Afraid of getting sick? Don't fall for a coronavirus con

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- It's an unprecedented public threat. COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus in other parts of the world, has hit the US. While many of us are worried about the potential for contracting the disease, it's great news for scammers who are cashing in on our anxiety. Look out for fake cures, phony prevention measures, and other coronavirus cons. ABC13 contacted the Better Business Bureau to ask about what they're seeing, especially online.

Leah Napoliello of the BBB said many people hear about prevention or a "cure" on social media, in an email, or a website.

The message contains a lot of information about this amazing product, including convincing testimonials or a conspiracy theory backstory. For example, one scam email claims that the government has discovered a vaccine but is keeping it secret for "security reasons." You figure it can't hurt to give the medicine a try, so you get out your credit card.

"Don't do it," said Napoliello. Right now, there are no U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines or drugs to prevent coronavirus, although treatments are in development. No vaccines, drugs, or products specifically for coronavirus can be bought online or in stores.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has issued warning letters to several companies claiming they had a product to cure or prevent the virus.

Peddling quack medicines isn't the only way scammers are trying to cash in on coronavirus fears.

Con artists are impersonating the CDC and the World Health Organization in phishing emails. These messages claim to have news about the disease and prompt readers to click on a link. Doing so, said Napoliello, can download malicious software. Another scam email tries to con people into donating to a fake fundraising effort, claiming to be a government program to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

How to spot a coronavirus con:

Don't panic. Do your research: Be skeptical and double check information you see online with official news sources.

Be wary of personal testimonials and "miracle" product claims. Be suspicious of products that claim to immediately prevent or cure coronavirus. Check reputable websites like the BBB or the World Health Organization.

Check with your doctor: If you're tempted to buy an unproven product or one with questionable claims, check with your doctor or other health care professional first.

Napoliello also warns consumers to "look out for phishing scams".

These can come in the form of prize offers, threatened punishments, or something completely mundane like a text message. The scammer may even use the name of a well-known government agency featured during this coronavirus crisis (The Centers for Disease Control) to get people's attention and trick them to click links in the email concerning updates on the pandemic.

Phishing messages typically use one of three methods to fool victims:

  • The message promises a reward, such as a gift card or a free item
  • Threatens a punishment, such as unpaid taxes, missed jury duty, deactivated bank account
  • Appears entirely mundane, such as a file from the office scanner or from a co-worker

Phishing scams also tend to follow a pattern. The victim receives an email, text, or even a phone call. The scammer urges you to click a link, share information, or download an attachment which likely contains malware.

In the case of an email or text, the link frequently leads to a form, which prompts the target to enter personal information.

Think twice before you download anything from the internet, especially if it's an attachment from an anonymous sender. Scammers will hide malware in an attachment and once you download it, it can wreak havoc on your computer or steal your personal information.

Tips to avoid this scam:

If something sounds suspicious, confirm it by calling the government agency or company directly or checking their websites. Don't click on links in an unexpected email. Type the URL for the company into your browser or do a web search to find the right website.

Don't click, download, or open anything that comes from an anonymous sender. This is likely an attempt to gain access to your personal information or install malware on your computer.

The video above is from a previous story.

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