How Online Coronavirus Scams Are Thriving

Photographed by Kate Anglestein.
Tanya* was scrolling through her Twitter feed last week when she spotted an enticing giveaway: free money for those affected by COVID-19 for the first 500 people to like and retweet. Accompanying screenshots showed the cash waiting to be doled out to lucky winners.
"I wanted to pay off some of my bills and to have emergency money in case my family needed it during the coronavirus outbreak. I was excited to tell my mum that I could help out." The 18-year-old, who is unemployed because of health problems, thought she had nothing to lose.
Hopeful, Tanya did as she was told and received a promising DM from the benevolent Twitter donor, who claimed to work for a money transfer company. "She told me she would multiply my current bank balance by five if I sent a picture of it." Tanya sent the picture, with her private information obscured, and received more demands. "She said I needed to send her money before I could get mine because that’s how the transfer worked."
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I wanted to pay off some of my bills and to have emergency money in case my family needed it during the coronavirus outbreak. I was excited to tell my mum that I could help out.

Tanya, 18
That seemed...off. Tanya asked for proof that it wasn’t a scam. The seemingly sweet, reassuring woman sent videos and photos of herself giving money to others, which was enough for Tanya. "She knew all the right things to say to get me to agree. Since I’d never won a giveaway before, I believed it."
Tanya transferred her $200 (£161) and almost immediately, the woman insisted on an extra $300 (£241) "hidden transfer fee" that she needed to pay in order to claim her prize. "That’s when I said I didn’t want to be a part of the giveaway anymore and asked for my money back." The woman started ignoring Tanya’s increasingly panicked messages, and she still hasn’t got her money back. It’s unlikely she ever will.  
Tanya is far from alone in becoming the victim of a COVID-19-based scam. Fraud and scams like this were already ubiquitous but during what has become the greatest public health and economic emergency in a century, they have taken on a new, crueller guise. They’re not only affecting the elderly, who we typically associate with being less savvy online. Women everywhere are being defrauded out of money and their personal information at a time when their health, finances and futures hang in the balance.
"You don’t think it will happen to you because you’re 'too smart to fall for it' and then it does, and it leaves you feeling hopeless and like everything is your fault," adds Tanya, who also suffers with severe anxiety and depression. "This happening in the middle of chaos, when I thought it was a blessing, has screwed up my mental and emotional health that I’ve worked to build up."
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"It made me feel majorly depressed, panicky, anxious and, honestly, like I wanted to die." She had a panic attack and cried all night after it happened.

You don't think it will happen to you because you're 'too smart to fall for it' and then it does, and it leaves you feeling hopeless and like everything is your fault.

Tanya, 18
The number of COVID-19 scams seems to be multiplying as fast as the virus itself. Miracle cures and at-home testing kits; fake face masks, hand sanitiser and other protective items that never arrive; phishing texts, cold calls and emails from scammers impersonating legitimate organisations like banks and government departments (known as "smishing"); sham investment opportunities; rogues going door-to-door offering at-home testing, home "decontamination" services and offering to do elderly people’s shopping while keeping the money; and even unscrupulous chancers trying to take people’s dogs away to quarantine
Reports of coronavirus-related scams have skyrocketed by 400% within a month, revealed Action Fraud, the UK’s fraud and cybercrime reporting service, last month. There were 105 reports, with total losses reaching nearly £970,000, between 1st February and 18th March. Most of these were online shopping scams, where people ordered face masks, hand sanitiser, and other products which never arrived. Nearly 3% of all global cyber scams are now COVID-19-related, according to the internet security company Sophos.
Given many people’s unwillingness to report out of shame, and the intensification of the crisis in the weeks since Action Fraud collected its data, it wouldn’t be a reach to speculate that the problem has only worsened.
Sarah*, 45, a disabled mum of five in Hampshire, ordered N95 masks and isopropyl alcohol, to make her own antibacterial gel, through eBay. Owing to her underlying health conditions, the number of people living in her household and the fact that her daughter is a frontline A&E nurse, Sarah is at particularly high risk from coronavirus.
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When the delivery dates came and went and none of her protective items arrived, she realised something was up. Sarah reported the missing isopropyl, which she ordered because there was no hand gel left in her local shops, to eBay’s Resolution Centre to organise a refund. "The seller looked legit, but I noticed afterwards that they had negative feedback due to taking money but not sending products."

