Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Scams

Last Updated On: 4/2/2020 5:29:52 AM

Are there scams associated with COVID-19?

Yes. Nearly as fast as the virus is spreading, scammers of all types have emerged and are attempting to take advantage of a situation that is both uncertain and frightening. These scammers not only attack the most vulnerable but will prey on anyone within their reach. It is important to be vigilant and verify any information you receive over the internet, phone, email, or by any other means by going to an official website or by calling the official phone number/hotline of any government agency associated with any offer(s) or requests for information you may receive.

What kinds of scams should I be looking out for?

Scammers have already adopted a number of attacks on citizens in the wake of COVID-19, including but not limited to:

  • Treatment Scams: attempts to sell fake cures, vaccines, medical advice, and/or recipes for home remedies to treat or cure COVID-19.
  • Supply Scams: creating fake online shops, websites, Facebook/Twitter (or other social media) accounts, ebay accounts, or email addresses to sell medical supplies that are in high demand during this pandemic. These could be supplies like surgical masks, gloves, etc. Victims purchase these items but never receive them because there was never any supply. Some supply scams also attempt to mimic stores, like Dollar General or Wal-Mart, offering discounts for phone or online orders for items that are currently in short supply. It is recommended that if you wish to purchase items from retailers remotely, use their official “click list” options or other online purchasing apps like Instacart. You may also go to the store directly (taking the appropriate precautions as outlined by the CDC and WHO). 
  • Provider Scams: contacting people by phone and/or email pretending to be doctors or medical providers that have treated the victim’s friend or relative for COVID-19 and demanding immediate payment and/or donations for that treatment.
  • Charity Scams: soliciting donations to fake charities, or creating fake charities, and soliciting donations from individuals or groups in the name of helping those effected by COVID-19.
  • Phishing Scams: A phishing email is an email that has a link or attachment within it.  When that link is opened harmful malware or spyware is installed on the victim’s computer. This allows the scammer to access the computer and retrieve bank information, social security numbers, and other sensitive information that may be on the computer or that the victim has typed into websites. Scammers are sending phishing emails with links/programs attached that are supposed to be from health authorities, like the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC),  that are designed to trick victims to click the links within the emails.
  • Apps: creating fake apps designed to track COVID-19 cases within the victim’s city or state. Like phishing emails, these apps contain malware or spyware giving the scammer access to the victim’s cell phone. 
  • Investment Scams: offering online promotions via social media or email that are supposed to have inside information on companies/corporations, or directing the victim to invest in a fake corporation, stated to be working on supplies or cures to COVID-19 and promising large returns on investment and increases in the company’s stock related to COVID-19 advancements. These promotions are often called “research reports” and make predictions on a specific “target price” relating to stocks, offer “low priced” stocks on companies with limited information available publicly. 
  • Stimulus Scams: sending checks to individuals purporting to be the stimulus payments being talked about in the news. We have seen reports of people receiving actual checks from private banks for deposit by the victim. These checks are then used to acquire the victim’s bank account numbers and the accounts are drained. ANY check from the Government will be from the United States Treasury and resemble a social security or income tax check. The U.S. Government does not use private banks and you will not receive a stimulus check from a private bank as a result of the stimulus. These payments may be direct deposited if you received your last income tax refund via direct deposit. Do not to cash or deposit any checks from unknown sources. Some of these scams tell victims to come claim their “stimulus incentives” over the next ten days at a “temporary relief site” at a physical location or website. These are also scams and are part of the same scam. 
  • “Person in need” Scams: Scammers could use the circumstances of the coronavirus to pose as a grandchild, relative or friend who claims to be ill, stranded in another state or foreign country, or otherwise in trouble, and ask you to send money. They may ask you to send cash by mail or buy gift cards. These scammers often beg you keep it a secret and act fast before you ask questions. Don’t panic! Take a deep breath and get the facts. Don’t send money unless you’re sure it’s the real person who contacted you. Hang up and call your grandchild or friend’s phone number to see if the story checks out. You could also call a different friend or relative.
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These are the newest COVID-19 related scams that have come to the attention of authorities. It is important to note, with many people out of work or working from home, scammers will also likely increase use of traditional scamming techniques including romance scams, IRS scams, Social Security scams, and Sweepstakes scams. It is important to be on the lookout for all types of scams during this crucial time. 

How can I protect myself against these scams?

There are a number of things you can do to better prepare yourself to avoid these types of scams: 

  • Independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts you with regard to COVID-19. This means going to the actual websites of the WHO or CDC to verify information.  Or independently looking up phone numbers to the IRS, Social Security Office, or any other source of request for information. If you receive one of these calls or emails, and are worried that it may be an actual call from a government agency, immediately disconnect and contact the agency directly using its official phone number or website. 
  • Check websites and email addresses offering information, products, or services related to COVID-19. Often, the scam email or website will differ only slightly from an official domain. For example, scammers will often create .com websites using the same acronyms of government entities such as cdc.com, or cdc.org instead of the correct government domain, cdc.gov. Government websites will most generally always use .gov domains, which are specifically used by official governments.
  • Be very wary of any email you receive that is supposed to be from a government agency, and especially emails or requests for information like social security numbers, bank accounts, or personal identifying information. Generally, government agencies do not ask for this type of information over the internet or by email. If you get a phone call requesting this information, immediately hang up and find the official number of the agency and contact it using that number. If the request is legitimate, you will be able to give it using that channel. 
  • DO NOT click links or open email attachments from unknown or unverified sources. These attachments could contain a virus, malware or spyware.
  • Install and update antivirus software on your computer.
  • Ignore ALL offers and promises of a cure, vaccine, or treatment for COVID-19. If you think you may be infected or have symptoms, seek medical treatment from a hospital or medical clinic.
  • If shopping for medical or COVID-19 supplies, be diligent in checking reviews and/or comment sections of any company offering said supplies prior to purchasing. Check for comments that items were not received and avoid those companies. If shopping on eBay, look at the comments/reviews section of any seller offering these supplies and be wary of repeated comments and reviews using the exact same phrase or language. Some eBay scammers use this technique to boost their positive feedback artificially and provide an appearance of a legitimate seller.
  • Research any charity, crowdfunding, or company purporting to be soliciting donations related to COVID-19. An organization may not be legitimate even if it uses acronyms such as CDC, WHO, or puts the word “government” in its name, or has recreated official government looking seals or symbols. For resources related to donating to reputable charities, visit the WV Attorney General’s website or the Federal Trade Commission website.
  • Be very cautious of any “investment opportunity” emails or contacts tied to COVID-19, especially any relating to a “small company’s” products or promises of large returns based on COVID-19 research or products. For more information on investment fraud visit the Securities and Exchange Commission website. 
  • For verified information related to COVID-19, visit the official websites for the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

To report suspicious activity regarding the COVID-19 virus, residents are asked to call the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 1-866-720-5721 or email at disaster@leo.gov.

To report fraud directly to the FBI, please visit their website.

Any West Virginia consumer wishing to report scams, price gouging or other matters by which bad actors may try to take advantage of consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic, can call WV Attorney General Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-368-8808 or file a written complaint

Is the government sending me a stimulus check?

Maybe. The Federal government recently passed a stimulus package wherein taxpayers will receive $1,200. Married couples will receive $2,400 and an additional $500 for each claimed child. There is a maximum on this. If you owe money to the government such as unpaid student loans or past due child support, you will likely not receive this money. 

This is general legal information. For guidance about your situation, talk to a lawyer.