Over the past several weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has developed into a global crisis that will have a lasting impact. Unfortunately, scams are part of that narrative. It’s a sad fact of human nature that in times of crisis, scammers and fraudsters often show up to turn quick profit off other people’s fears.
There are five primary areas where scammers are making headway in this current environment:
- Treatments, cures and vaccines.
- Masks, equipment and other products.
Be aware of what’s happening out there and pause before you make any purchases or provide any personal information.
1. Treatments, Cures or Vaccines
The COVID-19 pandemic is so problematic because of the highly contagious nature of the virus, a lack of a cure, a vaccine or a reliable treatment. This vacuum of remedies and pharmaceutical prophylactic measures has created enticing opportunities for scammers.
For years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other organizations have been warning about sham cures and treatments for a variety of health issues and have warned consumers to use caution when purchasing supplements and vitamins, which are not regulated by the organization.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased opportunity for some of these scammers and fraud companies to turn a fast profit, with no regard to the potential health or financial consequences that their marks will suffer.
It’s not just money at stake. Your health is also at risk when you fall for a health scam. Currently, there is no approved treatment, cure or vaccine for COVID-19. While many researchers and companies are racing to produce these needed substances, for the time being, any entity that claims their product is the solution is peddling a fraudulent item.
The FDA has been monitoring firms and products being marketed to consumers related to the COVID-19 crisis, and has been issuing warning letter to firms selling fraudulent products that claim to prevent, treat, mitigate, diagnose or cure COVID-19.
The products the FDA has flagged include:
Spotting a fraud isn’t always easy, but many fraudulent health products include some key language that signal they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. If you see the following phrases on any product that’s being marketed in relation to the coronavirus, think twice about buying it:
- Quick fix.
- Scientific breakthrough.
- No risk, money back guarantee.
- The words “COVID-19 treatment” or “cure.”
Another key issue associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is the dearth of reliable tests. Widespread testing would help identify who has the disease, who’s had the disease and who might still be vulnerable to infection. But testing has fallen short of necessary levels, and that has created an opportunity for scammers and legitimate companies alike to try to fill the gap.
Calls for at-home testing to help ease this difficulty of getting more people tested has created an opportunity for some scammers who are peddling fraudlent tests. The situation has been made murkier by confusion about what’s been allowed and what’s not permitted with at-home testing.
The FDA maintains regulatory oversight of diagnostic tools in the U.S. Recognizing the public health issue, the FDA has sought to help reputable testing companies get reliable COVID-19 diagnostic products to market. A series of revised regulations initially seemed to indicate that some at-home testing companies could move forward with selling COVID-19 testing products to consumers, but on March 20, the agency warned companies that they were not permitted to sell to consumers.
Then, on April 21, the FDA issued a statement granting authorization for the first diagnostic test with a home collection option for COVID-19. That authorization extends only to Laboratory Corporation of America’s COVID-19 RT-PCR Test. Over the next few weeks, you may begin seeing some at-home testing options, but you should still be very wary about who’s peddling the test and whether they have the appropriate authorization to sell such products. Check with the FDA, your health care provider or local public health authorities.
As testing modalities improve, you may also see an uptick in scams related to other forms of testing, including saliva tests and tests that look at a small sample of blood from a finger prick to check for antibodies to the coronavirus. (Most people who’ve been infected mount an immune response to the virus, and this typically leaves lasting evidence in the form of antibodies.)
As our ability to test for the coronavirus increases, new tests will start to become available. The FDA issued an emergency approval for limited saliva testing on April 13. These tests cannot be performed at home currently, so be vary cautious about any unsolicited emails, social media ads or phone calls you may get about at-home saliva or blood sample testing kits.
3. Masks, Equipment and Other Products
In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its previous position and began recommending that all Americans wear a cloth face mask when leaving the house for essential business. Since then, many people have scrambled to source an adequate face covering, creating another opportunity for scammers. The Better Business Bureau has received numerous complaints about scammers who’ve sold masks online to people who never receive them.
Other scams related to masks and other personal protective equipment have included delivered goods that don’t match the description of what was offered for sale and a smaller volume of items than what was ordered. Counterfeit items are also a problem, especially for hospitals that now find themselves competing with states and the federal government in sourcing the more robust N95 masks that health care workers should be wearing.
Price gouging is also an issue. It’s definitely a seller’s market right now for all manner of personal protective equipment, sanitizing wipes and other cleaning agents.
If you receive emails or see social media posts offering PPE, sanitizing equipment and other products for sale, proceed with caution. You can report incidents of price gouging or fraud to the BBB via the organization’s BadAd tool. The BBB also offers a variety of other scam protection and reporting tools on its COVID-19 website.
The rush to move as much routine health care to online and remote platforms as possible has created opportunities for scammers to make a quick buck. Telehealth has experienced explosive growth since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and Stephen Hyduchak, CEO at Aver and Bridge Protocol, two companies that specialize in identity verification, artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies, says this is an area where consumers need to be mindful of protecting themselves.
One difficulty associated with telehealth is privacy and retaining the security of health information. Encrypted communication platforms are safer than unsecured platforms. Verification of identity is one important piece of this, and Hyduchak says it’s important to “look for the trusted name right now,” in terms of which doctor you’re working with and what information you share online. If you see an advertisement or get an email from a doctor or other health care provider you don’t know offering services via telehealth, proceed with caution.
