The corona pandemic has gotten the attention of all of us. Sadily, that includes con men looking to maliciously take advantage of the widespread fear among people. According to a study done by Next Caller, 32% of Americans (sample size 1000) have been targeted for COVID-19 related scams.
Victims of the scams suffer varying degrees of financial losses. How can we keep our financial assets safe and away from those scammers?
First, let’s get familiarized with the types of COVID-19 scams. Then, let’s find out what we should do to protect ourselves from them.
In a broad sense, this refers to any scam related to the current Corona pandemic. The con men may mention the word COVID-19 directly or not. Regardless, they use the fear and panic from the current situation. In fact, most scam attempts can be boiled down to maliciously using one’s vulnerable state of mind, and the use of fear and panic are classic tactics utilized to take advantage of such vulnerabilities. In that vein, COVID-19 is not new in terms of it being susceptible to scams. Had the widespread social issue been something other than COVID-19, we’d expect similar scams centered around the issue.
Just to show you how much attention COVID-19 is receiving in the US, I took the following information from Google Trends.
As all con men do, they want illegal gains. As their goal is clear, what they target is somewhat within our expectation: unauthorized information that will lead to unwarranted financial gains. Social security number, bank account number, credit card number and password, Medicare ID number, birthday, and your licence numbers are all part of the list these con men try to get out of you. Ultimately, they use this sensitive information to access your money or gain profits from selling them to third parties.
What makes scams sneaky and dangerous, even as we know what they target, are the diverse and creative methods that trick us into acting the way they intend us to do without much suspicion.
Con men make their initial contact in diverse ways. They approach you in person, call your number, or send text messages or emails. Some scam calls automatically connect you to a premium number that could cost you a fortune.
In modern society, online scams are the new hot potato. Check Point, a cyber security company, says that there are more than 4,000 newly registered domains worldwide that are related to the coronavirus. Among them, 3% were found to be malicious. You may stumble unto scamming websites via social media, advertisements, or search engines. Please stay vigilant as there can be more scamming websites yet to be discovered.
BBC News reports that there has been a 667% increase in the number of malicious emails during the COVID-19 crisis. According to the news, scammers are sending 18,000,000 COVID-19 related fraud emails using Google accounts.
When you receive a suspicious email, pay extra attention to see if it has an attachment. Once you click the attachment or the link, it may trigger automatic download of malware to your computer. Once infected, your device leaks your personal information. There are 390,000 new and mutated malware found daily, and these malware may find their way to your personal devices via other routes including drive-by download and infected USB devices.
As we mentioned before, we are well aware of the malware, phone scams, and voice phishing associated with scams. Yet there are still victims of COVID-19 scams. Let’s better protect ourselves by taking a look at five types of scenarios COVID-19 scammers frequently use to prey on their victims.
Google Trends shares keyword search results during the COVID-19 lockdown. The data reveals increased demand for healthcare products such as facial masks and hand sanitizer, which matches our expectation. It also demonstrates our expectation that scammers target the very same areas for their fraudulent schemes.
NBC News recently reported that two men in California were arrested for their fraudulent business practice. These men raised funds from potential investors with their business plan of selling 40,000,000 respirator masks in NYC for two or three times the purchase price to people. It turns out that the entire plan was fraudulent; not only did their brochure include fake registration marks nor did they have any actual masks of any kind.
An English media platform, Sky News reported that more than 800,000 GBP has been swindled from people trying to purchase face masks. BBC, on May 7th news, said that their scam-busting service has received more than 160,000 reports and approximately 300 websites have been closed down. These 300 websites were fronts for fraudulent businesses selling COVID-19 testing kits, face masks, and vaccines. Forbes also reported on this very issue.
Not only do these scammers make false claims on the selling of products, but the products are often counterfeit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns people to stay away from any unauthorized treatments or products that falsely claim health benefits against COVID-19 as they can be health hazardous. Cointelegraph reports that some make false claims of possessing a list of confirmed COVID-19 patients and request Bitcoin in exchange for the information. Other cases include emails with enticing titles and links that lure you into clicking in order to steal your personal information.
Individuals and businesses have received heavy blows from the corona crisis. Including the U.S, many countries offer economic stimulus packages to their citizens. Some frauds are associated with these stimulus packages.
According to an article published by Tech Republic, there are more than 145,000 domains registered with the word “stimulus check”, with 130% increase in the number of small and medium sized loan companies in just the 1st quarter. Among them were 60,000 fake banking sites trying to funnel the money from the stimulus package.
Corona pandemic has people on lockdown or requires people to keep social distance. Scammers make calls and tell the person that he/she needs to pay up penalties for lockdown violation. These callers would claim to monitor the movement of the person who answers the call with their phone GPS.
As schools close their doors, some scammers in the UK target parents whose children receive free school meals. They would call up those parents, asking to send over their bank details to maintain the free meal privileges. Parents concerned about risking their children’s meal plans fell for the fraud and sent their information to the scammers.
