WASHINGTON — Cybercriminals are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, including hackers who target hospitals and medical research institutions that are studying COVID-19, according to the head of the FBI’s cyber division.

The FBI has received thousands of complaints regarding scams and frauds related to the virus, FBI Assistant Director Matt Gorham said Tuesday in a statement responding to queries from The Associated Press.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of precedent for criminals taking advantage of natural disasters and government relief packages to conduct fraud, including through cyber means," Gorham said.

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center has received more than 3,600 complaints regarding coronavirus scams, he said.

This uptick gives the FBI an additional set of investigations to tackle at a time when its agents are already busy trying to combat economic espionage and ward off election interference.

The Justice Department has made it a priority to go after a broad variety of crimes related to the coronavirus outbreak, including cybercrimes.

"From the start of this pandemic we’ve been able to quickly take new information gleaned from our investigations, consider other sources of intelligence, and share information which potential targets of this malicious activity can act on — including hospitals and research institutes," Gorham said.

In a separate interview last week, Gorham told the AP that committing cybercrime is easier than ever thanks to readily accessible tools for hackers.

“Today you can go into a dark web and purchase exploits with little to no understanding of how they actually work," Gorham said, referring to hidden areas of the Internet that offer software tools that take advantage of vulnerabilities and can facilitate hacking.

"The threshold of entry has lowered to the point where almost anyone can become involved in a hack,” he added.

Even so, it remains a challenge for the FBI to assign blame for particular hacks. “Attribution," Gorham said, “is always the most difficult part.”

Aside from the coronavirus, the number of cyberthreats remains concerning, Gorham said, particularly those involving the online theft of intellectual property, a crime that “goes to the core of our economy.”

The Justice Department has brought prosecutions in recent years against Chinese government hackers accused of breaking into the networks of American companies, and announced charges stemming from a series of cyberattacks by a North Korean hacking team, including one on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The FBI and other federal agencies remain on high alert heading into the presidential election about cyberattacks targeting campaigns and election infrastructure.

Russian hackers in 2016 stole emails belonging to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign that were then published by WikiLeaks in what intelligence officials have said was an effort to help Republican Donald Trump.

Cassidy reported from Atlanta.

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