Malicious cyber actors rely on basic social engineering methods to entice College Community users to carry out a specific action. These actors are taking advantage of human traits such as curiosity and concern around the coronavirus pandemic in order to persuade users to:

  • Click on a link or download an app that may lead to a phishing website, or the downloading of malware, including ransomware.
  • Open a file (such as an email attachment) that contains malware.

Unique Characteristics of Malicious E-mails

Cybercriminals will often use one of the following traits in malicious emails.

  • Authority – Is the sender claiming to be from someone official (e.g., Office of President, HR Office, Office of Dean, Office Of Provost, , your bank or doctor, a lawyer, a government agency)? Criminals often pretend to be important people or organizations to trick you into doing what they want.
  • Urgency – Are you told you have a limited time to respond (e.g., in 24 hours or immediately)? Criminals often threaten with fines or other negative consequences.
  • Emotion – Does the message make you panic, fearful, hopeful, or curious? Criminals often use threatening language, make false claims of support, or attempt to tease you into wanting to find out more.
  • Scarcity – Is the message offering something in short supply (e.g., concert tickets, money, or a cure for medical conditions)? Fear of missing out on a good deal or opportunity can make you respond quickly.


IT Services has observed, a large volume of phishing campaigns that use the social engineering techniques described above. Examples of phishing email subject lines include:

  • Subject lines containing COVID-19-related phrases such as “Coronavirus Update” or “2019-nCov: Coronavirus outbreak in your city (Emergency)
  • “President discusses budget savings due to coronavirus with Cabinet.rtf.”
  • 2020 Coronavirus Updates,
  • Coronavirus Updates,
  • 2019-nCov: New confirmed cases in your City
  • 2019-nCov: Coronavirus outbreak in your city (Emergency).

These emails contain a call to action, encouraging users to visit a website that malicious cyber actors use for stealing valuable data, such as usernames and passwords, credit card information, and other personal information.

SMS Phishing

Most phishing attempts come by email but IT Services has received reports that there are increasing attempts to carry out phishing by other means, including text messages (SMS). See example of SMS Phishing message asking the user to donate money.



Mercy College IT Alert Covid-19 Phishing ImageMercy College IT Alert Covid-19 Phishing Image


Defending Against Coronavirus (COVID-19) Cyber Scams

Malicious cyber actors are continually adjusting their tactics to take advantage of new situations, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Malicious cyber actors are using the high appetite for COVID-19-related information as an opportunity to deliver malware and ransomware, and to steal user credentials. College community users should remain vigilant


IT Services encourages the community to take the following precautions:



Please note: All incoming emails to Mercy College email accounts from external parties will have a pre-fix in the subject of the message and a disclaimer in the body of the message. This text will only appear if the email is coming from an external email system. 


IMPORTANT NOTE: If you see this disclaimer text in the subject and body of an email you receive, please exercise caution when clicking on any links or opening attachments. You should never provide sensitive or confidential information such as usernames and password when responding to such emails. 



Mercy College IT Alert External Email Indicator Image


If you have any questions, please contact the Mercy College Help Desk at 914.674.7256 or


Thank you,


Mercy College IT Helpdesk



Protect your ID, and never provide your username and password in response to an Email telling you that they are needed.  IT Services would never send a request for this information via Email.  Official IT announcements will have the Mercy College logo at the top.