Scammers Take Advantage of Coronavirus Crisis

Published: 27 March 2020

scmCriminals are finding creative ways to trick people and steal their money or information. (Photo: geralt)

By Laura Mallene

Counterfeit coronavirus testing kits. Fake home disinfection services. Fraudulent adds selling face masks and hand sanitizers. Phishing emails. Cyberattacks.

Fed by people’s fears and the lack of medical supplies, crimes related to the pandemic are spreading around the globe as fast as the coronavirus.

In Kenya, an ad by the Avane Cosmetic Dermatology Clinic and Medical Spa promised consumers coronavirus testing kits, urging them to buy fast.

“Only 400 remaining from 1,000 Unit Stock,” the ad claimed, asking 600 Kenyan shillings (US$6) for a kit that would yield results in 15 minutes. No specialised training required to conduct the test. If positive, the spa offers medical treatment for COVID-19. A spa.

Ten employees were arrested.

Estonian police said con artists offer home disinfection service but end up stealing money. Criminals in Cyprus use the same trick.

Cybercriminal gangs send phishing emails titled "coronavirus awareness" to healthcare professionals. 

A cyber attack shut down the IT network of the Brno University Hospital in the Czech Republic. Doctors were forced to postpone urgent surgical interventions and send new acute patients to other hospitals.

Scammers use trusted sites like Amazon and eBay to sell products, sending buyers an empty box or not even that.

Around the globe criminals are finding creative ways to trick people and steal their money or information, often coming up with international schemes.

Last week, police, customs and health regulatory authorities from 90 countries united forces to stop illicit online sale of medicines and medical products like face masks. They found 2,000 online links advertising items related to COVID-19 and seized over 34,000 masks.

Europol said on Friday that scammers have been taking advantage of the crisis and warned about adapted versions of telephone fraud schemes, supply and decontamination scams, predicting that many new tricks will emerge over the next weeks.

Fake shops, websites, social media accounts and email addresses selling surgical masks and other medical supplies have sprung up online. Interpol warned that often after having paid the items, those are never mailed. 

Sometimes the goal is just to obtain people’s personal data by sending phishing emails or making phone calls and impersonating World Health Organisation staff, government employees or legitimate businesses – including travel agents and telecommunications companies.

Some callers pretend to be hospital officials, claiming a relative is sick and needs money to cover medical bills. Others try to get payment information.

Victims have reported to Interpol losses as high as $100,000 in a single case.

“Interpol continues to encourage citizens in all countries to take precautions when purchasing medical supplies online, for example by independently verifying the website and company before making any payments, in order to avoid becoming the victim of a fraud,” the agency told OCCRP in an email.