Scams That Prey on Coronavirus Fears

By Patti Teel   |   March 12, 2020

Crooks often use major disasters like fires and floods to exploit people so not surprisingly, scams taking advantage of fears surrounding the coronavirus are popping up.

Typically, phishing scams involve sending emails that look like they come from legitimate companies or organizations, such as your bank, utility company or the IRS. The email asks you to click on a link to update your information or pay a bill online. If you click on the link, you are taken to a malicious website where attackers attempt to steal your information. Or a pop-up may appear, asking for your log in and password information so the crooks can access your online accounts. According to Deputy District Attorney Vicki Johnson, these phishing attacks are particularly effective when sent by channels that trigger an immediate response from recipients, like iMessage, WhatsApp, WeChat, and others.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is a part of the United Nations, reports that fraudsters are now using their name and images to run various phishing scams. People are receiving emails with coronavirus as a lure, with promises of updated information about the spread of the virus. The emails and posts appear to be promoting awareness and prevention tips, or information about cases in your neighborhood. It leads to a webpage that looks very similar to the legitimate World Health Organization website with a pop-up screen asking users to verify the username and password associated with their email address. But of course, this is just a ruse to gain access to your accounts. Fraudsters are also spoofing the phone numbers for the WHO, and the US Center for Disease Control. (In other words, the caller ID on your phone will say it’s from them, when it’s not.)

Other scams related to the coronavirus may come from fake charities asking for donations (usually over the phone), solicitations asking for contributions to fund a “cure,” and bogus products which claim to protect you from the coronavirus. One scam the BBB is specifically warning people about is counterfeit masks that will not protect you from the virus. “Some sites may take your money and send you low-quality or counterfeit masks. Others may never deliver anything all. In the worst cases, these sites are a way to steal your personal and credit card information, opening you up to identity theft.”

Here are some tips to keep the scammers at bay.

•     Do not under any circumstances click on attachments or links from unknown sources. You can make a report to the FBI at and give them any information you got from the bogus email. Then delete the email without opening any link or attachment. Don’t let fear or curiosity get the best of your good sense.

•     Do your homework when it comes to donations, whether through charities or crowdfunding sites. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, don’t do it.

•     Be alert to “investment opportunities.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is warning people about online promotions, including on social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly-traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure coronavirus and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result.

•     Be savvy about product claims. Be sure to evaluate claims of any medical product before buying. Especially watch out for products claiming to offer a “miracle cure” for the coronavirus or other ailments.

•     Only buy from reputable stores and websites. Be sure the online store has working contact info: Before offering up your name, address, and credit card information, make sure the company is legitimate. A real street address, a working customer service number, a positive BBB Business Profile… these are just a few of the things to be looking out for to determine if a company is legitimate. Check to see what other consumers’ experiences have been.

To report a scam, call the District Attorney’s Fraud Hotline at 805-568-2442. The Better Business Bureau urges you to visit their Scam Tracker site at or call them directly at 805-963-8657.

The District Attorney’s office and Better Business Bureau of the Tri-Counties each have segments on the Young at Heart Radio Show, with host Patti Teel. It airs on KTMS Newstalk 990 on Saturdays at 5:30 pm and Sunday mornings at 8:30. During Scam Squad, Deputy District Attorney Vicki Johnson warns listeners about the latest scams and often interviews victims. This is followed by Your Moment of Trust, a segment by BBB of the Tri-Counties – providing timely advice to businesses and individuals. After airing, theycan be found at


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