Bogus vaccines. Fake testing sites. Virus frauds are flourishing

By telephone, phishing emails, text messages or social media promotions, unscrupulous actors are using their warped creativity to separate people from their cash.

  • By Ann Carrns,
  • The New York Times News Service
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Offers of bogus drugs to prevent or treat coronavirus infection. Websites selling fake vaccines. False promises of speedier receipt of government stimulus checks.

This is the new face of fraud.

With millions of Americans out of work and hunkered down at home because of the pandemic, twists on tried-and-true criminal techniques are flourishing. Multiple federal agencies, including the F.B.I., the Internal Revenue Service and the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, have recently issued advisories, warning consumers to beware of fraudsters eager to prey on people at a stressful time.

The fraught nature and unique circumstances of the pandemic have created an atmosphere of uncertainty, and that has led people to crave control, said Stacey Wood, a psychology professor at Scripps College. That may make them more susceptible to offers of unproven treatments and other virus-related fraud. “Opportunists take advantage of consumers’ vulnerabilities,” she said.

The Federal Trade Commission has received more than 18,000 coronavirus-related complaints, according to commission data from January through April 15. More than half the complaints involved some type of fraud, with reported losses of nearly $9 million.

Whether by telephone, phishing emails, text messages or social media promotions, unscrupulous actors are using their warped creativity to separate people from their cash, officials say.

The frauds include businesses selling intravenous vitamin C drips to “boost immunity” to the virus, websites offering masks that never arrive and even reports of fake drive-up testing sites, where impostors swabbed people’s cheeks in exchange for cash.

The F.T.C. and the Food and Drug Administration have jointly sent warning letters to companies selling teas, essential oils and colloidal silver — silver particles suspended in liquid — and other substances that supposedly prevent the virus. The F.D.A. has said that there currently are no products scientifically proven to prevent infection with, or to treat, the virus.

And in late March, the Justice Department shut down a Texas website offering vaccine “kits” for a shipping charge of $4.95. “In fact, there are currently no legitimate Covid-19 vaccines,” the department said in a statement.

There have even been instances where impostors posing as doctors or laboratory representatives have gained entry to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, offering fake tests as a way to gain Medicare or Medicaid information from residents, said Scott Lampert, special agent in charge of the office of the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services for the New York region. The fear and disorder caused by the virus, he said, “provide an opportunity to take advantage of the disadvantaged.”

“Robocalls” that purport to be from the I.R.S. or the Social Security Administration and use bullying tactics to trick people into sending money or to elicit sensitive personal information for use in identity theft schemes have long been a scourge.

Now, the pandemic has provided a new slant. Nomorobo, a call-blocking app, posted examples of coronavirus calls on its website. Some are recycled versions of typical calls, with a reference to the coronavirus thrown in to freshen the pitch. One from a supposed “coronavirus hotline” targets Medicare beneficiaries: “Because of the limited testing we are first taking Medicare members. Will the free at-home test be just for you or for you and your spouse?”

(The F.D.A.’s website says that “at this time,” the agency “has not authorized any Covid-19 test for at-home testing, including self-collection of a specimen with or without the use of telemedicine.”)

What about this crisis is bringing out sketchy activity?

Professor Wood said that because people were more isolated than usual, they might not have the means to consult other people as easily.

People are seeking reassurance, she said, so information that appears to come from trusted authorities, including government agencies, may be especially appealing.

These are in many ways implausible times, so things that may have seemed far-fetched several months ago may not seem outlandish now, Professor Wood said. “It makes you open to other events that might otherwise seem implausible,” she said.

Another possible factor, she said, is boredom. People have less to do when shut in and are probably opening all of their emails — even spam they may have previously ignored.

Here are some questions and answers about coronavirus-related fraud:

How can I protect myself from coronavirus fraud?

First, understand that there are currently no F.D.A.-approved vaccines or treatments for the coronavirus, said Noah Joshua Phillips, an F.T.C. commissioner. That will, hopefully, change — but you are unlikely to hear about it first via a shady robocall. The best thing to do if you get a suspicious call is to hang up, he said.

Standard advice for any type of suspicious communication applies now, only more so, experts say. Whenever an offer seems too good to be true, or some aspect of a call or email or social media posting seems a bit off, pause before you do anything.

“Engage your inner skeptic,” said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs at AARP. Turn to credible sources of information on the virus, she said, including the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Make sure you are visiting the official “dot gov” site and not a knockoff that may end in “dot com” or “dot org.”

If you get a strange email or text, don’t click on any links or attachments; it could download malware onto your computer. Call the sender of the email, or call a trusted friend, to get a second opinion. Call the government agency cited in the message, using a number you look up independently, and ask if it has legitimate business with you.

What if I am expecting a government stimulus payment?

Most people don’t have to do anything to get their economic stimulus payments, which the government is issuing to help people facing money troubles because of the virus. Those payments will be deposited into your bank account automatically, the I.R.S. said.

The agency encouraged people to take “extra care” during this time, however, to avoid potential fraud. “The I.R.S. isn’t going to call you asking to verify or provide your financial information” so you can get your payment faster, the head of the agency, Chuck Rettig, said in a statement this month.

Some people who don’t typically file a tax return, like people with very low incomes, must enter their information onto a special I.R.S. portal. This involves sharing sensitive details, including your Social Security number, so be careful to use the I.R.S.’s official website, said John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League, a nonprofit group. “When people are desperate,” he said, “that creates opportunities for scammers.”

If the government doesn’t have your banking information, the I.R.S. said, it will send a check to the address it has on file. Do not agree to sign the check over to anyone else or to share information with anyone who contacts you offering “help” in cashing the check, the I.R.S. warned.

I saw a social media report about virus-related scams occurring door-to-door. Is this true?

Agencies including the F.B.I. have issued public warnings about people selling fake virus test kits and “unapproved treatments” on “door-to-door visits.” The inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services also warned of “scammers” going “door-to-door” offering Covid-19 tests in exchange for personal details, like Medicare information.

It is also the case, however, that rumors and exaggeration may flourish on social media. Reuters said in late March that some reported versions of in-person scams, in which impostors were said to be going door-to-door offering to test for the coronavirus as a ruse to rob people are “partly false.”

“Reuters could not find any police entity able to confirm that people are offering scam coronavirus tests in order to carry out a robbery,” the news service reported. Rather, it said, police departments have issued warnings based on unverified social media accounts that have been shared thousands of times.

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