Whenever catastrophe strikes, people (understandably) become confused, scared, paranoid and desperate for good news. Unfortunately, that also creates a breeding ground for bad actors who seek to exploit that desperation with misinformation and false promises.
The coronavirus pandemic is no different. Scammers are on the offensive, turning to both old tricks and novel attempts to fleece consumers in a time of panic. According to a report released by the Better Business Bureau (BBB), these are the top six ways scammers and fraudsters are trying to cash in on the crisis.
Snake oil and fake masks
It’s well documented that personal protective equipment (PPE) is at a premium, even for the healthcare workers who need it most. With new CDC guidelines recommending people wear masks (not surgical masks or N-95 respirators) in some settings, demand has further skyrocketed.
Scammers are taking advantage of the shortage to offer both PPE and supposedly “secret” cures for the coronavirus for a princely sum, according to the BBB. Of course, once the money changes hands, no supplies materialize.
While medical professionals are hard at work developing and testing several options, no vaccine or “cure” currently exists for coronavirus, and certainly won’t come from a spammy email when it does.
Stimulus check scams
As the pandemic continues to impact businesses and individuals, many anxiously await government stimulus checks included in the CARES Act. But as with many government cash programs (including past stimulus checks and tax refunds) scammers are exploiting that anxiety to promise unsuspecting Americans faster checks—in exchange for a fee.
The IRS began disbursing stimulus payouts the week of April 12. It’s believed that those who a) filed taxes in 2018 or 2019 and b) have a direct deposit account on file with the IRS will be the first to receive their payments. For those who don’t meet those criteria, the IRS created a form for non-filers to enter their payment information. Their Economic Impact Payments center also promises a “Get My Payment” tracking feature for filers coming mid-April.
More people at home (either teleworking, laid off or furloughed) often means more time spent on the computer, which means more opportunity for phishing scams. While they can vary in nature, the most basic phishing attempts involve the scammer tricking you into handing over personally identifiable information (PII). This often occurs through a link sent via email from what at first glance seems to be a trusted source, for example, a bank or school.
With the employment insecurity created by the pandemic, the BBB reports scammers are now taking advantage by sending emails designed to look like they’re coming from your employer’s IT department. Once you click the link, they may use scare tactics to extort you into handing over money or personal information.
A subset of phishing, this particular scam involves the fraudster pretending to be a government official. They’ll send you a link claiming to direct you to an “online coronavirus test,” which will allow them to install malware on your device.
No online tests for the coronavirus currently exist. If you believe you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms (or have been in contact with someone who’s tested positive), contact your health provider and state or local health department for guidelines on testing for the coronavirus in your area.
According to the FTC, if you receive an electronic communication from the federal government asking you to take action by clicking on a link, it’s probably a scam.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus impact goes beyond death and illness. According to Department of Labor data, more than 17 million people have been put out of work as of April 9, 2020. Approximately 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, which means millions suddenly find themselves in a financially precarious situation.
With social distancing recommendations and stay-at-home orders in place in most states, recently laid-off workers may be drawn to work from home opportunities. Unfortunately, those are the easiest kind for scammers to exploit. From pyramid marketing schemes to career advancement grants, there are a myriad of job search scams highlighted by Flexjobs.
PPE isn’t the only thing in short supply due to the pandemic. A trip to your local grocery or big box stores may reveal long lines and empty shelves as the uncertainty spurs shoppers to stock up on supplies, often needlessly.
If you’re wondering how everyone could possibly need so much toilet paper, price gougers might be to blame. Sensing opportunity, they often rush to stockpile goods so they can resell them online at astronomical markups.
Probably the most famous example was a New York man who stockpiled nearly 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, hoping to cash in. In his case, he was left holding the bag after Amazon cracked down on such activity. Unfortunately, fake sellers abound, taking advantage of desperate people looking for essential items without ever sending the products.