How To / Tech

How to protect yourself from scams during a pandemic like COVID-19

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Knowing what kinds of scams are making the rounds is the first line of defense.

Human beings have a knack for using unfortunate circumstances to their advantage. Things don’t seem to have changed much during the time of COVID-19. The arrival of a global pandemic has brought all kinds of con artists and grifters out of the woodwork — and no matter how savvy you think you are, it’s essential to keep on your toes.

Knowing what kinds of scams are making the rounds is the first line of defense. This time is already trying for all of us. Let’s look at what’s going on so that we can keep ourselves, our friends and loved ones safe during this pandemic and beyond.

1. Don’t Spring for “Cures” or “Treatments” Quite Yet

The world is waiting breathlessly for a vaccine for COVID-19 — or, failing that, a treatment for its symptoms. Naturally, this has caused many, including the heads of governments, to make unfounded claims about drugs, like chloroquine, and their purported ability to treat those infected with the virus. Some of these people may have good intentions.

Others do not. It’s important to note that, as of this writing, no drug can cure or prevent coronavirus infection. Vaccine trials are underway as we speak. However, anybody who attempts to part you from your money with the promise of pandemic prevention or treatment — whether it’s chloroquine, colloidal silver or cow manure — is trying to scam you.

2. Ignore Unsolicited Texts, Emails and Phone Calls

Our email inboxes, voicemail and text messages have become a goldmine for scammers in recent years. It’s surprisingly easy for hackers to spoof just about any phone number — and email addresses go for a pittance on the Deep Web.

Interestingly, the coronavirus outbreak has presided over a significant drop in unwanted phone calls from scam artists — 700 million fewer in March 2020 than in February, according to experts. Yet that only means the scammers left standing are becoming more tenacious.

If you get a phone call, email or text message from somebody claiming they’re giving out free iPhones, gaming systems or other “prizes” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re being played. Protect yourself by deleting the message, blocking the address or number and never clicking on any included links. These links may take you to a malware or spyware installation page.

3. Be Wary of Scammers Impersonating Government Organizations

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), some scammers are impersonating the FCC and other government or health agencies to extort personal or banking information from unwary citizens. One scam involves a text message phishing campaign in the guise of financial relief.

Many cell phone owners have received unsolicited text messages from the “FCC Financial Care Center” and others promising tens of thousands of dollars in “COVID-19 relief.” There is no such program. Other scammers might try to convince you that you won a lottery you never entered, which may be enticing to those who are out of work or struggling financially.

To date, the only financial relief to which most Americans are entitled is the one-time $1,200 coronavirus stimulus check. If you are eligible for the payment, you don’t need to take action unless you were a non-tax-filer in 2018 and 2019. Visit the official IRS website to learn more.

The Better Business Bureau has issued a warning of its own about text message scam artists impersonating the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). These messages may reference “mandatory” or “free” online COVID-19 testing and include a link to follow. Ignore any messages along these lines and file a complaint with the FCC.

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Do your research on robocalls.

4. Know Which Robocalls Are Legal and Which Are Not

The vast majority of robocalls in the United States are illegal. There are some exceptions under FTC rules, including charities requesting donations and political campaigns canvassing for votes. Nevertheless, this isn’t stopping fraudsters from placing mass robocalls in attempts to sell you something they have no intention of handing over.

In the time of COVID-19, some of these might sound relevant and even tempting. They range from shady work-at-home offers to budget-priced health insurance plans. Tragically, those without health insurance, without work or otherwise in dire straits might want to answer the call and hand over their personal information.

Remember that placing robocalls for any of the purposes not explicitly named by the FTC are illegal and, therefore, almost certainly a scam. Look into the FTC’s recommended call-blocking solutions, or simply use your phone to block any numbers that call you without permission.

5. Verify Messages From “Company Executives” or “IT Departments”

The pandemic has presided over an uptick in business email scams, as well, including CEO and IT department scams.

CEO scams involve bad actors impersonating the CEO or another executive from your company. They might ask you to transfer funds or verify\ your personal information. With IT department scams, hackers impersonate the information technology specialists from your company and ask you for passwords or instruct you to download a piece of software to your phone or computer.

Remember that it can be quite easy for scammers to get contact information for company leaders from social media, official websites and elsewhere. The FBI has resources available detailing these types of business email compromises (BECs), which they began to track officially in 2013.

According to the FBI, BECs have increased in frequency by 270% since 2015 and impact all 50 states and 80 countries. They’re seeing a resurgence now because of the increase in companies pivoting to working from home. Fraudsters are eager to exploit the lack of face-to-face communication.

The best way to defend yourself is to reach out to your company’s executives or IT team to verify whether the message came from them or if it’s a convincing spoof job.

Constant Vigilance in a Digital World

The COVID-19 crisis may yet help us get in touch with our better natures. Unfortunately, a crafty minority is looking to cash in on people’s confusion, desperation or gullibility. Now is the time to pay attention, get educated and help others get educated too.

The world might be full to bursting with would-be con artists, but we don’t have to go it alone. One group, called Consumer Action, delivers a monthly email newsletter providing details about emerging scams. You can also keep an eye on press releases from the FTC about scams and other threats emerging as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

As with all things, practice skepticism as you surf the web and use digital services. It might just save you from a costly or even ruinous brush with a con artist.

What do you think of all these new scams and how they are exploiting this pandemic? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter, or Facebook. You can also comment on our MeWe page by joining the MeWe social network.

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