Scammers ask people to jump in on early investment opportunities. They present you with false information on companies that supposedly have key treatment products or vaccines for COVID-19.
FBI reports that many scammers also ask you to invest in the Initial Coin Offering (ICO) of new startups with great growth potential. The scammers utilize the complexity of blockchain technology to funnel the funds and hide the purpose of the money.
Tech Pepublic reports that some protocols disguise themselves as wallet services, asking people to “download” their product. These fraud sites collect the personal information as the would-be users enter to get the wallet. Be aware of these financial frauds that are disguised as legitimate services.
Dire situations often prompt people to act altruistically. There have been many acts of kindness displayed by individuals and businesses donating food, essential products, and money to help those around them that are in need. While many show generosity through various benevolent events, there are unfortunately wolves among them wearing lamb’s masks.
Nikki Fried, the 12th florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Service did an interview with CNBC mark.. In her interview, she warned people against fraudulent non-profit organizations that take advantage of people’s good intentions. These fraudulent donation services may ask you for money, giftcards, or digital assets.
We Live Security shares the following email as an example of fraud donation service-the email asks people to donate money to help develop vaccines for children in China. The contents are fraudulent.
The FBI reports that some COVID-19 frauds involve threats against the victim. The con man makes a threat against you that he/she could infect your family with COVID-19 unless you send the person Bitcoin. The con man mostly likely is in possession of your personal information, with which he makes further threats.
This scam shares the same vein with other threat scams that are made with sensitive personal video, pictures, or so on. Only this time, the object used is the fear of COVID-19. This type of scam can be carried out both online and offline, and the demands can vary depending on what the scammer wants.
We are already familiar with AI marketing that sends customized messages to customers by analyzing their behaviors. The same mechanism can be used in scamming.
COVID-19 resulted in a lot of conferences and travel being canceled. If you are an avid traveller, the con man can target you with fake travel insurance against the pandemic. The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in their article published on Forbes warns people against these fraudulent insurance products. They say that most travel insurance programs do not cover cancellation due to a pandemic.
In Australia, there was a case of a flight cancellation. Scammers asked the passengers for their personal information, claiming that they needed it for reimbursement.
People watch more Netflix as they are forced to stay in lockdown. Good housekeeping reports that some scammers pretend to be from Netflix, asking for their personal information for payment purposes. If you enter your debit or credit card information, these scammers can steal the details. Also, some scammers bait you for free Netflix trials, asking you to participate in surveys or link click. They even ask you to spread the link to 10 other people for you to gain free access.
First, ignore all advertisements for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. ABA says that no real medical achievement is announced via unsolicited emails or advertisements. Get the latest information on COVID-19 from official organizations only. If you receive any suspicious emails, report the case to official institutions, such as the FBI to spread awareness.
Meanwhile, follow these five tips to avoid scammers and their sneaky schemes.
1. Check the sender
Open emails sent by those you trust only. Do not open the attachments or click links unless you know the sender. The sender may have doctored the sender name. Avoid emails sent from the World Health Organization (WHO), PayPal, or BBC, unless you work for them. Increase the level of suspicion if the content asks you for payment details. The WHO says that you can always verify with WHO if you believe to receive a suspicious email from the WHO by contacting them at [email protected].
WHO says the following to help people avoid scams.
– WHO never asks for money for recruitment.
– It is not WHO’s policy to charge registration fees for conferences or meetings.
– WHO does not conduct lotteries, or offer prizes or awards through email.
2. Do not open suspicious links.
Scammers lure you to open emails and links to take you to fake websites. Check the URL thoroughly to see if it appears suspicious. Some may appear legitimate, however, fake ones include slight modifications, such as additional hyphens, an alphabet, or so on. Also, do not open attachments that you feel unsure of.
3. Do not answer calls, or continue the conversation if you detect something suspicious.
Be aware of text messages asking you to press the “call” button. Do not answer calls from unknown numbers. You may be tempted to teach lessons to the caller. We recommend you against provoking the scammers as they may plan a revenge. If you feel as though you must take an action, report the case to an official institution.
4. Do your due diligence before making a donation.
If you want to make a donation, perform due diligence on the agency. Can you trust the organization? Consumer FTC says that you need to know the following information before donating to an organization: their website, address, vision, past achievement, employment records, and money trails. Check the URL one more time to check if the site is an authentic one.
ABA discourages people from making payment in cash, wire-transfer, gift card, or postal donation. Use your credit card when making a donation to leave a money trail.
5. Stay vigilant on your security
ABA recommends that people get the latest updates of their security softwares installed on your devices for best protection against malwares. Naked Security say that Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) provides strong protection during the signing-in process. Also, do not use the same password for more than two sites, as scammers, once they break into one, may try to break into others using the same password.
The following is the list of fake domains DCP Cybercrime shared on their Twitter account. Do not access the following domains. Stay vigilant to keep yourself with the latest information as the list is still growing.