These scams, which run the gamut from individuals hawking fraudulent COVID-19 cures to websites selling fake vaccine kits to phishing email scams trying to steal personal information, are so rampant that the Department of Justice has directed all 94 U.S. Attorneys to appoint a “Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator” for their districts.
“When there’s an opportunity for a criminal, a fraudster to take advantage, they will,” Steven Merrill, chief of the FBI’s financial crimes section, told ABC News' Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas. “And in this case, they’ve taken advantage of the fact that we’re all very scared, we’re vulnerable, and we’re looking for answers.”
“The FBI’s message is that we will not tolerate it,” Merrill added. “We will investigate these cases to the fullest of our ability.”
ABC News’ Nightline is airing a special investigation of these allegations as the FBI warns consumers about a startling surge in COVID-19 scams.
USTelecom, a group representing the telecommunications industry, told ABC News that it has seen a rise in robocalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sad to say,” said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, “but robocall scammers are out in full force during this public health emergency, using COVID-19 to prey on vulnerable customers.”
The group is working with partners across the country to trace the robocalls back to their sources and then notifying carriers to shut them down. In recent weeks, for example, the group traced a COVID-19 testing kit scam to the Philippines and a COVID-19 HVAC duct-cleaning scam to Pakistan, intervening in both cases to stop the calls.
Some emerging scams aren’t merely misleading but actually threatening.
“We’ve seen cases of extortion where a criminal is contacting an honest person saying I’m going to come to your house and find you and give you coronavirus,” Merrill said. “Or I’m going to give coronavirus to your friends and family if you don’t pay me money.”
The cybersecurity firm Sophos Security, for example, recently identified a phishing email scam that threatened to infect the email recipient and their family with coronavirus if $4000 worth of Bitcoin wasn't turned over immediately.
“If I do not get the payment: I will infect every member of your family with the coronavirus,” the threatening email read. “No matter how smart you are, believe me, if I want to affect [sic], I can. I will also go ahead and reveal your secrets. I will completely ruin your life.”
According to Chester Wisniewski, Sophos Security’s principal research scientist, most of these scams are variations of previous scams that have adopted a COVID-19 theme.
“A few months ago, that same scammer was sending out emails with an old stolen password of yours,” Wisniewski said. “Maybe something from LinkedIn a few years ago, saying I know that you are doing naughty things on your computer and to prove it this is your password and it actually had an old password of yours in the email.”
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