During these unpredictable and uncertain times, it’s safe to say we all feel somewhat vulnerable – and it’s this vulnerability that scammers work hard to exploit. They know that we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus. They know that many of us have lost our jobs and now face an uncertain future financially. They know that our routines have been turned upside-down as we work remotely, school our kids at home, and socialise without social contact.
With these vulnerabilities, we become easy prey.
Over the past months, the ACCC’s Scamwatch has received a rising number of reports regarding coronavirus related scams. These range from phishing emails claiming to provide official information, to phone calls from fake charities, to fake sites offering coronavirus cures and investment schemes. But, while each may have a different angle, what they all have in common is their desire to relieve us of our personal data.
So, what can you do to protect yourself? Arm yourself with knowledge, that’s what. In this article, we’re going to discuss the various scams out there so you know what to look for – and how to avoid them. And of course, as these scams tend to target older people and those most vulnerable, you can also pass this knowledge on to those who need it most.
Robocalls & Phone Calls
What is a robocall exactly? A robocall is an automated telephone call that delivers a recorded message, mostly used by telemarketers, but also by scammers. When you answer your phone to a robocall, the message will start automatically, providing information that is designed to sound authentic, but is in fact, phishing for personal details.
On picking up a robocall, you may hear a message that claims to be from Centrelink, telling you that your benefits are being suspended due to suspicious behaviour. You may then be prompted to provide certain details to ensure your benefits continue. Another example of a robocall could involve asking for your Medicare number or credit card details in return for a coronavirus testing kit. Small businesses may also be targeted, with messages asking the listener to provide certain info to ensure their business continues to be listed correctly on Google.
So, what should you do if you receive a robocall? The best thing to do is just hang up as soon as you hear the automated message begin. Don’t press any buttons, don’t give any information, don’t even speak, just hang up.
Aside from robocalls, you may also receive calls from real people, perhaps claiming to be from certain government departments, such as Medicare or Centrelink. Just like robocalls, these calls are designed to draw you in, to encourage you to hand over personal information such as your credit card details, your name and address, and any other relevant info that could be used to steal your identity or your money. Again, hanging up is the best course of action if you receive a call like this.
Fake Cures & Treatments
As the coronavirus continues to spread, panic spreads with it, making people desperate to find preventatives, or even a cure. Unfortunately, this is exactly what scammers are depending on. In the past few months, countless ‘cures’ and ‘preventative’ products have popped up, touted by those who sell them as a way to treat the coronavirus, or prevent users from catching it.
Over in the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have warned the public to be on alert for companies claiming to have a cure or treatment for coronavirus. They have so far sent warning letters to seven companies allegedly selling unapproved products that make false or scientifically unsupported claims regarding their ability to prevent or cure the virus. The next step will be legal action.
Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Letitia James has demanded three companies stop selling expensive air purifiers that claim to filter the air, removing airborne diseases such as coronavirus. Going for as much as US$1,500, these air purifiers are much more costly than other so-called preventatives such as teas, oils and colloidal silver, but no less dangerous to those who buy them, use them, and then think they are safe from the virus.
What can you do to avoid this type of scam? Simple. Don’t fall for it. While the marketing spiel may sound convincing, don’t get sucked in. At this moment in time, there are no approved drugs, vaccines or investigational products that are able to treat or prevent coronavirus.
TIP: While most companies will follow through on sending you their ‘treatment’ or ‘cure’, others simply exist to lure you in with the promise of that product. In return for your payment – and your credit card details – you will receive nothing but the hassle of having to cancel all your credit cards while dealing with the fallout of credit card fraud.
Fake Emails, Texts & Phishing
Remember those Nigerian princes? The ones who emailed you promising to share their wealth with you if you would only give them $500 to get the ball rolling? Those princes have now changed tactics, taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic in any way they can.
Sending out emails and texts phishing for information, these scammers impersonate legitimate businesses and government authorities – even the World Health Organisation – giving you information that encourages you to follow up by either providing them personal details, or clicking on a link or attachment that allows them to implant malware onto your device.
What should you look out for? Scammers are currently sending out emails and texts impersonating banks, utilities providers, government departments, and businesses such as travel agents and telecommunications companies. While some may look more legitimate than others, they will usually ask you to click on a link, open an attachment, or reply with certain information.
It’s important not to do any of that. Clicking on external links or opening attachments could result in your device being infected with a virus that plants cookies and trackers, which then allows scammers access to all your personal and financial information. Alternatively, you providing that information manually by replying to the text or email could be just as detrimental.
Be on the lookout for emails and texts asking you to ‘update’ or provide any personal information. This could include billing details, address info, login IDs or passwords. Some communications may offer a refund on travel or entertainment cancelled due to the spread of the coronavirus. Others may pose as popular web conferencing applications, tricking those working remotely from home into clicking links that will ‘activate their web conferencing accounts’.
If you are unsure, use Google to search for the phone number of the company in question (don’t use any info provided within the email or text), and contact them directly. You may also want to check their website for info regarding scams (again, using Google to search for the link), or check the ACCC’s Scamwatch website.
