How to Protect Yourself From Popular COVID-19 Scams
Between the start of March and the end of September, Canadians have lost more than $6.2 million to COVID-19 frauds. Photo: Westend61/Getty Images
As if following physical distancing protocols and wearing masks in public under the constant fear of COVID-19 wasn’t stressful enough, Canadians are also facing the persistent threat of fraud specifically tailored to the pandemic.
The fraudsters’ shift in tactics has produced a myriad of scams designed to target both our fears and needs as we navigate our new normal. These include offers related to COVID-19 financial relief and sales of masks and sanitizers.
Jeff Thomson, a senior RCMP anti-fraud intelligence analyst with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), says that fraudsters are looking to elicit specific emotions in their victims like fear or elation to impair their judgment.
“They invoke these emotions with their pitches, and people lose some cognitive ability,” Thomson says. “So with the pandemic, you already [have] that anxiety. It creates a more ripe situation for people to fall victim.”
Between the start of March and the end of September, Canadians have lost more than $6.2 million to COVID-19 frauds.
The success of these scammers has likely been bolstered by the unprecedented access they’ve had to potential victims as we spend more time at home and online. Becoming aware of that constant threat is part of the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre’s slogan: recognize, reject, report.
“It always starts with recognizing that fraudsters are out there using the telephone, internet, email, text messaging, any manner possible to try and connect with you and steal your money,” Thomson says.
He says understanding that basic principle puts you in a position to scrutinize every unsolicited offer you receive.
Of course, knowing as much of the fraudster’s playbook as possible doesn’t hurt either. To that end, we identify some of the most common COVID-19 scams making their rounds and provide some tips to help you stay ahead of them.
COVID-19 Relief Scams
Soon after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the CERB, Canadians started receiving text messages and emails asking them to click on a link to release their relief funds. Typically, respondents are then prompted to enter financial information into what looks like an official online form.
Canadians are still able to apply for retroactive CERB until Dec. 2, so we can still expect to see this scam making its rounds. And with the government transitioning recipients to unemployment insurance and the new Canada Recovery Benefit, scammers will once again take advantage and adapt their strategy.
Similar relief scams involve texts claiming that targets have received a payment and need to confirm their account information or that they need to repay previous funds they’ve received.
Known as phishing, these kind of scams involve fraudsters posing as official institutions to obtain sensitive information from their victims.
In another scam that takes advantage of the benefit, victims are offered assistance with filling out the form. The information obtained can be used to receive the benefit under the victim’s identity.
-The CRA will not contact individuals who qualify for CERB or any other benefit. They only take applications through their official website or by phone.
– Call the CRA if you need assistance with filling out the form.
-Never respond or click on suspicious links and attachments sent to you in emails or text messages.
Thomson says one of the best defences against fraud is time.
“We want people to really slow down,” he says. “Think about it, scrutinize it, talk to family members and friends and go to the source.”
For instance, if the message says it’s from service Canada, then contact them directly.
Fraudsters are also taking advantage of consumer needs during the pandemic. Thomson says these scams include offers for face masks and other personal protective equipment, sanitizers and cleaning products. Fraudsters entice their victims in a variety of ways, from websites that pop up with limited-time offers to emails and phone calls that appear to be from credible sources.
Once paid for, the items often never arrive or victims receive counterfeit items that are ineffective and may even be dangerous to your health.
In one scam, victims are asked to fill out a survey to receive free masks and are asked to pay a small shipping fee, which involves handing over financial information. Others play to the victims kinder side, asking for donations to prominent charities like the red cross in order to receive a free mask.
They’ve also taken advantage of the demand for products that are indirectly related to the pandemic like exercise equipment for people looking to stay fit at home and even pets for those craving companionship.
-Be wary of any unsolicited communication and offers for free products.
-If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
-If an offer over the phone seems suspicious, hang up and go directly to the source.
-Treat offers involving items in high-demand with suspicion.
These scams often involve a limited-time offer or an extremely persistent “customer service rep.” Don’t let anyone rush you into a decision.
And as a last line of defence, Thomson says to use payment methods that offer fraud protection like a credit card.
With Canadians eager to pitch in any way they can during the pandemic, fraudsters are taking full advantage.
Typically contacting their targets over the phone, they claim to represent prominent charities or a new charity and request donations for COVID-19 victims, products or research.
-Scammers claiming to represent a charity will use high-pressure tactics to rush you into a decision.
-Ask for information in writing before making a donation.
Receiving a cold call from a charity isn’t uncommon so it can be difficult to decipher the real from the fake, but there are ways to ensure your donation gets to where it needs to go.
If they’re claiming to be from a well-known charity, donating directly is an option. Before making donations to new charities, the CAFC recommends checking the Canada Revenue Agency’s list of registered charities, which is updated every business day.
Once you’ve found the charity in the searchable database, you can contact them directly and donate.
The combination of tightening our traditional social circle, spending more time online and feelings of isolation have created a perfect storm for romance scammers.
Differing from your smash-and-grab scam, romance scammers make contact with you online through email, fake social media accounts or dating sites and take time to earn your trust before requesting money.
“We’ve seen these things go on two, three months before that request for cash comes in, and it’s because they’re gaining that trust,” Thomson says. “They’re feeling out their target, they’re seeing how much money they might get and they’re setting up their story for the big hit.”
Those hits are often stretched out over a long period of time with the fraudster making several requests for financial assistance.
Scammers typically say they need money for travel, a medical emergency or to assist a family member and may even ask you to receive money for them. The CAFC warns that by doing so, you might unknowingly commit a crime.
By the end of June, seniors had lost more than $8 million to romance scams, and in 2019 they lost more than $19 million.
While the number of reports pale in comparison to other scams like phishing, due to the high payout and prolonged nature of romance scams, the category remains at the top for money lost among the senior demographic.
-Never send money or provide your financial details to anyone online.
-Don’t engage with unknown users who contact you through your social media account or email.
-Trust your instincts. Be suspicious of dodgy users who refuse to meet you in person or via video chat.
Spending time online is a great way to stay connected during the pandemic, but it’s also important to come up for air. These scammers attempt to alienate you from your real-life social connections, so its important to preserve those existing social ties as you spend more time online.
And if you’re looking for a social connection during the pandemic, there are services you can take advantage of including Friendly Voice, a chat line for seniors who are struggling with loneliness or social isolation.
Thomson says reporting fraud, whether it involves a loss of money or not, can make a difference.
“Whether it’s an email address, a phone number, an address, where you sent money – it’s all useful information to help us develop fraud prevention awareness and to help us with cases across Canada.”
Unfortunately, because of the stigma surrounding fraud victimization, those who lose money are often too embarrassed to come forward. A 2008 study from McMaster University found that only 13 per cent of identity theft victims reported to police.
The belief that these scams only happen to gullible or naive people feeds into that stigma and leaves potential targets vulnerable. Thomson says immunity simply doesn’t exist.
“I always hate saying it, [but] you’re dealing with professional fraudsters,” Thomson says. “There’s a scam for anybody at any given point in time.”
To report a fraud, visit the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre’s online reporting system or call 1-888-495-8501.