The coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic gives us the opportunity to appreciate the most selfless of people. Physicians and nurses in hospitals from Milan to New York risk their own lives — and sometimes sacrificing them — in order to attempt to save those of complete strangers. Unfortunately, the crisis also brings out the most selfish of people as well. Scammers who run coronavirus scams.
Each scam is worse than the next.
A pandemic is great for scammers because they know that people will pay good money to avoid it. So we will begin this overview with scams that promise a hokus-pokus way to avoid getting the coronavirus. Yes, no vaccination yet exists to prevent it. Nonetheless, in North Staffordshire, England, a man posing as an official from Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) went door-to-door offering anti-coronavirus injections for children under five.
Across the world in New Zealand, meanwhile, scammers make robocalls to falsely inform residents that their COVID-19 tests were positive. They then tell their victims that they need to provide their credit card information to receive medicine from the health authorities. There is no medicine, of course, but the scammers can now commit identity theft by using those credit card details.
Even though there is no specific cure on the market specifically developed to fight COVID-19, scammers are promoting elixirs like the snake oil salesmen of yore.
The FBI arrested Keith Middlebrook, a bodybuilder and occasional actor with 2.4 million Instagram followers, for promoting a fake pill to investors online. Middlebrook promised that the pill would not only cure the disease but that it would make anyone who invested in his company super rich. He even claimed basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson was already on board as an investor. That soon proved to be false.
What if you just want to buy a face mask to avoid COVID-19? A lot of scammers have a lot of solutions. In late January 2000, scammers posted an ad on Facebook claiming they would supply face masks at cut-rate prices in mid-February. The only hitch was that customers had to pay in full before delivery of the goods. More than 100 did just that and forked over the equivalent of $122,502 in two weeks. Needless to say, no masks were sent. And the supposed manufacturer didn’t return calls. Police arrested a local man suspected of being one of a number of others involved in the scam a month later. He wasn’t alone. They simultaneously arrested two women for hawking fake masks to 30 others. They demanded payment in advance via bank wire.
In the U.S, the country’s largest manufacturer of medical face masks, Prestige Ameritech, was itself the target of a coronavirus scam. Its name has been used by scammers pretending they sell its products.
And while it sounds like satire, one enterprising scammer actually made headlines by hawking fake toilet paper. Yes, you read that right.
A major victory in the fight against coronavirus scammers came in August 2000. The U.S. Department of Justice obtained court permission to shut down more than 300 websites run out of Vietnam that marketed hygienic products that were in high demand due to the pandemic. These included hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Thousands of residents in all 50 states ordered and paid for these items but never received them. The scammers were identified because they used a U.S.-based payment processor.
Given this record, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are scams related to COVID vaccines. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the U.S. Treasury warned on December 30, 2020:
“COVID-19 vaccine fraud may include the sale of unapproved and illegally marketed vaccines, the sale of counterfeit versions of approved vaccines, and illegal diversion of legitimate vaccines. Already, fraudsters have offered, for a fee, to provide potential victims with the vaccine sooner than permitted under the applicable vaccine distribution plan.”
First prize for a coronavirus-related product that doesn’t exist, however, has to go to the “Corona Antivirus.” No, it wasn’t a fake vaccine. It was a fake antivirus. An antivirus for computers described as the world’s “best protection.” P.T. Barnum once supposedly bragged that “there’s a sucker born every moment.” This scam proves he was correct. Download the “Corona Antivirus” to your computer and it will protect you from COVID-19? And yes, there were people who actually fell for it.
COVID-19 spreads rapidly and everyone is advised to wash hands often. Ideally with a sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
In New Jersey, a boy burned his arm and leg when he applied a product labeled as a hand sanitizer his parents bought at a local 7-Eleven. The operating assumption is that an employee poured the unsafe substance into empty spray bottles and put them on the store shelf.
There are also coronavirus scams that infect computers with malware. One such cyber threat is a ransomware inside an attachment with the ominous name of COVID-10.exe. Once activated, it prevents the computer’s operating system from starting. Instead, it displays a ransom note or similar message. And it’s hardly the only one out there.
Statistically, the most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. So what can they do to avoid falling ill from the virus? Especially while they are at home during a lockdown? Don’t worry. Scammers have an effective solution. Grandparent scams.
One such scam is making the rounds over the phone. Scammers are calling the elderly claiming to represent medical plans or health institutions. They offer to disinfect their homes, for a fee, paid in advance. Variations on the theme involve fake vaccinations and even investment schemes. You already know the rest of the story.
Does your country have an economic stimulus plan that provides taxpayers with real cash? If so, scammers are hard at work trying to target you through tax impersonation scams.
Typically, such scammers call people at random and pretend to represent the national tax authority, such as the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S. or HM Revenue & Customs in the UK. They will courteously inform their targets that they qualify for the stimulus. And to expedite payment, they require your credit card or bank account number and PIN or password in order to transfer the funds today. Needless to say, once they have that information they will use it to quickly deplete their victims’ bank accounts.
Charity scams are a big business. The were long before the coronavirus pandemic and, unfortunately, will be long after a coronavirus vaccine goes on the market. For the scammers who run them, taking advantage of COVID-19 — and the organizations in the news that deal with it — was an immediate priority.
At first, what made that all the more easier was that the World Health Organization (WHO) did not employ software to prevent scammers from spoofing its website. Which, of course, they did. One such scammer sent out an email appeal for funds, ostensibly to raise funds to fight the disease. Because he successfully spoofed the WHO site, the solicitation bore a WHO email address. To make matters worse, the email was actually a phishing scam. It contained malware that stole personal data off of the hard drive.
Brilliant, right? Up to a point. The scammer directed donations to a bitcoin account, which enables the authorities to successfully track him down. Don’t let that lower your guard. There are plenty of other charity scammers out there who are much more clever than he was.
If you think you are the victim of a coronavirus scam, contact the fund recovery experts at MyChargeBack.