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April Fool’s Day: These COVID-19 scams are no joke

April 1, 2020 – On April Fool’s Day, every year, a bunch of untruths pops up on the internet. Scammers also use untruths to trick their victims. Anyhow, these scams may feel like pranks, but they are no joke and have real consequences. Since the global Coronavirus pandemic, fraudsters are preying on panicked, isolated, and emotionally vulnerable people with their scams. In Canada and internationally, virus scams are on the rise which take advantage of times of crisis. In the last weeks, we have seen multiple scam alerts from public officials. Watch out for these mostly online COVID-19 scams.

Fake government messages

Last week Canada’s finance minister Bill Morneau and Finance Canada warned against text messages regarding the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Text messages that seemed to be from the Canadian government were circulating across the country. The text claimed that the recipient received a deposit for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and asks to click a link to deposit the funds.

Using fraudulent text messages, scammers try to trick victims into transferring upfront payments or hand over personal information such as social insurance numbers or banking information. Recipients of these fake government messages are asked not to click the link and delete the text.

Unfortunately, this is not the only phishing scam that impersonates government agencies. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the Canada Revenue Agency are among the imitated organizations.

Hydro-Quebec issued a warning against false reimbursement notices. Ottawa Public Health notified the public two weeks ago about fraudulent phone calls asking for credit card information. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Some scammers are pretending to be with fictional public health agencies saying the recipient has tested positive for COVID-19 and asking for their personal or financial details.

Most of these frauds use phishing techniques. That means that these rogues pretend to be a legitimate government entity and try to obtain confidential information about their target while using fraudulent links that often lead to websites that claim to be an official website of the impersonated organization or a website offering Interac transfers. As soon as the victim handed out the information, the fraudsters can use it for identity fraud and steal the victim’s money.

To avoid falling prey to these ruthless fraudsters, try to validate information before clicking links. Often the offered hyperlink differs from the valid website. Conduct an independent web search to verify the information on official government websites. Most important, do not give out personal information.

Fake government website

Fraudsters do not only try to target Canadians by using text messages, email and phone calls. Additionally, they create fake government websites to exploit the Coronavirus pandemic. The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security is acting against malicious cyber campaigns that spoof Canadian government sites with fake COVID-19 information.

The national agency is taking down large numbers of malicious websites, including sites that have spoofed the Public Health Agency of Canada, Canada Revenue Agency and Canada Border Services Agency, according to CSE spokesman Evan Koronewski.

‘Over the March 20-23 timeframe, our continued efforts contributed to the takedown of over a hundred fraudulent sites or email addresses designed specifically for malicious cyber activity,’ Koronewski said. ‘We are working with our industry partner to automatically start taking down cyber actors phishing using COVID-19 themes before they can take advantage of Canadians.’

Unsolicited phishing email or text

Currently, the most common scam taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis is a merchandise scam. Rogues sending out messages claiming that the Canadian Red Cross is selling or giving away face masks. When the victim clicks on the provided link, they are usually asked to pay some kind of fee for the items. Subsequently, the scammers ask the victim to provide their credit card information, which is stolen by the scammers.

However, not only government agencies and the Canadian Red Cross are spoofed by fraudsters, unsolicited emails and text messages are circulating claiming to be from Costco, Shoppers Drug Mart, phone service providers, or streaming accounts. These messages are claiming problems with promotions, monthly payments, or security questions.

The VPN provider Atlas found out in an analysis that the number of phishing websites spiked by 350 percent amid the COVID-19 quarantine. In all phishing attempts, the scammer’s goal is to steal their victim’s information or money. In some cases, they even infect their victim’s devices with malware disguising the attempt with a Coronavirus map or dashboard.

The latter is often used to extort specific companies, government agencies or research centers. By using ransomware, cybercriminals attempt to steal money, intellectual property such as research on COVID-19 treatments or patient information.

To stay cyber safe, do not click on links from sources that are unknown in order to avoid downloading viruses onto devices.

Bogus charities

COVID-19 scammers do not even flinch from exploiting the good cause of charities. They are setting up bogus organizations or pretending to be well-known charities such as the Canadian Red Cross. They are reaching out to people via email, text message or social media and try to convince people to donate money to allegedly help in this crisis.

Most of these scams are using online techniques. However, some bogus attempts occur in the analog world. Scammers going door-to-door purporting to be charity representatives asking for donations. The Canadian Red Cross announced that as of March 16, 2020, they suspended their door-to-door canvassing.

Read more: Don’t fall for COVID-19 frauds

When it comes to the good cause, it is recommended to research the charity before making a donation. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, it is probably a scam.

‘Regardless of the scam type or method, these criminals all have the end goal of stealing your personal information and/or money. Please protect yourself and beware of any unfamiliar communications whether it be a text, a phone call or an email,’ concluded OPP Inspector Rob Scott in a release warning against COVID-19 scams.