Pandemic fraud: Forearming via forewarning

CyberfraudTwo weeks ago I posted heartening examples of humanity rising to its best in a crisis. But I’m no Pollyanna. Crises also provide opportunities for scum to rise to the surface, and here the current pandemic is proving no exception.

Topping the list this time around are medical scams. Some sell “testing kits” that are, of course, either nonexistent or bogus. Others offer “vaccines.” Claims of cures that “They” don’t want you know about, or that government bureaucracy or “Big Pharma” (take your pick) are holding up, appeal in particular to fans of conspiracy theories. I hope I needn’t point out that no coronavirus vaccine has been proven effective as of this writing.

More pertinent to this blog are money-related frauds. People who must stay home but whose jobs cannot be performed via telecommuting are rightfully concerned about their short and long term economic prospects. Moneymaking scams hold out false rays of hope, cheating victims out of funds when they can least afford it. Florida news station WMAC has warned viewers of:

… a rip-off robocall promoting an Amazon work-from-home scam that claims to pay $400 a day … emails from fake public health agencies asking for donations … [and so-called] “investment opportunities.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning people about online promotions, including on social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly-traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure Coronavirus and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result.

NPR’s Cheryl W. Thompson reported:

Federal officials on Wednesday charged a southern California man with attempted wire fraud. They claimed he solicited investments in a company marketing pills to prevent people from contracting the coronavirus … Federal and state officials in Virginia have launched a task force aimed specifically at clamping down on coronavirus-related scams … Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says her office has also seen a steady rise in complaints over the last few weeks—fake charities, bogus vaccines.

In the old days, con artists were limited to in-person and by-mail scams. No longer. As the infamous Nigerian money scams and others like them have shown, anyone with a computer can defraud anyone else with a computer anywhere in the world. 

in his Forbes piece, “Coronavirus Scams: Watch Out For These Efforts To Exploit The Pandemic,” Matt Perez lists a number of coronavirus scams. The article is well worth reading and bookmarking, for Perez promises continued updates. Some of the scams Perez has listed to date include malware originating from Lybia that, via text, “… promises to share data and stats about the coronavirus but instead watches you through your smartphone camera, listens using its microphone or parses through text messages.” There’s also “a bogus coronavirus offer for a free iPhone [that] links to a fake Fox News site promoting a coronavirus-curing CBD oil.” 

Moreover,

Last week, the FTC and FDA jointly called out seven companies for peddling products that purported to help or cure people afflicted with the coronavirus: The Jim Bakker Show, Herbal Amy, Inc., N-Ergetics, Vital Silver, Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd, GuruNanda, LLC and Vivify Holistic Clinic.

It’s wise to view every claim with a skeptical eye, even claims from people whom, at least theoretically, we should be able to trust most. That includes well-intended relatives and friends who may be misinformed. Perhaps more important, it includes public figures you’d hope you could but should not trust. The above-referenced Jim Bakker, whom The Washington Post describes as “a disgraced TV preacher in Branson, Mo.,” was recently and rightly slapped down the New York attorney general’s office. ABC News reported:

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday sent cease and desist orders to the Silver Edge Company and Sherrill Sellman for marketing products, such as “Silver Solution” and “Micro-Particle Colloidal Silver Generator,” as successful treatments and cures for COVID-19. Last week, she sent a cease and desist order to televangelist Jim Bakker, who was also promoting supplements as effective treatments.

I am not personally acquainted with anyone who considers conservative radio host Alex Jones to be a reliable source, but it’s clear that many do. Jones, too, has been slapped down by a cease-and-desist order from the New York State attorney general. According to the New York Times:

Mr. Jones, according to the attorney general, made a series of claims: That his products could act as a “stopgate” against the virus, that his Superblue brand of toothpaste “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”

It’s also important to beware communications masquerading as official statements from trusted organizations. Perez writes:

Additionally, users should be mindful of phishing emails that disguise themselves as coming from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, with the latter noting that WHO emails are addressed “.int” and that “WHO does not send email from addresses ending in ‘@who[.]com’ ,’@who[.]org’ or ‘@who-safety[.]org’.”

Financial institutions can provide a valuable service in the form of forearming clients by forewarning them. Naming names, as I have done here, can be risky*, but a financial institution can probably reference in safety “Avoiding Coronavirus Scams” from the Federal Trade Commission website. 

Moreover, advice for staying safe tends to remain consistent. Among other tips, the FTC advises fact-checking, dealing with trusted suppliers, hanging up on robocalls, ignoring home testing and vaccination device offers, and not clicking on unknown links.

Clients still tend to trust their financial institutions. This is a good time to put that trust to their benefit with information that can help keep them safe.

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*This would be a good time for me to point out that I speak here only as Matt, and—most emphatically—not as a representative of or on behalf of my employer.

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