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Home Crime 14 SCAMs to watch for: FBI urges EXTREME CAUTION! Re: Covid-19 Crime

14 SCAMs to watch for: FBI urges EXTREME CAUTION! Re: Covid-19 Crime

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating new opportunities for criminals to defraud and exploit the public. The FBI, as of March 30, has received more than 1,200 complaints of scams related to the pandemic. The FBI issues frequent updates (releases) to apprise the public when new threats emerge. Here are some of the more notorious scams they’ve identified that have emerged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic:

COVID SCAM #1: Posing as a government official

FBI Release: https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-warns-of-emerging-health-care-fraud-schemes-related-to-covid-19-pandemic

The FBI warns the public to beware of phone calls, emails, or texts from people pretending to be government officials. These poseurs will often advise recipients that they need to be tested for COVID-19 and attempt to mine them for sensitive, protected health information. “These scammers will likely ask for your health insurance information, including your Medicare or Medicaid number, and other personal information.”

According to the FBI, “prior health care fraud investigations have shown that once scammers obtain an individual’s personal information, they use it to bill federal health care programs and/or private health insurance plans for tests and procedures the individual did not receive and pocket the proceeds.”

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CURE:

Remain vigilant and verify identities. Do not automatically trust a contact with an individual claiming to be an official. Beware especially of those going door-to-door proffering test kits or other services related to COVID-19.

COVID SCAM #2: Fake self-reported positive reports

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdtx/pr/federal-complaint-filed-against-san-antonio-man-covid-19-related-hoax

On April 8, the FBI charged an individual with making “a threat on Facebook in which he claimed to have paid someone to spread coronavirus at grocery stores in the San Antonio area because he was trying to deter people from visiting the stores.” The defendant was taken into custody after a screenshot with his threat was forwarded to the FBI.

On April 14th, CNN obtained a communication from the FBI reporting that in March, a disgruntled employee of a “critcal manufacturing company” faked a medical report indicating that he was COVID-positive, resulting in the plant’s shutdown and a $175K loss. While no financial motive was cited in the report, this same method could be used to extort or harass busineses in the future.

CURE:

Contact and verify medical providers listed on all work excuse reports. Report threats you see on social media to the FBI.

COVID SCAM #3: BEC (Business Email Compromise)

FBI Release: https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-anticipates-rise-in-business-email-compromise-schemes-related-to-the-covid-19-pandemic

As states, municipalities, and private companies scrambled to purchase PPE in March, 2020 scammers began targeting them via email – a crime known as “BEC.” According to the FBI, a typical BEC scheme involves the victim receiving an email they believe is from a company they normally conduct business with. The email requests funds be sent to a new account or otherwise alters the standard payment practices. Because the sender is trusted (if your boss asks you do something, you’ll be predisposed to do so), this crime is effective against email users who are not vigilant.

CURE:

The FBI wants you to use extreme caution if you receive any email –including those from trusted third parties, that:

  1. is unexpectedly urgent
  2. requires a change in money routing methods
  3. bypasses telephonic communications.

The FBI advises that you “verify any changes and Information via the contact on file—do not contact the vendor through the number provided in the email.” Also, “ensure the URL in emails is associated with the business it claims to be from.”

Additionally, the FBI wants you to:

  • Be alert to hyperlinks that may contain misspellings of the actual domain name.
  • Verify the email address used to send emails, especially when using a mobile or handheld device, by ensuring the sender’s email address appears to match who it is coming from. If you’ve been victimized by a BEC scam, report it at www.ic3.gov. http://ow.ly/eM9S50zgcOu

COVID SCAM #4: Fake COVID Cures

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdca/pr/carmel-valley-physician-charged-fraud-selling-purported-covid-19-miracle-cure

In late March, Skinny Beach Med Spa, a California-based provider of beauty-related services, “began sending emails advertising “COVID-19 treatment packs,” described as a “concierge medicine experience” priced at $3,995 for a family of four, that included among other things access to Dr. Staley, the medications hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, and “anti-anxiety treatments to help you avoid panic if needed and help you sleep.”

After an investigation was prompted by a public report, the FBI did an undercover phone interview in which the doctor claimed his cures were “100 percent effective” against COVID-19, a claim he denied making when subsequently interviewed. He was charged on April 15th with mail fraud.

On April 28th, the FBI announced that it had charged a Michigan-based doctor with submitting “false and fraudulent claims to Medicare for high-dose intravenous vitamin C infusions to patients at risk of contracting COVID-19, especially those working on the front lines, and to those who tested positive for COVID-19.” 

CURE:

Know the facts. There is no “100 percent effective” cure against COVID-19, and anyone who claims that there is is a fraudster who should be reported to the FBI.

