Worrying about finding a package of toilet paper and whether or not you have a fever can make us forget about online safety, but security firms, law enforcement, consumer groups and the Federal Trade Commission agree that COVID-19 scams are on the rise. Ever opportunistic, scammers are mobilizing to take advantage of this unprecedented situation: a flood of people working at home for the first time, students banned from schools and taking their classes online, and everyone distracted by the health crisis and looking for updates online.
“The closest analogy is the kind of fraud that we saw relating to Hurricane Katrina,” United States Attorney Scott Brady told reporters last week. “I think we are really going to see an unprecedented wave of cyber attacks and cyber fraud. While the FBI Cyber Division said that cybercriminals are mainly targeting Washington, New York and California — the three states with the highest rates so far of infection — I expect they won’t limit their schemes to these regions as the virus spreads. We’re all at risk and we should all be prepared.
You should be skeptical of any email, social media post, app or unsolicited phone call you receive that mentions coronavirus or COVID-19. The latest scams include a new strain of Android malware mimicking a coronavirus map, phishing emails claiming to come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations, emails and calls that say a family member has tested positive for the virus and you need to pay for treatment, offers to buy in-demand medical supplies such as masks and thermometers, and, of course, medicine to “cure” COVID-19.
Here are six measures you can take to avoid becoming a victim of a coronavirus scam.
Verify the identity of any company, charity or individual that reaches out to you through any outlet. That can mean visiting the website of a group via a Google search (not by clicking a link) or checking the credentials of a caller by calling the organization mentioned and verifying employment.
Check the websites and email addresses offering information, products or services related to COVID-19. Scammers often tweak a URL or email address in hopes that you’ll miss the discrepancy. Pay attention to the extension as well, which is the part after the “dot.” You may notice a .com instead of .gov.
Never hand over personal information through email or over the phone, even if it relates to treatment or a medical survey. Public health organizations will not ask for your details out of the blue.
While it’s never a good idea to click on links or open attachments in an email if you are not expecting a specific item such as a work report from a colleague, it is even more important to avoid doing this now, regardless of how intriguing the link or attachment sounds.
Delete emails, avoid clicking on social media links and hang up the phone if the subject relates to a vaccine, cure or treatment for the virus. You will certainly see this type of breakthrough reported by major news outlets.
Before purchasing any item in short supply, read the reviews. While Amazon and other retailers are making the effort to guard against product scams, it’s likely that some will slip through. Don’t buy if you read reports from buyers who did not receive their orders and buy only from trusted, well known retailers. Currently, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and thermometers are scarce. Think about alternatives (you’re home, so you can wash your hands with soap and water) and don’t hoard.
Be wary of solicitations for donations. During every past disaster, scammers have exploited people who want to help others. Reject any requests for wire transfers or gift cards. Give only to reputable charities or those you’ve contributed to in the past. It may be best to avoid crowdfunding sites and instead look closer to home for those in need.
And as always, keep your systems and apps updated. Use a unique password for all accounts, including online banking and social media. Think of it as social distancing for your online activity.