Since the onset of COVID-19 online vagrants have been up to new tricks. As usual the scammers aim to exploit our emotions. Here is a breakdown of some of these types of scams, and the warning signs that can help us spot them.
Phony COVID-19 vaccine trials
CBS Local 21 Ft. Worth reported in late October that there were bevies of cold calls from someone claiming to conduct a COVID-19 vaccine trial. On the call the scammer solicited personal information. This was under the pretext of signing people up for paid clinical trials and other alleged incentives. The scammer then used the personal information of victims to steal their identities, potentially with the motive of money laundering and other criminal activities.
This particular type of scam has become the most common since the start of the crisis. Cold calls are easy to make in most parts of the US. Scammers see them as a cost-effective method of identity theft. There are reports of more such incidents from other states. These scams account for 31 % of all complaints filed regarding identity theft. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recorded 345,036 complaints as of October 2020, with nearly $160 million stolen by scammers.
With vigilance one can easily spot and avoid such fraudulent tactics. CBS 21 points out that no clinical trial will ever require a participant to access a payment gateway. Moreover scam callers request information that is irrelevant to the alleged organisations they claim to represent. For example, a pharmacy would never need your social security number. A research organisation would not require your banking info, let alone have it divulged over a phone call.
Bogus COVID-19 prevention products
Another prevalent scam involves 'clickbait' ads for various products which claim to make consumers resistant to COVID-19. These products come in many forms such as homeopathic remedies, random supplements, and “vaccine kits”. The goal of scammers is to trick victims into buying their products. Forbes.com reports that many of these frauds are aimed at seniors.
Common sense is the strongest protection against such scams. Be wary of unverified medical claims. Watch for scammers posing as credible institutions such as the CDC, ADA, or WHO. We can freely access the information and resources of these organizations on their respective sites. These organizations are primarily involved in formulating advisory policies. They have no need or incentive to market any products to anyone.
The FTC reports that this is the third most common form of fraud since COVID-19. The FTC recorded more than 118,000 complaints as of Quarter 3, 2020, amounting to 10.65% of all reported scam complaints. Scammers setup fake sites to convince victims into giving out sensitive personal info. They frequently use the names and logos of credible firms. Impostors are spotted from inconsistencies and lack of professionalism in their written and verbal communication. Also, they often ask for information which has no relation to the claimed purpose.
Contract tracing scams
Apps are among the most secure methods of transaction. Millions of people use trusted channels such as the Ria Money Transfer App to send money online across international borders. Yet, there are new types of app-based scams afoot.
Capitalone.com reports that users of COVID-19 contact tracing apps are the targets of a new form of phishing. Scammers take advantage of the method of contact tracing meant to manage the spread of infection, and use it to steal personal information. These scams are commonly propagated via text or SMS, and have come to be known as "smishing". Users of contact tracing apps typically receive only 1 legitimate notification message from health officials. Smishing occurs when an impostor sends a follow-up message. The scammer asks for information on the pretext of carrying out additional contact tracing. Remember that tracing apps only notify you of potential exposure, and only once. Thankfully most tracing apps make it easy to report smishing messages.