COVID SCAM #5: “Zoombombing”

FBI Release: https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/boston/news/press-releases/fbi-warns-of-teleconferencing-and-online-classroom-hijacking-during-covid-19-pandemic

Teleconference hijackings have increased as home-schooling and telework have become ubiquitous. In late March, two Massachusetts had their conferences interrupted. One zoombomber displayed swastika tattoos. Zoombombing and conference hijackings expose children to online predators. They also may be used by vengeful people to expose personal information (“outing”) about participants.

CURE:

Do not make meetings or classrooms public. Require a meeting password or use Zoom’s “waiting room” feature to control who you admit. Never share links to teleconferences on public social media posts. Make sure your Zoom software or other videoconferecing software is up to date with latest security patches.

COVID SCAM #6: Investment Scams

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdok/covid-19-fraud-0

According to the FBI, “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.”

CURE:

The FBI advises that you “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.

COVID SCAM #7: Unconscionable PPE Markup

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-nj/pr/brooklyn-man-arrested-assaulting-fbi-agents-and-making-false-statements-about-his

On March 30, a Brooklyn man was arrested for lying to FBI agents about his stockpile of surgical masks, medical gowns, and other PPE equipment. At the time of his arrest, he also coughed on FBI agents while claiming to have COVID-19. An investigation established that the man had on numerous occasions offered to sell PPE equipment — at massively inflated prices — to doctors and nurses. A subsequent FBI raid on the man’s storehouse, based in an auto repair shop in New Jersey, revealed enough PPE to supply a hospital. The man was charged with making false statements to the FBI and also assault.

CURE:

Price-gouging is one of the ugliest after effects of disaster and is prohibited by federal law. As more medical supplies flow into the pipeline and stockpiles are replenished, let us hope that it will be harder for scammers to hoard common PPE in so brazen a fashion as did the Brooklyn scammer. If someone tries to sell you health or medical supplies needed to respond to the spread of COVID-19 at excessively high prices, report them to the Department of Justice by calling 866-720-5721 or emailing disaster@leo.gov

COVID SCAM #8: Faking COVID infection (to commit other crimes)

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndca/pr/two-san-francisco-women-charged-robbery-affecting-interstate-commerce-alleged-scheme

On April 6, two women entered a Walgreens in San Francisco carrying empty shopping bags. They soon began to cough loudly while clearing merchandise from the shelves and placing it in their bags. When accosted by the manager, one began coughing loudly and claimed “We have COVID!” The two women then left the store without paying for the goods. They were arrested on April 23rd and charged with robbery affecting interstate commerce.

CURE:

Grocery store and convenience store workers are essential front-line workers and deserve every protection against being threatened and robbed. Because it’s impossible to tell whether a perpetrator is truly sick or just faking illness, retail managers, workers, and security personnel should have protocols in place to deal with shoplifters or other criminals who may attempt to use this intimidating scam to escape the premises.

COVID SCAM #9: SBA Loan Fraud

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdky/pr/warning-potential-fraud-scams-surrounding-sba-loans

Scams targeting the $349 billion economic stimulus programs managed by the U.S. Small Business Administration in response to COVID-19 are rising. Fraudsters are increasingly attempting to steal money and sensitive financial and personal information by faking communications from the SBA purporting to inquire about loan status.

CURE:

Watch for and scrutinize emails and websites using the SBA logo. The FBI advises that “entrepreneurs should remember that if anyone asks you for money, they are not legitimate, nor are emails that end in anything but “.gov”. Even if someone has some details about your loan request, do not fill in the blanks by providing information that you have already provided through the application process. A confidential, legitimate source has this information already. SBA does not reach out to initiate a loan.”

COVID SCAM #10: App Scams

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-de/pr/top-federal-and-state-prosecutors-form-delaware-covid-19-anti-fraud-coalition

Scammers are creating and manipulating mobile apps and websites designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and personal information. Some are able to gain and lock access to devices until payment is received (these are known as “ransomware” programs).

CURE:

Limit your exposure to apps and sites that may be dangerous. Vet any apps using reliable 3rd party review services before you download them. Install security browser plug-ins to warn of dangerous websites.

COVID Scam #11: “Grandparent Schemes”

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-de/pr/top-federal-and-state-prosecutors-form-delaware-covid-19-anti-fraud-coalition

The FBI is concerned that homebound, isolated seniors will become more vulnerable to what’s called “the Grandparent scam.” Out of the blue, a “grandchild” will call or email the senior, claiming to be in trouble and in need of money. In subsequent calls, the “grandchild” or other individual — perhaps posing as a government official — will persuade the victim that the “grandchild’s” situation is growing more serious by the minute and can only be alleviated by sending money.

