COVID-19 scams
Updated May 04, 2020

10 Coronavirus Scams to Watch Out For

COVID-19

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This week Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said, “Criminals are exploiting the fear and uncertainty created by COVID-19 to prey on innocent citizens who are only looking to protect their health and that of their loved ones.”

It is important to be vigilant during this time and take extra precautions to protect you and your family, not only from the potential health risks but also from scammers who are looking to cash in on the crisis.

While people stricken with coronavirus are fighting for their lives, others are using social distancing to sit at home and run scams on the unsuspecting.

Scammers prey on people’s fears and unfortunately pop up during times of crisis.

But you don’t have to be the next victim.

Here are the ten biggest scams you need to look out for right now and how you can protect yourself during this difficult time.

1. Fake Cures

Currently, there is no cure for coronavirus.

Also, there is no viable vaccine, and one is not expected for some time.

However, this has not stopped scammers from offering fake cures, vaccines ,and unproven treatments.

What’s worse, these scammers are currently targeting people in the states with the highest number of coronavirus cases, including New York, California, and Washington.

Taking these “medications” could put who knows what in your body and may also prevent you from taking the important preventative steps that are proven to help prevent you from becoming inflicted with the virus such as social distancing or seeking real medical attention if you start to experience symptoms.

Remember, the World Health Organization (WHO) is the primary source of information on coronavirus.

Check its site frequently for the latest information about cures and avoid purchasing treatments from individuals and unreputable sources.

2. Questionable Medical Supplies

As facemasks are increasingly hard to come by, Interpol warns that scammers are selling medical supplies from fake shops, websites and social media accounts purporting to sell these supplies.

After you pay good money, you get nothing in return.

Another version of this scam is selling products that have not been tested or authorized by officials.

Customs officers at LAX seized counterfeit coronavirus testing kits which the FDA had not approved.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not authorized any home testing kit.

Relying on one of these items can give you false hope if you test negative or unnecessary fear if you test positive.

Avoid purchasing these products from unreputable sources and check the FDA’s website for information on emerging scams of this nature.

3. Price Gouging

Because the demand for certain items like hand sanitizer, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and face masks has surged, some suppliers are charging exorbitant prices for them.

Even typical grocery items like meat and milk have been associated with price gouging.

One seller in Florida was selling 15 face masks for $3,799.

A Massachusetts grocery store was charging $10 a gallon for milk.  And I’m not talking about that fancy unpasteurized yak milk; this was just plain old cow juice.

State attorneys general across the country have reported a steep increase in price gouging complaints and reports that various stores, online shops, and other sellers are profiteering on selling needed items.

About 40 states have laws against price gouging, some of which were activated when their governors declared a public health emergency.

Additionally, more than 33 state attorneys general — and yes, the plural of attorney general is attorneys general — sent letters to big sellers like Walmart, Amazon, Ebay, Facebook, and Craigslist urging them to crack down on price gouging.

Avoid paying premium prices for items during this crisis and shop at reputable establishments that are not trying to take advantage of the situation.

4. Provider Scams

In this scam, scammers call or email people and pretend to be a doctor or hospital administrator who has treated a friend or relative for COVID-19 and demand payment for that treatment.

If you don’t know, medical providers typically don’t collect payment in this manner.

Call the provider directly to see if they have actually contacted you.

5. Phishing Scams

Scammers are also posing as national and global health authorities like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and sending emails to people to trick them into downloading an attachment that includes malware or providing sensitive information to the scammer.

Some of the scams seek fake charitable donations, and I’ll talk more about those in a moment.

For example, the World Health Organization warns that scammers are soliciting donations by pretending to be affiliated with the World Health Organization.

It states that the only donations it seeks are from the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and any other supposed requests for donations to the World Health Organization pertaining to the current crisis are scams.

Scammers often use similar sounding names, websites, or email addresses to try to get sensitive information or donations from the unsuspecting public.

Look closely at these to see if they are an exact match for the reputable organization.

Some other ways to protect yourself from these types of scams include:

  • Research the named organization or charity and look for any reports from others about scams
  • Avoid clicking on any links or opening attachments in emails from unknown senders
  • Update your anti-virus software and malware program
  • Look for an “s” after the http, which shows that it is a secured site
  • Be suspicious of emails from your purported health care provider or a global health authority since this is not typically how they will try to contact you

6. App Scams

One high tech scam that is currently occurring is offering apps to track the spread of COVID-19.

When the user downloads the app, malware is inserted to steal the user’s personal information.

7. Charity Scams

The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in serious health and economic impact, spurring many charities to ask for donations to help provide medical care, food, and other resources to those affected.

While many of these requests are legitimate, some scammers pretend to be affiliated with a reputable charitable organization.

Before donating any money, you can review the charity at Charity Navigator.

Also, contact the charity directly rather than responding to a solicitation.

If you have given money away to a fake charity or scammer, contact a consumer lawyer for assistance.

You may be able to make a legal claim against the scammer and help prevent others from falling victim during this scary time.

8. Investment Scams

Since COVID-19 has had a direct and huge impact on the economy, investment scams are also popping up.

Stocks for penny companies may be offered and supposed investment advisers may tout the latest medical company that is researching a cure or producing much needed supplies and warning you that their stock will soon increase and you need to make a purchase now.

Some of these claims are related to companies that have limited public information available.

Avoid making investments with unfamiliar people or organizations.

Refuse to participate in any supposed “opportunity” that requires you to “act now.”

You can still be a prudent investor, even in a time of crisis.

9. Fake Government Relief Checks

Scammers are watching the news and finding new ways to swindle people out of their hard-earned money.

Some are sending communications before any government relief checks asking for account information to supposedly deposit the checks.

This is just another way scammers are trying to get your personal and financial information to take advantage of the current crisis.

10. Work from Home Scams

With massive layoffs across the country and jobless claims hitting 3.28 million the week of March 25, 2020, many people are looking for alternative sources of income and considering work at home ventures.

However, scammers are everywhere, including on work at home sites waiting to prey on people who just wanted to earn some money to tide them over during this economic disaster.

There are various ways that they may try to scam you, such as:

  • Asking for financial information for “direct deposit” purposes
  • Asking for confidential information like your Social Security Number as part of the application process
  • Requiring you to pay money upfront for a membership fee, training, special access or supplies

These scammers may try to steal your identity and there is often no real value from what you receive (if anything) and no job attached.

Research the company before you give them a single dollar and check out the Federal Trade Commission’s resources on avoiding work at home scams.

So to sum up, remain calm and uninfluenced to make rash decisions that you would not make during normal times.

Some general ways that you can guard against the scams discussed include:

  • Verify that you are dealing with a legitimate and reputable company before making a purchase or giving a donation.
  • Read online reviews about the company to see if there are any problems with it.
  • Do not respond to emails from your bank, creditors, public health organizations or the government. Instead, contact the organization directly if you receive communication from it.
  • Be weary of any unsolicited communication.
  • Avoid any supposed opportunity that requires you to pay money upfront or act now.
  • Report any scams to your local attorney general, consumer advocate organization or law enforcement agency.
Valerie Keene, J.D.

Valerie graduated magna cum laude from the University of Arkansas School of Law where she also participated in Moot Court and the Arkansas Law Review. She practices law in Arkansas, focusing primarily on estate planning and elder law. She has prepared countless estate planning documents and has participated in a number of guardianship cases since she was admitted to the bar. She is a regular contributor to Nolo.

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