Coronavirus: Common scams to watch out for

Scammers are cashing in on public fears — here's how to stay safe.

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Widespread anxiety, supply shortages and a surge of misinformation have created the perfect storm for scammers to capitalize on coronavirus. While the Internet is a critical tool for communication and information during this time, it also provides a platform for scammers to prey on people at their most susceptible.

Finder has compiled a list of the common scams to watch out for, along with tips for protecting yourself online.

Common coronavirus scams

1. Scammers posing as the IRS

On April 2nd, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a warning to taxpayers to be on the lookout for phone calls, emails, text messages and social media posts from scammers posing as IRS officials.

These criminals might ask you to verify or provide your financial information so you can get your stimulus check faster. But don’t be duped — the IRS will never call you or send emails to verify such details. And retirees should be especially careful, as many scammers are preying on older Americans specifically.

Aside from asking for your personal information, the IRS warns that these criminals might also:

  • Mail you a bogus check for an odd amount — then ask you to call or verify info online to cash it
  • Ask you to sign over your stimulus check to them
  • Use terms like stimulus check or stimulus payment — this is a clear red flag, since the IRS only uses the official term economic impact payment

If you receive any unsolicited emails, phone calls or messages from a potential scammer, notify the IRS by emailing phishing@irs.gov or following the steps outlined on the IRS website.

2. Phishing emails

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned against fake emails attempting to steal personal information and money. Criminals disguised as WHO officials have been targeting the public with emails that ask for sensitive information like account passwords and usernames. Victims have been tricked into clicking malicious links or opening malicious attachments.

The WHO has confirmed that it will never ask for personal information or ask you to visit a link outside of www.who.int. Read the organization’s full cybersecurity statement here.

Other reported phishing scams include “doctors” claiming to know about a vaccine, offers for a COVID-19 tax rebate and requests for donations to help fund vaccine research.

3. Phishing text messages

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned of coronavirus-themed phishing scams being sent via text message and email. The messages may contain real information from a reputable source with a phony link or it may come from someone claiming to be with a government organization. Don’t give out personal information, including your Social Security number, logins or passwords, via email or text.

4. Fake vaccinations and medical treatment

The WHO has confirmed that there is no known cure for coronavirus at this stage. Current treatments are based on the type of care given for influenza and other respiratory illnesses. With this in mind, be wary of websites or emails offering vaccines, pills or medication claiming to treat or cure the disease.

5. Fake medical advice

Coronavirus “cures” or prevention myths have also been circulating on social media and the Internet. These include gargling bleach, ingesting “drinkable silver” or drinking water every 15 minutes to push the virus into your stomach where the stomach acid will kill the bacteria. Celebrity-endorsed “virus protection guides” have also been promoted online, despite their authors having no medical experience or training.

Remember, this is a new virus that we haven’t seen before. This means articles or emails claiming that certain supplements or products can “cure” or prevent the disease are fake. The most reliable health information comes from sources like the government, the WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Steer clear of celebrity endorsements or fake websites.

6. Counterfeit face masks

Worldwide demand for protective face masks has led to a global shortage. As a result, there’s been a surge in counterfeit face masks available on Amazon, Facebook and Craigslist. Cybercriminals on the dark web have also been selling fake masks to exploit the shortage.

These counterfeit masks haven’t been approved by the CDC and offer little to no protection against preventing the spread of germs. Top-selling face mask companies have warned against counterfeit masks and recommend that consumers purchase from a reputable brand to ensure they’re protected. The CDC has provided a guide to recognizing counterfeit masks here.

7. Price gouging on health and sanitation products

Increased demand for products like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and face masks has led to widespread panic buying and stock shortages. Some eBay and Amazon sellers are capitalizing on the surge in consumer demand, with health products like hand sanitizer selling for as much as $400 online.

Amazon has cracked down on price gouging in the US by restricting the types of accounts that can sell sanitation products. The company has also removed millions of products making fake coronavirus claims and banned sellers that have jacked up their prices for health items. Both Amazon and eBay are also working towards removing any listings guilty of price gouging.

8. Coronavirus trackers

Coronavirus tracking dashboards have been promoted online as a way to keep up to date with the spread of the virus. But an investigation by Reason Security found that some of these coronavirus maps contain harmful malware, like the AZORult malware.

Downloading this software onto your computer can give hackers access to your personal information. This includes your browser history, social media account logins and bank account or cryptocurrency information.

While it’s wise to keep informed, you should be relying on respected media outlets or government sites for information.

How to spot fake facts

Counterfeit products and cyber scams aren’t the only things to watch out for. Fake news should also be on your radar. Because COVID-19 is a new virus, health authorities have been reluctant to release new information unless they’re assured it’s correct.

But this has fueled the spread of fake news, conspiracies and misinformation online, primarily on forums like Reddit and Twitter. These sites may spread false information about unproven and possibly unsafe treatments or infected suburbs and areas to avoid.

Below are some tips for weeding out fact from fiction:

  • Check your sources. How legitimate is this information? Has it come from an official government website, a credible authority or a random website? You should rely on respected news outlets and government websites for the most up-to-date information on coronavirus.If you access information on public forums like Reddit, keep an eye out for tags like “Rumors – unconfirmed source.” Reddit has recently installed these measures to help users distinguish between real information and fake conspiracies.
  • Check the author. Are they a well-known journalist or medical spokesperson? Has their work been published across respected media outlets or publications? A quick online search will give a good indication of their public presence and how valid their claims are.
  • Check the images. Does the story include “exclusive” images? If so, it’s worth doing a Google reverse search to check their legitimacy and ensure they haven’t been published elsewhere.
  • Does this story support what the mainstream media is saying? Are other media outlets circulating this information? Does it claim to be breaking news? If not, it has likely been rejected by media outlets or is a bogus piece of information.
  • Does the source claim to have a cure? If so, it’s probably fake.

Quick tips for protecting yourself from online scams

  • Don’t open attachments from suspicious senders. Don’t click on links from sources you don’t know.
  • Visit the World Health Organization or your country’s Center for Disease Control website for the latest information. Don’t rely on email.
  • Before purchasing from an online business, check for a valid URL and do a Google search to find out if they’ve been around for a while and have positive reviews.
  • Make sure all you update all your current software. It can be worth updating or changing your passwords to be extra careful.
  • Steer clear of products that claim to treat or prevent coronavirus, and ignore any claims about a vaccine.
  • Do your homework before making a donation. If someone is pressuring you to donate via cash, a gift card or money wire, don’t do it.
  • If you have fallen victim to online card fraud, contact your bank or card issuer immediately.

Bottom line

The COVID-19 pandemic has been spreading rapidly, and scammers have been using it as an opportunity to spread false information and fear while scamming people out of their money. Trust in official government communications and follow the FTC’s guidelines to avoid being scammed.

Visit Finder’s coronavirus hub for the latest information, tips and guides.

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