Consumers Should Be On Alert For Coronavirus Scams, FTC Warns

The amount of disinformation surrounding the coronavirus outbreak is the perfect environment for scammers preying on confusion.

The coronavirus crisis unfolding in China and across the globe has been exacerbated by mass disinformation — confusion that scammers are attempting to turn into cash based on the panic of the general public. The Federal Trade Commission is now warning consumers to watch out for fake products and donation scams related to the epidemic.

The outbreak of the nCoV, commonly known as the coronavirus, has already killed over 1,000 people in China and infected nearly 50,000 people worldwide. But the World Health Organization reports that the impact of the illness has been made worse by a massive “infodemic,” which it defines as “an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

Much of that disinformation has taken place on social media, where conspiracy theorists have spread rumors of how to cure the illness (“Just drink bleach!”) and hypothesized about how the outbreak began.

This environment of confusion and lack of reliable information is the perfect setting for scammers preying on public fear. Now, the FTC has issued a warning to American consumers to beware of scams asking for their personal or financial information.

“Scammers are taking advantage of fears surrounding the Coronavirus,” the Feb. 10 alert reads. “They’re setting up websites to sell bogus products, and using fake emails, texts, and social media posts as a ruse to take your money and get your personal information.”

While these websites and posts may purport to share information about nearby coronavirus outbreaks or donation campaigns for victims, many could be trying to steal money from consumers through malicious email attachments or fake crowdfunding efforts.

Cloud security company AppRiver discovered one such phishing campaign posing as an alert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that encourages readers to click on a link leading to coronavirus cases “around your city.” In reality, that link could harvest your email credentials and be used to take over your account.

The FTC’s tips for avoiding scams include not clicking on links from people you do not know, seeking out official information from the CDC and doing your homework when considering whether or not to donate to a charity website or crowdfunding campaign.

“Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation,” the warning reads. “If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, don’t do it.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which aims to protect investors, has also warned Americans to avoid online promotions asking them to consider investing in products or services that can prevent or cure the coronavirus. Many scammers are betting on investor interest in companies with potential business interests in fighting the coronavirus.

Consumers who come across any suspicious emails or scams can report them to the FTC here.

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