5 Coronavirus Scams That Can Fool Even Smart People

The latest ways scammers are capitalizing on the crisis

Posted Apr 13, 2020

U.S. Air Force, Public Domain
Source: U.S. Air Force, Public Domain

The scammers must be as addicted to coronanews as we are, because their scams sure are capitalizing. As President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” In just the first nine days of April, the Federal Trade Commission reported $7 million lost to scams.

Here’s a current rogue’s gallery of coronascams: 

The Stimulus Scam. You’re excitedly waiting for your stimulus check or student-loan forgiveness. You get an email with a government logo. It says you need to apply—Just provide your Social Security Number and date of birth and perhaps a small registration fee. Gotcha. 

Inoculant:  Unless you initiated the inquiry, the government doesn’t ask for such information online or by phone.

The CoronaTracking Scam. You heard, correctly, that Apple and Google are creating a corona-tracking app. Then, you get a text claiming to be from the government, perhaps the CDC or WHO, informing you that you’re eligible to get the app free. It says that, to avoid fraud, it needs your Social Security Number and birth date. Gotcha.

Even if you don’t provide the information, by responding to the email or text, you create the possibility that the scammer will invade your phone or computer with malware.

Inoculant: Use the Apple Store or GooglePlay store to buy any coronavirus-related apps. Consider not responding to any digital query unless you know it’s safe. If in doubt, try googling the organization's name, its location, and the word “reviews,” scam,” or “fraud.” For example, [“Florida CoronavirusTracking.org ”Miami, scam]  An additional possible sign of a bogus company is if its address is a post-office box. 

The Product Scam. An email or text offers to sell you sanitizer, masks, etc. By the time you get to the final screen, the shipping cost atop an inflated price makes it exorbitant. But you've put in the effort to get that far (commitment bias), so you click "order." Worse, you click “order” and not only don’t get the product, the scammers use your credit card to buy themselves cool stuff or gift cards for their programmers so the scam can metastasize.

In a more sophisticated version of The Product Scam, the scammer starts by buying a mailing list of older people in hotspot zip codes who have bought medical items on the internet, especially Medicare supplements. So, this is a group overrepresented by people who are vulnerable to scams, and are sick with corona or scared of it. Everyone on the list gets a call or email from “the government” or a vaguely familiar or credible sounding nonprofit (stopcoronacovid19.org—I just made that up. As of this writing it doesn’t exist. The message explains that people 60+ in your zip code are entitled to a low-cost home-testing kit, a “cure" such as a tea, essential oil, tincture, or colloidal silver, even a vaccine. It asks you to click for more information. That doesn't seem too risky, so you do. The con continues by providing some free information, which the scammer copied from the CDC, perhaps including its logo. Now, more confident. you “buy” the bogus product or vapor. Gotcha.

Inoculant:  Some sellers of masks and sanitizer are legitimate. If the seller is a company you’ve not heard of and that you don't know to be credible, as with the Corona-tracking scam, Google the name of the organization, its location, and the word “reviews,” scam,” or “fraud.” For example, [“Gotham Medical Supply” “New York” reviews.] 

Even if a company is legitimate, avoid commitment bias by remembering that the Internet allow you to compare prices. You may be safer doing your shopping at a major site such as Amazon, which aggregates a number of sellers so you can get the best price, and where a seller can be banned if buyers complain.

The CoronaCharity Scam. You get a request from a credible-sounding “non-profit” for example, “St. Anthony Coronavirus Relief Fund (It doesn’t exist. I made it up.) ” The scammer has bought a mailing list of older Catholics who have donated to a Catholic charity. You donate using your handy-dandy credit card. Gotcha.

Inoculant:  Before donating, check out the charity on a charity review site: charitynavigator.org, charitywatch.org, give.org, or guidestar.org. If it's not listed, search one or more of those sites for a charity that’s top-rated for efficiency.

If you think you're a victim of a scam or are aware of price gouging of critical supplies, contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or disaster@leo.gov

The takeaway

The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best in many people but, alas, the worst in others. Caveat emptor.

I read this aloud on YouTube.