“There’s scammers who will take advantage, so look for the trusted name. Don’t just meet with a doctor online that you’ve met on Reddit,” or another social networking site, he says. Instead, if you’re looking for a new doctor during this pandemic, go with a known name, such as a local hospital, university medical center or other established health care center. Established telehealth companies that work with health care providers in your state can also be a resource for finding a new provider, if you need one during this crisis.
And don’t share any personal information via email or other unsecured means of communication, he warns. Protect your Medicare ID number and other personal information. The FDA adds that you should never give this information out in exchange for a free offer.
This pandemic is more than just a public health crisis – it’s also causing severe disruption to the economy, and as such, financial scammers are finding windows of opportunity. Financial scams have long been an issue within the health care space, and many of these scams focus on seniors who may be less able to identify fraud for what it is.
Michele Kryger, head of elder and vulnerable client care at AIG, a multinational finance and insurance corporation, says that even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, “there had been an uptick in scams targeted to the senior population.” This upward trajectory will likely continue as the economy sputters.
These scams can take a variety of forms, she says. And one that’s been cropping up lately are phishing emails that appear to be coming from the World Health Organization or the CDC, which request personal or financial information. These are scam emails that you should delete immediately. “It’s important that people aren’t clicking on links in emails that are asking for quick action,” Kryger says.
If you’re contacted by someone claiming to be a health care provider or your health insurance company asking for personal information, Kryger recommends hanging up and calling the provider or insurer back via the provider’s published phone number or the phone number on the back of your insurance card. “Hang up and call that company directly to ask what the situation is and why they need that information. Verify the identity of the company or the individual who initiated the contact.”
Kryger also says that charity scams could be on the rise. “Given how horrible the situation is, scammers may pull on the heart strings of individuals to give money to charity.” Again, be wary of any unsolicited phone calls you may receive. Even if the charity sounds legitimate and you want to support it financially, hang up and call them back before providing any financial information or personal details. The same is true of emailed donations pleas. Don’t click the link provided in the email. Instead, open up a fresh browser window and visit the website directly.
The Department of Justice also reports that some malicious websites and apps are leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to drive clicks and views that then can open up your device to attack. By posting a “click-bait” type article that seems to present some important information about the virus or the pandemic, these scammers lure you to click a link or download a program. Once you’ve accessed the material, the scammer can gain access to your devices and take control of your data and ransom it back to you. This is a new twist on cryptocurrency fraud schemes and blackmail attempts that have been on the upswing in recent years. Be careful which websites you visit and which apps and programs you download from the internet. Look to trusted, established outlets for good information during this crisis.
Another financial scam Kryger warns about is the prepaid gift or credit card scam. “Be very wary of anyone asking for payment in the form of a prepaid card. That’s a red flag to watch out for,” as these individuals may come back multiple times for more money while claiming to be a relative or friend in distress and needing help.
The DOJ also warns that unsolicited emails or phone calls from the IRS and the U.S. Department of the Treasury could be scams too. The IRS initially contacts individuals via mail, not phone or email. You should also check that the Treasury check you may be receiving as part of the CARES Act stimulus payment is in fact legitimate. Look for the Treasury’s new official seal, bleeding ink, microprinting, water mark and other signifiers that the check is actually issued by the U.S. government. Some enterprising scammers have been sending out fake checks that, when deposited, give them the information they need to get into your bank account.
The DOJ urges skepticism of any self-proclaimed entrepreneur approaching you for investment in a COVID-19-related invention. Similarly, watch out for fraudulent loan offers that claim to be part of any government stimulus package. Double check the fine print and be sure you know who you’re dealing with before signing over any personal information.
Kryger says you should be wary of any unsolicited calls or emails that appear to be coming from a public health organization. And if someone knocks on your door, offering any service or product related to COVID-19, assume it’s a scammer. Don’t let them in, do not share information with them and call your local authorities to report the incident.
For seniors in particular, Kryger says they may be even more at risk amid this pandemic than they already are normally. Many seniors may be more isolated than younger adults, and because they tend to be more vulnerable to the health effects of the virus, many are frightened about their risk. As such, they may be more likely to fall for a scam.
“Exploitation is something that my unit handles often.” Kryger says that while most people are going to do the right thing, “one of the things we’re concerned about are cases where someone knows our client and may be taking advantage of them.” This vulnerability increases if the senior has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or poor eyesight or hearing. “They may be asked to sign a document but can’t see well enough to read it, so are trusting the person asking them to sign it. Be aware of that risk.”
Kryger says being aware and staying vigilant can help you protect yourself or a loved one from COVID-19–related scams.
Some tips to avoid scammers include:
- Don’t answer phone calls coming from phone numbers you don’t know or recognize. If it’s a legitimate call, the person will leave a message and you can call them back.
- If you do get a call that seems legitimate, double check by hanging up and calling back to verify the identity of the company or the individual who initiated the contact.
- Don’t click on the links provided in emails or provide personal information over email.
- If an email is marked urgent or uses coercive language, “be really careful with those,” Kryger says.
- Be wary of any products being peddled via social media – check the FDA’s list of fraudulent products and companies that have been warned about selling fraudulent products.
- For adult children of seniors who may be more vulnerable to certain scams, talk to them about what they should look out for and what to do if they receive a suspicious email.
- Use common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.