Wednesday, August 17, 2022

There are people out there ‘taking advantage of the fear and uncertainty’ surrounding the coronavirus

(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pixabay)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pixabay)

We all know there are still people out there who prey on the elderly, the unsuspecting, the young, the vulnerable.

Now they’re preying on those in fear of catching the coronavirus (COVID-19) and those who are answering the call for help in this time of crisis.

Recently, state Attorney General Mark Herring warned about federal stimulus scams.

But it has morphed into several other scams, including cyber scams, telephone and text messaging scams, counterfeit product offers, bogus door-to-door tests and virus-related products, and phony charity donation requests, all in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.

“The sad truth is that we continue to see bad actors in Virginia and across the country taking advantage of the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and trying to scam money from people,” Herring said. 

Here are some scams to watch out for:

Utility or government impostor scams

Many people are understandably very concerned when they get an e-mail, letter or phone call from someone identifying themselves as a representative of a government agency or one of their utility companies.

Scammers are constantly improving their techniques to fool their intended victims into thinking they work for the government or utility, including fake identification and spoofed phone numbers on caller ID. This scam employs the fear factor to lead you to part with your money or provide financial information to them. They may even threaten to have you arrested or cut off your electricity or water if you do not comply.

If someone reaches out to you saying they are from a government agency or a utility company, do not give your information to them over the phone.

Instead find a legitimate phone number on the utility company or the government agency’s website and call them back to check and see if they actually need you to send them something.

 Cyber scams

Look out for emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and other health care organizations, offering to share information about the virus.

Do not open attachments or click on links within unknown emails, as scammers are using phony COVID-19 tracking websites to infect electronic devices with malware, putting residents at risk for identity theft and financial exploitation.

Take extra precaution to avoid spoofed or phony websites by only visiting websites with clearly distinguishable URL addresses.

Scammers seek to exploit individuals by directing web traffic to similar, but falsely identified website names where they can provide misinformation or attempt to gain consumers’ personal information or finances in exchange for pandemic updates.

Be on the lookout for emails asking for the verification of personal data, including Medicare or Medicaid information, in exchange for receiving economic stimulus funds or other benefits from the government.

Government agencies are not sending out emails asking for residents’ personal information in order to receive funds or other pandemic relief opportunities.

Telephone and text messaging scams

If you find that you’ve answered a robocall – hang up. Don’t press any numbers. Scammers are calling with offers involving everything from COVID-19 treatments and cures, to work-from-home schemes.

The recording might say that pressing a number will direct you to a live operator or even remove you from their call list, but it also might lead to more robocalls.

Similar to email phishing scams, text messages from unknown sources may offer hyperlinks to what appears to be automated pandemic updates, or interactive infection maps.

These are just two examples of ways scammers can install malware on your mobile electronic device, putting you at increased risk for identity theft and financial exploitation.

 Counterfeit product offers & high demand goods

Ignore offers for COVID-19 vaccinations and home test kits. There are currently no vaccines, pills, medications, or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure the coronavirus disease. This applies to offers made online, in stores, by electronic message, or over the phone.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not authorized any home test kits for COVID-19.

As many have seen firsthand, some consumer products are in extreme demand. Household cleaning products, sanitizers, personal hygiene products, and health and medical supplies may be offered via online or in-person sellers aiming to capitalize on under supplied or unavailable products.

When buying online, be sure to research the seller by searching online for the person or company’s name, phone number and email address, plus words like “review,” “complaint,” or “scam.” If everything checks out, pay by credit card as opposed to debit, and keep a record of your transaction.

If you are concerned about price gouging in your area, please reach out to Herring’s Consumer Protection Section for investigation, as violations are enforceable by the Office of the Attorney General through the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.

Bogus door-to-door tests and virus-related products

To ensure your personal safety, do not answer the door or allow into your home or residence any unknown individuals or business representatives moving door-to-door offering to sell consumer products, medical kits, vaccines, cures, whole-home sanitization, or in-person COVID-19 testing.

There are no FDA approved at-home tests, medicines, cures, vaccines, prescriptions or other coronavirus-related products and anything like this that someone is trying to sell is a scam.

Phony charities & donation requests

Coming together in a time of need and extreme hardship is testament to the kindness of Virginians; however, when disasters and life changing events such as the current pandemic occur, be cautious as to where donations are going.

Only give to charities and fundraisers you can confirm are reliable and legitimate.

Scrutinize charities with consumer advocates or friends and find out how much of your donation will go to the charity’s programs and services.

Be especially cautious if you do not initiate contact with the charity. Beware of “copycat” names that sound like reputable charities. Some scammers use names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations.