TIP: There is more to phishing than the methods we have mentioned here. Some scammers may send out emails offering miracle cures or treatments for coronavirus, or even coronavirus testing kits. These are designed to either steal your credit card info, or simply get you to pay for something that doesn’t work. Social media may also be used, as are other channels of communication.
When it comes to times of need, we often want to help others less fortunate than ourselves. Giving to charity allows us to do this, safe in the knowledge that our hard-earned cash is going where it’s needed most. But, while there are plenty of legitimate charities working hard to help those affected by the coronavirus, there are just as many fake charities claiming to do the same.
These fake charities tend to pop up whenever something big like this hits us as a society. During the bushfires earlier this year, for example, scammers knew public sentiment was strong and they could pull on people’s heartstrings to give generously to those in need. Now, it’s coronavirus.
Fake charities are usually pretty sophisticated, and are set up to look and act much the same as legitimate charities. They have authentic looking websites, and they send out emails and make phone calls asking for donations. They also tend to use names that sound similar to real charities. So, how do you spot the real from the fake?
Before you donate any money or provide any personal details, first check the charity is real using the Australian government’s Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) website. You can also check the ACCC’s Scamwatch ‘Fake Charities’ page for more red flags to look out for and ways to protect yourself.
Some other scams to watch out for include investment scams. These may include schemes that advise potential investors of publicly-traded companies that provide products or services that can prevent, detect or cure coronavirus. These are touted as ‘hot buys’, in that their value will increase dramatically, encouraging those investors whose portfolios may have taken a hit to invest.
Debt scams are another one to watch out for, especially for those facing an uncertain financial future. If you have recently lost your job or had to take unpaid leave, you may be willing to take any form of help offered, especially if you are already in debt. However, if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Do your homework, don’t get sucked in, and seek help from a reputable source.
What You Can Do To Protect Yourself
So, now you know more about the various coronavirus related scams out there – and how to protect yourself from them – what else should you be doing to make sure your personal and financial details stay safe?
Stay Safe Online
Many of us are now spending more time on our devices. We are working online, schooling our kids online, entertaining ourselves online, shopping online, socialising online, and using online news sites and social media to stay updated with the latest news. While it may not be something you’ve thought much about, you should make sure you – and your info – remain protected.
In terms of shopping online, make sure you have strong password and authentication options set up on all your credit cards, as well as alerts for any suspicious activity on your card. If you are buying from an unknown seller, check their reviews online to make sure they can be trusted. Also check for the padlock or ‘https’ in the address bar at checkout.
Check Your Credit Card Statement Weekly
While it may not be your idea of an exciting evening in, set time aside each week to check through your credit card statements and bank statements. Line by line, check each transaction to make sure you recognise it, following it up with your bank if you see anything unusual. Some bank apps allow you to search for more info on unknown transactions, to then flag it with the bank if needed.
It’s also a good idea to check your credit score regularly. Some credit reporting sites will let you do this for free, or you can apply to the credit reporting bureaus direct. Check over your credit report, looking out for credit applications you don’t recognise. If you find anything suspicious, you can then report it to the bureau to have it investigated.
Make Sure You’re Covered
Whether you have a Visa, Mastercard or American Express card, you will benefit from some level of protection against credit card fraud. Visa and Mastercard, for example, offer a Zero Liability policy, which means you won’t be held responsible for fraudulent charges or unauthorised purchases made with your card or your account information.
To benefit from this feature, you need to notify Visa – or your card provider – as soon as you notice a discrepancy on your credit card statement. Other terms may apply, so check the small print on your card for full info.
You may also find your card provider offers additional protection against credit card fraud, so take time to check out what’s on offer – and if there’s anything you need to do to activate the higher levels of protection provided.
Stay Up-To-Date With The Latest Scams
If you want to stay ahead of the scammers, you need to know what they’re doing. Using the ACCC’s Scamwatch website, you can find out more about all the latest scams, or alternatively, you could follow Scamwatch on Twitter or sign up for email alerts.
Looking for something other than Netflix – and your credit card statements – to keep you entertained? The FTC in the US has created ‘Scam Bingo’.
If you want to play, simply stamp each square for each scam you come in contact with, and get Scam Bingo for the win.
In A Nutshell
- Be wary of any email or text asking you to take action, such as clicking on a link, opening an attachment, or responding to ‘update’ your details.
- If you receive a call from someone asking for something from you, hang up, Google the company’s number and if necessary, call them back.
- Be careful when shopping online using unknown retailers, especially those requesting unusual payment methods such as upfront payment via money order, wire transfer, international funds transfer, preloaded card or electronic currency, like Bitcoin.
- Before you buy, look for online reviews of the seller.
- Know that there is no vaccine, cure or preventative treatment for coronavirus.
- If you are contacted by a charity, take their details and check that the charity is genuine using the ACNC website.
- Don’t let anyone pressure you to make quick decisions. Take your time and consider who you are dealing with.
- Keep your device security up-to-date with trusted anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a good firewall.
- Never provide your credit card or bank account details via email or over the phone.
- Use strong passwords and don’t reuse passwords across different accounts. A password manager can help with this.
- Review your credit card and bank statements regularly, and if you spot a suspicious transaction, report it immediately.