Coronavirus Scams (COVID-19)

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    The COVID-19 Coronavirus has created a great sense of fear and uncertainty and for scammers -it’s the perfect storm.

    COVID19 first appeared in Wuhan, China in December of 2019. As of March 23, 2020, there are 372,634 cases of COVID19 reported worldwide and 16,314 deaths. Since then, numerous countries have enforced extreme measures to mitigate the spread of the virus from requests for social distancing to quarantines and lockdowns. Many governments are offering varying levels of financial assistance and aid to people facing unemployment, and everywhere people are scrambling to stockpile basic necessities while desperately searching for answers and solutions. Unfortunately, many of those needs and solutions are being promised and promoted by scammers.

    The Emerging Numerous COVID-19 Scams

    Phishing scams designed to harvest personal and financial information have been around since the advent of the Internet. They are now emerging in the context of COVID-19 in an effort to convince people that by providing their information they can receive payments from the government, bank remotely due to fake bank closures, or a new version to the Social Security scam threatening someone’s Social Security payment unless actions are taken as a result of COVID-19.

    For example, the victim is invited to click on a link to update their information. Just clicking on the link could result in malware being installed on your smartphone or computer. And that’s just the beginning. The link will take you to an official-looking website that mimics a bank and there will be a detailed form asking you for as much information as they can collect to “update” your account. Here are the scams that they have identified to date, how they look or sound and how they work.

    Scams Related to COVID-19 Government Programs

    There has been significant legislation passed in the U.S. to offer direct financial aid and assistance to businesses, organizations and even to individual American citizens in the form of direct cash payments. The details of how that aid and assistance will be distributed and to whom are still in the planning stages, but scammers have taken full advantage.

    The Better Business Bureau has received dozens of complaints from people who got calls that claim you can get your money right away if you just give the caller your debit or credit card information.

    Scammers are also calling claiming you qualify for $1,000 to $14,000 in relief from COVID-19 from the federal government. In some cases, the scammer claims it's grant money.

    This category of scams will no doubt increase as recent legislation becomes closer to implementation and scammers will be flooding emails, social media and even using direct mail to encourage people to “apply today” for your government benefit.

    Fake COVID-19 Websites

    Scammers are setting up fake coronavirus-related websites that offer everything from cures (both pharmaceutical and natural) to vaccines, testing kits, and items such as the best face mask or hand sanitizer. In some instances, the information or product is sold for very high amounts of money. The victim either doesn’t receive a thing or a counterfeit or fake imitation that could actually be very dangerous if believed, used or consumed.

    Social Media COVID-19 Scams

    Aside from misinformation that is pervading social media, two scams have emerged on social media platforms.

    Fake fundraising.

    The fake fundraising scam either isolates a fictitious individual who has contracted the disease or poses as a charity group dedicated to helping and serving people afflicted by the disease. They often are accompanied by heart-wrenching stories and pirated, real photos of people they want you to help.

    Some have used legitimate platforms like GoFundMe to collect donations. The AARP provides a helpful guide on how to weed out fake charities identifying the signs and symptoms of scam charities including the recent COVID-19 charity scams. What confuses the issue is the fact that there are legitimate charities trying to actually help people during this crisis. Be extra vigilant whenever you encounter one of these charity pitches on social media.

    Investment Scams.

    The SEC recently warned that scammers are using social media to promote microcap stocks which they claim have a product or service that can help prevent, vaccinate, or treat COVID-19. These are classic pump-and-dump scams that offer penny stocks that are falsely promoted resulting in pumped-up prices.

    The scammers then sell off their shares, walk away from the stock and the price dives. They’ll often use real companies to engage this scam and some companies will engage in this kind of activity as a con game to artificially inflate the value of their stock. This type of scam showed up quite often when the HIV/AIDS epidemic first appeared.

    COVID-19 Seller and Buyer Scams

    Amazon and eBay have already announced that many items have been removed from their sites for price gouging. Amazon actually removed more than 1 million items after determining that people were taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to sell in-demand items like hand sanitizers, masks, wipes, and other items related to COVID-19 prevention and treatment. Regardless, many products still remain that are tainted, damaged, expired or are otherwise unsafe but in high demand due to COVID-19. Some offer bogus or bold return policies that they have no intention of honoring.

