In April of this year, I wrote an article for our website about COVID-19 related frauds and how to avoid some of the frauds that had emerged in the brief period of time since COVID-19 had arrived in the United States. At that point, we were just about a month into our current situation, and already the Federal Trade Commission had received 18,235 reports of COVID-19 related fraud, with losses totaling approximately $13.44 million dollars.

Unfortunately, as predicted by scientists and medical professionals, the United States is in the midst of a “second wave” of COVID-19 infections, with at least 2,857 new coronavirus deaths and 216,548 new cases reported on December 3, 2020; this marks an 8% increase in average cases from two weeks earlier.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, so too does fraud along with it. Per the FTC, from January 1, 2020 to December 3, 2020, there have been 139,535 total COVID-19 related fraud reports, with losses totaling $194.89 million dollars. That is about seven times the number of reported frauds and fourteen times the total fraud losses from the FTC COVID-19 fraud report from April 2020.

Online shopping frauds topped the list of fraud reports at 37,009 reports and fraud losses of $26.65 million dollars. Vacation and travel frauds topped the list of fraud losses at $55.8 million dollars and 29,898 reports. According to the FTC, the vacation and travel category typically relates to the sale of vacations or vacation related services, but with the emergence of COVID-19, these reports are mostly about refunds or cancellations of trips. A majority of the individuals that reported fraud to the FTC were first contacted about the reported fraud scheme through e-mail, and the most common payment method in the fraud reports was via credit card, although wire transfers resulted in the highest fraud losses.

The following information summarizes additional fraud schemes that have emerged during the last eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Fake COVID-19 Clinical Studies

Similarly to the fraudulent COVID-19 test kits and treatments from earlier this year, the Better Business Bureau has identified a scam in which fraudsters will send out messages promoting participation in non-existent COVID-19 clinical studies in exchange for large sums of cash. These messages have been sent out through text, e-mail, and private messages in social media, and contain a link for the recipient to click in order to determine if they “qualify” for the study.

However, once the link is clicked, the recipient may have unknowingly downloaded malware to their computer or smart phone, which will allow scammers to have access to your user names, passwords, and any other personal information stored on your device. In some cases, the link sends the recipient to a seemingly real website for a clinical study, where the user is asked for personal identifying information and bank account numbers. It is important to remember that although real clinical trials will gather information about potential participants, they will never ask for your bank account information. Also, be aware of language utilized when messages like these are received; no legitimate clinical trial will ask you to click on a link to see if you qualify. It is easy to have an emotional response to the possibility of earning some extra cash, especially under the current circumstances, but it’s important to remember that if a solicitation seems suspect, it probably is, and it is important to trust your instincts in these scenarios.

COVID-19 Vaccine Scams

Similarly to the clinical trial scams, Investigators at the Department of Homeland Security are preparing for fraudulent activity related to the demand for the imminent COVID-19 vaccinations. Although Pfizer and Moderna have indicated that they will be able to produce enough vaccine doses for approximately 20 million people by the end of this month, those vaccines will likely go to healthcare workers and other front-line workers first. It will be months before enough vaccination doses are available to the rest of the population, which will create an opportunity for criminals to exploit the demand for the vaccination.

In response to the potential fraud surrounding the COVID-19 vaccinations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) has launched Operation Stolen Promise 2.0, which according to ICE, is the next step of their efforts to “identify and prevent the production, sale, and distribution of unapproved or unauthorized COVID-19 products and drugs.” The agency expects a surge in fraudulent attempts to introduce counterfeit versions of vaccines to the marketplace. Similarly to the fraudulent COVID-19 tests that became an issue earlier in the year, do not solicit COVID-19 “vaccinations” from the internet or through any other method that is not your healthcare provider.

Rental Fraud

According to a report from TransUnion, the percentage of fraud triggers detected in rental applications from the period of March 2020 through August 2020 increased by almost 30%. According to a survey of 82 multifamily home rental executives, the frequency of fraud has increased almost 50% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fraud triggers are identified by applications that failed authentication or were deemed high risk, and typically involve identity theft. Additionally, 41% of respondents said that they had not identified fraud in their applications until after the applicant had already moved in to the space.

The rise in fraudulent rental applications due to the pandemic has forced the rental industry to adapt by implementing new technology in order to improve identity verification in rental applications. As unemployment remains high due to the pandemic, many people have lost their homes over the last few months, which likely correlates with the rise in fraudulent rental applications. In the 17 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab, there have been more than 53,000 evictions since the start of the pandemic; after reviewing this statistic, it is not surprising that there has been a rise in fraudulent rental applications.

Charity Fraud

According to the FBI, scammers have been posing as fake charities that have some relation to COVID-19 relief in order to steal either your money or your personal identifying information. Fake charity scams prey on generosity, and become especially aggressive during times of crisis. Charity fraud rises around the holiday season in a normal year, and experts predict that the pandemic will only make this worse.

Scammers may send phony e-mails that are designed to appear as if they are from a legitimate charity – the fake charity name is often very similar to that of a real organization, or they use the name of an actual organization but the e-mail is not sent from a legitimate organization. Always be aware of links in e-mails – to avoid phishing scams, consider going directly an organization’s website rather than clicking a link in an e-mail. Never make donations in cash, gift cards, or by wiring money – always use a credit card if possible.

Prevention

Prevention remains the same as it has, even before the emergence of COVID-19 – it is important to always be aware of ways in which fraudsters can get access to your personal information or provide you with information that is patently false. Ignore offers that seem too good to be true, and always be aware of links in text messages and e-mails, because those could allow scammers access to your passwords, bank account information, and more. Always be vigilant about protecting your information, but especially now as the pandemic continues to impact our lives.