Coronavirus: 6 scams to watch out for

Jason Glassberg is a co-founder of Casaba Security, a cybersecurity and ethical hacking firm that advises cryptocurrency businesses, traditional financial institutions, technology companies and Fortune 500s. He is a former cybersecurity executive for Ernst & Young and Lehman Brothers.

Cybercriminals and other scammers are losing no time in exploiting the current public health scare about coronavirus.

The World Health Organization (WHO), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Better Business Bureau have all issued warnings in recent weeks about the uptick in criminal scams tied to the coronavirus.

Even some foreign governments are suspected of being involved. 

As the virus continues to spread globally and throughout the U.S., the instances of these scams will increase. And the average person will become more susceptible to the fear-mongering and manipulation tactics used by these criminals.

A man wearing a mask walks away from the entrance of the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. The facility has been tied to several confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

There are a lot of ways for hackers, scammers, and organized groups to exploit our fears in order to steal money and personal information, compromise businesses, and even disrupt the upcoming election.

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Don't immediately hang up

If you do, I’ll mark your lead as “no answer”—the same status as if you had never picked up in the first place. Then I will call you back until I have a conversation with you. And if you hang up mid-conversation without an explanation, I will most likely call you back and claim that you got disconnected. If you hear these four words when you pick up the phone, though, you should hang up immediately.

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Don't engage me in any way

Interaction gives me the false hope that you may just need some convincing to buy my product. Do not ask any questions. Do not try to explain why you are not interested in the product. Do not show empathy, compassion, or any other human characteristic.

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Stay cool -- anger won't help you

Remember, the computer chose your lead—I didn’t. If you scream at me because you’ve gotten called before, it’s likely I’ll just put you back into the lead pool to torture you. If you think I’m being rude, you can ask to speak to a manager. Despite what I might say, every business has a supervisor in the call room. Watch out for these phone call scams that could steal your money.

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Say the magic words

The most efficient way to get me to stop calling you requires that you say one sentence: “Please put me on your do-not-call list.” If I ask why, be polite—but firm—and repeat, “I want you to put me on your do-not-call list.”

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Seal my fate

Sign up on the National Do Not Call Registry (donotcall.gov), which makes it illegal for companies to contact you more than once. Next, learn how to keep non-humans from calling you with these tricks to prevent robocalls.

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Here are six scams to be aware of:

Spoofing government and health care organizations

Hackers are already impersonating the UN’s health agency in an effort to carry out a variety of scams, from account takeovers to phony donation requests and the spread of malware. The FTC is also warning of “spoofed” emails, text messages, and phone calls that claim to be from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Consumers can expect to see a wide range of coronavirus-related “phishing” (fake email), “smishing” (text message phishing), and “vishing” (phone fraud) scams over the coming weeks and months. These scams will prey on our insecurities about how and where the virus is spreading, and they could take several forms — such as fake health agency warnings about infections in your local area, vaccine and treatment offers, medical test results, health insurance cancellation, alerts about critical supply shortages, and more. 

These messages can be highly convincing because criminals frequently use professional “phishing kits” that perfectly match the logos and email formats of legitimate organizations. Hackers will also use tactics like “combosquatting” and “typosquatting” to create fake URLs that are easy to fall for.

The authenticity of text messages and caller ID are also difficult to verify. Criminals will frequently combine these methods into a single attack, so that a person will get both a phone call and an email, or an email and a text message, etc., which makes it more likely they will fall for it. 

Personnel at the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work the Emergency Operations Center in response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, among other things, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Fake websites 

Scammers will also set up fake coronavirus-related websites that offer “cures” (both natural and pharmaceutical), vaccines, testing kits, and prophylactic items in short supply such as face masks.

They may also offer other popular and in-demand items at an extremely low price. 

These phony websites will try to steal your money and card information, and they could also infect you with malware. However, it could also be worse. Some of these sites could put your health at risk by sending you products that are substandard in quality (used, damaged or expired) or outright dangerous — as in the case of the “Miracle Mineral Solution” and other sodium chlorite treatments that are being marketed online as cures to the coronavirus.

Seller and buyer scams

Similarly, scammers and unethical sellers could also take advantage of widely used platforms such as Amazon, Walmart, AliExpress, Overstock, Newegg, OfferUp, etc. to gauge consumers.

Third-party sellers on these platforms may market tainted, damaged, used, expired and otherwise unsafe products that are in high demand because of the coronavirus. They may also offer bogus rebates and return policies which they have no intention of honoring, thus leaving consumers holding the bag.

