As the world struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, people are scrambling to find trustworthy information about the spread of the disease, how they can protect themselves, how they can get tested, and more.
Unfortunately, the spammers and scammers of the world are using the situation to take advantage of people, many of whom may be more vulnerable to their nefarious efforts than usual during these uncertain times. A handful of government agencies and other groups are stepping in to fight off the scammers. But there are still some steps you can take to avoid getting duped.
Here's what to know about the COVID-19 scams out there, as well as some precautionary measures you can take to avoid being scammed during the coronavirus outbreak.
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You can’t buy a COVID-19 "cure"
Many of the COVID-19 scams going around involve attempts by companies and individuals to sell products they claim to prevent or cure the novel coronavirus, which has already killed over 100 people in the United States alone. Scammers are peddling fake remedies ranging from colloidal silver to cow manure. But the novel coronavirus is exactly that — new — and there is no known cure yet. Vaccine trials are underway, but any scalable results are months away at best.
“I've seen it throughout my career as a consumer protection attorney: scam artists trying to make a quick buck off people when they're most vulnerable,” says Congresswoman Katie Porter, a California Democrat who recently grilled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield with a series of coronavirus-related questions, eventually getting him to commit to free COVID-19 testing for every American, regardless of their insurance. “Many working Americans are juggling a lot right now — social distancing, childcare, potentially missed paychecks, and more — the last thing they want to be worrying about is bad actors taking potentially advantage of them.”
As a consumer protection attorney and consumer advocate I have seen corrupt organizations scam those most vulnerable. During this pandemic, it is important to be diligent and on the lookout for people trying to take advantage of these circumstances. pic.twitter.com/M7OQ1AjSkX- Katie Porter (@katieporteroc) March 16, 2020
The government fighting the scammers in other ways, too. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued warnings to seven different companies — including Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd. and The Jim Bakker Show — promoting products with scientifically unsupported claims they can cure or prevent the novel coronavirus. Should the companies continue engaging in false advertising, the FTC may seek a federal court injunction and issue an order requiring customer refunds.
“The FDA considers the sale and promotion of fraudulent COVID-19 products to be a threat to the public health,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D. in a statement concerning the warning letters. “We have an aggressive surveillance program that routinely monitors online sources for health fraud products, especially during a significant public health issue such as this one.”
What's the public health concern with false cures or treatments? If people buy these products in the hopes they will successfully cure or prevent someone from contracting the virus, it could encourage them to forgo social distancing rules, potentially infecting others.
The SEC has also issued guidelines when it comes to solicitations for investments in products from publicly traded companies that can prevent or cure coronavirus (especially microcap or “penny stock” companies), stating that consumers should be cautious of companies making these unsubstantiated claims that “may be made as part of fraudulent ‘pump-and-dump’ schemes.”
Watch out for scam emails and texts, too
Phishing schemes, in which a scammer sends an email or text meant to trick you into handing over your personal info, have gotten pretty sophisticated in recent years, and can even include elements like official imagery or email addresses that look similar to email addresses used by official businesses. Likewise, phone calls and texts from scammers pretending to be official businesses may include information like your name or phone number to try to convince you that they're real.
To spot COVID-19 email and text scams, look for generic greetings (like “Hello, Sir/Madame”), requests for confirmation of personal information, or emails related to updating your billing details to judge whether or not an email from a company is legitimate. If a message’s language seems urgent, as though it’s attempting to pressure you into giving up your information to avert some sort of data disaster, it could very well be fake. If you receive a suspicious email from a particular company or even a friend or your employer, contact them separately via phone to verify the message before replying or otherwise acting on it.
The number of COVID-related scams that will likely pop up in the coming months means we'll all need to stay vigilant, experts say. “I’d tell people to assume every unsolicited effort to reach you or sell you something should be viewed with extreme skepticism,” says Linda Sherry, director of consumer advocacy group Consumer Action. The group offers a monthly email newsletter detailing popular new scams to watch for. “People should vet the offer by hanging up the phone, deleting the emails and then reaching out to the entity independently if indeed it is a firm you do business with," she says. Of course, the best response to scammers is no response at all. “Never heard of ‘em, then delete, hang up and don’t worry about it,” says Sherry.
Secure your online identity now
As with all phishing scams, defending yourself from COVID-19 scams involves a combination of prep work and a little skepticism.
The FTC recommends consumers practice proper online security, which includes backing up personal data and using two-factor authentication whenever possible to make it harder for scammers to gain access to your accounts, even if they do manage to figure out your username, password, or other personally identifiable information.
Still, if you think you gave out your information inadvertently, or that someone already has your identifiable information — like your Social Security number or bank account information — you can visit the FTC’s Identity Theft site to protect yourself from further harm and alert businesses that your identity has been compromised.
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