Coronavirus Scams and How to Protect Yourself

Scammers prey on people in times of crisis, and the coronavirus is no exception. While we focus on our health and safety, scammers use our desire for the latest news to steal our personal data.

“People crave information in these times,” says Gopal Padinjaruveetil, chief information security officer for AAA. “But it’s important to get information from the right sources.”

Among the coronavirus scams that government agencies are reporting:

  • Fake vaccinations and home test kits
  • Notices about economic stimulus checks from the government
  • Sales on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other products in limited supply
  • Maps with the latest coronavirus hot spots
  • Work-from-home offers
  • Pleas for help from fraudulent charities

Here are tips to help protect yourself:

Think before you click links in emails and texts

Phishing scams are a popular way for thieves to steal your information. These scams start with an unsolicited email or text message that touches on a popular topic, such as seeing coronavirus hot spots or getting your stimulus money from the government. Coronavirus scams may even look like they are coming from a well-known group, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It’s best to simply avoid clicking links from sources you don’t know personally, Padinjaruveetil says. If the information you receive sounds like something you want to know more about, seek out the content by going directly to the source (such as the CDC website).

Particularly in stressful times, “it’s important to slow down and not be impulsive, especially when clicking links,” he says. And be wary of providing personal information online. “Anything that says ‘we need your bank account number or password’—the government or your bank would never send an unsolicited email asking for that information.”

Hang up on robocalls

Unsolicited phone calls are another popular scam. The recording might ask you to press a number on your phone to speak to a live operator or remove yourself from their call list, but instead it might lead to more robocalls.

As many of us work from home, one scam that is popular now is a call purporting to be from your employer. The caller may say your computer is compromised, but in fact this is an effort to get your password or other information, Padinjaruveetil says. If this happens, ask the caller detailed questions about your employer and get information about who specifically is calling.

“Authenticate who they say they are,” he says.

Shop online at stores you trust

The quest for toilet paper and hand sanitizer has some of us scouring the internet for availability. But before you purchase, know exactly who you’re buying from. Stick to bigger online names. (Even then, check to see who is fulfilling the order.)

If you’re buying from a store you don’t recognize, check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there’s a history of complaints, and make sure the website has a valid email address, a legitimate U.S. phone number and a physical address in the United States. Before you enter your credit card online, look for a lock symbol or “https” in the URL bar of your browser to help ensure your information is secure.

Make sure your technology is up to date

Keep your computer and mobile device operating systems current, as well as your online browsers, and use antivirus software. This will help protect against coronavirus scams like malware, which downloads malicious software when you click on a link. An example of a current malware scam is a pop-up window that prompts you to download an app to keep up with COVID-19 info.

Home routers are another target of scammers, Padinjaruveetil says. Ensure you have secure Wi-Fi in your home and that it has Wi-Fi Protected Access. (Follow manufacturer instructions to access your router’s settings.) It’s also important to have a complex password to access your Wi-Fi; here are tips for creating a strong password.

Don’t rush into making a donation

You should never feel pressured to donate to a charity. If you want to give, seek out and research reputable groups. One area to be cautious in is crowdfunding sites. While there certainly is legitimate fundraising happening, there is also the opportunity for fraud.

“You don’t always know who that person or family is,” Padinjaruveetil says.

Play it safe with video teleconferencing

As schools and work move to online video chats, hackers are taking over these virtual meetings with “Zoom-bombing”—named after the video conferencing software. To help mitigate these issues, it’s best to avoid making meetings or classrooms public. In Zoom, for example, you can require a meeting password or use the waiting room feature and control the admittance of guests. Also be careful when sharing a link to your meeting, manage the screensharing options and ensure you are using the latest video conferencing software.