Fake sellers may also infiltrate online forums, Facebook groups, and other informal marketplaces where they can directly con consumers by collecting payments but never shipping any products. 

Those who sell products online should also be wary of scams that could target them through payment apps like Venmo and Zelle. The most common is the canceled payment scam, in which the fraudster buys your product, pays for it through the app, but then cancels the payment before it’s actually processed — which is usually days later, and after you’ve already shipped the product.

HONG KONG, CHINA - 2020/02/12: A man wearing a face mask holds a box of the American electronic commerce company Amazon in Central district, Hong Kong. The death toll from the covid-19 coronavirus epidemic passed 1, 100 and infected over 45, 000 people worldwide on February 12. (Photo by Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This scam is particularly likely now, when consumers are eager to get coronavirus-related goods shipped to them ASAP. Criminals could also use stolen credit cards to buy coronavirus products which they then turn around and resell to other buyers. Because the card is stolen, the cost of the transaction will eventually be charged back to the seller.

Social media scams

Aside from the risk of misinformation, which we’ll get to in a minute, social media users need to be wary of two specific scams that are likely to play off of the current coronavirus situation.

The first category is fake fundraising — either for a supposed victim of coronavirus or a charity group claiming to serve these victims. These calls-to-action can be very convincing, particularly since they may use the stories and images of real people and they often utilize legitimate fundraising platforms like GoFundMe to collect the donations.

The AARP provides a helpful guide on how to weed out fake charities, and it’s worth taking a look. Of course, it's important to bear in mind that there are likely to be many real fundraising drives during the coronavirus epidemic so don't assume every one is a fake — but be sure to check for red flags like grammar and spelling mistakes, reused images (taken from news stories or social media), unknown charities, or high-pressure sales tactics geared toward larger donations.

The second threat to watch out for is coronavirus-related investment scams. As the SEC recently warned, criminals will use social media to promote microcap stocks which they claim have a product or service that can help prevent or treat coronavirus. These are pump-and-dump scams that could cost investors dearly.

Misinformation 

Public crises are often rife with misinformation, and we’re already seeing a lot of this with the coronavirus. 

While much of the misinformation may be unintentional, it can also be used by unethical blogs and pseudo-news sites to drive up their page views, as well as by scammers to promote certain goods (like “cures” and therapies) and “can't lose” investments.

The media watchdog group NewsGuard launched a coronavirus misinformation tracking center and recently put together this list of the worst offenders.

This image posted on the FBI Twitter page, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, shows a fake document that was posted online, that the FBI and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are investigating. The realistic-looking document, asserting the novel coronavirus was detected in the city of Carson, Calif, had the official logos of Los Angeles County Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, and has been strongly denounced by local officials. (FBI via AP)  (FBI via AP)

Coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories can also be weaponized by malicious groups and foreign actors in order to trigger a public panic, sow divisions among Americans, and increase their skepticism of U.S. government agencies, public figures, and political parties. 

WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and other popular platforms have all faced a surge in conspiracy theory peddling, and tech companies are having a difficult time stopping it.

Voter suppression

It’s probably one of the last things many people would think about with the coronavirus, but the rising panic could also have an impact on the upcoming election.

U.S. officials are concerned that foreign adversaries like Russia could manipulate these public anxieties to suppress voter turnout during the primaries and general election.

The U.S. State Department has already identified two million tweets that are pushing conspiracy theories, with many of these showing evidence of “inauthentic or coordinated activity,” which suggest foreign government involvement.

Every voting booth was filled by Madison County voters Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, as they filled out their paper ballots in Ridgeland, Miss. Voters have a number of races to consider, including judiciary and federal offices and some local issues. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A foreign power like Russia could use its considerable social media bots to push disinformation about local infection rates, the risk of transmission, incidents at or near polling stations, or fake alerts from public agencies. There are any number of ways Russia could exploit these fears in order to depress voter turnout and increase anger toward elected officials. 

As the coronavirus spreads and more communities are affected, it is important for people to keep their wits about them and not fall for the many scams that are likely to proliferate. The best sources of accurate information on coronavirus are the CDC and WHO, so refer to them and not the sensationalistic stories circulated on social media.

Don’t provide information in unsolicited phone calls, emails, or texts. Don’t click on links or download attachments from any of these messages. Don’t buy items from unfamiliar sites or apps. Always use a credit card when making online transactions, as this will protect you better than a debit card.

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