U.S. Attorney Warns of Coronavirus Scams Targeting Vulnerable Victims

Illustrations of road signs that read "scam."

Officials are warning the public to be wary of several fraud schemes seeking to exploit the evolving COVID-19 public health crisis.

“Fraudsters frequently prey upon vulnerable individuals during difficult times,” said United States Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency here in the United States and around the world. Although the severity of reported illnesses is wide ranging, it is clear that older adults and those with severe chronic medical conditions are at higher risk of severe illness.”

Scammers have already devised numerous methods for defrauding people in connection with COVID-19. They are setting up websites, contacting people by phone and email, and posting disinformation on social media platforms. Some examples of scams linked to COVID-19 include:

  • Treatment scams:  Scammers are offering to sell fake cures, vaccines, and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19.
  • Supply scams:  Scammers are creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks. When consumers attempt to purchase supplies through these channels, fraudsters pocket the money and never provide the promised supplies.
  • Provider scams: Scammers are also contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment.
  • Charity scams: Scammers are soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19.
  • Phishing scams: Scammers posing as national and global health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending phishing emails designed to trick recipients into downloading malware or providing personal identifying and financial information.
  • App scams: Scammers are also creating and manipulating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and personal information.
  • Investment scams: Scammers are offering online promotions on various platforms, including social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result. These promotions are often styled as “research reports,” make predictions of a specific “target price,” and relate to microcap stocks, or low-priced stocks issued by the smallest of companies with limited publicly available information.

Terwilliger urges everyone, especially those most at risk of serious illness, to avoid these and similar scams by taking the following steps:

  • Independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts you regarding COVID-19.
  • Check the websites and email addresses offering information, products, or services related to COVID-19. Be aware that scammers often employ addresses that differ only slightly from those belonging to the entities they are impersonating. For example, they might use “cdc.com” or “cdc.org” instead of “cdc.gov.”
  • Be wary of unsolicited emails offering information, supplies, or treatment for COVID-19 or requesting your personal information for medical purposes. Legitimate health authorities will not contact the general public this way.
  • Do not click on links or open email attachments from unknown or unverified sources. Doing so could download a virus onto your computer or device.
  • Make sure the anti-malware and anti-virus software on your computer is operating and up to date.
  • Ignore offers for a COVID-19 vaccine, cure, or treatment. Remember, if there is a medical breakthrough, you won’t hear about it for the first time through an email, online ad, or unsolicited sales pitch.
  • Check online reviews of any company offering COVID-19 products or supplies.  Avoid companies whose customers have complained about not receiving items.
  • Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving. Remember, an organization may not be legitimate even if it uses words like “CDC” or “government” in its name or has reputable looking seals or logos on its materials. For online resources on donating wisely, visit the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website.
  • Be wary of any business, charity, or individual requesting payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card, or through the mail.  Don’t send money through any of these channels.
  • Be cautious of “investment opportunities” tied to COVID-19, especially those based on claims that a small company’s products or services can help stop the virus.  If you decide to invest, carefully research the investment beforehand.  For information on how to avoid investment fraud, visit the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) website.
  • For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) websites.

If anyone believes they have been the victim of a COVID-19 fraud scheme, they are encouraged to contact federal, state, and local authorities.