Coronavirus: common scams to watch out for

Posted: 19 March 2020 7:46 am

Hands holding a world globe in a light-filled room.

As COVID-19 (coronavirus) continues to spread around the globe, scammers are cashing in on public fears around the pandemic.

Widespread anxiety, supply shortages and a surge of misinformation have created the perfect storm for scammers to capitalise 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.

From malicious emails to fake medical cures, coronavirus scams are now multiplying by the day. With the virus showing no sign of slowing down, it’s important to arm yourself with the facts to prevent falling victim to a scam.

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

Common coronavirus scams

Phishing emails

The World Health Organisation (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 Read the organisation’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.

Phishing text messages

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has warned of coronavirus-themed phishing scams being sent in Australia via text message. The texts appear to come from ‘GOV’ and include a link to find out ‘when to get tested in your geographical area’ for COVID-19. This link is malicious and if clicked on, may install harmful software onto your device designed to steal your personal information.

These sorts of scams usually appear in New Zealand very shortly after. CERT NZ advises Kiwis to be sceptical of information that comes from unofficial sources. Make sure to keep your anti-virus software up-to-date and to report suspected malware or phishing attempts.

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.

Fake medical advice

Coronavirus “cures” or prevention myths have also been circulating on social media and the Internet. These include gargling bleach, eating “hot peppers” or drinking water every 15 minutes to push the virus into your stomach where the stomach acid kills 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, which 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 Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Steer clear of celebrity endorsements or fake websites.

Counterfeit face masks

Worldwide demand for protective facemasks 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 recognising counterfeit masks here.

Price gouging on health and sanitation products

Increased demand for products like toilet paper, hand sanitiser and facemasks has led to widespread panic buying and stock shortages. Some Amazon and Trade Me sellers are capitalising on the surge in consumer demand, with health products like hand sanitiser selling for as much as $400 online.

Amazon has cracked down on price gouging 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. However, Trade Me has said they don’t regulate the prices of items on their website and the prices are “simply market forces at work”.

Coronavirus trackers

Coronavirus tracking dashboards have been promoted online as a way to keep up-to-date with the spread of the virus. However, an investigation by Reason Security found that some of these coronavirus maps contain harmful malware (AZORult). Downloading this software onto your computer can give hackers access to your personal information, which 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.

Purchase, pickup and delivery scams

While there have been many genuine Kiwis helping out with collecting supplies for elderly neighbours and those in self-isolation, reports of dishonest people are starting to emerge. Scammers are asking for cash upfront to purchase items and then disappearing with the money. If you need help with grocery shopping or collecting prescriptions, make sure to ask a neighbour, friend or family member that you can trust.

Positive test result voicemail

Waikato Police have reported a scam where people are receiving a voicemail that states they have tested positive for coronavirus. They are then asked to provide their credit card details to be able to get medication.

If you receive a message of this sort, do not give out your personal information. The police advise that “healthcare workers will never request credit card details over the phone.”

Red Cross collectors

Scammers posed as Red Cross collectors in Southland, going door to door to ask for donations for the charity. There were no charity collectors out and about during the lockdown period, so if you do see anyone acting suspiciously, report the behaviour to the police.

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. However, this has fuelled the spread of fake news, conspiracies and misinformation online, primarily on forums like Reddit and Twitter. These sites may spread false information about infected suburbs and areas to avoid or covered-up cures.

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 “Rumours-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 gives 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 is 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 Organisation or your country’s Centre for Disease Control website for the latest information. Don’t rely on email. There are also several coronavirus hotlines you can call.
  • Before purchasing from an online business, check for a valid URL and look up the ABN to ensure its validity.
  • Make sure 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.
  • Follow @CERTNZ to keep up to date with the latest coronavirus scams.
  • If you have fallen victim to online card fraud, contact your bank or card issuer immediately.

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

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