This scam — similar to the Government Imposture scam — is particularly cruel because it exploits the fact that many seniors have memory issues, and thus might not be able to remember the names of all of their grandchildren. In a variant of the Grandparent scam, a caller will pose as a lawyer representing a family member in jeopardy.

CURE:

These scams are difficult to thwart, because they are often very well organized and the targeted senior may have actual memory issues or be otherwise naive about how criminals operate. Be aware that this fraud exists and how it operates. Practice vigilance in all communications, even in respect to non-immediate family members who might be travelling or live in politically unstable parts of the world.

COVID SCAM #12: Physical Robbery

FBI Release: https://www.justice.gov/file/1262771/download

On March 24th, the FBI noted that “robberies of patients departing from hospitals or doctor offices” had been reported. While no details about the circumstances of these robberies were released, it is to be expected that criminals would use the opportunity to rob ill, recovering, or otherwise vulnerable people on their way home from treatment.

CURE:

Practice elevated situational awareness when moving about for the duration of the pandemic. One consequence of social distancing rules are that many formerly populated areas, including those around health care centers, are now empty, reducing physical security.

COVID SCAM #13: Cryptocurrency scams

FBI Release: https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-expects-a-rise-in-scams-involving-cryptocurrency-related-to-the-covid-19-pandemic

The FBI is warning that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a flood of cryptocurrency scams to appear on its radar screens. It notes that “criminals often pitch fraudulent investments in a “new” and developing cryptocurrency, such as an initial coin offering (ICO) or other investment vehicle to take a victim’s money. These scams typically involve scenarios that seem “too good to be true”—offering large monetary returns for a short-term, small investment. The reality is that scammers steal the investment money for personal use and utilize the complexities of cryptocurrency to hide the true destination of the stolen funds.”

Cryptocurrency is also being increasingly associated with blackmail. The FBI warns that “threatening emails or letters in which scammers claim to have access to your personal information or knowledge of your “dirty secrets” and demand payment in Bitcoin to prevent release of this information have been circulating for years. With the advent of COVID-19, there is a new twist on this scam. The correspondence claims that the writer will both release your information and infect you and/or your family with coronavirus unless payment is sent to a Bitcoin wallet.”

Additionally, bogus charities claiming to benefit COVID-19 victims or first responders are now using cryptocurrency. The FBI notes that “although there are legitimate charities, investment platforms, and e-commerce sites that accept payment in cryptocurrency, pressure to use a virtual currency should be considered a significant red flag.”

CURE:

To combat cryptocurrency investment scams, the FBI advises you to “conduct extensive research” before making any investments. If you are being victimized by a crypto-extortion scam, the FBI advises you to: “contact law enforcement before paying out blackmail and/or extortion attempts and before converting your money into cryptocurrency to pay them.

As a general matter, you should regard demand for cryptocurrency payment as a “red flag” unless you have good reason to believe otherwise.

COVID SCAM #14: Work from Home Scams

FBI Release: https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-expects-a-rise-in-scams-involving-cryptocurrency-related-to-the-covid-19-pandemic

This scam pre-dates COVID by many years, but is seeing a resurgence today as millions of unemployed people are grimly contemplating an uncertain future. Scammers are actively targeting these vulnerable people with offers to “work at home” but only after making a sketchy donation to secure their employment.

According to the FBI, “scammers, posing as employers, may ask you to accept a “donation” of funds into your own bank account and to deposit them into a crypto kiosk. The so-called “donation” is likely money stolen from others. Your acceptance and transfer of the stolen money is considered illegal money mule activity and potentially unlicensed money transmission.”

CURE:

Don’t become an unwitting “money mule.” Familiarize yourself with this crime, because social media channels, including online job websites, social networking sites, and even online dating sites are becoming used to recruit the unwary.

Read the FBI’s booklet here: https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/money-mule-awareness-booklet.pdf/view

The FBI advises you to always use good cyber hygiene and security measures.

By remembering the following tips, you can protect yourself and help stop criminal activity:

  • Do not open attachments or click links within emails from senders you don’t recognize.
  • Do not provide your username, password, date of birth, social security number, financial data, or other personal information in response to an email or robocall.
  • Always verify the web address of legitimate websites and manually type them into your browser.
  • Check for misspellings or wrong domains within a link (for example, an address that should end in a “.gov” ends in .com” instead).

The FBI wants you to be safe by knowing the facts.

For accurate and up-to-date information about COVID-19, visit:

George Costlyhttp://thecostsofbeingcostly.org
George Costly is a freelance writer based in the New York Tri-State region. His hobbies are birdwatching and industrial photography.

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