Buyer Beware: How to Avoid Scams & Misinformation during COVID-19

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When a disaster or emergency affects a community, it’s normal for the community to come together. Many people go out of their way to care for each other and find ways to get involved. But others may try to profit off or take advantage of people’s fear and anxiety.

Scams & price gouging during the COVID-19 pandemic

The number of scams related to the COVID-19 outbreak is increasing. Reports to the Federal Trade Commission show that scams have cost the public millions since the beginning of January.(1) And the actual cost could even be higher because many people are too embarrassed to admit they were scammed, or don’t know where to make a report.

Scam artists are using different strategies (such as promising cures and supplies or posing as representatives of charities and the government) and different methods (like text messages, phone calls, emails, and home visits) to make a profit and gain access to personal information.

These schemes are growing increasingly sophisticated. But you can take steps to protect yourself.

Email & snail mail

Phishing is an email scam that can trick a person into clicking on a link or downloading an attachment to reveal their personal information. Stolen personal information can be used to apply for credit, file taxes, or get medical services. Your credit can be damaged as a result, costing you time and money.

Scammers also use “snail mail” (through the postal service) sent to your home. In March, Social Security beneficiaries reported getting letters on official-looking letterhead that threatened suspension of their benefits because of COVID-19-related office closures. The fake letters instructed beneficiaries to call a phone number and talk to an “agent” who would try to mislead callers into sharing personal information and sending payment.(2)

Phone calls & text messages

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has received reports of scam text messages (called smishing) and robocalls (called vishing) offering free home testing kits, promoting bogus cures, and selling health insurance.

In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General reported that scammers were offering unapproved and illegitimate COVID-19 tests to Medicare beneficiaries in exchange for personal details, including Medicare information.(3)

Internet

The Internet and social media can be sources of entertainment and social connection (especially under the current circumstances), but they are also favorite hangouts for scammers promoting all kinds of fake products.

The Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration posted consumer warnings about fake websites used to promote bogus products. It’s important to ignore online offers for vaccinations and be careful of ads for test kits. There are no products proven to prevent or treat COVID-19 at this time. If you have questions about testing or test kits, it’s best to ask your doctor, nurse, or clinic.

People are also using the Internet for price gouging—charging a much higher price for goods or services than is considered reasonable or fair. Price gouging on everything from groceries to toilet paper and hand sanitizer has been reported nationwide.

Anyone with information on price gouging of supplies necessary to the COVID-19 response is encouraged to call the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud at (866) 720-5721, or complete a NCDF Web Complaint Form.(4)

How to protect yourself & others

As scammers get more sophisticated, consumers need to educate themselves. Here are some tips from the FCC:

  • Protect important paperwork and keep personal information secure. That includes never sharing your personal or financial information by phone, email, or text message.
  • Be wary of answering phone calls from numbers you don’t recognize. Scammers often spoof phone numbers to trick you into answering or responding. Spoofing makes it appear as if their phone call is coming from a known or trusted phone number or familiar geographic location. However, you may get legitimate calls from unknown numbers that turn out to be the public health department. If you have COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID-19, your health department may contact you as part of contact tracing activities. Contact tracing is essential to slowing the spread of COVID-19.  If your health department leaves a voicemail, return the call, for your own health and the health of others.
  • Hover over links (hold the mouse cursor) sent to you in an email or text message. If anyone sends you a text or email with a suspicious link and spelling errors, or if the message just seems out of character for the sender (maybe a friend or family member), call them to make sure they weren’t hacked.
  • Do your homework: If you are unfamiliar with a charity, check to make sure it’s legitimate by doing online research and checking its website.
  • Report COVID-19 and other disaster-related scams to the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 866-720-5721 or disaster@leo.gov.

Rumor & misinformation

Rumor and misinformation can cause as much harm to your mental and emotional health as scams can cause to your financial wellbeing. In a rapidly changing situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to know how to stay informed and what you can do to help put a stop to misinformation.

  • Do some legwork. Cross-check what you read online with what subject matter experts at CDC, FEMA, and the World Health Organization have to say on the same topic or issue.
  • Avoid and do NOT spread opinions that can divide people or discriminate. If you see information that is negative against an entire group of people, or that you know is false, say something. Help to share key facts, guidance, and answers to frequently asked questions with people in your social networks at work, school, and online.
  • Show grace. If someone you know is spreading misinformation, do NOT lecture or ridicule them publicly. Instead, contact that person calmly and privately with a phone call, text, or direct message.

As important as it is to stay informed of the situation, there is such a thing as too much information. Try to limit your family’s exposure to news and social media. Children, for example, can misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they don’t understand. Learn more about talking to children about coronavirus.

For answers to frequently asked questions about COVID-19, visit the CDC website.

Resources

References

(1) https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2020/04/covid-19-scam-reports-numbers?utm_source=govdelivery

(2) http://fortworthtexas.gov/news/2020/04/COVID-19-Social-Security-Suspension-Scam/

(3) https://oig.hhs.gov/coronavirus/fraud-alert-covid19.asp

(4) https://www.justice.gov/file/1264276/download

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Page last reviewed: June 17, 2020
Page last updated: June 17, 2020