Scams have become a frustratingly common feature of the internet in recent years, and apparently some are callus enough to take advantage of the current coronavirus outbreak to make a few extra bucks.
From phishing tricks to ransomware heists, the internet is filled to the rafters with hackers hoping to scam you out of your hard earned money or steal your personal information.
Here are our tips for avoiding online criminals and staying digitally safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Be sure to check out our general internet safety guide too, to keep yourself protected on a daily basis.
Ignore “Checks from the Government” Bait
The economic ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak have been serious to say the least. With the unemployment rate poised to reach as high as 30%, more and more Americans are ready for the government to step in and provide checks directly to citizens.
However, while the current administration has been mulling over how (and how much) to give to Americans, no decision has been made to send out checks yet, and scammers are likely going to use this confusing time to swindle whoever they can. According to the Federal Trade Commission:
“We predict that the scammers are gearing up to take advantage of this. So, remember: no matter what this payment winds up being, only scammers will ask you to pay to get it.”
The FTC also notes that while instances of this scam aren't readily present now, the likelihood is high. No one will ever ask you for “your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number” to receive payments or any other form of assistance, so keep them to yourself!
They're annoying, they're persistent, and they're really hard to get rid of: robocalls. These pesky spam calls have become all too common in everyday life, and they're almost exclusively used to scam people that are willing to actually answer them. And now, the coronavirus has influenced their techniques.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, reports are coming in that robocalls have begun making outlandish promises in regards to the coronavirus outbreak, from offering “readily available test kits” to HVAC cleaning and sanitation services that can “make sure that the air you breathe is free of bacteria.”
Fraudulent Covid-19 Test Kit Scam Robocall
In case you didn't realize, there is no HVAC service that can clean your air conditioning unit enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Additionally, test kits for coronavirus are widely unavailable across the US, and a phone call isn't going to change that.
Vet Your Donations
It's only natural to feel the inclination to want to donate to those in need right now. From local food banks to unemployment funds, the avenues to help hungry, jobless Americans are plentiful. However, they aren't all as noble as you'd hope.
According to the US Attorney, scammers have been setting up fake charity sites, disguised as reputable organizations, to siphon money away from those who need it. A release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office advises:
“Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving. Remember, an organization may not be legitimate even if it uses words like ‘CDC' or ‘government' in its name or has reputable-looking seals or logos on its materials.”
The release also begs donators to “be wary of any business, charity, or individual requesting payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card, or through the mail,” and to complete avoid any organization accepting payments in these forms. You can also report scam charity donations here.
Verify Online Retailers
With toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and medical masks in short supply, its understandable that you'd turn to the internet to purchase these in-demand products. Unfortunately, scammers are now promising counterfeit items to sucker in unsuspecting shoppers to hand over their money.
As recent as last week, fraudulent sellers on Etsy were advertising masks lined with silver because of its “coronavirus fighting properties,” among other dubious products. The fraudulent products become such a problem that the company has taken down any and all coronavirus merchandise, and searches for “medical masks,” coronavirus,” and even “hand sanitizer” immediately redirects you to its Help Center section on the outbreak.
Etsy is taking down all product listings that mention "coronavirus" or "covid." The takedown process isn't finished yet, but hundreds of listings have already come down.
— Caroline Haskins (@carolineha_) March 4, 2020
Substantiate All Online Claims
Misinformation and “fake news” were a pretty serious problem before the coronavirus outbreak, but it's gotten even worse in recent weeks. From trumped up cures that put people in the hospital to claims that the virus is “just like the flu,” citizens around the world are grappling with the spread of misinformation like never before.
We wish there was a simple way to fight it, but given Facebook and Twitter's inability to make a dent, it's safe to say you're going to have to use your best judgement on this.
The best practice, typically, is to limit your informational sources to reputable organizations, like the CDC or the WHO. Each of these organizations is offering up to date and reliable information on what to do and when, so try to cut through the noise and focus on what's important.
Recognize the Signs of Scams
Now that you have the information you need to spot these specific scams, it's important to remember that hackers and phishers are always online looking to get a hold of your personal information and your hard earned dollars. Fortunately, there are a few key signs of scams that, as long as you know them, can protect you from being take advantage of down the line. These signs include:
- Misspelled words – Scammers frequently misspell words and names in phishing emails, either to lure less-suspecting marks or to avoid spam filters on the look out for certain words.
- Lack of personalization – In 2020, most communication is personalized in one way or another. If an email to, for example, unlock your Netflix account, doesn't include your name, you can be sure it's a scam.
- Strange URLs or email addresses – Most scams aim to direct you to a fraudulent website that looks like the real thing (but isn't) in order to get you to input your information. However, they can't have the same URL or email address as the real one, which is why it's important to keep an eye out for odd ones. If you're suspicious, go directly to the website you know of instead of following any links from emails or other areas on the web.
- Any robocall – At this point, there's no such thing as a good robocall, which is why it's generally safe to immediately hang up on any unknown number that isn't an actual human being.
- Immediate request for information – Asking for information on websites you're using makes sense, but requests for information at the onset of an email or phone call is a huge red flag for potential scams. Reputable companies won't ask you for identifiable or financial information out of the blue.
- Generally just odd – If an email, phone call, or text message seems weird, it probably is. Stay vigilant and avoid activity that seems unusual.
There are scams everywhere on the internet, and the coronavirus outbreak hasn't made things any better. Luckily, most scams are pretty obvious when you stop and think about it for a bit, so stay vigilant and protect yourself during these uncertain times.