The COVID-19 scams you need to know about

Carlton Boyce / 31 March 2020

The last thing we need when self-isolating is to fall for a scam - so here is our guide to keeping away from some of the most common Coronavirus scams.



These are unsettling times for us all and with the most widespread civil restrictions ever seen in peacetime, now is the time for us to pull together as a nation to defeat COVID-19, or Coronavirus, as it's also known.

And, the signs are that we’re doing just that. Our streets are quieter than most of us can ever remember, traffic is almost non-existent - and our villages, towns and cities rung out on the evening of 26th March to the sound of millions of us clapping and cheering the NHS and all who work in it.

Yet, while times like this bring out the best in people they also bring out the worst and the scammers are doing what they have done since time immemorial: taking advantage of the scared and vulnerable.

So, here is our guide to keeping safe during the coming days, weeks, and months by highlighting some of the most common Coronavirus scams, along with strategies for defeating them.

There is no cure or vaccination

There is no cure for the Coronavirus, or even a vaccination. Yet, this scientific fact hasn’t deterred hackers and scammers from sending out emails by the million to scared and desperate folk promising them a cure or a vaccine.

The email might ask you straight out for money, or it might just ask you to click on a website link for more information.

Battling it: you could report the email as junk to stop it appearing in your email’s inbox again, but other than that, deleting it without opening it or reading it is the only solution.

If there ever is a cure for COVID-19 (which seems unlikely) or a vaccination (which is likely to still be months away) then the mainstream news will be full of the fact; scammers aren’t likely to be able to get hold of the cure or vaccine before the government, are they?

If you’ve a mind to, you can report this scam, and any other, to the police by clicking on the Action Fraud link or by calling them on 0300 123 2040.

Coronavirus FAQs

Emails from the World Health Organisation

Hackers are also sending out emails purporting to be from the World Health Organisation (or WHO) giving advice on battling COVID-19.

The emails ask you to click on a link to open a document. Doing so downloads a virus called AgentTesla Keylogger that records everything you type – including passwords and banking details – before sending it straight to the scammers.

Battling it: don’t click on any link in any email you weren’t expecting.

5 signs your email has been hacked

Tax refunds

The UK Government has announced a raft of measure to help employees, businesses, and the self-employed during the current outbreak of Coronavirus.

However, HMRC, the people that administer tax in this country, has confirmed that it has not, and will not, ever send an unsolicited email offering a tax refund. If a refund is due, it says, it will write to you.

Despite this unambiguous statement, scammers and criminals are still sending out well-crafted emails that claim to be from the HMRC or from GOV.UK, the UK Government’s online advice portal. These emails usually say that a tax refund is due to you, and will ask you to either click a link (which downloads a virus) or asks you to complete a form in which you must give your bank and personal details.

This scam is so widespread that Mimecast, a cyber-security firm, says that it saw more than 200 examples in just a few hours of monitoring.

Battling it: again, if you aren’t expecting to receive an email, please don’t open any links, and if you do find that you have opened one by accident – and some of them do look very convincing - please don’t give any bank or personal details online.

As Carl Wearn, the head of e-crime at Mimecast, puts it: "Do not respond to any electronic communication in relation to monies via email, and certainly do not click on any links in any related message. This is not how HMRC would advise you of a potential tax refund."

The Financial Conduct Authority has a warning list of known financial scams.

The virus is now airbourne

This is a cleverly spoofed email that looks like it uses a genuine Centers for Disease Control email address.

The email says that the coronavirus can now be transmitted via the air – it can’t, by the way – and asks you to log-in to the CDC website for more details. Doing so means giving up your details and a password, after which it will redirect you to the genuine Centers for Disease Control website.

This clever scam has then harvested an email address and a password – and as most of us tend to use the same passwords for a range of websites, it could unlock other, more sensitive websites such as your bank or online shopping.

Battling it: Again, please don’t click on any email you aren’t expecting. Ever.

Donation websites

It is human nature to want to help during a crisis, as we saw recently when nearly half-a-million kind-hearted people, or twice the number that were asked for, volunteered to help the NHS in England.

This kindness is being exploited by criminals who have set up websites asking for donations that they claim will go towards the fight for a vaccination, or to support those most affected by the outbreak. Need I say that they’re a scam and the money goes straight into their pockets?

