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How Coronavirus scammers prey on the global pandemic

April 6, 2020 – In Canada and internationally, virus scams are on the rise taking advantage of this time of crisis. The global pandemic has been a big business for Coronavirus scammers. Due to global fears, unemployment, and financial stress, the environment is ripe for fraud. Additionally, physical isolation creates a divide-and-conquer environment that facilitates criminal activities. Currently, we receive scam alerts from public officials on a daily basis. Last week we focused on phishing scams. Watch out for these mostly COVID-19 related scams using fraudulent products and services.

Fake cures or tests

In these times, wouldn’t it be nice if we all could just order a cure, a vaccine or a test-kit against the spreading Coronavirus? Unfortunately, a fast, accurate COVID-19 test or healing cure is still too good to be true. Nevertheless, you can find a lot of these offers online. However, only hospitals and approved assessment centers can perform COVID-19 tests, so don’t be fooled if someone is selling a test kit online or door-to-door.

Last month, the Toronto police arrested a suspect in connection with fraudulent COVID-19 testing kits. Jesse Wong of Toronto is accused of selling and shipping prohibited COVID-19 tests across North America. Furthermore, Edmonton Police say they heard of people going door to door selling those fraudulent tests.

Fraudsters try to capitalize on people’s fears, uncertainties, and misinformation about the novel Coronavirus. Scammers are trying to sell products that are not proven to treat or prevent the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) — online or in stores. The Toronto police reminded the public to be vigilant when it comes to those trying to sell or providing products or services associated with COVID-19.

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

Police say any claims of vaccinations or products that cure or prevent the disease are a fraud. At this time, no home test kits, vaccines, or therapies to treat or prevent the virus are authorized in Canada. Visit the website of Health Canada for more information.

Fraudulent online offers by Coronavirus scammers

Online shopping for products of high demand or which are anyhow related to Coronavirus is a risky endeavor. Hundreds of websites selling hand sanitizer, face masks, oxygen concentration machines, Corona necklace air purifier or anti-viral protection pills, among others. Over the last two months, these websites have been popping up on the internet. They are claiming to sell virus-fighting products and some are making exaggerated offers for phantom products.

The New York Times found out that since January, nearly 500 new sites have registered with the multinational e-commerce company Shopify using names that include ‘Corona’ or ‘COVID’. Shopify Inc. is a Canadian company headquartered in Ottawa which operates the eponymous e-commerce platform for online stores and retail point-of-sale systems. With Shopify, everybody who has an email address and a credit card can create a retail website in a short time.

Read more: Toronto police make Covid-19 fraud arrest

‘Many of the sellers do not actually possess the goods, nor have they verified that the products are legitimate. Often, the sites’ operators are middlemen who fulfill customers’ orders by buying items on other websites — a kind of digital arbitrage known as ‘dropshipping’,’ explains the New York Times.

Reportedly, Shopify started to shut down websites that are making exaggerated claims or that are selling phantom products – already 4,500 sites related to the novel Coronavirus have been shut down until March 24.

Consumers and online shoppers need to know the online shops, they are ordering from and are advised to carefully research before making an online purchase.

Coronavirus-related investment scams

The Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) issued a warning against companies claiming to have products or services that will prevent, detect or cure Coronavirus infections. These businesses try to lure potential investors with the expectation of significant returns.

Last month, the FBI arrested the Southern-Californian actor, Keith Lawrence Middlebrook, for allegedly soliciting investments for a company that claims to have developed a cure as well as a pill to prevent the infection with the virus. Middlebrook is facing wire fraud charges. If convicted as charged he could face up to 20 years in prison.

Investors are encouraged to be vigilant when it comes to Coronavirus related investment opportunities. At this time, there is no vaccine, natural health product, or other cure authorized to treat or protect against COVID-19.

The CSA advises to ‘[b]e cautious of any claims that a company has a solution to help stop the coronavirus outbreak. Reliable information relating to COVID-19 is available from the World Health Organization and the Government of Canada.’

Work from home scams

During the crisis, more Canadians are looking for alternative sources of income due to layoffs or bad order situation related to the global pandemic. The British Columbia Securities Commission (BCSC) alerted people who are job hunting to be skeptical towards companies offering opportunities to work from home as securities trader during this time of crisis.

The commission discovered potentially fraudulent ads claiming that traders can keep a large percentage of the profits and do not need any experience or a license. These ads demand payment of fees from their would-be traders.

The BCSC warns against these ‘job offers’ which are actually job scams and explains that ‘[i]n Canada, anyone in the business of trading securities must be registered with the securities regulator in each province or territory where they do business, unless an exemption applies.’

Romance scams

Fraudsters are preying on the most vulnerable people in our society. Social or physical isolation increases the number of people who feel lonely. Many are turning to online acquaintances which plays into romance scammers’ hands.

Romance fraudsters use fake profiles on social media or on popular dating apps, where they get in touch with their victims. Ultimately, the romance rogue will convince their mark that they are in love and committed to building a serious relationship with their victim. For many victims, the fraudsters say the very things they wanted to hear. After they gained their victim’s trust, the bogus Valentine’s make up a story with some kind of emergency and ask for money.

The Edmonton police inform that the increase in romance scams linked to Coronavirus seems to be happening around the world. The current situation makes people not only more vulnerable, but it also delivers a believable excuse for the romance fraudster why they cannot meet.

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

Canadians looking for love online are advised by the RCMP to be suspicious of requests for money or ‘requests for personal or financial information, intimate photos or video that can later be used for blackmail, or for help transferring or holding funds, which may lead to the victim being unknowingly involved in a much larger fraud scheme.’

Hybrid online / vacation rental fraud

Airbnb currently offers full refunds for some bookings that cite COVID-19 as a reason for cancellation. According to the Victoria police, some Coronavirus scammers exploit this cancellation policy to receive a full refund, while staying at the Airbnb unit anyway.

Furthermore, some fraudsters also steal items from the unit such as televisions, stereos, and toilet paper. This fraudulent procedure is a hybrid combination of online fraud and in-person theft.

‘One of the best ways to avoid falling victim to a fraud, particularly those which prey on COVID-19 related worries, is to connect, by telephone, email, text or other virtual means, with someone you trust to talk about the suspicious message,’ recommends the Victoria police.