Reports of coronavirus-related scams have skyrocketed by 400% within a month, revealed Action Fraud, the UK's fraud and cybercrime reporting service, last month. There were 105 reports, with total losses reaching nearly £970,000, between 1st February and 18th March.

She got her money back for the isopropyl but she’s still pushing for a refund on the masks, which should have arrived a month ago, through PayPal. "The masks and filters said they were in England and would arrive within five days max. I wanted them as soon as possible." It turned out they were actually in Hong Kong and the seller had also received negative feedback from others.
Sarah says she already felt physically vulnerable due to her multiple illnesses and compromised immune system, so "getting scammed feels like a double whammy." Not to mention that the £50 she lost was from her Personal Independence Payment (PIP). "When you try and do your best to keep yourself safe, then some con man takes your money, it's a very low feeling. You then have a long fight to get your money back."
"It makes me angry," Sarah continues. "Everyone is trying to buy as much as they can to see through this pandemic and keep themselves safe. These sellers are greedy and selfish. It’s fraud and they should be held accountable."
The same thing happened to Aisling*, 41, from Reading, who is mostly housebound and keeps a small bottle of hand sanitiser attached to her crutches or walking stick at all times. Wary of fraudulent sellers profiting from the pandemic, she ordered two bottles from separate eBay sellers in case one was a scam. It was. Aisling went through eBay’s reporting process and was refunded "because the tracking number the seller used to tell me my item had been dispatched was fake." She adds: "I’d like to know that they're following this up with the police but I doubt it."
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An eBay spokesperson told Refinery29 that the platform invests heavily in fraud prevention and has "been introducing increasingly tougher measures against people who attempt to use eBay to exploit others" over the last two months. As part of this, it has "heavily restricted the listing of all masks and hand sanitiser gels, and only a whitelist of closely vetted sellers are able to trade these items to ensure eBay remains a safe and trusted place for people to get the items they need." 

It makes me angry. Everyone is trying to buy as much as they can to see through this pandemic and keep themselves safe. These sellers are greedy and selfish. It's fraud and they should be held accountable.

Sarah, 45
With huge increases in the number of people working remotely, phishing scams are also in the ascendancy in the age of coronavirus. Action Fraud received over 200 reports of malicious COVID-19-themed emails – many claiming to be from organisations including HMRC and the World Health Organization – attempting to trick people into clicking on malicious attachments which could result in their personal information, email logins and passwords, and banking details being compromised. 
Opportunistic online scammers are even using the reputation of the NHS by impersonating members of staff and targeting people who actually work for the service. Leigh*, 41, who works for an NHS trust, received a phishing email purporting to be from a former employee of Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust (a real trust) who was now based in India.
"Dear friend, How is UK today?" it read, before proceeding to offer snake oil to cure COVID-19 and a business opportunity to start selling it in the UK. "Now it’s confirmed that this product can be use (sic) for corona virus (sic) [microbe emoji]. That’s why our company need (sic) the product very urgent (sic)." It might even be funny if the situation weren’t so desperate.
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Cold callers claiming to be from HMRC have also seized on the moment of national panic. Becca, in her early 30s, from Bath, who is on long-term sickness benefit, recently received a cold call full of alarming phrases about it being "urgent" and urging her to "take immediate action". She recognised it was a scam, hung up and reported it to HMRC and to the police via Action Fraud. "Scammers are sociopathic scum at the best of times, let alone during an international emergency."
Becca says it makes her feel "sick and angry" to have been targeted. "Especially since there have been so many of these calls to my friends and family since the pandemic reached the UK."
"There should also be a much wider public awareness campaign around scams during times of crisis. BBC warnings, government bulletins, etc, just as they’re currently doing for the virus itself," Becca believes.
Graeme Biggar, director general of the National Economic Crime Centre, says: "Criminals are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to scam people in a variety of ways and this is only likely to increase. We need individuals and businesses to be fully aware and prepared." This means thinking very carefully before handing over your money or personal details. If you think you’ve been scammed, contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud
"I would urge everyone to be extra vigilant at the moment," says Katie Watts from MoneySavingExpert.com. "Question any unexpected or uninvited approach offering goods or services you haven’t asked for. Official-looking pages or senders aren’t always what they seem – often checking the email address or hovering over a URL will reveal a less-than-official source."
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"Watch out for dodgy spelling and grammar – this is how scammers weed out those of us that aren’t paying attention to the details. And if something seems too good to be true, it probably is."
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities. 
For the government's advice on how to avoid scams during the coronavirus pandemic, visit their help page.
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.

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