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Cyberthreats target the most vulnerable: here's how to protect yourself

Cybercrime is an ongoing and ubiquitous threat, but it doesn't affect all users the same way. A groundbreaking study shows how experiences with online threats can differ among demographic groups and often cause more harm and stress to disadvantaged individuals. We'll show you easy techniques to protect yourself online.

RV Studios for Malwarebytes
6 min read

Access to the Internet is easier for some and harder for others. While studies have long shown that a digital divide, in terms of access to computers and broadband, exists across different demographic groups, new research is now bringing to light a worrisome reality: the impact of cybercrime also varies considerably across demographic groups.

How to increase your online safety

Fortunately, there are some basic steps anyone can take to reduce their overall risk.

  • Update your operating system: An incredibly effective defensive practice is simply updating your operating system when updates become available. Most malware depends on exploits, which are known failure points in the software being attacked. As these vulnerabilities are discovered, vendors patch their code, shutting off those avenues of attack. Most OS, app and software updates include a security fix, so when you're patching or upgrading them, you're immediately increasing your protection.
  • Avoid side-loading and secondary app markets: Another way you can protect yourself is by not doing something: don't go to uncertified or unprotected app stores, don't sideload or download uncertified apps, and definitely don't download commercial apps being sold at a fraction of their list price. While there are some legitimate software exchanges not operated by the phone vendors, most are set up by criminals as bait. When you buy a reduced price version of a more expensive app, you're often paying criminals at the same time you're providing them with your credit card information, and then downloading their malware right onto your devices.
  • Remain aware and diligent when online: Be extra diligent, because unscrupulous operators are often attempting to phish for personal identifying information, stealing information and money from those who don't do everything they can to stay safe. This is often a matter of situational awareness and remembering the adage that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Know that you are always important enough to steal from: Also, keep in mind that cybercrime is often a numbers game. Many users believe they're not important enough or not rich enough to be worth targeting, but the scammers don't think the same way. Any successful scam, no matter how small, adds to their overall "take" and database of user information.
  • Install anti-virus and anti-malware software from a trusted vendor: If you are able to afford it, advanced anti-virus and anti-malware software- like the products sold by Malwarebytes, this article's sponsor- are extremely effective in protecting your devices. If you choose to add an anti-malware solution to your computer or phone, Malwarebytes recommends choosing one from a reputable vendor that can scan, detect, and remove malware, provides ongoing real time malware protection, and can detect phishing attempts, malicious sites, and scam phone calls.
  • Malwarebytes has a free anti-malware version, so everyone can stay safe: If you're unable to afford advanced protection, Malwarebytes has a free version to help clean up your computer if infected. Malwarebytes' solutions are easy to use regardless of your level (or lack) of expertise.

Cybercrime Isn't equal

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, cybercrime affects different demographics differently. Now that you have a good idea how how to keep yourself safe, here's some interesting background that can put the "why you need to protect yourself" issue into perspective.

Malwarebytes, in partnership with two non-profits, Digitunity and Cybercrime Support Network, conducted research in the summer of 2021 that demonstrated the inequality of cybercrime effects across demographic groups. Women feel the effects more than men. Members of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) populations sometimes experience the pains of cybercrime more acutely than members of the white population.


Women feel less safe online than men, because women are less safe online. 6% more women report receiving suspicious text messages than men. 9% more women report being victims of social media account hacks than men. Women are also more likely to be victims of revenge porn, stalking, and "deepfakes" (modifying their face or body digitally, most often to develop non-consensual pornographic videos).

BIPOC respondents experienced 5% more social media account hacking than white respondents. BIPOC respondents experienced 6% more of some form of identity theft than white respondents, although BIPOC respondents did experience 4% less credit card fraud than white respondents.

According to a Pew study, Black respondents were substantially (59%) more likely to experience online harassment than white (41%) and Hispanic or Latino (48%) respondents. Women (particularly young women) are far more likely to have experienced sexual harrassment online (33%), compared to men (11%).

Psychologists have long known that feeling unsafe leads to anxiety, and anxiety can lead to physical and emotional disorders. It's particularly troubling then, to see how cybercrime affects the feeling of safety. Just 37% of women feel safe online, compared to nearly half of all men. Likewise, just 38% of BIPOC respondents feel safe online, compared to 44% of white respondents.

Keep in mind that these factors are a vast oversimplification of real life, which layers on many additional challenges. The term "intersectionality" addresses the dynamics and effects of inequality based on gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, age, social class, and more – where individuals often identify with multiple dynamics at once. Trauma, poverty, discrimination, and disability all contribute to individual stress. While mapping out the feeling and levels of safety and security is beyond the scope of the studies cited, it's clear that online safety and privacy are critical, because ongoing perception of fear from threats can have a direct and negative effect on physical and emotional health.

As mobile device use increases, so do cyberthreats delivered in mobile devices and apps. According to the Malwarebytes State of Malware 2021 report, fake ad blockers and hidden ads blossomed in 2020, more than doubling over 2019. BankBot, a banking trojan that steals payment information using fake login screens on Android devices, was detected almost 40 times more in 2020 than in 2019.

Disadvantaged people were once again disproportionately affected by mobile device cyberthreats. Perhaps the most egregious example was with the UMX U683CL and ANS UL40 phones provided by Assurance Wireless (a T-Mobile brand). These phones are subsidized by Lifeline Assistance, described by the FCC as a program, "to help make communications services more affordable for low-income consumers."

According to Malwarebytes, some of these phones shipped with malware that was "pre-installed on new mobile devices and remains unremovable, despite many best efforts." Although this issue has since been addressed, the fact that it existed in the first place is worrisome.

Financial issues are a bit more nuanced, and a lot more troubling for disadvantaged people. As income and education increased, so did respondents' reports of experiencing theft of credit card information. In the Malwarebytes study, respondents with higher incomes reported median losses of about $2,000 while lower income respondents experienced median losses of about $1,300.

But while those in lower income stratas lost fewer dollar amounts than those in higher income stratas, they're less likely to be able to absorb the loss. Bankrate studies going back as far as 2014 show that only about 37-41% of US adults had cash reserves to be able to handle a $1,000 emergency.

So while the median loss due to cybercrime was lower for lower income respondents, they were far less likely to have the money to handle the loss. For higher income populations, the higher losses were likely to be troubling and unfortunate, but for lower income people, it could mean the difference between being able to eat that month or not.

Identifying and recovering from malware


To make sure that malware protection is available to everyone, Malwarebytes offers Malwarebytes' Free at no cost. Download it here to scan your computer and start cleaning up any lingering threats.

  • Not sure if you have malware? There are a few tell-tale signs: Slower startups, incessant pop-ups and locked up files are all symptoms of cyber infections like malware, adware, and ransomware.
  • How do you identify and recover? The recovery process, called remediation, fixes problems currently harming your device. It is important to use a granular remediation tool that doesn't just remove cyber threats, it also reverts any lingering damage from those threats with scalpel-like precision.
  • Looking for a great remediation tool? To proactively protect against threats getting on your computer in the first place, consider Malwarebytes Premium.

Good luck and stay safe online. Feel free to reach out to the Malwarebytes web site and visit the Resources tab if you want to learn more about malware, cybersecurity, and how to keep safe online.