Be Aware of These COVID-19 Online Scams

. 5 min read

For scammers, times of fear and difficulty can be an opportunity to try to manipulate people into giving up sensitive information or downloading malicious software to facilitate data theft. Such is the case now as the coronavirus pandemic affects the entire world.

Recent research has found that the volume of coronavirus email scams has tripled in the last week alone, and that nearly 3 percent of all global spam is related to the virus. Additionally, in March, The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) released a statement advising the public to be vigilant about fraudsters “exploiting the fear of uncertainty” surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, and stated that they had dealt with at least 30 COVID-19-related frauds at that point.

As the current situation develops further, it is likely that these fraud attempts will continue, and will take advantage of the latest news surrounding the pandemic. In addition to keeping informed on current events, you can avoid falling victim to scams by learning how to spot them. Take some time to familiarize yourself with these common fraud methods.

Online retail fraud

Online retail fraud is the most prevalent among the COVID-19 scams. They tend to relate to online sales of products such as:

  • Protective masks
  • Vaccines
  • “Miracle cures” or other supposedly effective remedies
  • Quick tests

Unsurprisingly, the protective masks offered are either ineffective counterfeits or simply don’t exist. In the UK, a buyer reported having lost over £15,000 on a purchase of masks that were never delivered.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), both of which aim to protect human health from comestible products, have stated: “there are currently no vaccines or drugs approved to treat or prevent COVID-19.” The FDA and FTC have issued warning letters to seven companies to date for selling “fraudulent COVID-19 products” claiming to prevent or cure the coronavirus.

Phishing emails

As we discussed in our previous post, a phishing email is one that appears to mimic that of a legitimate entity and use its credibility to get you to open the email and click on a link. The malicious link may take you to a site where you’ll be asked to enter your sensitive data, such as your credit card number. Alternatively, it could trigger the download of malware, facilitating data theft.

As more people watch the news unfold about the coronavirus, the names of health organizations have become increasingly familiar with the public. These include the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unsurprisingly, the names of these institutions have been used in many phishing emails circulating the internet, promising guidelines or updates to the situation and linking to malware.

Fundraising scams

Fundraising scams are those that seek donations for philanthropic activities in the prevention, cure or relief of the coronavirus. They’re run by fake charities that use emotional content to prey on public sympathy for those affected by the epidemic.

Registered charities are vetted in the jurisdiction where they’re set up. However, unsuspecting donors who don’t verify whether the so-called charity is actually registered may still donate money to them, not knowing their money is going to a scammer.

Investment scams

Also known as “pump and dump” schemes, these scams are run by small, publicly-traded companies that issue microcap stocks. These are low-priced stocks that fraudsters “pump up” (increase stock price), by spreading positive but false information. They then quickly “dump” their shares by selling them before the stock price drops, leaving investors without a return.

Investment scams in the outbreak of COVID-19 typically claim that their company’s products or services will be used to help prevent, detect or cure the coronavirus. But, as we discussed above, these products do not exist.

These scams can come through a variety of channels, such as:

  • Social media
  • Investment newsletters
  • Online advertisements
  • Emails
  • Posts in trading forums.

Arrest warrant scams

Fraudulent arrest warrants aren’t a new scam. Almost all of us have received robocalls or spam emails stating that we owe a large sum of money for vague “charges” against us, and we must pay quickly to avoid equally vague “legal action”. These scams aim to instill fear and panic in the receiver and drive them to make an impulsive decision.

Now, these scammers can use the current pandemic and social distancing mandates in their communications. People in Canada have reported receiving communications along the lines of: “We saw you outside and you should be in quarantine. Enclosed is a warrant for your arrest. To avoid arrest you must pay a fine of $50.”

Telephone and in-person scams

Not all scams take place online. People around the world have also had would-be scammers target their phones and even their front doors.

In telephone scams, the scammer typically poses as a medical official, tells the recipient that their relative has fallen ill with the coronavirus, and demands payment for their medical bills.

In Suffolk, England, it has been reported that scammers have targeted senior citizens, posing as members of the British Red Cross. After offering to perform the target’s grocery shopping in exchange for a fee, they disappeared with the money.

How you can avoid falling victim to a COVID-19 scam

Now that you’re familiar with the most common types of coronavirus scam, you should have an easier time recognizing the difference between a legitimate communication and a fraudulent one. We’d like to share a few final words of advice for protecting yourself in these turbulent times.

  1. Be cautious on the phone and online. Don’t answer every call and email without question. Be discerning, particularly when you don’t know the other party. If you receive a call from an unknown number, let it go to voicemail. If you receive a suspicious-looking email, send it straight to your spam or trash folder. Don’t click on links and attachments from unknown senders, and never provide sensitive information to an unknown party. And if you haven’t updated your computer recently, do so now, and make sure that your antivirus and anti-malware programs are up to date.
  2. Verify sender identities. Anyone can claim to be anyone online. If you receive an email that claims to be from an official organization, check to make sure that their email address is legitimate (you can even cross-check with the address provided on their website). If an online retailer promises products, research the vendor and look for reviews from verified customers. For charities, use an online charity verification tool such as Check-A-Charity (USA), Charity Search (UK), or Charity Register (Australia).
  3. Take your time and consider the situation. Many of these scams rely on you panicking and making an impulsive purchase or decision. But if you stop, take a moment, and reread that email or listen to that voicemail again, it’s likely that you’ll see where things don’t make sense. Ask yourself: “Does this make sense? Is this too good to be true?”
  4. Act quickly if you fall victim. If you click on a link in an email or enter your personal information into a suspicious page, change your password immediately. If you’ve made a payment or transferred money to a party that you suspect is fraudulent, call your bank immediately. They may be able to cancel the transaction. At the very least, they will be able to investigate the situation and alert the authorities.

During these uncertain times, it can be difficult to keep up with the rapid influx of information and updates, and to know what’s legitimate and what’s a hoax. Ultimately, the most important things for you to do are to verify everything, be wary of unknown contacts, and use your common sense.

We hope that you and your loved ones continue to stay safe. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to reach out.