From unusual and unverified treatments to phishing emails, scammers are leveraging consumers’ fears to steal money and personal information. Many people have already fallen victim to all sorts of COVID-19 scams. These include but are not limited to fake news spread online, phishing emails, fake or unproven medical products and methods, and other fraud schemes.
It’s important that you stay alert and stay informed about common fraud schemes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, we have listed some of the most common COVID-19 scams, together with tips on how to spot them.
Top COVID-19 Scams
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Americans have filed over half a million COVID-19 fraud reports and lost over $509 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
According to the same statistics, consumers aged between 30 and 39 recorded the most COVID-19 fraud reports. Those in the 60-to-69 range showed the highest total of losses due to COVID-19 scams. Email was the commonly reported contact method for COVID-19 fraud, followed by websites or apps as the second most common channel.
A list published by the official government of Northern Ireland shares even more reported COVID-19 scams:
- Online shopping scams where protective face masks, hand sanitizer, and other products are bought but never delivered;
- Sales of fake testing kits or supposed cures for COVID-19;
- Phishing emails related to coronavirus which try to trick users into opening malicious attachments on emails and steal the user’s personal information (passwords, email logins, banking details);
- Fraudsters pretending to belong to genuine organizations, including police officers, bank employees, and the government;
- Fraudsters sharing fraudulent and deceivent investment and trading advice to convince people to take advantage of the coronavirus economic impact;
- Fraudsters targeting vulnerable or isolated people pretending to be from organizations such as the Red Cross offering services for payment;
Money-related fraud is only one side of the coin when it comes to COVID-19 scams. Unverified claims, rumors, conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus can be just as frightening and misleading.
The unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the spread of misinformation, amplified on social media and other digital platforms, is proving to be a threat to global public health as the virus itself.
Unqualified experts have access to platforms where they can share unverified and sometimes even biased claims on what the public should do in terms of vaccination, testing, and preventive measures. It can be increasingly harder to distinguish between reliable and unreliable advice. Reading official resources and listening to experts is more crucial than ever.
The WHO, Wunderman Thompson, the University of Melbourne and Pollfish recently shared the outcomes of a global study investigating how Gen Z and Millennials get information on the COVID pandemic. When asked what COVID-19 information they would likely post on social media, 43.9% of the approximately 23,500 respondents reported they would likely share “scientific” content on their social media.
Indeed, science content is seen as more shareworthy and trustworthy. 59.1% of Gen Z and Millennials surveyed are “very aware” of fake news related to COVID-19. However, the challenge is reporting or actively countering this series of fake news, rather than letting it slide. In this aspect, 35.1% of respondents decide to just ignore it.
Always review the sources behind each claim and news you read. If you are not sure of the reliability of a certain post, you can either search for more details or at least avoid sharing it with your connections.
Rely on instructions and updates from authoritative sources – including FDA, CDC, WHO – or from your local authorities. When in doubt, you can request more information from health professionals or health authorities in your country and area. For example, US citizens can call or contact by email the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to request more information about COVID-19 and its treatments.
Smishing, Phishing, and Vishing
Scammers can use links in text messages and emails to install malicious code on users’ devices or launch a phony webpage to collect personal, health insurance, or financial information for use in other scams. This type of fraud is called “smishing”, “phishing”, or “vishing”, according to the process and the extent of this malicious behaviour.
Smishing refers to text messages sent by fraudulent people asking for sensitive information regarding your credentials, family, business, people one has lost in the pandemic, etc. Phishing is nearly the same thing, except that it’s done through phony emails. Lastly, vishing refers to phone calls from suspicious unofficial sources asking for sensitive information or giving unsolicited advice.
For example, people have reported receiving emails and text messages asking them to fill out a limited-time survey about the Pfizer, Moderna, or AstraZeneca vaccine in exchange for a “free reward,” for which they’re asked to pay shipping fees.
A solution and form of prevention against getting scammed is to not reveal any sensitive information to a non-governmental authority. You can also install antivirus and anti-theft software on your devices. People can collectively avoid getting scammed by blocking suspicious contacts and emails as well reporting them to the COVID-19 scams helpline.
Recently, people have been receiving fraudulent text messages and other forms of communication from scammers posing as health officials, claiming to offer Coronavirus vaccines.
On several occasions, these text messages or emails include a link, which takes users to a fake webpage where they are asked to confirm their address and provide their bank details.
Fake vaccination centers with unauthorized personnel and fake vaccines pop up as more and more people try to get their jabs. In some places, people are also being scammed into paying for vaccines that are free of all costs.
To find out which vaccination centers are legitimate, check the state and federal government’s websites for a list of certified centers nearby you. Moreover, vaccines are provided on behalf of the government to everyone for free. In case you have been charged for a vaccine, you can report this case to your local or state authorities.
Many unscrupulous parties are waiting for any excuse to take advantage of unsuspecting individuals during these difficult times. Although several government institutions are sharing useful information to prevent and resolve any COVID-19 scams, people are encouraged to be vigilant of everything they see and hear.
The tactics used by scammers are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. Many schemes are disguised as business opportunities, investment schemes, and other alluring benefits. In particular, the Malaysia Security Commission shared the advice of not falling into one of the following promises:
- Investment with guaranteed profit
- Too good to be true
- Offer for a limited time only
- Huge returns/profit
While these promises can not cover all the COVID-19 scams we mentioned earlier, the general advice is to pay attention to any red flag that can suggest a potential scam, especially when you are required to enter any personal or financial information.
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