Last week we talked a little bit about scammers’ quick moves to exploit upcoming Economic Impact Payments. Impersonating government employees representing legitimate federal agencies, scam artists are preying on anxious Americans waiting for financial relief.
But this stimulus scam wasn’t the first COVID-19-related strategy used to rook vulnerable victims. Scammers have seen the opportunities in this disaster since the very start. The seemingly endless amount of angles they can take can make spotting the the fake offers and appeals extremely difficult—especially when so many legitimate organizations and businesses are reaching out to the public, too.
We’re not trying to be funny when we say these scams have gone completely viral. In the same way this illness has run rampant, dominating the global conversation, these scams have taken over in place of the usual phishing and sales scams we see every day. Right now, it’s all about using pandemic fears to drain as many victims as possible. And unfortunately, it’s very lucrative.
As we said, it’s not just the stimulus confusion scammers are using. In fact, it may be that while we’re all on the lookout for IRS, SSA, and Treasury fraudsters, we’re more susceptible to the ones using more subtle or unexpected tactics to separate us from our cash:
Snake Oil Salesmen
Let’s face it: there is no cure for Coronavirus—at least not yet, anyway. And in all likelihood, there will never be one. Most viruses haven’t been and can’t be “cured.”
Viruses are not bacteria, a living organism we can attack with antibiotics and kill. Viruses are tricky. They’re an entity that embeds itself into our cells and uses our normal cell functions against us. The only thing that can “cure” a sickness in this case is our own immune system. We can support our bodies in that fight by vaccinating, using antivirals, and treating the life-threatening symptoms of the illness, but as for “curing” it? We’ve still got a long path ahead.
We say this to shine some light on the “I have the cure!” scammers. Even if it was possible for someone to miraculously produce a true-blue viral cure in a matter of months, it would absolutely swallow the headlines—not just because there was a real cure to COVID-19, but because it would be an extraordinary thing for anyone to develop a drug that zapped any virus in the way scammers claim.
Medical researchers all over the world are working day and night to develop therapies to stop this thing. But the best medical minds in the world have only just initiated human clinical trials on a vaccine. Proving the efficacy and safety of the vaccine may still take well over a year. The day a vaccine proves out, we’ll know about it—and not because some jerk crept into our email inbox to get us to buy it.
The bottom line is this: anyone contacting you claiming to have a cure, vaccine, or treatment for Coronavirus is lying at best. At worst? They may be selling people completely unfounded, unstudied, and baseless snake oil concoctions that could be extremely dangerous. Ignore 100% of these claims and these people.
Fake Virus Testing
Spring has sprung, and with it, all of the sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes, and respiratory woes allergy sufferers endure every year. But this time, it’s different. Is it hay fever? Is it the dreaded Spring cold? Is my asthma being aggravated? Or did I touch my face when I shouldn’t have?
This is a really, really bad time to have pollen sensitivities. People who would ordinarily wave away the sniffles will be coming down with a bad case of the “But What Ifs.” And this isn’t a great time for anyone to be visiting their doctors or hospitals if they aren’t certain they need assistance.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just visit a testing station or order a COVID-19 test kit through the mail? If only for the peace of mind?
It would. That’s why scammers thought of it, too.
Fake testing sites and testing-by-mail scams are popping up all over the country. Investigators in Kentucky are rooting out bogus drive-thru testing sites. In Virginia, phone impostors are directing residents to fraudulent testing facilities. Customs officers in Los Angeles seized a significant amount of counterfeit testing kits at LAX.
These tests are being offered to the public for ludicrous amounts of money and do absolutely nothing to detect the virus. They may even put victims at risk for identity theft should they be asked to pay with a credit card or show identification.
Trust absolutely no COVID-19 test without speaking to your primary care physician first. While there are legitimate drive-thru testing sites in many states, you should always, always, always consult your doctor before taking any kind of medical action. Doing so will ensure you’re taking a legitimate test, and it will keep everyone off of the streets seeking tests they may not need. Do only what your doctor thinks is best.
Protective Gear Scams
The CDC now recommends we all use masks when going into public. More and more people are opting to wear latex gloves to touch cart handles in the grocery store. The demand for protective gear is high, but weeks into our nationwide epidemic there are very few of these items available.
