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How Criminals Take Advantage of Anxiety to Perpetrate COVID-19 Scams

It is no surprise how criminals take advantage of people’s vulnerability amid crises such as that of COVID-19.  Right from the beginning, criminals positioned themselves to profit from the pandemic by manipulating people’s anxiety and confusion.

Law enforcement agencies, consumer protection agencies, healthcare agencies, financial institutions, and companies such as RKN Global have often cautioned the public to be aware of these scams, to take steps to protect themselves, and to report fraudulent encounters.

Taking advantage: Contributing Factors

One of the biggest challenges that came with COVID-19 was the limited information known to healthcare professionals about the disease. This gave anyone with malicious intent the power to create misleading information.

Criminals rode on this wave of misinformation to perpetuate fake cures and snake oil solutions, which they sold to unsuspecting individuals. Some criminals created fake websites appearing to be from legitimate sources such as the World Health Organization.  They used these websites to collect money and personally identifiable information (PII) from unsuspecting individuals.

The constant updates about the spread of the disease and the deaths it causes also fueled the fear and panic. This has increased the risk that more people would fall for social engineering attacks.

Additionally, more people working from home means increased reliance on the internet. This includes both for personal and work-related information and for activities such as grocery shopping. With little awareness of the risks of scams, it became easy for criminals to take advantage of victims’ vulnerabilities.

Fake Charities

Fake charities and donation pages seeking to “help those hard hit by the pandemic” cropped up as soon as the pandemic began. These scams target people’s willingness to help others survive by donating money for medical care, food, and housing.

Criminals posed as representatives of genuine charities or set up fake charities for nefarious purposes.

Fake Jobs and Benefits

The economic sector suffered greatly, with many losing their jobs or suffering salary cuts. Many people were left desperate for another source of income or aid to sustain themselves.

Criminals took advantage of this desperation for an income to promote fake jobs and steal peoples’ money and personal information. They impersonated organizations and offered fake interview calls, or sent emails asking for personal information so they could run background checks. Other fake jobs required applicants to pay upfront for technology costs.

As more people sought unemployment benefits, criminals used this as a chance to steal peoples’ identities and use them to steal their unemployment benefits.

Vaccine Scams

Countries around the world are rolling out vaccines to their citizens. So far, criminals have developed several scams targeting people desperate for a vaccine. Since vaccines are limited and governments must prioritize recipients, criminals found a gap in which to offer fake waiting lists, pay-for-vaccine scams, and fake vaccines.

Staying Safe

It is understandable to be anxious about COVID-19, particularly considering the media coverage and the restrictions that come with the pandemic. However, staying safe from both the virus and criminals should be a priority. You should take precautions.  One way is to install cybersecurity tools in your devices. Another is to never share your personal or financial details in response to unsolicited calls and messages or websites.



COVID-19 Scams Targeting Older People

COVID-19 scammers have found a lucrative business in taking advantage of people amidst the pandemic. Their latest targets now include seniors. As a result, the Federal Trade Commission has already issued warnings about these crimes.  It has asked seniors to exercise vigilance about people who call purporting to be from healthcare, insurance, and government agencies.

Some of the common scams targeting seniors include:

1.    Social Security Benefit Suspension

In the U.S., the office of the Inspector General Social Security Administration recently issued a warning about a scam threatening the suspension of social security benefits. In this scam, criminals send beneficiaries letters through the US mail threatening the discontinuation or suspension of social security benefits. Of course, the scam conveniently offers a way out by providing a number which the beneficiary should call to prevent such adverse action.

Once you call this number, the criminals will attempt to collect your personally identifiable information (PII) –or your money. They can collect your information through wire transfers, retail card gifts, or by asking you to mail cash.

If someone calls or sends mail claiming to be from an SSA office and is asking for your PII, you should report the scam here.

A few things to note is that U.S. Social Security will never:

  • Threaten suspension or other legal action unless you pay a fee or fine
  • Promise benefits or assistance in exchange for money
  • Require you to pay through cash, prepaid debit cards, retail gift cards, or internet currency
  • Demand secrecy when handling any issues related to your social security
  • Send official communication containing PII through email

2.    Grandparent Scams

Scammers have no qualms approaching seniors with well-crafted tales of their grandchildren needing urgent help. As families are separated during the pandemic, criminals increasingly use spoofed calls to prey on grandparents.

For example, an Arizona man lost $960 after receiving a call that his grandson purportedly needed the money to help fight a DUI charge in Florida. Two men claiming to be the grandson and the grandson’s lawyer demanded that the grandparent to send the money immediately to keep the son from going to jail.  Of course, they insisted that the grandparent keep the matter private so the grandson’s parents wouldn’t find out.

To protect yourself from this type of scam, do not take calls from unknown numbers. Alternatively, if you receive a call about a family member, hang up and call the concerned person immediately to check on them.

Other critical tips include:

  • Never share any personal information over the phone. This includes your name, account numbers, social security numbers, and passwords. It applies no matter how demanding or convincing the caller is.  You should also ignore calls demanding immediate action.
  • If you receive a call that seems to be from a trusted source, hang up and call that source directly, especially if the person on the other end is requesting your personal information or payment
  • Do not click on any links you receive through email or text even if they appear to be from trusted sources

Protecting Yourself

One indicator of a scam is that the person contacting you often requires immediate action. They will bully you into submitting your information or taking the action they want you to take. Therefore, if you receive calls with such demands or are suspicious of the caller, hang up immediately and report the interaction to law enforcement. Additionally, you should file a claim with the FCC about any spoofing attempts or unwanted calls.


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