Here’s How to Spot and Report Common COVID-19 Scams

Michelle Black
·6 min read

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Individuals and families have a lot to deal with during the COVID-19 crisis. Millions of Americans are facing job loss or a reduction in income. Families are struggling to balance working from home and managing their children’s at-home education requirements. And these are the lucky ones. Many people are dealing with health struggles that make other concerns pale in comparison.

In these unfortunate times, there’s another ugly reality that’s rearing its head. Fraud is on the rise. Scammers are actively trying to take advantage of the situation and use the vulnerability of others to their advantage. Both the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued warnings about the types of scams they’ve encountered during the pandemic. Below you’ll find a list of some of the most common coronavirus scams and tips on how you can both avoid and report scams yourself.

Phishing Emails and Texts

The phishing email or text is a common tool that fraudsters use to try to trick you into surrendering personal details you would never willingly share. Even before the pandemic, the FBI revealed that the most frequently reported complaints about internet-enabled crimes involved phishing scams and similar ploys. If you fall for one of these tactics, you risk handing over sensitive, personal information to people with bad intentions.

Coronavirus-related phishing emails may look like they’re from reputable organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization or a medical source. Often, they feature details about the virus or the disease it causes, COVID-19, and some may even advertise a phony treatment or vaccine. Many of the messages contain links or attachments and, if you click on them, that’s when the trouble starts.

Clicking on a bogus link or attachment could potentially download malware onto your computer, giving fraudsters access to your files, keystrokes and maybe more. This unauthorized access could result in stolen personal information and compromised financial accounts. In some cases, the bad guys may be able to steal enough information to commit identity theft and open fraudulent accounts in your name, resulting in serious credit problems that can be tough to clean up after the fact.

How to Avoid the Scam

Phishing scams can be hard to detect. Often, the texts or emails are designed to look like they are from a company you do business with already. Many messages also feature a sense of urgency, such as “act now,” or “limited time offer.”

As a rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid clicking on any links or attachments you receive in emails or texts. Instead, when you need to log in to an online account, visit the website directly. From there, take a moment to verify that the web address is correct before you enter any sensitive information.

Price Gouging

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a nationwide (and in some cases worldwide) run on essential supplies. From hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to face masks and toilet paper, it is again becoming increasingly difficult to buy goods that were once readily available in many parts of the country.

In anticipation of the supply shortage, many would-be profiteers have purchased large quantities of coveted products. These sellers then try to sell off their stash of products to the public at inflated prices, often via third-party marketplaces. Charging exorbitant prices for essential products in the face of a disaster is the very definition of price gouging.

How to Avoid the Scam

There are a number of ways you can avoid price gouging. Shopping with trusted retailers that aren’t taking advantage of the public is a good place to start. (If you want to earn extra rewards, some credit cards offer higher rewards on grocery purchases.)

It’s also essential to avoid supporting supply hoarders and extortionists with your business, even if you can afford to pay the inflated prices. Some online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay are also cracking down on price gouging on their end. So, if you’re shopping online, it’s best to choose companies with anti-price gouging policies in place.

Phony Charities

One of the most encouraging side effects of the pandemic is that it has led to a wave of ordinary people volunteering to help their communities. From sharing supplies to making masks for healthcare workers to donating money, Americans across the country are stepping up to help each other survive the crisis. In my opinion, this makes scams that aim to take advantage of these kind-hearted givers among the most despicable kind of deception.

Fraudsters will often use names that are close to those of legitimate charities. In some cases, thieves may impersonate real charities as well. These phony charity scams may be presented over a variety of mediums, including social media posts, robocalls, emails and texts.

How to Avoid the Scam

Whether a charity calls you on the phone or sends you an email, text or letter, you should be aware of the possibility of a scam. For this reason, the FTC provides a list of organizations that can help you vet charities before you donate to make sure they’re legitimate.

If you want to donate money, your best bet is to choose an organization you already know and trust. Visit its website directly and double-check the web address once you’re there. Finally, be sure to make your donation via credit card and never with a debit card, check by phone, wire transfer or gift card. Credit cards offer robust fraud protections that you can rely on in the event of fraud. I learned this lesson the hard way.

How to Report Scams

Besides working to avoid scams yourself, it’s helpful to report them to the appropriate authorities when they come to your attention. Reporting fraudsters could help others who might be more vulnerable and prone to fall for such schemes.

  • Scams: Report to the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov/complaint.

  • Phony Charities: Report to FTC.gov/complaint and your state charity regulator (found at nasconet.org).

  • Supply Hoarding and Price Gouging: Report to the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 866-720-5721 or disaster@leo.gov.

What the Government Is Doing to Protect You From COVID-19 Scams

It’s important to stay vigilant and do everything you can to avoid falling victim to scam artists and fraudsters during this time. But you can also enjoy some relief in the fact that the government is working to protect citizens from Coronavirus-related scams during the global health crisis, too.

The president used the Defense Production Act to issue an executive order that makes hoarding critical supplies illegal. Building on the order, the attorney general has created the COVID-19 Hoarding and Price Gouging Task Force. Attorney General Barr also directed federal law enforcement, litigating divisions, and U.S. Attorneys to work closely with state and local authorities when it comes to reporting and punishing bad actors.

While we work hard on our research, we do not always provide a complete listing of all available offers from credit-card companies and banks. And because offers can change, we cannot guarantee that our information will always be up to date, so we encourage you to verify all the terms and conditions of any financial product before you apply.