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Fraudsters cloned official government sites, hoping victims would apply there by mistake, allowing them to then claim the money in the victims' names. The scheme forced one state to shut down its website for a week.
Self-employed individuals and small businesses in Germany will again be eligible to apply online for coronavirus-related state emergency aid in North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), the state's economic ministry said on Friday.
Applications had been halted shortly before the Easter holiday, when it was found that thieves had made a copy of the website which they were using for fraudulent activities.
NRW Economy Minister Andreas Pinkwart said the process to receive the aid would continue to be digital and that the money would be paid out next week.
As the coronavirus lockdown began, the German government swiftly approved a total of €50 billion ($54.382 billion) for rapid support to the self-employed and the smallest businesses with 10 or fewer employees.
Pinkwart had promised that the emergency aid would be "as simple, lean and unbureaucratic as possible," insisting that the office would "not accept printed applications."
Fraudsters moved quickly and intercepted prospective applicants by cloning the state's official website. When users entered their data into the fake site unwittingly, it was the fraudsters and not the government that was receiving it.
Scammers then took the data — including things like name, address, employer information, tax details and bank details — and then used it to apply for the money themselves on the real website, albeit with different bank details.
A state prosecutor's office told German news agency DPA last week that it was suspected the scams were being run by "a professional criminal organization" that appeared to cross national borders.
To protect from fraud, Pinkwart announced that tax officials would now check the applicants' data and compare it with the state's official information.
NRW is not the only state to have been affected. On Friday, Hamburg, Berlin, Saxony and Bremen all reported similar cases of fraud with their state aid websites.
Last month, the European law enforcement agency Europol warned that criminals were taking advantage of the coronavirus emergency, doing everything from selling counterfeit products, impersonating health workers and hacking computers as many citizens do their jobs online at home.
"Criminals have quickly seized the opportunities to exploit the crisis by adapting their modes of operation or developing new criminal activities," Europol Executive Director, Catherine de Bolle said in a statement.
Europol's report found that the top illicit activities were cybercrime, fraud, counterfeit and substandard goods, and organized property crime.
jcg/msh (AFP, dpa)