MEXICO CITY. August 22, 2023 (Reuters) — Gabriella Batalha didn’t think much when she noticed she had been logged out of Instagram – until the next day when she found her account overrun with sensational posts touting high-yield cryptocurrency investments. To recover her account, the 27-year-old lawyer from Rio de Janeiro had to pay 200 reais ($40) to a “consultant” she found on YouTube, a man she says could have been a scammer himself. “It took me two days to recover my account, and I was under a lot of stress,” she said.
Batalha is not alone. Online scams in Brazil jumped 65% last year to over 200,000, according to data from the Brazilian Public Security Yearbook published last month. And across Latin America, online frauds and cyberattacks are at an “all-time high,” says cybersecurity company Tenable, posing an urgent problem for a well-connected region. Latin America’s recent progress on technological inclusion has created new opportunities for scams, experts say, with the pandemic fueling a trend toward mobile banking and shopping using payment systems like Brazil’s hugely popular PIX.
The region is increasingly online. In 2022, 77.9% of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean used the internet, up from 74.8% the year before and above the global rate of 66.3%, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). And nearly half of Latin American internet users spend an average of six hours a day on social media, according to a report by cybersecurity company Kaspersky. “The increasing reliance on new technology has made it easier for cybercriminals to attack more frequently,” said Kerry-Ann Barrett, a cybersecurity specialist at the Organization of American States (OAS).
The threats are increasingly complex and costly, costing the region billions annually, Barrett said. In Peru, for example, a gang scammed a construction company out of over $62,000 by pretending to be a bank with a fake website, according to the attorney general’s office. In Mexico, scammers have targeted unsuspecting victims with fake job offers via text message, only to entice victims to share sensitive personal data, according to media reports. “Latin America is a priority target because it has a very connected population, which means that they are always exposed,” said Claudio Martinelli, managing director for Latin America for Kaspersky.
Institutions and governments are also more vulnerable than in other parts of the world. In a ranking of 93 countries on cyberthreat risks compiled by fraud prevention software SEON, nine of the 10 Latin American countries were ranked in the bottom half. Three Latin American countries – Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela – were seen among the 10 countries with the highest risks for cyberthreats. The region, meanwhile, had the highest share of unprotected data in the world in 2022, Tenable said, making companies vulnerable to threats like ransomware, a kind of attack that locks a computer and then demands money for its release.
Ransomware was responsible for six of every 10 attacks in 2022, including an attack on Costa Rica’s finance ministry by Russian hackers, who demanded $10 million. Latin America’s ability to safeguard against future attacks is handicapped by a lack of regulation and judicial investigations, said Marcos Simplicio, a professor specializing in cybersecurity at the University of Sao Paulo. “Virtual crime is no different from physical crime,” he said. “As long as it’s making a profit, and if there is little chance of punishment, it will continue.”