A politician once said, “never let a good crisis go to waste” and no one takes this advice to heart more than the scammers who love to separate you from your money, especially during this current health crisis. What is more disgusting than some thief sitting in a basement trying to separate a senior from their hard-earned money at a time when the economy is in dire straights and the news media continues to blast “models” that indicate widespread illness and death. But they do it and do it with relative ease with no conscious and little in the way of legal repercussions.
This week, a senior called our office and questioned an email she had received regarding her investments. The message stated that they could help her "invest safely and profit handsomely in the uncertain financial markets driven by the pandemic", and all she had to do was provide them with her checking account numbers and they would do the rest. And you can bet they would.
"It's reprehensible that these scammers would target the very people who are most vulnerable to this pandemic," said Attorney Connelly. "They are worried about their loved ones, their retirement funds, and their own health and these cyber-thieves use these concerns to put even more fear into them."
These scams come in the form of emails, robocalls, phishing and ads on social platforms like YouTube and Facebook, where videos and other advertisements tout overpriced facemasks and vaccine kits that are about as helpful and healing as a glass of water from your faucet. And yet, they keep coming and people keep falling for them.
According to IBM Cybersecurity, the source of most scam emails about coronavirus is Vietnam, followed closely by the United States, China, India, and Russia. Sadly, this pandemic has opened the door to a whole new world of scamming, that focuses on health, perhaps something that scammers never before used with such success.
In the past, scams focused on the greed of people, offering one of a kind investments or opportunities to get rich quick, a come-on designed to stir up emotions that override rational thinking. But using the health of individuals and their want and need to protect loved ones is not only designed to enrich themselves but possibly threaten the very health of the people who are seeking ways to stay healthy.
Scams that sell fake masks, vaccines, hand sanitizers, all sold at a premium and designed to get your credit card information, continue to make the rounds. Products being sold have included cattle vaccines, bogus chloroquine tablets, silver-based products, and other so-called disease prevention supplements -- all offering a false sense of security and little else.
And because many more are online now given the fact that they are sitting home and bored, the door has been opened to clicking into these fraudulent sites. So we not only have a viral pandemic but a viral infodemic. And we need to be concerned. Let's look at some of these scams and how they show up on your devices.
COVID-19 Phishing emails
These emails show up on your computer or phone and look quite legitimate. Many may even flash as “alerts” and can be quite convincing. These include:
Alerts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – One quite convincing email making the rounds includes a "list of those in your area who are infected” and advises the user to click on the link to see if you have ‘been exposed’ to someone. Once you click, it begins the process of attempting to get your information.
Medical Alert from Healthcare Professionals – this one shows up as information, maybe from a local provider or a legitimate-sounding organization designed to scare you into hitting a link to ‘download the latest safety precautions you need to take. One innocent click and you may have infected your device with software designed to get your personal information stored in the memory.
Information from Work – suddenly, you get what looks like a very legitimate email from your job which states that coronavirus has been confirmed at your workplace. It advises you to download the official communicable disease instructions. You click and now your computer is infected.
The Stimulus Check Scams
With all the rapid information coming out about the stimulus checks and other financial relief measures from the government given this crisis, the scammers have capitalized on this as well. Here are a few:
Pay Now to get Financial Relief – President Trump has instituted numerous relief packages to assist in this economic crisis. This includes business loans, paycheck protection plans, and other relief measures. Scammers are tricking consumers into thinking that they must first pay a fee in order to get help with applying for these loans or to seek financial support.
Student Loan Forgiveness – Yes, the current financial package waives student loan interest for a certain time period, stopped collection of student loan debt and allowed borrowers to pause payments for 60 days. These scammers state they represent a company that for a fee will take care of this for you.
Fake Charitable Donations – you receive an email that touts the need for financial support to save the lives of virus victims, using names that sound like real charities to trick donors and take advantage of their generosity. Scams take place by phone and online. Spoof donation sites are also taking advantage of the kind-hearted who want to help victims. The fake donation sites may put malware on your computer or intercept your credit card details.
Warning Signs of a Fake email
There are many working signs of a fake email. Although they tend to try different methods, they all work off a basic set-up designed to look authentic. These include:
Do it now approach - these phishing emails come with an urgent call to action. They state that an immediate response is needed before time expires or they run out of product or money.
No name in the "to" field - Scammers hope that you will pay no attention to the personalized portion of the email, hoping that you will be attracted to the message itself. Scammers send out thousands of these emails hoping to trap just a small portion and that's really all they need to make it worth their while.
Poor spelling and horrible grammar - A cyber thief doesn't care about proper writing and they are hoping you don't either. A legitimate organization would never send out materials rife with errors.
They want information - these emails often request PIN numbers, passwords and account information. A legitimate organization that deals with financial information would never place their clients in danger by asking for such sensitive information.
Using a public account - in the overwhelming majority of cases, legitimate financial or legal organizations would never use a public account like Yahoo, Gmail or AOL to send out such business information. If the organization's name is not in the email address, be wary and do not open the email.
Incorrect URL - URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator, more commonly known as the web address. Always make sure that the site address is accurate. Cyberthieves create fake websites that spell the name of the business slightly wrong hoping the unsuspecting victims won't notice.
All capital letters - Scammers love using caps in order to catch your attention by implying the urgency of the message. Again, legitimate organizations will not use such tactics to convey importance.
Low-resolution images - when scammers build fake websites, they copy and forge company logos, photos, and styles. These may appear blurry or slightly "off".
May include pieces of your information - the problem with the internet is that there is a lot of information about us on it, whether we like it or not. Addresses, places we worked, etc. can be found rather easily. Scammers will find this info and include it in the phishing email to try and trap the reader into thinking the message is legitimate. Don't fall for it.
How To Protect Yourself
Unfortunately, these scammers try to always stay one step ahead of the investigators but there are ways you can protect yourself to the best of your ability:
Unsolicited emails or calls - do not respond to calls or texts from unknown numbers or from anyone that appears suspicious. If you have an account with someone that calls you, hang up and call the legitimate number to find out if they are trying to reach you.
Don't give out information - never share information with anyone over the phone from a suspicious number or website.
Don't succumb to pressure - always be suspicious if the caller is pressuring you to make a payment or buy a product immediately.
Number spoofing - a major problem today is that scammers are able to "spoof" numbers, making you think you are talking to a government agency. An unsolicited call from a so-called government agency when the caller asks for money or personal information is a sign that it is a scam.
Clicking links in a text message - never click a link in a text message unless you know who it's from. If you get a message from a friend that appears suspicious, call them and ask if they did send it. Hackers are good at this trick.
Legitimate Information on COVID-19
If you want legitimate information on the virus, the best places to go include the Centers for Disease Control and your State Health Departments. Below are links for those:
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Scam Information
The Federal Communications Commission has information on scams and tips on how to protect your self from these thieves, this includes coronavirus scams. Below are the links for them:
"Sadly, this current crisis makes us all concerned about the health and well being of the most vulnerable among us, our seniors," said Attorney Connelly. "But the clear lack of information makes us want to learn more from whatever source possible making all of us possible victims for scammers. Just make sure you know what link you are clicking on and don't fall victim to promises that you know cannot possibly be true. As long as everyone stays mindful and aware, we'll get through this."