Pandemic Era Is Ripe for Scams

Consumers have reported more than $153 million in losses and counting

Woman in a cafe holding credit card and looking at laptop with concerned look.
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The COVID-19 era has created a world of new opportunities for scammers to exploit unprecedented fear, stress, and financial strain, fraud experts say.  

Scammers have sold unauthorized COVID-19 cures and tests (there is no government-approved vaccine or treatment), offered people fake jobs they have to pay to get, and adjusted their swindles to match shortages of critical goods and a surge in online shopping. Some have pretended to be the Internal Revenue Service and invented fake businesses to claim government stimulus money. At every step, fraudsters have sought to take advantage of people’s desperation amid both a public health and economic crisis.

Key Takeaways

  • Scam tactics have evolved with the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The Federal Trade Commission has received more than 113,000 fraud reports related to COVID-19 or stimulus, alleging $153.6 million in financial losses. The median loss is $300. 
  • The biggest single source of pandemic-related fraud has been online shopping, based on complaints to the FTC. 
  • Con artists prey on fear and stress, of which there is plenty to go around right now.

“They are always looking for an angle,” said Anthony Pratkanis, an emeritus professor of psychology at University of California Santa Cruz, whose research focuses on fraud and persuasion. “People are afraid of the disease, so you pitch phony cures. People are afraid of the disease, so you sell fraudulent testing equipment. People are looking for money, so you pitch, ‘I’ve got a company that’s found a cure that you can invest in.’”

U.S. consumers have filed more than 113,000 COVID-19-related fraud reports alleging $153.6 million in financial losses (with a median loss of $300), according to online data from the Federal Trade Commission, which tracks fraud complaints. Because the data relies on self-reporting, it’s likely just a slice of what’s actually happening, the FTC says, but it’s nonetheless telling. The single biggest category is online shopping fraud, accounting for over 31,000 of those reports and $21.7 million in losses. Another roughly 4,600 complaints were about mobile text scams. 

“People are at home, so this is how marketers are reaching them,” said Monica Vaca, associate director for the Division of Consumer Response and Operations at the FTC. “Some of them are totally fine legitimate marketers, but a lot of them are scammers.” 

The FTC tracks pandemic-related fraud complaints by mentions of COVID-19, stimulus, N95 (a reference to a type of medical-grade mask) and related terms. The pandemic hasn’t moved the needle much in terms of overall fraud complaint numbers—they represented 10% of overall fraud reports through the first half of the year, when there were actually fewer complaints than in the same period last year—but the trends show just how quickly scammers can shift their tactics. 

When the pandemic hit, scam phone calls declined in favor of online scams, not only because consumers switched to buying more things over the Internet, but because scammers likely shut down their international call centers during the global stay-at-home orders, Vaca surmised. 

More specifically, phone calls typically account for around 75% of all fraud attempts, Vaca said, but by the second quarter of 2020, that figure had dropped to 48% and email accounted for 23% of contact attempts (up from 8% of attempts in 2019). Similarly, fraud through websites jumped to 17% from 9% in 2019. 

In fact, in April and May, more people reported problems with online shopping than in any other months on record, the FTC said. A major trend: websites selling hard-to-find supplies like facemasks, sanitizer, and toilet paper and simply never delivering them. 

Con artists preyed on unemployed workers by advertising for jobs that did not exist. The goal: get applicants to pay fees for equipment, training, or supplies. One scam robocall invited job seekers to “work with Amazon from home and make $400 in one day” with no sales or technical experience required. 

Text messages have been another common category of COVID-19 scam reported, leading to nearly $2 million in financial losses.  

In one example of a bogus text scam, consumers got a message saying “IRS COVID-19 News.” It included a link to “register/update your information in order to receive the economic impact payment regardless of your status,” according to the Federal Communications Commission. Recipients who followed the link were asked to enter a debit or credit card number to “verify” their identity. Another example was a text purporting to be from Netflix offering five months of free service. 

The Psychology of Scams

The pandemic has provided low-hanging fruit for those looking to take advantage of others. Fake COVID-19 cures are addressing an urgent need, which is typical of scams, said Pratkanis, the psychology professor. What’s more, the COVID-19 era perpetuates an atmosphere of disinformation. And according to Pratkanis’ research, people become especially vulnerable to fraud when they are experiencing stress in life. 

