Coronavirus has been devastating for many across the world, but for scammers it has offered an opportunity to dupe people out of their cash. One way scammers have been targeting individuals is through charity scams. Posing as fake charities or even pretending to be a legitimate charity, scammers have been trying to get people to make donations, for example towards the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. While the warning signs can be hard to spot, don't click on any links in the email or text message as they may direct you to a fake website that looks real. Instead search for the name of the charity and its website independently. The fake charity email pictured asks for donations in Bitcoin, which no genuine charity is going to do.
Charities, non-profit organisations and even governments supporting and running coronavirus relief efforts have to be aware of scammers too. In a high-profile example, a company called IMPACT Medical & Surgical Solutions scammed the State of New York, taking advantage of the desperate need for PPE by charging inflated prices for fake items it didn't actually own. It's important to be wary of offers that seem too good to be true, and even if someone claims to be from a legitimate organisation it's important to still carry out due diligence. It's often worth contacting an organisation independently to check the information you have received is accurate.
As we are all reliant on government information during the coronavirus pandemic, unsurprisingly scammers have also pretended to be from the authorities to try to catch people out, and take their money. One email scam, pictured, claims to be from the UK government and tells people they can claim a tax refund to protect themselves during the pandemic. This scam is hard to spot as the email uses formatting that resembles UK government communications. However, a big warning sign here is the sender's email address, which clearly isn't from a government address. If you aren't sure about an email, don't click on any links, and instead contact the organisation independently to check whether it's genuine.
And it's not just in the UK. During the coronavirus pandemic scammers have tried to take advantage of the US government's financial support measures and claimed to be from the IRS or other government tax agencies in order to scam people out of money. Methods including email and text have been used. In November the IRS warned about a SMS scam that is tricking people into sharing their bank account details in order to receive the $1,200 Economic Impact Payment. The IRS never sends unsolicited texts and would never ask you to provide bank account information via text. Poeple who don't file a tax return will only ever be contacted by letter about the payment.
Also in the US, scammers are targeting Medicare beneficiaries and trying to get hold of their personal data. Scammers are using tactics such as offering COVID-19 tests, HHS grants or Medicare prescription cards to get hold of personal information, which can be used to commit medical identity theft or fraudulently bill healthcare programmes. And beware of fake contact tracers, as legitimate contact tracers will never ask for your Medicare number or financial information. The US Department of Health and Human Services warns that these services are unapproved and illegitimate, and that Medicare will not contact you to offer COVID-19 related products, services or benefit review.
As the coronavirus pandemic has boosted sales of cleaning products, and led to low supplies, scammers have seen an opportunity to make some money. In the US scammers have created fake websites, posing as well-known cleaning companies such as Clorox and Lysol, to get people to buy products that they will never receive. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that people should be careful when buying products that are in short supply elsewhere, such as cleaning materials or PPE, and that people should always use a credit card to make a purchase from a new website as federal law protections mean you won't have to pay for items you never receive.
Grandparent scams have existed for years and involve fraudsters posing as grandchildren who call or SMS claiming to be unwell or in trouble, asking the grandparent to wire money to help them out. In the time of coronavirus and enforced social distancing, these scams have taken on a new sense of urgency and believability. America's Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urges people not to act immediately and to verify a person's identity by asking questions that a stranger couldn’t possibly know the answer to. Above all, don’t send any cash.
Fraudsters have also capitalised on demand for other things during the pandemic and set up fake sites to dupe people out of their money. According to UK organisation Action Fraud, £200,000 ($265k) was lost in fake pet-buying scams in March and April this year alone. The scams work by fraudsters advertising puppies or kittens for sale which don’t really exist, and then demanding an upfront payment. The sneaky scammers have also used lockdown restrictions as an excuse for not allowing buyers to see the pets before they part with their money.
Nintendo Switch sales reached 68.3 million in November, making it Nintendo’s second best-selling home console ever. Yet, as ever, a product that's in high demand will always appeal to scammers. After the devices sold out globally during the lockdown, some people turned to obscure websites to try to buy them, only to be duped by scammers. The UK bank NatWest has said its customers reported more Nintendo Switch-related scams in May than any other type of scam. It's not the first time the device has been targeted as a means to scam people, with Nintendo Switch scams being reported via Amazon's third-party listings in 2017, and eBay in 2019.
In the UK sales of hot tubs on eBay soared by more than 1000% in April, as people in lockdown looked to make the most of the time spent at home and in the garden. This then saw scammers want to take advantage of the new trend, with lockdown and social distancing playing into their hands as it was more reasonable to deny customers the chance to view the product before purchase. And so many people were scammed out of thousands for hot tubs that never even existed. According to UK bank NatWest, scams relating to hot tub sales increased five-fold in May.
As various lockdowns throughout 2020 have caused people to shop online, the likes of eBay, Depop and Facebook Marketplace have been inundated with scammers during the pandemic, selling items including mobile phones, laptops and MacBooks, vehicles and footwear, at what seem like great prices. Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud UK, advises: “Always be wary of emails, texts and social media posts that offer products for considerably less than their normal price – this is a common tactic used by criminals.”
As many countries came out of lockdown in the summer, scammers set up fraudulent websites to offer people fake travel deals, often requiring people to pay a deposit which would not be returned. Be careful when using websites you haven't heard of or used before, and if possible use a credit card as that will help to protect your purchases.
On the flipside, after many people had holidays cancelled during 2020, scammers jumped on the opportunity to send fake emails from “refund claim companies”, to call and pose as the holiday company or even to use fake social media accounts in order to defraud people.
While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated most of the headlines and scams of 2020, there are other ways fraudsters have tried to steal money this year. In fact, the distraction of COVID-19 has potentially been of help to non-coronavirus scams, and the US government has warned that IRS and Social Security scams are also very prevalent this year. So what does this kind of scam look like? Imposters pretend they’re from the IRS and contact people via telephone, email, or message, either claiming that you owe taxes and demand that you pay immediately, or asking you to verify personal information via a link, which usually leads to a fraudulent website. However, the IRS will always make first contact with you via a letter in the post, and never ask you to pay via a prepaid debit card, wire transfer or cashier's check.
This year scammers have also been using the names of Amazon and Apple to scam people over the phone. The Amazon scam uses a pre-recorded message that says there’s something wrong with your account, either a suspicious purchase, lost package, or an order it can’t fulfill. The Apple scam says that your Apple iCloud account has been breached. In both scams they ask you to press 1 to speak to someone, or give you a number to call, as the scammers try to take your personal information, account password or credit card details. If you think there is genuinely an issue with your account contact Amazon or Apple independently through channels you know to be legitimate.
In a variation on the Amazon support scam, people receive a recorded telephone message claiming to be from Amazon Prime, telling customers that their Prime subscription is due to auto-renew and inviting them to press 1 to cancel it. Then, a fraudster posing as an Amazon call centre rep tells them that the subscription has been set up fraudulently and requests that the caller downloads software in order to secure their account, allowing them to access the victim’s bank account. If you receive such a call, don't press 1 but contact Amazon directly to check the status of your account.
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