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Coronavirus Scams – Real-World Examples & What to Watch Out For

History is rife with stories of tragedy bringing out the best in people. It’s also scarred by examples of the opposite. In times of crisis, the worst among us too often rush to prey upon the rest.

Sadly, the pattern continues during the coronavirus-caused COVID-19 pandemic — the world’s worst outbreak of novel respiratory disease in a century. The disease’s arrival in the United States and the corresponding economic shock has given rise to grifts and deceptions that are sure to continue until the outbreak is over.

COVID-19-related scams come in many forms, from identity theft schemes leveraging the promise of federal stimulus payments to snake oil remedies for a disease with no specific treatment or cure.

Some COVID-19 scams encourage victims to part with their hard-earned money at a time when they can least afford to. Others prey upon our natural inclination to help others in need. Some truly sinister schemes aim to disrupt health care delivery during a period of unprecedented demand for hospital beds and lifesaving medical equipment.

All are actively harmful in one way or another. But you can learn how to spot the telltale signs of each COVID-19 grift and avoid falling victim.

Stimulus Check Scams

United States Treasury Stimulus Check Numbers Calculator

The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic saw governments around the world shoveling money into suddenly declining economies in a collective bid to stave off a global depression. In the U.S., lawmakers and administration officials proposed various stimulus and financial aid measures to support affected industries, cash-strapped small businesses, and millions of suddenly unemployed workers.

One measure that immediately gained traction was a proposal to send direct cash payments to Americans, regardless of how the pandemic affected them. By late March 2020, concrete proposals had come to light. A stimulus bill originating in the U.S. Senate proposed one-time cash payments up to $1,200 for low- to middle-income Americans, while a competing bill released by members of the House offered payments up to $1,500 per person to a broader group of recipients.

Though political wrangling delayed passage of a final measure, scammers didn’t wait to capitalize on the public’s hunger for fast cash in tough times. Common variants include demanding upfront payment for expedited stimulus check delivery and requests for bank account or Social Security numbers to complete payment processing.

A Real-World Example

WCNC Charlotte reported on an email-based scam targeting people in North Carolina (and probably elsewhere). With a subject line heralding the “COVID-19 PANDEMIC STIMULUS PACKAGE,” the message requests the recipient’s bank account and Social Security number.

Possible Variations

WCNC Charlotte’s report demonstrates a standard email phishing scam in action. Implausible as it sounds, well-crafted phishing emails work in a small but nontrivial number of cases, giving scammers who’ve spammed thousands or millions of victims ample personal information to sell or exploit.

The Federal Trade Commission warns of two common stimulus check scam variants:

  1. Asking Victims for Upfront Payment in Exchange for Stimulus Checks. The federal government never asks people to pay out of pocket for cash assistance.
  2. Asking Victims to Take Steps to Expedite Stimulus Check Payments. This is impossible. In reality, the feds will likely send out payments on a staggered schedule based on some objective metric (in 2008, it was the last two digits of the recipient’s Social Security number). Individuals will not be able to change the payment order under any circumstances.

These variants don’t exclusively use email. Scammers deterred by email spam filters turn instead to text messages, robocalls, and even social media messages to reach more victims.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

The best defense against stimulus check scams is extreme skepticism of any emails, calls, or text messages claiming to come from the federal government. Other best practices include:

  • Never, ever responding to electronic requests for personal or sensitive information purporting to come from a government agency. Unless you’re explicitly notified otherwise, official communication from the IRS should arrive by postal mail.
  • Tightening the settings on your email suite’s spam filter to reduce the chances you ever see scam emails.
  • Screening calls from unknown numbers and immediately hanging up on unsolicited sales calls. Listen for a brief blip in the connection before the person on the other end begins speaking — that’s a telltale sign they’re using automated dialing.
  • Ignoring text messages from unknown numbers and social media messages from unknown accounts. Never click links in these messages.
  • Reporting attempted scams to the FTC’s consumer complaint database, your local FBI field office, or your state attorney general office.

Pro tip: If having your information fall into the wrong hands keeps you up at night, consider signing up for an identity theft service like Identity Guard. They use artificial intelligence to monitor billions of pieces of information and alert you about any potential threats to your identity.


Fake Charity Scams

Website You Can Help Donate
Fake charity scams crop up like clockwork after headline-grabbing events like earthquakes, hurricanes, and disease outbreaks. Even in good times, they’re among the most common scams targeting the elderly — though fake charity scammers happily prey on people of all ages.

