Covid-19

New Virus, New Scams: Watch for COVID-19 Rip Offs

“Buy this new treatment now, before it runs out!”

“No need to see a doctor, our treatments will cure you of the virus.”

“Your stimulus check is waiting. Click here to learn how to access your funds.”

If you’ve seen anything even remotely similar to these lines while browsing the internet, you’re not alone. Thousands of social media posts have been circulating with the sole goal of parting you from your money, and then disappearing before you figure out what happened.

Social media shapes how we think and see the world around us. We read comments from friends and strangers, and we agree or disagree. We can react to posts or we can move on. Some of what we read we believe, other stuff, maybe not so much.

Because of algorithms, sets of rules, different social media companies show us what they think we want to read. This can be good and bad. Good, in that our social media feeds may not be flooded with topics we’re not interested in, but bad in that we can see posts or articles we might be interested in, but are misleading, wrong or even dangerous.

Researchers Looked for Scams

Researchers at the University of California San Diego looked at Twitter and Instagram posts from March to May of this year, looking for scams and fraudulent news, publishing their findings in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Public Health and Surveillance . The researchers found many posts for unproven cures (the first wave) and fake testing kits (the second wave), among others. “[W]e have identified nearly 2,000 fraudulent postings likely tied to fake COVID-19 health products, financial scams, and other consumer risk,” Timothy Mackey, PhD, associate adjunct professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said in a press release from the university. Now, the researchers say that a third wave of scam posts has begun, marketing fake pharmaceutical treatments.

The first scam posts started appearing in March, many of them tried to sell premade herbal or non-traditional remedies. These posts were followed by ones that instructed people how to make their own concoctions to promote immunity. There were also posts that promoted the purchase of:

  • Colloidal silver
  • Portable devices that claimed to treat the virus
  • Unproven medical treatments, like hydroxychloroquine

Scams related to illnesses are not new and predate the internet. But the internet has made it easier for scams to spread and reach more people. The Federal Trade Commission has a page dedicated to coronavirus scams. The page helps readers learn about fake contact tracing, offers for at-home vaccinations and test kits, as well as appeals for donations. It also discusses issues related to scam calls, texts or emails about checks from the government.

If you would like to see how your own area is doing, there’s a page for that too.  Just click on the interactive map to see how your state has been affected by scams.

“Since January 1, people across the U.S. have made 91,808 COVID-19-related reports to the FTC,” the site notes. “Most of these reports involve online shopping, with travel and vacations coming in second. The online shopping reports are mostly about people ordering products that never arrive, while most of the travel and vacation reports relate to refunds and cancellations. So far, people have reported losing $59.27 million on these and other COVID-related fraud reports.”

Keeping Safe Online

So how do you keep from falling for a scam, especially the ones that seem so real?

Dr. Mackey shared 3 key tips in the press release to help identify a fraudulent post or scam:

  • If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Look out for mentions of bulk or rapid sales, cheap pricing and questionable claims such as FDA approval or specific certifications.
  • Importing products from another country. If you’re a United States consumer, it is likely illegal to import products such as COVID-19 tests from another country. Such purchases should be considered risky.
  • Illegitimate contact methods. If the seller is conducting business or a transaction through social media direct messages or another non-traditional communications application, including Skype or WhatsApp, it probably isn’t legitimate.

And what do you do if you’ve been a victim of a scam? The United States Department of Justice is taking these scams seriously. According to the site:

  • Be on the lookout for antibody testing fraud schemes. Never share your personal or health information to anyone other than known and trusted medical professionals. Learn more about what to avoid. 
  • Be cautious of unsolicited healthcare fraud schemes of testing and treatment through emails, phone calls, or in person.  The U.S. have medical professionals and scientist working hard to find a cure, approved treatment, and vaccine for COVID-19. Learn more about what to avoid
  • Be wary of unsolicited telephone calls and e-mails from individuals claiming to be IRS and Treasury employees.  Remember IRS first form of communications is by mail - not by phone.  Learn more about fraudulent schemes related to IRS

You are urged to report any COVID-19 fraud attempts, even if you didn’t fall for them. You can call the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or submit your experience via the NCDF Web Complaint Form.

 

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