“When you’re under that kind of stress, you don’t have full cognitive capacity, because you’re busy looking for a solution,” Pratkanis said. 

The move to work-from-home also offers a target-rich environment for computer criminals, he said, since so many people are downloading unfamiliar software and needing technical support outside their usual offices. 

It is typical, too, for skilled con artists to profile their targets and make themselves more likeable and trustworthy to the victims, according to Pratkanis. For example, someone selling a fake COVID-19 remedy might pitch it to a known right-wing audience as being something the government doesn’t want you to know about, while to liberals, they might sell it as an “all-natural” cure.

Government Has Also Been Targeted

It’s not just individuals that have been targeted by fraud, but government programs initiated as emergency relief too. 

The state of California recently received hundreds of thousands of suspicious unemployment claims. And the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a steady stream of prosecutions accusing people of ripping off the Paycheck Protection Program, which made more than $525 billion in potentially forgivable loans to small businesses to help keep people employed. According to prosecutors, loan proceeds have been fraudulently used to buy things like jewelry and boats.

While the FTC logged a surge of COVID-19-related fraud reports in the spring, the weekly numbers peaked in April and have precipitously declined since. In the final week of September, there were 725 reports, down from over 5,000 in some weeks in the spring.

One reason for the dip is a decline in the numbers of consumers who reported ordering protective equipment online and never receiving it, Vaca said. “It’s gotten a lot easier to acquire facemasks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper in stores,” she said. 

She also credited FTC warning letters and enforcement action with suppressing robocalls, multilevel marketing schemes, and marketers selling COVID-19 treatment products.

While travel/vacation complaints were the second-biggest category of COVID-19-related fraud complaints (there were about 25,000 alleging $45.4 million in financial losses), those numbers may be misleading. Because of categories established prior to the pandemic, those numbers include complaints by consumers that airlines and hotels didn’t give them refunds when the virus disrupted travel. 

Unfortunately, the decline in reported scams isn’t likely to mean they’re going away any time soon, Vaca said. As the uncertainties triggered by the pandemic move away from supply shortages and toward prolonged economic hardship for many, scammers are likely to be increasingly focused on the unemployed and those in debt.

“We are going to wind up seeing more and more scams about things like jobs and debt relief,” Vaca said. “Whenever something is in the news, it is tailor-made for scammers.”

Tips for Avoiding Common COVID-19 Scams

  • The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any vaccine or treatment drug for COVID-19, so don’t fall for any products that claim otherwise. Here’s a searchable list of known fraudulent COVID-19 products.
  • Before buying from an unfamiliar online store, check out the company by searching for its name alongside words like “scam” or “complaint.” Pay with a credit card and dispute the charges if the seller doesn’t deliver the goods. 
  • Screen your calls to filter out scam robocalls. Call screening is simple to set up on Android and Apple phones.
  • Scammers sometimes pose as contact tracers. Real ones need health information, the con artists want money or financial information. The FTC has published tips on how to tell the difference. 
  • Emails that seem to be from the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization may not be. Don’t click on links if you’re not sure and only visit trusted sites such as coronavirus.gov for reliable information. 
  • The IRS will not call you about stimulus money. If you have questions about your payment, visit www.irs.gov.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to report a scam if you were a victim. 

Article Sources

  1. Tableau. "FTC COVID-19 and Stimulus Reports." Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.

  2. Tableau. "FTC COVID-19 and Stimulus Reports." Click on 'Fraud Losses' tab. Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.

  3. Tableau. "FTC COVID-19 and Stimulus Reports." Click on 'Losses and Contact Methods' and choose 'Contact Method.' Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.

  4. Federal Trade Commission. "Scams in Online Sales: When Orders Don’t Arrive." Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.

  5. Federal Trade Commission. "Looking for Work After Coronavirus Layoffs?" Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.

  6. Federal Communications Commission. "COVID-19 Text Scams." Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.

  7. State of California Employment Development Department. "Unemployment Benefits Top $86 Billion Over Course of COVID-19 Pandemic." Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.

  8. U.S. Department of Justice. "Justice News." Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.

  9. Tableau. "FTC COVID-19 and Stimulus Reports." See 'Reports Over Time' and choose 'By Week.' Accessed Oct. 5, 2020.