Criminals are opportunists and have always attempted to cash in on the fear and uncertainty surrounding a crisis, but the COVID-19 pandemic has provided criminals with opportunities on a scale unlike anything seen before. While the sheer variety of frauds is itself shocking, the speed at which criminals are devising and executing their schemes is truly astonishing.
Law enforcement officials have learned of offers for sham treatments and vaccines, bogus investment opportunities in nonexistent medical companies, and calls from crooks impersonating doctors demanding payment for treatments. Nearly every day, federal, state, and local agencies release new warnings with the hope of preventing future victimizations.
The reality is these are new takes on old scams. According Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) Scott Zmudzinski, who leads FBI Norfolk’s white-collar and financial crimes program, “It’s an evolving threat, but the types of scams occurring have not changed and are not expected to change. The only thing changing is that the criminals are using the COVID-19 crisis to pressure unsuspecting and vulnerable parts of the population.”
Scammers are using a variety of tactics to prey on people’s vulnerabilities. Bad actors are selling fake COVID-19 test kits and unapproved treatments through telemarketing, social media, and door-to-door visits. Many are promising free care to patients to gain access to their personal and health insurance information. Others have relied on extortion and harassment, threatening to infect someone unless a fee is paid.
Citizens can protect themselves by following a few simple principles. “Our message is prevention,” says SSA Zmudzinski. “We want to prevent anyone from becoming a victim in the first place, because just like with any other type of fraud we have a very short window to help once the money is gone.”
Here is what you can do to avoid being victimized by a scam:
Ignore offers or advertisements for COVID-19 related vaccines, home test kits, protection, or treatments.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure, approved treatment, or vaccine for COVID-19. While medical professionals and scientists throughout the U.S. are working hard to change that, scammers are working hard to sell bogus products that claim to prevent, treat, cure, and diagnose the disease. Some are selling fake at-home test kits and are even going door-to-door and performing fake tests for money.
Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 should rely on a physician or other trusted health care provider to assess your condition and approve requests for testing. When an approved treatment or cure becomes available, the first time you hear about it will not be through an email, telephone call, online advertisement, or unsolicited sales pitch from a stranger.
Be skeptical of ads offering certified personal protective equipment (PPE).
The FBI urges everyone to be alert to counterfeit products like sanitizing products and personal protective equipment (PPE), including N95 respirator masks, goggles, full-face shields, protective gowns, and gloves.
“The public should be very wary of ads for items claiming to protect against COVID-19,” said SSA Zmudzinski. “PPE must be tested, vetted, and certified by the appropriate authorities. If anyone purports to have a significant supply of medical-grade PPE for sale on the internet, over the phone, or by mail, it’s probably a scam.”
If you are aware of an inventory of legitimate supplies, please contact the FBI so we can work with our partners to ensure the stock is evaluated for potential reintroduction into the supply chain to support the critical needs of the medical community.
Be suspicious of any unsolicited offers requiring or requesting your medical insurance, personal, or financial information.
Personal, financial, and health insurance information is valuable. Do not respond to unsolicited emails, phone calls, or visitors requesting or demanding personal information including financial information, Medicare of Medicaid numbers, or private health insurance information.
If you do receive treatment for COVID-19, double-check the medical bills and Explanation of Benefits (EOB) for accuracy. If you find charges for services you did not receive, contact your medical provider and your insurance company.
Beware of government impersonation scams.
You may have heard of scammers contacting people claiming to be from the IRS, a court, and even the FBI demanding payment of fees or fines or risk being arrested. Now scammers are pretending to be officials claiming the government requires you to take a COVID-19 test and asking for your health insurance information or claiming to be medical professionals demanding payment for treating a friend or relative for COVID-19.
Don’t take these claims at face value. Government officials will never contact you and demand payments in the form of cash, wire transfer, or gift card. Do not provide personal, financial, or health insurance information for unverified services.
Resist pressure to act quickly.
Urgency is one of the most recognizable red flags of any scam. Be immediately suspicious of anyone who initiates contact and demands immediate action or sets a very short deadline, 24 to 48 hours.
Exercise caution when making charitable contributions.
Sadly, charity scams are very common during crises as criminals exploit the good will of people wanting to help others. SSA Zmudzinski advises givers to “be alert to charities that seem to have sprung up overnight in connection with current events and research the charity before donating. It is always best to donate directly to charities you know and trust. If someone insists on donations by cash, gift card, or by wire transfer, don’t do it.”
Watch out for unsolicited investment “opportunities.”
The implementation of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act will provide even more opportunities for would-be criminals. Fraudsters around the world are already developing methods to steal the critical financial support intended for communities, companies, and individuals.
For example, fraudsters are offering unrealistic returns on investments in bogus businesses alleging to receive stimulus money. SSA Zmudzinski says, “It’s all fake. There are no businesses; there is no investment. It’s a historical investment fraud where a scammer is just ripping dollars from someone’s bank account or pocket and running away with it.”
During times of crisis, it can be difficult to break through the noise and know what is real, but SSA Zmudzinski encourages people to use the same judgement and skepticism they would normally use when an unsolicited email, caller, or visitor offers an unrealistic deal or opportunity. He says, “The point to take home is that the public has to be wary—just like in any other situation—of unsolicited contact from an unknown party offering anything that is too good to be true.”
If you believe you were a victim of a scam or attempted fraud involving COVID-19, or think you have information of suspicious activity by a vendor, please report it:
- Call the Norfolk Field Office at (757) 455-0100 or 1-800-CALL-FBI
- Submit a tip to the FBI online at tips.fbi.gov
- If it’s a cyber scam, submit your complaint to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov
- Contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or at justice.gov/DisasterComplaintFraud
More information on coronavirus related scams and fraud can be found at fbi.gov/coronavirus.