COVID-19-related fake charity scams follow a familiar pattern: usually emails, social media posts, or robocalls seeking donations to “charities” that don’t exist.

A Real-World Example

To date, no state or federal authorities have announced criminal or civil charges against fake COVID-19 charities. However, the U.S. Department of Justice specifically warns that such scams are likely to become prevalent as the pandemic continues.

Possible Variations

A close cousin to the fake charity scam — one that’s taken on new urgency amid the panic buying and hoarding seen in many parts of the U.S. — is the fake vendor (or supplier) scam.

Fake vendors set up legitimate-looking websites and social media profiles claiming to sell sought-after provisions in short supply, such as surgical masks and disinfectant wipes. Like fake charities, they pocket whatever funds they receive and disappear.

Likewise, be wary of potentially fraudulent fundraising efforts by individuals and families. If you can’t personally confirm that a person or entity claiming COVID-19-related financial woes or medical issues on social media is speaking the truth, don’t donate.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Before donating to a new nonprofit organization, verify its legitimacy using an open-source resource like Charity Navigator or CharityWatch. Don’t patronize organizations with high marketing or administrative costs, as they’re likely to be little more than slush funds for whomever controls them.

If you can’t find a nonprofit in either database, use the IRS’s tax-exempt organization search to verify the organization has even registered as a nonprofit. If the IRS has no record of its existence, steer clear.

More generally, patronize only those organizations you already know and trust. Many regional or national charities, such as the Seattle Foundation and the California Community Foundation, operate COVID-19 response funds.


Coronavirus Treatment Scams & Misinformation

Covid 19 Vaccine Syringe Hospital

Most experts believe an effective preventive vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the specific coronavirus that causes COVID-19, won’t be available until 2021 at the earliest. That timeline could prove optimistic. According to Reuters, there remains no vaccine against either of the coronaviruses responsible for the 2003 SARS and 2012 MERS respiratory disease outbreaks.

For those sickened by the COVID-19 virus, there is no cure or specific treatment. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped scammers and hucksters from promoting snake oil treatments and preventive remedies that do nothing for patients — and in some awful cases, actively harm those who try them.

A Real-World Example

According to The Oakland Press, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil complaint against a Texas-based website claiming to offer cheap COVID-19 vaccine kits from the World Health Organization (WHO). But such kits don’t exist, and a federal judge quickly approved the DOJ’s request to block access to the website. Although the investigation continues, it appears that this particular scammer was simply pocketing victims’ funds.

Possible Variations

The possible variations on this theme are endless. Those specifically flagged by federal and state authorities include:

  • Fraudsters advertising opportunities to invest in COVID-19 treatments or preventive measures.
  • Vendor claims that products not approved to treat COVID-19 can treat COVID-19. Amazon had already seen countless claims of this nature by late February 2020, according to CNBC.

In early March 2020, the FTC sent warning letters to seven companies demanding that they cease claiming products they sold or promoted were effective COVID-19 remedies.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Above all else, remember that there is no cure, vaccine, or specific treatment for COVID-19 as of March 2020. And there are no shortcuts in a global pandemic. The disease’s threat to humanity is unlikely to pass for good until one of two things happen:

  • The pandemic burns itself out after infecting most of the planet’s human inhabitants
  • Manufacturers can produce a safe, effective vaccine at scale

Until credible health authorities like the CDC announce — through official channels, not sketchy emails — that a vaccine is ready for widespread use, believe no one who tells you they alone can defeat COVID-19.


Impersonation Scams

Question Mark In Front Of A Mans Face

Impersonation is one of the oldest tricks in the scammers’ book. It’s only made easier by the Internet, which provides an impenetrable (for laypeople, at least) veneer of anonymity.

Impersonators have adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic by inventing creative ways to convince victims they represent trusted authorities like the WHO, Centers for Disease Control, state health authorities, government benefits providers, and private insurers. Their goal is simple: to extract money or personal information from victims, either voluntarily or through surreptitious malware.

A Real-World Example

The FTC’s coronavirus scams Part 2 notice provides a visual example of this scam: an email purporting to originate from the WHO containing what appears to be valuable information about COVID-19 symptoms and preventive measures.

