MAY 22, 2024 / Scams

Coronavirus isn’t stopping the online scammers

The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic – which is, let’s not mince words here, a very serious issue indeed for every Australian – is seeing some swift and much-needed changes to the way we live our lives in order to maintain public health in these very difficult times. There are numerous businesses that are suspending operations, or in some cases shutting down entirely in response to the crisis.

Sadly, the folks who would prey on the susceptibility of people to be conned aren’t taking a break at all. The ACCC has noted a serious spike in reports of scammers using fear around the COVID-19 Coronavirus to take advantage of people. Those are scams that – in this day and age – are much less likely to take the form of someone knocking on your front door but are far more likely to be delivered online.

“We’ve had a wide variety of scams reported to us, including fake online stores selling products claiming to be a vaccine or cure for coronavirus, and stores selling products such as face masks and not providing the goods” said ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard in a statement.

“Scammers are impersonating official organisations such as the World Health Organization and the Department of Health or legitimate businesses such as travel agents and telecommunications companies” Ms Rickard said.

That’s astonishingly horrible business, but then scammers never really cared about the impact they were making on their victims, aside from the financial toll they could extract from them.

So how can you really tell that the information that you’re getting is legitimate? There’s the fairly obvious stuff, like anyone offering to sell you a “cure”, for a start, or someone sharing a Facebook post of “tips” for beating the virus that also ask for money, but some scams can go deeper than that with impersonation of credible bodies.

As government stimulus packages start to kick in, it doesn’t take too much crystal ball gazing to see that being a popular scammer’s target, offering you ‘stimulus funds’ in return for giving across your details. Before you know it, you’ve compromised not only your personal identity details, which are valuable in themselves, but also potentially your bank account too.

The ACCC also notes that it’s seen a rise in scams relating to “investment opportunities” around the pandemic, or retailers insisting on direct payment or funds transfer for goods. Then there’s the classics of the genre around pretending to be from your ISP or Microsoft – while those trade in different “viruses”, with so many more folks working from home or in isolation there’s all too much possibility of them being hit by these kinds of scams too.

That’s where it pays to do your own research and stay on top of the current understanding around COVID-19, not relying on what a random social media post might say. I’ve seen everything from the suggestion that drinking silver (no, really) or bleach (again, it sounds incredulous, but still) might protect you. They won’t, and there’s a lot of hucksterism around them.

“There is no known vaccine or cure for coronavirus and a vaccine isn’t expected to be available for 18 months. Do not buy any products that claim to prevent or cure you of COVID-19. They simply don’t exist” said Ms Rickard.

The Federal Department of Health has excellent and scientifically credible resources around the ways you can keep yourself safe and help stop the spread of the coronavirus, and that’s a great one-stop shop for details that are locally relevant. If you want a more global outlook, the World Health Organisation has detailed information on the effect it’s having across the planet.

Like most online scams, there’s a lot of use of fear to motivate decisions in all of these scams, and it’s entirely understandable that people are frightened in these times. However, it’s very important – as with any decision you make relating to this particular crisis – to stop, calm yourself and do your own research. Contact companies independently to check any claims, don’t respond to any unsolicited messages that ask for your financial information, and if you do fear you’ve been the victim of a scam, contact your financial institution directly and rapidly.

It’s a different kind of staying safe from isolation and handwashing, but one that’s also very important.

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.