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Coronavirus: common scams to watch out for

What to watch out for, and how to protect yourself.

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Updated 5 April 2020.

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 www.who.int. Read the organisation’s full cybersecurity statement here.

Phishing calls

The Singapore Police Force (SPF) has warned of coronavirus-themed phishing scams being sent in Singapore through automated voice calls. These scammers are impersonating as MOH staff or contact tracing team, requesting for users to provide personal information such as financial details, or collect documents from the Ministry. MOH has also confirmed that it will not make such requests during contact tracing.

Phishing text messages

The police are also aware of the circulation of text messages directing unsuspecting victims to websites in order to make monetary claims purportedly from the Resilience Budget.

If you receive any messages claiming to be sent by a government body, make sure to ignore and do not forward them to others. These messages may also include malicious links that are designed to steal your personal information, financial details and Internet banking login credentials. We advise you 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, 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 Ministry of Health (MOH). Steer clear of celebrity endorsements or fake websites.

Online purchase scams

Recently, five individuals have been arrested for e-commerce scams involving the sale of face masks on Carousell, a popular online marketplace in Singapore. The sellers became uncontactable after the victims had made payment via bank transfers.

Similar scam cases also involve malicious sellers attempting to con consumers by providing some form of assurance, such as receiving payments through a Singapore bank account or provide a copy of an NRIC or driver’s licence. If you wish to make an online purchase, make sure to be vigilant and avoid deals that sound too good to be true.

How to spot fake facts

Counterfeit products and cyberscams 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 fuelled the spread of fake news, conspiracies and misinformation online, primarily on forums like Reddit and Twitter. These sites may spread false information around 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 such as MOH’s dedicated page 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 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 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 Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) 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 UEN to ensure its validity.
  • 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 bank transfer, don’t do it.
  • Check ScamAlert 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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