Beware of False Coronavirus Claims
How to spot sellers seeking to profit from pandemic panic buying
Posted March 6, 2020
There is nothing that raises the panic meter in quite the same way as staring at empty store shelves where hand sanitizer, surgical masks, and even paper goods used to be. Many consumers immediately whip out their iPhones to order online—only to discover empty virtual shelves as well—at least when it comes to reputable, credible products, with recognizable name identification. Unfortunately, an absence of familiar, recognizable products creates a vacuum quickly filled by knockoffs and overpriced goods.
In addition, regarding information about available products, in the wake of the coronavirus, marketing misinformation campaigns quickly permeated the online shopping world. But don’t be fooled—there are ways to weed out false ads with the help of large companies, savvy consumer reviews, and common sense.
Online Buyers Beware
Faced with an online ad for a surgical mask boasting "100% protection against the Coronavirus"—would you buy it? Some people would—notwithstanding the cost. Sadly, they are not going to get what they paid for.
But they want to believe. When it comes to buying online, research shows consumers want to believe they are getting a good deal on what they want to view as legitimate products. Girish Punj in “Effects of Consumer Beliefs on Online Purchase Behavior” lists the three most common consumer beliefs about online shopping as 1) saving time, 2) saving money, and 3) finding products best suited to customer needs.  He notes, however, that viewing online shopping as a time-saver is less significant for consumers who are inclined to engage in product research—which is arguably the case when shopping for protection against a novel virus.
So how can consumers make the best online choices? Through a combination of common sense, consumer advice, and company proactivity in ferreting out manipulative merchants.
Profiting on Pandemic Panic Purchasing
Unscrupulous sellers, savvy to customer concerns and consumer trends, engage in fear-based marketing. Seeking to profit off of pandemic panic buying, many sellers inflate their prices and even offer false claims to support their “cures” or “treatments” for the disease.
Thankfully, companies are fighting back. Amazon made positive headlines when it announced it would be pulling over one million product listings from its online platform for price gouging or making false claims about curing or preventing the Coronavirus.
Facebook has stepped up to the plate as well, offering free advertising to the World Health Organization and removing “conspiracy theories” from their online platform. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, said the company will remove “false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations.” Like Amazon, Zuckerberg stated that they are also blocking ads seeking to exploit the health crisis, “for example, claiming that their product can cure the disease.”
Law enforcement is joining the fight. As reported by The Guardian, UK police issued warnings for online fraudsters engaged in behavior such as spreading misinformation and selling overpriced face masks that were never delivered, seeking to profit over Coronavirus fears. They note that other deceptive activity includes fraudulent texts and emails supposedly from research organizations affiliated with reputable organizations such as the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consequently, their advice to consumers is to avoid clicking on attachments or links in suspicious emails, and of course, avoid any response to unsolicited requests for personal or financial information.
Fellow consumers are helpful as well, rating products based on the truthfulness of their claims, and the effectiveness of their results. Reading product reviews reminds us that we are not the first ones to have been tempted to purchase what appears to be a legitimate product, only to read the "rest of the story" from other prospective buyers.
Exploiting pandemic panic buying is not only despicable but detectable—if you know what to look for.
Too Good to Be True
In addition to company research designed to protect customers, consumers are wise to do their homework as well. We all know that a product that seems too good to be true probably is. Legitimate products are newsworthy enough to garner widespread acceptance and support. Consumer Reports quotes Peter Lurie, M.D. discussing the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), pointing out that if something were effective it would not only be newsworthy enough for us to have heard about it, it would also be headed to the FDA for approval.  We hope such action would be fast-tracked.
Consumer Reports also notes that perhaps counterintuitively, some products that would seem to offer immediate benefits might not be helpful. As an example, they note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not recommend the general United States public wear face masks.
Consumer Reports also notes that FDA officials urged companies like Walmart, eBay, and Amazon to be on the lookout for products such as hand sanitizers that made “disease-specific claims,” such as effectively killing the coronavirus. We should be aware of the same types of unsubstantiated claims.
Knowledge Is Power
In the face of a potential pandemic, the more we learn, the better able we are to protect ourselves and our loved ones. The key is to ensure the information we receive is reliable, trustworthy, and credible—both on and offline.
 Punj, Girish. "Effect of Consumer Beliefs on Online Purchase Behavior: The Influence of Demographic Characteristics and Consumption Values." Journal of Interactive Marketing. 25.3 (2011): 134-144. Web.