    Undelivered goods are the most common scam, but these scams usually occur on dedicated and fake websites to avoid scrutiny from Amazon or eBay. You place your order but you never get your shipment.

    The COVID-19 Misinformation Scam

    Misinformation often accompanies any public crisis. Some are unintentional, some unethical with blogs and websites trying to drive up page views with sensational news, others are used by con artists to promote miracle cures and bogus therapies. There are reports of intentional acts from rogue nations like Russia, North Korea, or Iran weaponizing misinformation to foment panic and sow divisions. The media watchdog group NewsGuard launched a coronavirus misinformation tracking center and recently put together this list of the worst offenders.

    The FDIC Scam

    The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. It is a branch of the Federal Government that insures private bank accounts up to $250,000. In an unprecedented move, the FDIC recently issued an unusual message reassuring consumers that "insured bank deposits are safe" and warning people of scams using the government agency’s name.

    “In light of recent developments related to the coronavirus, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is reminding Americans that FDIC-insured banks remain the safest place to keep their money. During these unprecedented times, consumers may receive false information regarding the security of their deposits or their ability to access cash. The FDIC does not send unsolicited correspondence asking for money or sensitive personal information. The agency will never contact people asking for personal details, such as bank account information, credit, and debit card numbers, Social Security numbers, or passwords.”

    The WHO Scam

    The World Health Organization is a well known and trusted resource particularly in the category of outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. Scammers have been using emails, text messages and fake websites posing as the World Health Organization in an effort to collect information while promising updates and information about the progress, treatment and possible cures for the disease.

    Recognizing and Avoiding COVID-19 Scams

    Both the FBI and FTC have put together a long list of information and cautions related to the emerging and evolving COVID-19 Scams:

    • No one from the government will call or email and ask for your Social Security number, bank account number or credit card number. They don’t need to confirm your birthdate. Anyone telling you they are required to collect such information so that you can get your check is a scammer.
    • There will be no fee for getting a relief check.
    • The specifics about the checks are still being worked out.
    • Avoid opening attachments and clicking on links within emails from senders you don't recognize.
    • Always independently verify the information originates from a legitimate source (for example, check the CDC or WHO website)
    • Refuse to supply login credentials or financial data in response to any email.
    • Visit websites by inputting their domains manually.
    • Don’t be taken in by the sender’s name when receiving an email. Scammers can put any name they like in the “from” field.
    • Look out for spelling and grammatical errors. Not all scammers make mistakes, but many do. Take extra time to review messages for telltale signs that they’re fraudulent.
    • Check the URL before you type it in or click a link. If the website you land on doesn’t look right, steer clear. Do your own research and make your own choice about where to look.
    • Never enter data that a website shouldn’t be asking for. A site that’s open to the public, such as the CDC or WHO, will never ask for your login credentials.
    • If you realize you just revealed your password to impostors, change it as soon as possible. Scammers try to use stolen passwords immediately, so the sooner you change your password, the more likely you are to stop them from doing anything malicious.
    • Hang up on robocalls. Don’t press any numbers. Fact-check information.
    • Scammers, and sometimes well-meaning people, share information that hasn’t been verified. Before you pass on any messages, contact trusted sources. Visit What the U.S. Government is Doing for links to federal, state and local government agencies.
    • Know who you’re buying from. Online sellers may claim to have in-demand products, like cleaning, household, and health and medical supplies when, in fact, they don’t.
    • Don’t respond to texts and emails about checks from the government. As of March 20th, 2020 the details are still being worked out. Anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a scammer.
    • Watch for emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or experts saying they have information about the virus. For the most up-to-date information about the Coronavirus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
    • Ignore online offers for vaccinations. There currently are no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) — online or in stores.
    • Do your homework when it comes to donations, whether through charities or crowdfunding sites. Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, don’t do it.

    Reach out to older friends and family members. Social distancing may have intensified the isolation many older adults already feel, and that age group often is a target of scammers. Calls, video chats or other communication can keep them informed and make them less likely to talk with a scammer to relieve loneliness.