Crowdfunding sites are particularly popular. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Check the creator or page owner’s credentials and try to confirm its authenticity and seriousness.
  • Look for indicators of endorsement or legitimacy that the page is actually collecting donations for a particular victim or organization. Some sites offer verification and transparency measures for campaigns. Look for those markers of authenticity, and check out the site’s fraud protection measures.
  • Be cautious, and if you feel uneasy, contribute to a more established charity in the community.
  • Be wary of charities that spring up overnight in connection with a current event or natural disaster. They may make a compelling case for you to make a donation but even if they are legitimate, they may not have the infrastructure or experience to get your donation to the affected area or people.

If a charity is soliciting contributions in Virginia, verify its registration with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs (“OCRP”) at 804-786-1343, or by searching OCRP’s charitable organization database online.

Remember these tips to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Never wire money or send cash or a pre-paid card—These transactions are just like sending someone cash! Once your money is gone, you can’t trace it or get it back.
  • Don’t give the caller any of your financial or other personal information—Never give out or confirm financial or other sensitive information, including your bank account, credit card, or Social Security number, unless you know exactly who you’re dealing with. Scammers can use your information to commit identity theft. If you get a call about a debt that may be legitimate — but you think the collector may not be — contact the company to which the caller claims you owe money to inquire about the call.
  • Don’t trust a name or number—Scammers use official-sounding names, titles, and organizations to make you trust them. To make the call seem legitimate, scammers also use internet technology to disguise their area code or generate a fake name on caller ID. So even though it may look like they’re calling locally or somewhere in the United States, they could be calling from anywhere in the world.
  • Join the National Do Not Call Registry and don’t answer numbers you don’t know—This won’t stop scammers from calling but it should make you skeptical of calls you get from out of the blue. Most legitimate sales people generally honor the Do Not Call list. Scammers ignore it. Putting your number on the list helps to “screen” your calls for legitimacy and reduce the number of legitimate telemarketing calls you get.

Herring advises consumers to watch out for the following red flags and to keep these tips in mind to avoid becoming a victim of consumer fraud:

  • The offer seems too good to be true—If it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Examples include money left to you from an unknown relative, being awarded a loan or grant for which you did not apply, winning a lottery you did not enter and being selected to receive a share in funds in return for using your bank account.
  • Requests for fees or payment in advance—Scammers will want advance payments or fees to clear the funds or complete their offer. It might not be clear what the fees are for, but the scammer will tell you they have to be paid or the money can’t be released. They might suggest they are only trying to help you out and the fees are a small sum compared to what you will be receiving. Never pay fees or taxes in advance.
  • Pressure—Scammers will often put pressure on their victims and urge them to pay immediately or lose the opportunity, or may even threaten them with legal consequences or disconnected utilities unless a payment is sent right away. A genuine business or government entity will not pressure you to act immediately.
  • Know who you are dealing with—Technology has made it easy for scammers to disguise or spoof their telephone number or create a website that looks very legitimate. Do an online search for the company name and website and look for consumer reviews. If you cannot find a seller’s physical address (not a P.O. Box) and phone number it should be a red flag. It is best to do business with websites you know and trust. If you buy items through an online auction, consider using a payment option that provides protection, like a credit card.
  • They want private information—Many scams involve getting hold of your bank account details. Scams involving identity theft also seek personal information. A common scenario is an email supposedly from a bank asking you to click on a link to confirm your bank details and password. Banks generally don’t do this, but if you think the email has really come from your bank, pick up the phone and confirm with them. Never click on links or attachments in emails from people you don’t know or you risk your computer becoming infected by viruses, trojans, or other malware.
  • Untraceable payment method—Scammers prefer payment methods that are untraceable, such as wiring money through Western Union or other services. Be very suspicious of demands for wire transfers or cash payments. Never wire money to someone you do not know.
  • Grammatical errors or poor production values—Scammers may be clever, but they are not always careful and English may not be their first language. Their grammatical errors can give them away. If the correspondence you receive is full of errors, low-resolution images, or unsophisticated formatting, be very suspicious.
  • Suspicious email domains and web addresses—Look carefully at email addresses and domain names. Businesses rarely use free email services like Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo, or Gmail. Even if the business seems legitimate, do some research to make sure they have readily available contact information and have not scammed others.
  • Suspicious or no addresses—Scammers do not want their victims to know where they live. If there is no physical address and your contacts won’t give you one, it’s a sure bet you’re being scammed. If there is a physical address, check it out using the Internet or Google Earth and see if it’s a real address.
  • Request for access to your computer—A common scam is a phone call from someone claiming to be a technician who has detected problems with your computer and would like to fix them for you free. Never give anyone remote access to your computer

If you think you have been a victim of a scam, reach out to the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Section:

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John Mangalonzohttp://wydaily.com
John Mangalonzo (john@localdailymedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.

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