Battling it: if you want to help – and who doesn’t? – then donate your time to the authorities direct. You can find more information on the situation in England here. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all still considering their position with regard to volunteers to help with the coronavirus outbreak.)

You can also donate your time to an elderly or vulnerable neighbour directly by getting their shopping for them, or even just calling them on the phone for a chat.

Social isolation and social distancing are hard for all of us, and having some company – while still maintaining a safe distance of two metres in public and private, of course – can make all the difference between someone coping with the current measures and them not.

Great ways to volunteer online

Inflated prices

Some unscrupulous shops and online retailers have been quick to hike the price of essentials like toilet roll, hand sanitiser and even booze, reasoning that when people panic they stop looking at the price.

This means that people who may have lost their job or are struggling financially anyway are paying well over the market rate to try to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

Battling it: please don’t pay over the odds for toilet roll or hand sanitiser. Washing your hands properly – and there’s a good hand-washing video here that shows how much time and effort this takes to do effectively – with old-fashioned soap is just as effective at killing the virus as using hand sanitiser.

And wiping your bottom can be done with wet wipes, kitchen roll, and even newspaper at a pinch. However, if you do have to use anything other than toilet paper please put these items in the bin; flushing them down the loo will cause blockages – and that is not something you want to have to contend with at a time like this!

Oh, and stockpiling when the goods are available is counterproductive in the long-term as it creates the very shortage these oafs exploit. Please, just buy what you need and no more to give the supply chain time to catch up.

Buying protective clothing and face masks

There are a vast number of scammers out there offering to sell you protective masks, gloves and other clothing and supplies they say will help keep you and your family safe from COVID-19.

Some of them will take your money and you’ll never see the goods, while some will send you the goods but they will be sub-standard and won’t offer the protection they are supposed to.

Battling it: As Superintendent Sanjay Andersen, the head of the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, says: "We’re advising people not to panic and to think about the purchase they are making. When you’re online shopping it’s important to do your research and look at reviews of the site you are buying from.”

Given how easy it is to fake an online review, I’d go even further and say that you shouldn’t be buying goods of any description from anyone that isn’t a household name like Boots, Amazon (direct, not through third-party retailers selling on there) and the like.

Or, just self-isolate, keep a two-metre distance when you are out exercising or shopping for essentials, and wash your hands more frequently. These three measures are the most effective things you can do to keep you healthy and free of COVID-19.

Social media

While social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have a vital role to play in reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness, they’re a hotbed of uninformed gossip, lies, and misinformation.

The classic ‘a friend of mine who is a doctor says’ is almost invariably rubbish, and while the information might be well-intentioned (and, to be fair, this sort of post is rarely malicious or seeking to gather money or harvest personal information…) it is almost invariably inaccurate or exaggerated.

This can lead to increased anxiety, which can then lead to an increased susceptibility to the sort of scam emails we looked at earlier in the article.

Battling it: of course, stepping away from your phone, tablet or laptop for a few hours or days at a time is the best solution, but we recognise that it is human nature for us to scour them for information about the current outbreak.

But, please try to be a more discerning consumer of information. Take everything you see, read and hear with a pinch of salt, and try and seek independent, third-party verification through websites such as the BBC. Sadly, even some of the best-selling newspapers are peddling misinformation in the name of extra clicks through to their websites, so you can’t always rely on them, either.

If you want to know more about becoming a more discerning consumer of news and information, we’ve got an entire article on the subject.

Shopping

One of the most heart-breaking scams we’ve seen recently is the one where someone knocks on your door and offers to do your shopping for you. You hand over the money - and they scarper with your hard-earned cash, never to be seen again.

Battling it: If you are vulnerable, self-isolating and so unable to shop for yourself, please only give your money to friends and neighbours you already know. I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust the nice young man from number 32 that you’ve never spoken to but you know has been living in the street for years; I’m just suggesting that you should be wary of a stranger you’ve never seen. They might be genuinely trying to help, but they could just as easily be a criminal chancing their arm for easy money.

And, if you know of a vulnerable neighbour who can’t get out at the moment, why not offer to do their shopping for them?

Have you heard of a scam we haven’t mentioned? If so, we’d love to hear from you. After all, we’re all in this together, and knowledge is power, Email us on web.editor@saga.co.uk


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.