In Depth

The coronavirus scams to avoid

Scammers have reportedly stolen millions through a variety of scams since the pandemic began

Scammers exploiting public worries over the coronavirus pandemic have stolen millions from unsuspecting victims since the outbreak began, reports suggest.

This week, Al Jazeera reported that fraudsters in the UK had racked up at least £2m through scams connected to the virus, while the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed that Americans have so far lost almost $13m (£10.3m) in Covid-19-related scams. 

Most of the scams take place online, but some involve more insidious methods, such as criminals posing as health inspectors in order to gain entry to vulnerable people's homes to steal or extort cash from them.

Here’s a look at the scams to be on your guard against during the coronavirus pandemic.

Email scams

Many coronavirus scams occur over email, often involving fraudsters posing as trustworthy firms such as banks, telecommunications companies, broadcasters or even the government.

Consumer magazine Which? adds that another frequently observed scam involves emails “purporting to be from organisations including the US Centers for Disease Control and the WHO [World Health Organization] being sent with the aim of tricking you into opening malicious attachments or giving away your passwords”.

According to The Guardian, more than 80% of reports to authorities in the UK relate to a recent scam involving an email asking for donations to buy “medical preparations and supplies” for the NHS to deal with coronavirus.

Trickster texts

Fraudulent texts are also commonly used by scammers, the BBC reports, noting that “many text messages impersonate the authorities and use links to fake sites”, or aim to install malware on computers and mobile phones.

Al Jazeera notes one common scam in the UK involves fraudsters sending texts to unsuspecting victims, claiming to be from the government and demanding fines for leaving the house too often.

“We would like to inform you that you have been recorded as leaving your home on 3 occasions yesterday,” reads one such text. “A fine of £35 has been added to your gov.uk account.”

The text then provides a seemingly official gov.uk link – where the target's card details are stolen.

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Fake sales

Which? adds that another common scam involves an email “full of doom-laden warnings” such as claims that “there is no vaccine for coronavirus” and that “the US government, like the Chinese government, isn’t telling us the truth about how many are infected”.

The Guardian reports that these scams often involve “the hawking of fake Covid treatments, cures and protective gear”, while ABC News suggests that if people receive an email of this ilk they should “question possibly true things, like emails and online ads offering hard-to-find hand sanitizer, sterile gloves and masks”.

“Many people have reported ordering via credit card, but never received the items and the seller vanished,” the broadcaster says.

Doorstep deception

Some more brazen scams involve criminals knocking on doors claiming to be inspectors – sometimes wearing lab coats – and forcing entry into people’s homes in order to extort money from them.

According to the BBC, a notable case this week saw a conman barge into the home of an 83-year-old woman claiming he was “from health and safety” and needed to check her property.

“The potential thief demanded £220 from the lady, who has dementia and was following guidance to stay at home amid the outbreak,” the broadcaster says.

Al Jazeera says that these scams are currently more effective than usual, as “in a time of crisis, people are less likely to be sceptical”, adding: “Instead of looking into whether the service is effective or necessary, they are more likely to simply agree.”

“Those that are feeling deprived of social interactions are more likely to trust people over the phone or on their doorstep.”

Nuisance calls

UK broadcast regulator Ofcom says it has “received reports of scam calls and texts relating to the coronavirus”, reporting that “scammers are calling home phones and sending text messages to mobile phones, which contain misinformation or could leave you out of pocket if you fall victim”.

The regulator says calls can claim to be from the government, your GP’s surgery, the NHS, or even the WHO, and many of them contain a recorded message offering a test for the virus, a treatment or a cure. If you receive a suspicious call or text, the regulator's advice is to “hang up or delete it, and report it to Action Fraud, including the number that was used to contact you”.

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