6 Scams to Avoid During Coronavirus

As the coronavirus endures, more are taking advantage of the people's vulnerabilities for their own gain. Here are the scams you should be looking out for.

As of April 2020, the United States government will start distributing $1200 checks for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities (CARES) Act funds. Recipients qualify based on their most recent tax returns or social security information. While some people may not receive their checks until September, the goal is to help Americans during this financially challenging time. 

Unfortunately, coronavirus scams are on the rise. Cybercriminals are working overtime to gain access to your persona, social security and financial information. 

The COVID-19 outbreak has Americans scared right now — financial concerns, equipment shortages and job losses are some of the most common reasons why. This stress leaves people susceptible to scams and fraud. Online sales of counterfeit products and services, as well as phishing email scams, can target and take advantage of unsuspecting victims. 

Government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are on the front lines cracking down on COVID-19 scams. 

Here are six scams to be aware of during the coronavirus pandemic and tips on how to avoid them.  

1. Phishing Email and Ransomware Scams

Email phishing and malware scams are on the rise and could infect the computers of thousands of Americans and businesses. In 2019, the FBI’s online Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reported 467,361 cybercrime complaints.

Phishing scams involve sending fake emails or creating apps that trick people into downloading computer viruses that can steal identity, account passwords, banking and credit card information, or social security information.  

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. 

Graphic: How to Avoid Email and Ransomware Scams

Fake anti-virus notifications — also known as “ransomware” — run rampant on the internet. With the majority of companies working from home, cyber attackers are creating fake VPNs (virtual private networks). A VPN allows users to extend private networks instead of using public networks. This enables the protected sharing of confidential files, documents and resources. 

When used by cyber attackers, they’re essentially able to go unnoticed. The fake VPNs allow cyber attackers to send ransomware into the network. If downloaded, access to the company data, computers and cell phones become locked. The hackers then request payment from victims to regain access. 

How to Prevent

To prevent cyber attackers from entering your VPN network, consider using multi-factor authentication for your online accounts.

When a password is entered, the multi-factor authentication will send a notification and an access code to your cell phone or email for verification. It will alert you if alternate devices are attempting to gain access. 

This makes it harder for hackers to steal your passwords and gain access to your important documents, photos, contacts and financial information. If you receive a potential phishing email, check the name on the email. Is it to you, or addressed with a generic phrase like “Sir” or “Madam?” 

With a steady rise in employees and businesses operating remotely, these threats should be taken seriously. It’s important to be aware of your financial security and use the FTC’s list of tips to recognize some of these scams. 

2. Fake Coronavirus-related Websites

Reports of fake coronavirus websites are all over the internet and social media. The websites report fake information, claim to have cures for COVID-19 or attempt to extort funds from unsuspecting visitors. 

Cybersecurity firm Risk IQ tweeted a report identifying emerging suspicious websites that incorporate coronavirus and similar language. Companies can compare the website addresses to investigate potentially malicious attacks. It’s unclear which and how many of the tracked websites are fraudulent, but verifying potential suspicious activity shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

But it’s not only remote employees that are affected. 

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was recently victimized by a cyber attack. A hacker posted a fake bulletin identifying several Carson, California, businesses as infected public areas, causing fear and uncertainty in the community. The Los Angeles County Health Department confirmed the document was a fake, and the sheriff’s department and FBI are investigating the coronavirus hoax

Graphic: Example of Coronavirus Scam

Authorities have a zero-tolerance policy for these malicious acts. The Attorney General issued a statement affirming this and encouraging victims to report attacks.

How to Prevent

As reports develop, it’s best to seek out authoritative news sources such as the World Health Organization or Google’s COVID-19 webpage for updates. Businesses should keep an open line of communication with their employees. Inform them of any changes, updates or potential threats that occur with their networks. 

3. Coronavirus Stimulus Check Tax Refund Fraud 

As taxpayers wait for their tax refunds and stimulus money, the FTC has an eye out for potential scammers. The agency warns Americans against payment scams and responding to unfamiliar texts, emails or phone calls about personal and financial information. 

