COVID-19 scams: One more worry in our global pandemic
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, scammers and deceitful opportunists have conducted schemes that exploit global consumer paranoia. In our series, Trust in the Age of Scamming, Trustpilot is exploring how consumers are regularly exposed to various scams online and in the real world, how consumers can detect scams, and how to know what brands to trust.
In this article, we’re looking at scams that have emerged as a result of COVID-19. According to the US Federal Trade Commission, as of March 31st, US consumers have already lost a total of $4.77 million for COVID-19-related scams (a reported median loss of $598 per person who is the victim of a scam), and these numbers do not include scams that have gone unreported. With the likelihood of a prolonged COVID-19 threat, those numbers are almost sure to increase.
Below we’ll look at some of the most common COVID-19 scams and how to detect and avoid them so you can shop with confidence during uncertain times.
Fraudulent personal protective equipment
When the pandemic began, the rush to secure personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizing agents, and other essential supplies caused many well-known retailers to run out of these critical items. This resulted in many shoppers looking to new and unfamiliar online marketplaces to secure these items.
In an early scam, over $2 million in cryptocurrency was stolen from customers who paid for face masks, hand sanitizer, and medications but never received them. This scam involved listing their products on legitimate sites like Amazon, eBay, and social media marketplaces but then luring shoppers off to different sites where the transactions were actually made. They printed fake shipping labels to “verify” to customers that they would be receiving the product and in some cases even shipped them empty boxes.
A man in Orlando paid $60 for three masks from Viral Tech Masks. It was only after making the purchase and never receiving the masks that he checked Trustpilot and realized that other customers were having the same issues. The story has a happy ending as the man ultimately received the masks (albeit after waiting over a month).
In April, the FBI discovered that a stockpile of 39 million masks sold to a union in California were actually fake and part of an elaborate scam that involved middlemen in the US and Australia, and a supplier in Kuwait. The masks, which were purported to be the highly coveted N95 masks, were actually counterfeit.
When it comes to protecting yourself from purchasing counterfeit (or nonexistent) PPE equipment, there are a few things you can do:
- Whenever possible, purchase from legitimate sources with established supply chains and avoid online marketplaces like Amazon or eBay that allow bad actors an easy platform selling counterfeit merchandise.
- When purchasing PPE from a new source, confirm distributor or vendor of the product and ask for documentation, especially if you are looking to make a bulk purchase of PPE.
- If you are purchasing small quantities of PPE on an unfamiliar website, check their ratings and customer feedback on Trustpilot.
Cyber scams and attacks
In the UK, the NCSC has taken down over 2,000 sites selling fraudulent items having to do with COVID-19 and there is growing concern that hackers will capitalize on the increased use of emails and video conferencing to hack consumer devices.
Cybersecurity company Proofpoint has noted that 4 out of 5 email scams now include language around COVID-19, trying to leverage panic and fear around the pandemic to their advantage. Some of these are as simple as asking you to donate to fake COVID-19 relief funds, and then pocketing the money. Others claim to be messages from the World Health organization trying to get you to open their attachment, which will then launch information stealers on your computer and potentially help gain access to your bank or personal information.
To protect yourself from COVID-19 cyber scams, taking extra precautions such as the below:
- Avoid opening suspicious emails, especially if it claims to be from an established medical organization asking you to give money or open an account.
- Password protect video conference calls and never post a link to a video call somewhere public like social media.
- If you are receiving COVID-19 relief financial compensation from your government, do not enter personal or bank information anywhere except for official government websites. If you are unsure if a website is legitimately run by the government, call your local officials to get correct information.
- If donating to COVID-19 relief efforts or charitable organizations, verify a charity’s authenticity before making donations.
Deceptive tests, cures, and medical claims
There have been cases of criminals calling elderly UK residency, claiming to be from the National Health Service to offer home shopping for supplies for those who are stuck at home and or installation of COVID-19 detection devices (which don’t exist). They collect bank information from their victims, take the money from their accounts, and then disappear.
In the US there have been reports of callers who claimed to be from Sentara Healthcare, saying that the recipient had been exposed to COVID-19. They then offered to visit them and administer an in-home test, in return for money. Sentara has since released a statement that they would never offer to do in-home testing and that anyone receiving calls like this should immediately get in touch with their local police.
There was also a man in the US running an elaborate scam where he referred concerned citizens to medical centers for COVID-19 testing where the tests were bundled with other — very expensive — medical tests. He then would receive a portion of the profits from the medical center. As the FBI looked into it and learned more, this scam had actually been going on since November of 2019. Operating as a “marketing agency”, Erik Santos would send people to certain medical testing facilities and receive kickback payments from the companies involved in testing, and the cost would be reimbursed by Medicare. Santos saw COVID-19 as an opportunity to expand this scam and make even more money once there was widespread confusion about COVID-19 testing.
With so much medical misinformation running rampant around COVID-19, consumers need to take extra precautions to protect themselves. Below are tips for avoiding fraudulent medical care.
- Ignore any offers for vaccinations or cures as there is no known treatment for COVID-19.
- Be wary of at home test kits being sold online. Most test kits being advertised have not been approved by government agencies. If you are looking for at-home test kits, speak with your physician or local hospital about availability.
- Ignore robocallers and sales calls selling low-priced health insurance.
- Avoid medical advice from viral videos, articles, or information that is not presented by credibly certified medical professionals or official government agencies.
Use reviews to navigate new buying experiences with confidence
We will undoubtedly continue to see scams emerging as a result of COVID-19, but meanwhile consumers should take steps to make sure they are working with legitimate and trustworthy businesses, especially when purchasing from a new or unfamiliar company. A good rule of thumb is that if a business is selling something that seems too good to be true, such as cheap testing kits, cures, preventatives or insurance, it probably is too good to be true.
When engaging with a new business and purchasing items related to your health, make sure you check multiple sources to confirm that your products are authentic, legal, and trustworthy. You can also use an open review platform like Trustpilot to see what other consumers are saying about their experience with the business. If you’ve been exposed to a scam or an untrustworthy business, report it to your local government agency and let other consumers know by leaving a review on Trustpilot.