Coronavirus scams are spreading nearly as fast as the virus itself. As of Jan. 21, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had logged nearly 327,000 consumer complaints related to COVID-19 and stimulus payments, 69 percent of them involving fraud or identity theft. Victims have reported losing $309.4 million, with a median loss of $306.
Fraudsters are using the full suite of scam tools — phishing emails and texts, bogus social media posts, robocalls, impostor schemes, and more — and closely following the headlines, adapting their messages and tactics as new medical and economic issues arise.
For example, with the government granting emergency authorization of the first COVID-19 vaccines, federal and state agencies are warning of a flood of vaccine scams, with phony websites and email campaigns promising easy and early access to coronavirus shots. Authorities also anticipate a fresh wave of stimulus scams with Congress approving new rounds of relief payments, enhanced unemployment benefits, and small business loans.
Here are some coronavirus scams to look out for.
In-demand products and bogus cures
Since the start of the pandemic, fraudsters have been bombarding consumers with pitches for phony remedies, and that’s unlikely to abate as the vaccines roll out and new tests hit the market.
The FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have sent dozens of warnings to companies selling unapproved products they claim can cure or prevent COVID-19. Teas, essential oils, cannabinol, colloidal silver, and intravenous vitamin-C therapies are among supposed antiviral treatments hawked in clinics and on websites, social media, and television shows as defenses against the pandemic.
The FBI says con artists are advertising fake COVID-19 antibody tests in hopes of harvesting personal information they can use in identity theft or health insurance scams.
Other scammers claim to be selling or offering in-demand supplies such as masks, test kits, and household cleaners, often in robocalls, texts, or social media ads. The FTC has issued warnings to companies suspected of abetting coronavirus robocalls, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set up a dedicated website with information on COVID-19 phone scams.
The $900 billion economic relief package passed by Congress on Dec. 21 is set to boost unemployment benefits by $300 a week and deliver $600 stimulus checks to millions of Americans in early 2021. As with the first round of pandemic aid under the CARES Act, it’s likely to unleash a wave of schemes to steal government payments. Within days of the bill’s approval, the Better Business Bureau was reporting incidents of scammers soliciting fees or personal information to supposedly speed relief payments.
Watch out for calls, texts, or emails, purportedly from government agencies, that instructs you to click a link, pay a fee or “confirm” personal data like your Social Security number to secure your stimulus check. Another common con comes via social media, in scam Facebook messages promising to get you “COVID-19 relief grants.”
With economic anxiety high, crooks are also impersonating banks and lenders, offering bogus help with bills, credit card debt or student loan forgiveness. Small businesses are being targeted, too, with scammers reaching out to owners with phony promises to help them secure federal disaster loans or improve Google search results.
The outbreak has also spawned stock scams. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning investors about fraudsters touting investments in companies with products that supposedly can prevent, detect or cure COVID-19. Buy those stocks now, the tipsters say, and they will soar in price.
It’s a classic penny-stock fraud called “pump and dump.” The con artists have already bought the stocks, typically for a dollar or less. As the hype grows and the stock price increases, they dump the stock, saddling other investors with big losses.
The pandemic has brought about “significant increases in broad-based and targeted phishing campaigns,” according to a July 30 alert from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).
Since January, tens of thousands of new website domains have been registered with terms related to COVID-19 and the response to it, such as “quarantine,” “vaccine” and “CDC,” FinCEN says. The Justice Department has shut down hundreds of these suspect sites, which promise vaccines and other aid, often in the guise of government agencies or humanitarian organizations.
If you contact one of those malicious domains, you could start getting phishing emails from fraudsters in an attempt either to plant malware on your computer or to get your personal information. Google reported in April that its Gmail platform was blocking 18 million such messages a day.
The FTC and the Justice Department issued an alert about phishing texts and phone calls that are supposedly from contact tracers, warning you that you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19. The scam texts include a link that, if clicked, downloads malware to your device. (Messages from actual contact tracers working for public health agencies will not include a link, or ask you for money or personal data.)
These communications often appear to be from real businesses or government agencies, and clicking on links or downloading attached files could import a program that uses your internet connection to spread more malware, or digs into your personal files looking for passwords and other information for purposes of identity theft.
Be careful when you browse for information about coronavirus. Developing and testing vaccines for viruses takes a long time, and you’ll hear about them first from a legitimate source, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO).
And make sure you are going to the genuine CDC and WHO websites: Scammers are impersonating them, too.