6 coronavirus scams to watch out for — & how to avoid them

by Hanna Horvath
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6 coronavirus scams to watch out for — & how to avoid them

Websites promoting fake vaccines. Robocalls offering faster stimulus checks. Fake charities requesting donations. Fraudsters are flourishing in the midst of a pandemic by attempting to gain money or personal information.

Federal authorities, including the FBI, the IRS and the Federal Trade Commission, have all issued advisories warning consumers of scammers looking to prey on people during times of stress.

“When people are scared and desperate, all the scam artists come out of the woodwork,” said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “People are financially vulnerable, scared about rent, their homes, their health. And scammers will take advantage of that.”

Scams, including robocalls, phishing emails and pseudo-scientific cures, have been around forever, said Rheingold. And while recent scams may be different than what you’ve seen before, the end goal is the same — to get your money or your personal information.

The FTC has received more than 22,853 consumer complaints related to COVID-19, including more than 12,383 fraud complaints as of April 21. Victims have reported losses of $17.53 million, with a median loss of $553.

Here are some of the top scams to watch out for and how to avoid them.

1. Medical scams

There are currently no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products approved to treat or cure COVID-19, according to the FTC. Any individual or organization who says differently is likely a scammer. The FTC has exposed seven companies for pushing a fake COVID-19 cure or preventative measure.

“The obvious concern here is that people are taking or injecting themselves with products that don’t work,” said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired physician who runs QuackWatch.org, a blog exposing medical scams and fraud. “Scammers have been promoting products like this for decades. But understand: There’s no vitamin, herb, solution, product, you name it — that can protect you from the coronavirus.”

Medical scams don’t end there. As testing has increased in the past few weeks, fake testing sites have popped up. Some scammers are taking advantage of desperate shoppers by claiming they have masks or other protective equipment for sale.

If a vaccine or prevention method becomes available, the government will notify the public. Until then, it’s best to avoid anyone pushing a medical product related to COVID-19. Barrett advised shoppers on the hunt for medical supplies to stick to well-known online retailers.

Note: Some types of masks, specifically N95 or surgical masks, which offer the most protection and are highly in demand, should be reserved for health care workers who are most exposed to infected patients, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2. Webpage scams

There’s a lot of misinformation about COVID-19, and fraudulent websites have been popping up with click-baiting headlines. Once users enter a false site, malware will infect their computer or phone. Some of these websites claim they have a map highlighting all the cases in one’s area. Others appear to offer official information about social distancing orders or the U.S. government’s recent coronavirus relief bill, said Barrett.

For example, a popular COVID-19 tracking map by Johns Hopkins University was replicated by hackers in an effort to steal user’s passwords, credit card numbers and other data via malware. The fraudulent website has been reported, according to the university.

Consumers should avoid websites that they aren’t familiar with and stick to reputable sources to get information about COVID-19. Confirm a web page is secure by checking:

  • Who issued the website’s certificate (or who verified this website is legitimate).
  • Who the certificate is issued to.
  • The expiration date of the website’s approval. Most certificates must be renewed in one to two years.

Learn more here.

Users looking for reliable, non-malicious COVID-19 trackers can use John Hopkins University’s original map or The New York Times.

3. Cell phone scams

A spam call, like a spam email, is an unsolicited call. Some are robocalls: automated recordings on behalf of telemarketers. Some are scam calls and attempt to deceive you out of money or information. These terms can be interchangeable. Some, but not all robocalls are scams. These scammers will pitch you everything from low-priced health insurance to expedited stimulus checks.

There aren’t any proven options to completely get rid of scam calls, as most illegal scam callers purchase a specific number and manipulate the caller ID to show a different set of numbers. Scammers continually switch numbers to avoid detection. Consumers can put their number on the National Do Not Call Registry, though its success in blocking scam calls varies. Additionally consider purchasing a third-party app, like Nomorobo or Hiya. We’ve got tips here.

Scammers don't always steal money. Your financial and personal information is also at risk. Consider purchasing identity theft insurance to cover any costs incurred if your identity is stolen.

4. Phishing emails

Similar to scam calls, phishing emails and text messages try to get access to your financial information. Some emails and texts will appear to contain official information. Other phishing scams target vulnerable populations and persuade them to buy a fake product or send over their personal information. A popular example is an email that appears to be sent by the government offering a faster stimulus payment in exchange for financial information.

If you receive a potential phishing email to your work email, first contact your IT department. If it’s on a personal account, report it to spam. Don’t respond to emails from senders you don’t know. The IRS and FTC will typically not reach out to you over email, and will not demand personal information over email. The same goes for emails claiming to be the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or World Health Organization. Instead, go to the official website for more information.

5. Donation scams

Good Samaritans may be looking for ways to financially help those affected by the virus. But beware charity scams. Like most other scams, donation schemes can take many different forms, including spoof donation sites and fake charity callers asking for money.

Those looking to donate should consider sticking to charities they are already familiar with. For nationally recognized charities in the U.S., there are laws and regulations in place to ensure your donation money is used properly. Charity watchdogs can help determine if a charity is legitimate.

Here’s how to make sure your charity money actually goes to good.

6. Investment scams

In the midst of a volatile market, scammers may contact investors with the promise of a safe, high-return investment. Be careful. Some fraudsters are even impersonating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation promising bank accounts with “risk-free” returns.

Any investment that promises guaranteed returns is likely a scam (almost no investment is risk-free). The FDIC says it does not send emails or mail asking for personal information or money. So if someone approaches you about an investment that sounds too good to be true — it probably is. If you have questions about a specific investment, contact a financial adviser.

The bottom line

Just say no if you're unsure or unfamiliar with the person or organization contacting you. Never give out any personal information over the phone or email, and report all scams to the FTC.

“The take-home advice is just be ready for them. We are living in a very vulnerable time,” said Rheingold. “When people are scared and desperate, that’s when the worst actors come out. We must be much more cautious right now.”

Have more money questions about COVID-19? We have answers. Check out our FAQ here.

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