Con artists exploit people overtaken by fear during the pandemic.
Some threats associated with the current pandemic are real and serious. People are getting sick and dying. Other threats are real but much less serious. Stores still can’t stock the toilet paper aisle. Still other threats are neither real nor serious. There is no shortage of face masks for the average person, but regardless of the level of actual threat, people are afraid and fear sets the stage for the con artist.
Criminals looking for easy money hit the jackpot when the pandemic took over our lives. Before this, scammers had to work at least a little to discover our vulnerabilities. It didn’t take much—perhaps analyzing some internet data—and now, COVID-19 has provided all the information they need to identify their victims. We are the victims.
Fear of Death. This has become so strong that all con artists need to do is pick their angle. Do they prefer nonexistent test kits, bogus cures, or fake health insurance? These fraudulent offers go out through text messages, robocalls, email, and social media. There is truly nowhere to hide from them. In some areas, criminals have erected physical “testing sites,” complete with personnel in sci-fi style protective gear. These con artists charge an up-front fee which allows them to steal the victim’s money and collect credit card information.
Fear of Lack. This creates another door for con artists. With the help of media and the behavior of early hoarders, many people decided that living without toilet paper, paper towels, and diced tomatoes (among other staples) would present an insurmountable hardship. Even mainstream publications have supported this shortage mentality by publishing articles listing the items everyone should stock up on to be prepared to survive this period. At least, reputable media outlets like Good Housekeeping, advised against over-stocking. Unfortunately, many people don’t know where the line is between “stocking up” and hoarding.
TP at Any Price? As the hysteria over running out of “essential” items has grown, the scammers have come out in droves. They offer face masks, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, surface disinfectant, water purifiers, all for a price, usually a very high price. The consumer’s level of fear dictates how much a product is worth. Right now, fear is high.
Economic Uncertainty. The economic uncertainty that followed shelter-in-place has created another area of vulnerability. Some people have already been laid off, others have had hours reduced dramatically. Many freelancers can’t get work because employers are being understandably cautious. Bills continue to roll in. Those experiencing economic instability desperately search the internet for jobs that can be done at home. Those searches make them visible to scammers and suddenly inboxes and social media pages present ads for work-from-home positions. By paying a small start-up fee or turning over personal information like a social security number, you, too, can have a job working from your dining room table. You won’t get a check, but you are still free to sit at the table.
HOW TO AVOID GETTING CONNED
When it comes to shelling out money, keep fear out of the equation.
- First, remember the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Test kits and other medical services will only be supplied by reputable doctors or clinics. Nothing of any proven value is available online, and the government is not setting up roadside clinics. Only con artists offer to sell inside tracks to testing, early release vaccinations, “proven” treatments to lesson symptoms, or the worst one, a cure.
- If you receive an email, telephone call, or text from the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization, do not give any information or money. These are fraudulent calls. This holds true for the State of California and Los Angeles County as well. No government agency or medical facility will contact you for money or personal data. Reliable updates about the pandemic and what citizens are being asked to do is available on websites like coronavirus.gov and usa.gov/coronavirus. For local information, stay up to date at covid19.ca.gov and covid19.lacounty.gov/dashboards/.
- In this vein, do not respond to anyone asking for information so your relief check can be processed or expedited. The checks are being sent automatically. Only con artists would like you to believe otherwise.
- Finally, businesses offering work-from-home opportunities do not reach out to people. However, this one is trickier. Legitimate services that list these job vacancies do advertise online. For example, flexjobs.com is a real site. You pay a monthly fee and get access to remote and flexible job listings. But there are plenty of phonies out there, so be vigilant. Do not click on any link that shows up in social media or comes unsolicited in any way. Make note of the name of the company that supposedly has the jobs and do your own research to make sure it exists.
HOW TO RESEARCH AN ONLINE SOURCE
- Look for a physical address and a phone number for the business. Even online companies should have an address, and they should be reachable by phone. Next, search the physical address online. Click on the map that comes up. You should see pictures of an actual office or storefront. Even after checking these off, however, there’s more to do. Scammers can be very sophisticated. They have a lot to gain from constructing a convincing web presence.
- Look for a history of online reviews. Start with the company’s website. A list of consumer reviews going back in time should be there. Also type the company’s name and “reviews” into your search engine. This should produce places where the company has been reviewed on other people’s websites. If there are few or none, move on. This indicates that the business hasn’t been around for long, meaning it might have gone up last night in someone’s garage. Finally, search something like “Is business ABC a scam?” If it is, people have fallen for it, and they’re posting about it.
- To ensure a website is secure before you fill out any order form, look for a closed padlock symbol next to the URL in the address bar of your browser. If it is not locked, the site is not secure. Do not enter any information.
It is horrible to consider that anyone would take advantage of people during this unprecedented time. But that’s what criminals do. They look for vulnerability and then devise a way to exploit it. Do not fall for it. It takes a few extra minutes but do your research before handing over money or information. It can save you a world of grief in the future. And right now, who needs extra grief?
- Federal Trade Commission: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov
- Lewis, M. R., (2019). Know if an Online Business or Company is Legitimate, retrieved on 4/21/20 from wikihow.com/Know-if-an-Online-Business-or-Company-Is-Legitimate
- State of California Department of Justice: https://oag.ca.gov/consumers/general/checking_business_bkgrd10
- Sassos, S. (2020). What to Buy for Coronavirus Preparation, According to Experts. Good Housekeeping, retrieved on 4/21/20 from https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/a31261097/what-to-stock-up-on-for-coronavirus/