COVID-19 Scams: How to Spot and Avoid Them

COVID-19 Scams: How to Spot and Avoid Them

March 31, 2020 9 min read

Scammers see times of fear and difficulty as an opportunity to try to manipulate people into giving up sensitive information or downloading malicious software to facilitate data theft. This applies to all sorts of online scams and is the case now with the coronavirus pandemic affecting the entire world.

Although the risk of scams is rising, here you’ll find out how to spot a COVID-19 scam and how to avoid it.

COVID-19 scams: how bad are they?

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.

While it’s true that Interpol has dealt with at least 30 frauds related to Coronavirus to date, you can avoid falling victim to scams by learning how to spot them. Firstly, you’ll need to recognize what potential COVID-19 frauds look like.

What do COVID-19 scams look like?

As a starting point, scammers are becoming increasingly creative and resourceful plotters. Their tactics will relate to current events concerning the Coronavirus outbreak, making their communication seem relevant and urgent. Here we list some of the COVID-19 scams reported across the world.

Phishing emails

A phishing email is one that appears to mimic that of a legitimate entity. It typically uses the same brand name, logo, colors and slogan of the company it’s trying to imitate.

The aim is to use the credibility of an established brand or company name 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. This has been a staple COVID-19 scam attempt.

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.

Below is an example of a phishing email claiming to be from the CDC. Note the malicious link at the bottom that you are invited to click on.

Investment scams

Investment scams, otherwise known as “pump and dump” schemes, are run by small, publicly-traded companies that issue microcap stocks. These are low-priced stocks that fraudsters “pump up” (or increase its 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.

Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, many pump and dump schemes have arisen, claiming that their company’s products or services will be used to help prevent, detect or cure the Coronavirus. With promises of high returns, investors buy the microcap stocks, unsuspecting that it’s yet another COVID-19 scam.

Investment scams are communicated through a variety of channels: social media, investment newsletters, online adverts, emails or chat-room posts in trading forums.

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. Scammers know that they’re in short supply and in high demand by those wishing to protect themselves or their loved ones from infection.

A large proportion of the so-called protective masks are either ineffective counterfeits, or they simply don’t exist. In the UK, a buyer reported having lost over £15,000 on a purchase of masks that were never delivered. Other related retail frauds include purported “miracle cures” against the Coronavirus.

The 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, a staple of COVID-19 fraud schemes. The offending products include teas, essential oils, tinctures, and colloidal silver.

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.

Telephone fraud

With every household now having either a landline or mobile phone, scammers use these as another tool to engage in COVID-19 fraud and capitalize on the Coronavirus to steal money.

Reports have been made of callers posing as medical officials. The impersonator informs the receiver that their relative has fallen sick with COVID-19 and requests payment for medical treatment.

Door-to-door shoppers

While scams committed in person are less common compared to those online or by telephone, a spike has been reported among the elderly population who are at greater risk of mortality post-infection of COVID-19.

Reports in Suffolk, England, have been made regarding people knocking on the doors of the elderly, claiming to be from the British Red Cross. The impersonators offer grocery shopping at the supermarket in exchange for a fee. The fraudsters claim to further public measures to protect the elderly from infection of the Coronavirus.

Victims have reported that once they have handed over their money for the shopping service offered, the provider is never seen again.

Arrest warrant scams

Social distancing measures imposed by many countries to contain the spread of COVID-19 have been used to dupe victims into paying bogus fines.

Reports in Canada have been made by people who receive communications threatening to enforce state laws unless they pay a fine.

The wording of these fraudulent communications is 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.

Scared by the prospect of being arrested or having other legal action taken, many receivers pay the bogus fines demanded from them.

How can I avoid COVID-19 scams?

Although the terrain is constantly changing, we’d like to share with you these six security tips to avoid falling victim to a Coronavirus-related scam.

1.    Practice online and telephone safety

This is perhaps the most important of our COVID-19 security tips: keep your computer security up to date regularly with anti-virus and anti-malware programs. They should be coupled with a robust firewall to prevent any malicious emails from reaching your inbox.

If you suspect a phishing email, don’t open it. If you have, refrain from clicking on any links or attachments. Likewise, if you suspect a robocall to your phone from an unknown number, ignore the call. Let it roll into your voicemail to listen to later.

If you don’t recognize the sender of an email, report it as spam or delete it. In the event that you mistakenly enter your username and password into a webpage that you later believe to be a dubious one, change your user login credentials immediately.

2.    Investigate who it’s from

You may recognize the sender’s name, particularly if you were expecting contact from them. Nevertheless, it’s good practice to verify their website or email address. For example, emails from the World Health Organization will end in @who.int without any variations. If you do see a variation, such as @who.org – this should raise a red flag. It’s best to investigate further before clicking on any links or responding to the email.

3.    Use online verification tools

If the sender claims to be a charity that provides relief for victims affected by the Coronavirus, run it by an online charity verification tool. These will help you check the existence and credentials of registered charities.

If the charity is from the US, you could use Check-A-Charity. If they’re in the UK, you could revert to Charity Search. If the organization is in Australia, use the Charity Register.

This way, you can make sure that your donation will go to those genuinely affected by COVID-19, and not into the back pocket of a fraudster.

4.    Don’t rush into paying upfront

Because the rapid spread of the Coronavirus outbreak is affecting many services around the world, including money transfers, fraudsters are using the situation to persuade targets into taking immediate action. If the sender of the communication in question insists that you “pay now” or before a specified deadline, this should raise a red flag.

Don’t be pressured into making a payment. Give yourself the time you need to investigate or think it over. Talk about it with a friend to gain some objectivity over the transaction, weighing up the pros and cons before you go through with it.

5.    Check out reviews by others

The best way to predict if you’ll be a happy customer is by finding out if the seller has other happy customers to sing their praises.

Google the name of the person or entity in question, together with the word “reviews.” If no search results turn up, be on your guard. This should prompt you to investigate the sender or the transaction further before you part with your cash.

6.    Contact your bank to stop a payment

If you’ve made a payment you’ve subsequently regretted or suspected was a fraud, either online or by phone, call your bank immediately. They may be able to stop the payment before it reaches the recipient.

Even if time has elapsed between the payment and the moment of realization, you should still report it to your bank. They will put in place any necessary steps to get your money back, or they will alert the relevant authorities of the theft.

What have we learned?

The spread of COVID-19 has led to a wave of panic that scammers will try to capitalize on. However, you will be better at recognizing what a potential Coronavirus-related fraud looks like, and less likely to fall victim to any of them. From our side, Ria’s data security team works around the clock to mitigate risk, ensuring your money transfers and data are safe. We’re in this together. Stay safe.

Ready to send money? We’re here for you. Our Ria Money Transfer App is available for iOS and Android – download it today to get started!

About the author

Madeline I. Carcamo

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