With most Californians sheltering in place, cybercriminals see big dollar signs in a captive audience that’s glued to internet updates on the COVID-19 pandemic. Their goal is to criminally profit from your fear and uncertainty.
Think about it: Parents working from home while managing school-aged children are distracted. They grow weary and let their guards down, and open an email they shouldn’t have. Many Baby Boomers, the most vulnerable to the most harmful effects of the virus, are scared. They’re looking for miracle cures and good news from helpful sources — even strangers.
The FBI considers California one of the state’s most vulnerable to Coronavirus scammers, along with New York and Washington. This includes spoofed or phishing emails, texts and aggressive phone calls.
There’s also been an explosion in false advertising of products claiming to cure and prevent COVID-19 infection, leveraging many Californians’ distrust of official government and health sources such as the CDC.
“Now is the time to be extra diligent in protecting yourself not only from the virus, but from scammers looking to turn this pandemic into an opportunity,” said Harry Kazakian, a Los Angeles security & investigative expert and former EMT/paramedic. “There are some relatively easy steps you can take to stay safe. For instance, you can just hover your mouse over an email address and / or a LINK, in Outlook or a web browser a small window will pop up to show where the link goes to; if the real link does not match with the sender or with what you expect DON’T CLICK IT. Remember a legit “Uniform Resource Locator – URL” website link must end with the company’s name and NOT bunch of numbers or letters that that makes no sense. Something sent from the CDC is always @cdc.gov, for example. An email claiming to come from the CDC but ending in anything else is a scam.”
Follow the FBI’s advice: Be wary of any business, charity, or individual requesting payments in cash, by wire transfer, gift card or through the mail.
The sudden appearance of “treatments” on the market could not only separate you from your money, they may also pose a genuine risk to your health.
“We’ve seen an explosion in a variety of fake remedies that have evolved in products ranging from colloidal silver, ionic silver, herbal teas, and even essential oils like eucalyptus, all claiming they can cure or treat coronavirus,” said Robert Tauler, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in false advertising law and supplement litigation. “There is no evidence to support their claims, and they must by law make that crystal clear to consumers.”
Protect yourself with these tips:
Don’t trust “Coronavirus” or “CORVID-19” subject headers
These words represent the most “clickable” enticement there is right now, because the pandemic is top-of-mind, Kazakian said. Emails and texts with these words will urge you to click a link allowing them to steal personal information or introduce a virus onto your computer or smart phone.
Beware fake charity come-ons
Your good will makes you vulnerable, if you don’t take extra steps. Sharing credit card information to donate to something like “International Childrens’ Coronavirus Relief Fund” presents great risks to your finances. Remember, there are no vaccines and no cures.
Let it go to voicemail
Criminals are pretty smart when it comes to making phone calls that look like they’re coming from your own area code. If you don’t recognize the number, or even if your cellphone identifies the incoming call as coming from something that sounds like a local utility or agency, ALWAYS let it go to voicemail. “Most robocalls will not leave a message, so you can just block the number,” Kazakian said. No government agencies — including Medicare, Social Security and the IRS — will ever call you or leave a message.
Know who you’re buying from
This isn’t the time to buy a bunch of masks from someone posting them on the internet. Besides the obvious risk of handing over crucial personal information, you may unwittingly be buying used, defective or counterfeit items. That mask may do nothing. That dozen bottles of hand sanitizer may never arrive. And avoid opening accounts with brand new delivery services you’ve never heard of: they could be another way of getting your information. Do your research.
Remember: There is no immunization or “home test kit.”
There are no home test kits for coronavirus and no vaccines, period. Anyone pitching you a product claiming otherwise is a scam. Keep checking CDC.gov to stay informed.
Fraudulent supplements are flooding the market
The dangers of falling for the marketing herbal products to treat a novel and deadly disease cannot be understated. “At worst, consumers without access to medical care may forego medical treatment based on false claims,” Tauler said. “At minimum, consumers will shell out hard earned money for fake products that will do nothing to keep them safe.”
Fake remedies could kill you
If you’re taking prescription medications, products falsely touted as coronavirus cures could interfere with their effectiveness. And keep in mind that these products may arrive contaminated with other ingredients or pharmaceuticals not listed on the label, especially those coming from China where factory production guidelines are lax or ignored.
One more thing: Older people are more vulnerable to fall for scams, and that makes them a favorite target for criminals and charlatans.
Regularly check in with the senior citizens in your life and look for warning signs – the sudden appearance of a new “friend” who calls or emails often, or some urgent business at a bank or Western Union. Help your senior family and friends learn to block suspicious emails, phone numbers and texts. Enlist help from your local senior advocacy organization if you need someone to back you up.
-California Consumer Fraud information: https://oag.ca.gov/consumers
-AARP California Fraud Watch Network: https://states.aarp.org/tag/aarp-california-fraud-watch-network
-Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2020/03/checks-government?utm_source=govdelivery
-Food and Drug Administration COVID-19 information: https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-alerts-consumers-about-unauthorized-fraudulent-covid-19-test-kits
*This article was first posted in Forbes magazine and is reprinted here with permission.