Ex-Secret Service agent warns of coronavirus scams online: 'Crime is changing'

With “coronavirus” cleaning products, medical misinformation and fake testing kits, it’s difficult to assess what’s fact during the pandemic. “Times are changing and crime is changing with it,” Evy Poumpouras, former U.S. Secret Service agent, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

As “shelter in place” and “safer at home” orders keep us homebound except to purchase food or medicine or work “essential” jobs, transitioning wholly to digital life leaves us vulnerable to deception, says Poumpouras. Here’s what to look out for.

Medical supply scams. “These are scams in which you’ll be getting emails or calls telling you, ‘Hey, we’ve got medical supplies or face masks — would you like some?” she says. “And they’re going to charge you a large amount of money.” Sometimes the offer is contingent on the customer wiring money or making a direct deposit — “a huge red flag” — but legitimate services require a credit card. Poumpouras says this scam might be prevalent in states like New York, Washington and California, which have reported higher numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Financial freebies — in exchange for personal information. While the Senate debates a bill that aims to help citizens and businesses from the economic fallout of the coronavirus, you may be falsely offered money in exchange for verifying your personal information (name, social security number, home address) over the phone or email. Just hang up. “That is not the way they’re going to be doing it,” says Poumpouras.

Unprofessional emails. Incorrect grammar or typos are obvious signs of a rip-off. “Unfortunately, some of these fraud scams do come from overseas, so it’s very difficult for law enforcement to deal with them...” says Poumpouras. “And also, we’re a bit overwhelmed at the moment.”

Routine financial fraud: As the world focuses its efforts on containing the coronavirus, which has infected over 407,000 people, everyday banking and financial fraud will continue. “If anyone calls you directly, emails you directly, do not respond,” says Poumpouras.

Online account hacking. Change your passwords and use a different one for each account, preferably with a minimum of 13 characters. And “go old-school” by recording your passwords on paper. “Nobody can hack into that,” says Poumpouras. Also, update your security questions — it’s likely that somebody, from social media or your past, knows the answer to questions like, “What is the name of your pet?” and “What is your hometown?” Make hacking harder by fabricating your answers (just write them down so you don’t forget).

Donate cautiously: If you contribute to a charity, make sure you understand its mission and how donations are used to avoid scams that prey on people’s compassion. Or, help your community by grocery shopping for a neighbor or donating unicorn items like toilet paper.

“I think the biggest thing is fear and panic,” says Poumpouras. “And it keeps us from thinking clearly,” a state on which criminals feed. “You’re going to make fear-based decisions and that’s where we make mistakes.”

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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