Scammers are taking advantage of this shortage to either price gouge customers or take their money and run. In some cases, scammers are impersonating legitimate medical supply companies to take orders for trusted equipment only to disappear when the payment goes through. If the promised product even arrives, it may be counterfeit.
To make matters worse, these scammers may also be using their bogus online stores to steal customers’ payment and personal information.
To suss out phishing websites, check out our recommendations right here. And if the site you’re looking at is brand new to you, be very wary. When so many retail giants, like Amazon, don’t have any masks available, why would some little retailer you’ve never heard of have an abundance? Be sure to investigate the history of the site and see if you can find any online reviews for it.
Spotting scam sellers from real sellers—especially on sites like Amazon with individual sellers—can be difficult. Our only recommendation here would be to avoid sites like this entirely. Only trust reputable dealers’ websites.
And if a seller is offering masks for exorbitant prices, don’t purchase them. Even if the product is real (and unreasonable pricing is a good indication it’s not), we shouldn’t be buying from carpetbaggers whose practices have had a large hand in the mask shortages we’re seeing now. Many of these sellers bought these materials in bulk for the purpose of reselling at much higher prices once demand was up and supply was down.
The good news is most of us regular people don’t need a surgical quality mask. We SHOULD all be staying home as much as possible. But for essential trips in public, the CDC has recommended cloth protective masks we can all make at home with materials we have on-hand. Don’t risk losing to a scammer—make your mask at home and save your money.
Social Security Suspension
Our buddy, our pal. For several years, the Social Security benefit scam has undoubtedly been the biggest money-maker for scammers, so it’s no surprise they’ve adapted it for the Year of the Coronavirus.
We’ve talked about how this scam works a lot, so we’ll keep this one brief:
This virus situation has absolutely no bearing on whether or not you receive your benefits. And that goes for Medicare, too. Employees from these agencies rarely reach out to people by phone, so you should be suspicious anyway. But if they’re discussing your benefits and coverage in any context relating to Coronavirus? Hang up.
There are so many selfless people and organizations doing what they can to provide relief during quarantine. Whether it’s a nonprofit or an individual crowd-sourcing donations for those having a hard time getting by right now, these are people genuinely using their fundraising talents for the common good. A lot of people would be desperately in need without them.
But it takes an amateur level of know-how and maybe a couple hours of work to start a peer-to-peer fundraiser or build a website. With a little more skill, you can have professional logos, letterhead, contact forms, and even a functioning phone number. As long as your victims don’t think to investigate the person they’re giving money to, it is disturbingly easy to materialize a charity out of thin air and start raking in cash.
We all want to feel like we’re pulling our weight and doing what we can to help others. Most of us are limited in our capacity to meaningfully help in this situation. We will try to use our wallets to help healthcare workers needing supplies or those in financial trouble due to job loss. And there is nothing wrong with that.
But do be incredibly critical of anyone asking you for money for their COVID-19 fundraisers. Dig up any information you can about their history and nonprofit registration status in your state. And don’t let anyone aggressively pressure you into giving them money on the spot. If you aren’t sure? Don’t give.
This is probably the scariest con to come out of the pandemic. It seems like a horror movie setup, but cases have been confirmed in Illinois, Ohio, and Florida: criminals are dressing up like healthcare workers, gaining access to homes, and robbing the occupants.
Thieves, posing as CDC or Red Cross representatives in lab coats and masks, go door-to-door claiming to need to give vital healthcare information. Once inside, these “CDC” workers either burglarize the home by force or use distraction techniques to steal right under the noses of victims.
There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about this one. Don’t let people you don’t know into your home. In no state are legitimate medical professionals going door-to-door to tell anyone anything. This scam has the potential to escalate into a far more dangerous situation than a simple robbery. It doesn’t matter what these people say. If the person on the other side of the peephole looks like they’re trying too hard to look like a doctor? Don’t even open the door.
Right now, Coronavirus scams are everywhere. All we can say is be very mindful of any transaction or communication you have regarding this pandemic. These scams are using all methods of communication and contact and their setups are pretty diverse.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to report any and all interactions you suspect are unscrupulous. We are all very vulnerable to predators in this environment. Every scam reported is a victim who might be saved from a grift or something much worse.
The FTC and FBI are working with the public to handle COVID-19 scammers, but they need us all to make the reports so they can chase these people down.