IC3 received 3,600 coronavirus payments scam complaints as of April 21, 2020. One common scam includes fake IRS stimulus website domains. The agency is investigating these web addresses and contacting the companies that manage the domains to take down the websites. 

YouMail, a robocall blocking service, reported that 13.7 billion robocalls have been made so far in 2020. While not all of the calls have been related to tax refunds or economic impact payments, the fact that it’s tax season and there’s a global pandemic makes this even more complicated. 

To avoid being scammed about IRS payments, always question the phrasing used regarding your stimulus check. The IRS stated that the official term used regarding the CARES Act stimulus relief is “economic impact payment.”

Be sure to avoid sources that call it something different, such as a “stimulus check” or “tax refund.”

Graphic: How to Discern Scam Emails

How to Prevent

The IRS has extended the 2020 tax deadline and won’t call or text you about the expected arrival dates of your stimulus check or tax refund. Going to their Get My Payment webpage is the most secure way to find out details about the status of your stimulus check.  

4. Coronavirus Vaccines, Remedies and Online Tests 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet authorized any online tests or vaccines for COVID-19. The agency released a statement, citing several companies caught selling “coronavirus products.” Any company seeking FDA approval must go through an extensive process, but people are still turning to these fraudulent tests and products. Many of these fake treatments are hazardous to people’s health and are just attempts for scammers to make money. 

A church in Louisville, Kentucky, is being investigated for hosting an illegitimate coronavirus testing site. Unknown to the church officials, the medical marketing company that contacted them was running a scam. Local law enforcement is investigating the suspected marketing company and several other pop-up testing sites throughout the city.  

Graphic: FDA Authorization Scams

How to Prevent

Coronavirus testing is available in all 50 states, but access may vary depending on your location. Check with your local health department to get up-to-date details on authorized testing locations and information. 

5. Fake Coronavirus Mobile Apps and Online Promotions 

Tech giants Apple and Google have cracked down on fake COVID-19 websites, apps and promotions, like corona live 1.1, which claims to help track coronavirus but actually surveills downloaders. The companies are partnering to prevent the spread of misinformation and creating a coronavirus tracking tool

Apple has collaborated with the CDC to create a COVID-19 screening tool that updates search information. Google has a nonprofit COVID-19 page to keep organizations connected and help employees transition to working remotely. Google is also using its help center to answer health-related questions. 

Graphic: Apple's COVID-19 Screening Tool

How to Prevent

To help prevent the spread of misinformation, visit Apple’s coronavirus website and mobile app for questions and recommendations. Siri is also now connected to the new COVID-19 app. You can visit Google’s coronavirus resources page to learn about trending coronavirus data and safety prevention tips.  

6. Online Sales of Fake Personal Protective Equipment 

Facebook and Amazon have watchful eyes on scammers that sell fake personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirator N95 masks that aren’t approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The online platforms are blocking new listings and promotions for masks, hand sanitizer, rubber gloves and other related supplies to regulate price gouging and fake goods.  

Facebook product director Robby Luther tweeted that the company is banning ads and the sale of medical masks on the social media platform. Similarly, Amazon is only allowing authorized frontline organizations to use its COVID-19 portal for ordering face masks, protective shields and other scarce safety supplies.

Graphic: Amazon Selling Limits

While these products are listed on Amazon, they are reserved for hospitals, medical facilities, government agencies and frontline organizations. The website is also banning sellers that price gouge products.  

How to Prevent

If you come across a seller offering such products, check the seller’s ratings and buyer comments. Amazon will cancel orders from sellers that violate the company’s current policy. If you use Facebook Marketplace, be wary of profiles listing these products. If you suspect that someone is selling counterfeit PPE products, report it on the FBI’s tips website.       

Cybercriminals and fraudulent companies are attempting to take advantage of anyone they can during this global pandemic. Government agencies and tech companies are cracking down on criminals, but more appear everyday. 

While we wait for an FDA-approved vaccine and the end of stay at home orders, make sure to protect yourself and loved ones from potential scams during the coronavirus pandemic. These fraud prevention tips are a start to help you avoid potential coronavirus scams. If you’re still unsure, visit one of the listed government agency websites for confirmation and more details.