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How To Stay Safe From Scammers Taking Advantage Of Coronavirus Pandemic

An expert says younger generations are at risk of being duped by one particular aspect of digital life, despite being thought of as savvy in spotting online scams overall.

By Stephanie Gomulka
How To Stay Safe: Scams To Watch Out For Amid COVID-19

As officials across the United States try to halt the spread of COVID-19, families are adapting to a new reality. Amid concerns over job security, health care plans, or vulnerable loved ones, cyber security experts tell Oxygen.com there's another issue to be aware of: scammers looking to pounce on the pandemic as a means of stealing your personal information. 

Shira Rubinoff, a cyber security executive and advisor, told Oxygen.com scammers are looking to exploit the fears people are grappling with. 

“Human emotions are a very strong element when it comes to tricking, scaring, or trying to grab people’s information,” Rubinoff said.  

Theresa Payton, a former White House chief information officer and CEO of the cyber security company Fortalice Solutions, told Oxygen.com scammers do this throughout the year, but using these “unprecedented times” might be their latest way in.

“Cyber criminals are always looking for an opportunity to play to our emotions, which is what gets us to click on links, open attachments, visit websites we normally wouldn’t,” Payton said. 

Here are six scams experts recommend you watch out for amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Fraudulent links, texts, or calls meant to steal your information

Schemes could include manipulating official website URLs by adding or removing one character to re-route users to a fraudulent site. Rubinoff says sometimes scammers will entice people to click links by offering free subscriptions, programs, or items. 

It’s a tactic that even California Rep. Katie Porter sounded the alarm on when she was a sent a text with a link boasting a free iPhone giveaway this past week. 

“As a consumer protection attorney and consumer advocate I have seen corrupt organizations scam those most vulnerable,” Porter tweeted. “During this pandemic, it is important to be diligent and on the lookout for people trying to take advantage of these circumstances.”

Be wary of call to actions that want you to respond quickly. Experts recommend pausing or asking a friend if you’re unsure about a situation. 

Fake bank or government alerts 

Some scammers may attempt to reach you by warning that your bank account or social security number has been breached. Rubinoff warned to not give information “inbound,” meaning if a person calls soliciting sensitive personal information, you should ask for a call back number and redial to verify it’s the real organization. Another option is to hang up and call the main number of your bank or the relevant agency directly. 

Payton, who is the author of the upcoming book “Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth,” said the U.S. government won't send emails about important benefits like social security or health care coming under threat. She warned that if you receive an email like this, view it with caution.

Experts recommend using multi-factor authentication as way to safeguard your information. That means getting a verification code sent to your phone or email as an extra layer of security after signing into an account with a password.

Payton also recommended using different email addresses for different segments of your life.

“Have an email account you use for social media that you don’t use for banking,” Payton said.

Rubinoff also advised not to reuse passwords and remember to change them often. 

Misinformation and Memes

Although younger generations may be savvier at noticing phishing emails or fraudulent links on social media, Payton said one area she sees students she’s worked with have trouble is internet memes.

“Often times misinformation and manipulation campaigns are hidden in these internet memes,” Payton said. “You could have the younger generation thinking I’m not gonna catch it because of these issues, or this is a cure, or this is a way not to get it, and believing these misinformation or manipulation campaigns because they were delivered by internet memes.” 

Scammers pretending to be with a company offering services or help for free

As families figure out with how to deal with the pandemic, companies have also been devising plans for workers and the broader public. However, Rubinoff noted that scammers will often try to take advantage of people's trust in established entities and pretend to represent them. 

For example, a company might be offering free educational materials for caregivers to use with their kids while at home from school together. A scammer could use a false link pretending to work on behalf of the company.

A way to combat this is to not click the link and instead head to the company’s main website where you can verify that the resource is legitimate, Rubinoff said.

If you encounter a scam following this pattern, notify the platform where you received it and flag it to the real company. 

“A company that’s being exploited has a lot more power than an individual,” Rubinoff said.  “You want to make sure that they’re aware that they’re being spoofed.” 

Fake vaccines or online offers boasting a “cure”

"While there are no FDA-approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure or prevent COVID-19, there are several FDA-approved treatments that may help ease the symptoms from a supportive care perspective," the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in a press release.

The Federal Trade Commission has warned people to ignore online offers for vaccinations and be wary of emails that claim to be from the Centers for Disease Control or people claiming to be experts on the virus. 

Authorities have already started cracking down on people allegedly peddling bogus COVID-19 treatments.

Coronavirus Tracking Maps or Fraudulent Apps

As cases rise and guidelines on what to do in your area rapidly change, you may be checking social media and news websites more than normal. 

Maps circulating online showing rates of COVID-19 infection may be tampered with and be hiding malware, according to Payton. 

“If you really want to see these one of these maps, go to the authoritative website of either the World Health Organization, or Johns Hopkins University, or the CDC,” Payton said. 

Be wary of clicking any questionable links on social media or in emails as it can put you at risk, Payton warned. She also said people should make sure apps are legitimate before downloading them onto their devices. 

You can report possible internet crimes to the FBI or, if it’s a company you suspect is behind a scam, to the Federal Trade Commission, Payton said. 

Rubinoff encouraged everyone to share their experiences with friends if they encounter a possible scam. 

“Put in on social media,” Rubinoff said. “We all want to be there for each other. Certainly in times like this you really feel us pulling together as a whole and wanting to make things as easy as possible for each other and hoping that this will pass soon.” 

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