The COVID-19 pandemic has unsettled the lives of people around the world. Unfortunately, fraudsters, hackers, and thieves thrive in times of crisis, and many are taking advantage of the opportunities presented by this period of uncertainty and anxiety. According to the New York Times, “While there is little data about the extent of such shadowy activities, security experts said they had seen an increase in scams invading our inboxes, phones, and websites.” Fraudsters are preying upon unsuspecting people’s health concerns and financial fears, so as you protect your family from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it’s important that you also keep an eye out for potential scams.
Scams to Avoid During the COVID-19 Pandemic
As many people are now working from home and relying on websites for everyday activities like grocery shopping, ordering take-out, banking, and socializing, they make an attractive target for internet fraudsters. One common scam involves the creation of a look-alike fake website, which is used to capture the credit card numbers and contact information of unsuspecting consumers. Some of these websites are essentially clones of legitimate government sites that aim to capture the personal information of users seeking their stimulus checks or applying for the Paycheck Protection Program. As Ron Culler, senior director of technology and solutions for the security firm ADT Cybersecurity, told the New York Times, “Shortly after the government began issuing stimulus checks, scammers registered 15,000 fake websites posing as the IRS to steal people’s personal and financial information.” Yikes!
To stay safe as you browse the web and shop online, follow these tips:
- Check the website’s URL. Look for domains ending in things like “com.co” or “.co” instead of more legitimate domains like “.com” and “.org” – or the “.gov” government domain.
- Install an ad blocker. This will prevent your browser from loading a shady advertisement. If you aren’t sure which ad blocker to use, check out this list of recommendations from Consumer Reports.
- Avoid clicking on strange links. Always think twice before clicking on a link, especially if it’s found in a suspicious e-mail. When you need to access an important website, like a banking or investing site, type in the link yourself.
Fake or Illegitimate Products
Due to high demand, many real and established products have been hard to come by during the COVID-19 pandemic. People have struggled to buy basic essentials like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and face masks. To swindle these desperate consumers, fraudsters have created websites to sell fake or knock-off products. Some of these fake online stores pretend to sell face masks or cleaning supplies, but in reality, their only goal is (1) to accept payments and/or (2) to collect users’ credit card information to gain access to their finances. So if you’re looking for in-demand products during this pandemic, including disinfectants, hand sanitizers, or face masks, use these tips to ensure the e-commerce website is legitimate:
- Check the domain. To ensure the site is not a fraudulent clone of a genuine online store, check the domain using the same tips we provided above.
- Check the Google Transparency Report. This tool identifies unsafe websites that may try to steal users’ personal information or infect their computer with malware. It can also reveal if a legitimate site has recently been compromised. Simply enter the URL to check the site’s status.
- Check the address bar. It should be green or include a padlock to signal that the site has been verified. Some fraudulent sites have replicated the padlock symbol, so click the padlock to learn more about the site’s security.
- Trust your browser. Most up-to-date browsers will let you know if you’re trying to access an unsafe site. If your browser warns that a website isn’t secure, trust it!
Just because a company claims its product will disinfect surfaces, protect you from SARS-CoV-2, or even treat COVID-19, that doesn’t mean it will. Each week the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been issuing more warning letters to companies allegedly selling unapproved products during this pandemic. These letters address a variety of unproven products, including high doses of intravenous vitamin C, UV light therapy, bio-electric shields, HEPA air purifiers, and more (source). According to Steven Merrill, head of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section, the FBI is most concerned about scammers selling fake cures or treatments for the virus: “These ‘cures’ can be extremely dangerous to your health – even fatal. You should never accept a medical treatment or virus test from anyone other than your doctor, pharmacist, or local health department.”
Keep in mind that as of June 15, 2020, no vaccines or drugs have been approved specifically to treat or prevent COVID-19. Before you purchase a product, make sure that it is recognized and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the FDA.
Telemarketers and robocallers are always frustrating, but many are engaging in new ploys during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, many are purporting to be from a bank or government official so that the person they’re calling feels compelled to respond obediently instead of just hanging up the phone. In addition, many of these fraudsters are becoming more sophisticated and resourceful with their technology and techniques. Some are even able to “spoof” phone numbers by manipulating phone networks, so that the target’s caller ID appears to show the phone number of the their bank or a government agency. When it comes to scam calls, follow these trips:
- Always err on the side of caution. You never know who is calling you. Don’t pick up the phone if it’s an unknown number. If it’s someone important and legitimate, they’ll leave a message.
- Don’t be afraid to hang up and call back. If you receive a suspicious call from someone who says they work at a bank or government agency, hang up the phone and call the bank/agency back by dialing their actual phone number. The service representative who answers can help you determine if the call was legitimate or not.
- Don’t assume a call is legitimate because your phone recognizes the phone number. Scammers can spoof genuine phone numbers, including the phone number of your bank, an investment company, a government agency, etc.
- Remember that the government will never call you and ask for personal information. According to the FBI, “The government will not ask you for your personal information to give you your financial benefits . . . If you are eligible to receive the benefits, your government check will be mailed to you or will be direct deposited into your bank account.”
Phishing Texts and Emails
The term phishing refers to “the fraudulent practice of sending e-mails purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords and credit card numbers” (source). During the COVID-19 pandemic, many e-mail phishing scams have included claims they’re from a financial institution or a reputable agency like the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or the IRS. They typically contain a link to a website that asks for the recipient’s personal information, or they may have a malware file attached. To protect yourself from “phishy” e-mails and texts, follow these tips:
- Check the e-mail address or phone number. The e-mail address may appear legitimate but contain an odd character or two. The phone number will likely contain more than 10 digits.
- Don’t click on any hyperlinks. If there’s any chance the e-mail/text is a phishing scam, delete the message without clicking anything.
- Don’t respond to the message. Just ignore it. You should also label it “junk” within your e-mail system.
- Contact the organization directly. If the e-mail purports to be from a legitimate organization, like the IRS or your bank, contact that organization directly using their actual phone number.
- Remember that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
At the start of this pandemic, there were mass shortages of essential supplies as unprepared people began hoarding goods like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Clearly, most Americans were not ready for a pandemic, which made them especially vulnerable to fraudsters. To protect your family going forward, consider creating a pandemic prep kit.
Finally, as you’re searching for reputable, EPA-approved products that will help keep your family safe and healthy, check out what SafeSpace Company® has to offer. Our Germ Fighter Kit contains three of the items you’ll need in your pandemic prep kit: germ foggers, auto deodorizing mist, and hand sanitizer. Whether you’re battling an epidemic or just trying to keep your family healthy during flu season, you can’t go wrong with SafeSpace. Founded in 2005 in Springfield, Missouri, SafeSpace is a family-owned business focused on bringing new and completely original “disinfecting innovations” to the market. For more information, please visit the SafeSpace® website or give us a call today at 1-800-735-2506.
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