At first glance, the email seems legitimate. The sender name shows as “World Health Organization,” the WHO’s official logo appears in the header, and the email is signed by a “doctor.” The subterfuge falls apart upon closer inspection thanks in large part to its abrupt, error-riddled prose. (“Symptoms common symptoms include fever,coughcshortness of breath and breathing difficulties.”) But a busy recipient desperate for information about COVID-19 could conceivably miss these red flags and click the malicious “Safety measures” link and download the sender’s malware of choice.

Possible Variations

This real-world example uses an official-seeming email to deliver malware to unsuspecting recipients. Said malware is often ransomware, a program designed to lock users out of their devices unless they pay a monetary ransom to the attacker.

The FTC also warns of:

  • Impersonation emails or text messages that ask recipients to provide bank account information, Social Security numbers, and account IDs and passwords.
  • Emails that co-opt legitimate resources to spread malware or extract valuable information. The FTC cites a scam that displayed the actual Johns Hopkins University coronavirus infections dashboard in a malware-laden message.
  • Phishing emails impersonating someone the recipient knows and trusts. Such emails could purport to contain useful information about COVID-19 or ask the victim to wire funds to help someone fighting the disease.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Skepticism is the best defense against email and text scams. When in doubt, don’t open the message, and definitely don’t click on any links. Additional precautions include:

  • Installing antivirus or antimalware software and keeping it updated
  • Tightening spam filter controls to block more suspicious emails
  • Backing up data to a cloud account (such as Apple’s iCloud or Dropbox) or an external storage device to limit the adverse impact of ransomware
  • Keeping your devices’ (including your phone’s) operating systems up to date
  • Never responding to dubious emails or text messages
  • Securing sensitive accounts with multifactor authentication so no one can access them with a password alone

Health System Hacking Attacks

Hacker Hacking Keyboard Cyber Crime

Even if they don’t meet the technical definition of “scam,” hacking attacks on health care systems and government health agencies affect us all. Every minute a hospital or human services website remains down interferes with the mission of health care professionals, administrators, and government employees sworn to protect the public. Hacking attacks that result in actual data breaches cause direct financial harm to the public by facilitating identity theft — much of which occurs without victims’ direct knowledge.

A Real-World Example

In mid-March 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suffered a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS) designed to slow or crash its systems, according to Bloomberg. The attack came amid the federal government’s increasingly urgent response to the mushrooming outbreak and could have been far more disruptive had the hackers succeeded in taking HHS offline.

Possible Variations

The Electronic Frontier Foundation rounded up some hacking and scamming attempts that hospital systems have already experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Malware-laden emails purporting to contain important information from official authorities, such as the CDC
  • Malware-laden emails purporting to originate from medical suppliers with which the recipient is familiar and that (at first glance) appear to involve official business
  • Emails from trusted senders asking the recipient to click a link to log into a work account, such as an Outlook suite, giving the attacker a back door into their organization’s systems

It’s no accident these examples resemble common variations on the COVID-19 impersonation scam. Because all organizations have employees who are susceptible to deception, the strategies hackers use to gain access to individuals’ computer systems and accounts very often work at scale.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

For frontline health care employees and those in supporting roles, such as health care IT, insurance, and public administration, the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers guidance on spotting and avoiding hacking attempts:

  • Always check that an apparent known sender’s email matches perfectly with prior communications from that sender. Even a one-character discrepancy is a sign the message is not genuine.
  • Avoid clicking or tapping on suspicious links. If you can mouse over the link without clicking, inspect and compare it with similar links you know to be genuine.
  • Don’t download attachments from unfamiliar senders.
  • Use another medium (for instance, the telephone) to contact the sender and ask if the message is genuine.

Final Word

The COVID-19 pandemic is without precedent in living memory. But one aspect of the crisis is distressingly familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the news in recent years: an explosion in scamming and exploitation, turbocharged by the Internet.

And these are only the most common COVID-related scams and attacks. This list doesn’t even encompass grifts that fail to rise to the level of a true scam, such as individuals and shady online retailers charging exorbitant prices for sought-after supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. No one should have to pay 10 times the going price for products that could prevent illness.

It would be wonderful if terrible circumstances didn’t so reliably bring out the worst in people. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s eventual end will do nothing to change that. Your best bet is to arm yourself with knowledge of how scammers operate and an abundance of caution.

Have you been targeted by any of these COVID-19 scams or attacks? Have you seen any scams that aren’t on this list?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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