21. COVID-19: Fraud and Scams

My dear learning community,

A friend of mine in Canada received this text message:


Text message

Today 19:55


Due to the most recent COVID-19 epidemic, the Red Cross is providing every Canadian household with free surgical masks. http://Mask-RedCross.site


This message is actually not from the Red Cross, and it is not a legitimate offer. If you click on the link, you will be asked to pay a small delivery fee for the masks to be sent to your house. Once you input your credit card details, you can imagine what will happen next. No, you will not get the face masks. Yes, you will find charges to your credit card that you did not authorize! Ouch.


This letter will be about COVID-19: Fraud and Scams


COVID-19 has not only paralyzed the world, but ushered in a new era for online fraud and scams. Here are some examples:



Criminals looking to make a fast dollar may advertise fraudulent cures or unproven treatments.



If you have seen the film Contagion (2011), the character played by actor Jude Law, journalist and blogger Alan Krumwiede, posts videos informing his followers that he has cured himself of the deadly virus by using an extract from the flowering plant forsythia, an alternative homeopathic cure. Millions begin following him online and the demand for forsythia skyrockets. Ultimately though the whole thing is a fraud, as Krumwiede never had the virus, and the authorities arrest him and charge him with conspiracy and securities fraud. 


Fast forward to year 2020, and life imitates art. “This is the cure right here, going into mass production. This is going to save, and change, the world.” Keith Middlebrook was promoting a fake cure to his more than 2 million Instagram followers, with claims that basketball legend Magic Johnson endorsed the cure by serving on the board of his company, Quantum Prevention. In a text message to a potential investor, he said, “I have developed the cure for the CoronaVirus COVID-19… *LA patient tested positive for CoronaVirus got up and walked out 51 hours after my injection.” Middlebrook was advertising injectable cures and prevention pills. He was caught when he delivered these prevention pills to an undercover FBI agent posing as a potential investor in his company. Middlebrook was arrested and charged with attempted wire fraud. 


Remember, right now, there is no cure for COVID-19. Clinical trials have begun for vaccines and treatments, but they are not yet approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). 



In a merchandise scam, a seller will post an item online, enticing buyers to purchase it. 



Some new online e-business platforms have surfaced, with toilet paper and other supplies on offer:


Forty-count mega rolls of Charmin Ultra Soft. Twelve double rolls of Quilted Northern Ultra Plush. Face masks, Clorox wipes and paper towels. 


Hot sale!    In stock now!    3-7 days express delivery.


Don’t delay! 17,461 sold in the last 24 hours. WE HAVE VERY LIMITED QUANTITIES AT THIS PRICE!


If you make the decision to purchase the products, the company will keep your money but never deliver the products. 



Phishing happens when a con artist launches a cyberattack through email by posing as someone he or she is not, especially pretending to be someone in authority or someone trusted. The email will look like it is from a legitimate source, and will ask you to divulge sensitive information like bank details.



You might receive an email like this:



From: John Davenport (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Subject: test kits


Hello, I am with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and your neighborhood has been chosen to receive the first COVID-19 test kits. All we need to do to include you is to verify your home address, bank details for payment for the test kit, and other information. Please click on the link below to get started:




If you click on the link, you will be asked for bank details. You will not receive the test kit, and the phishing seller will steal your money. Please remember, there are no test kits other than through medical centers, and must be authorized by your physician. CDC does not provide neighborhood testing.



A charity scam occurs when someone pretends to represent an organization looking for charitable donations, in order to convince you to send money.



Your home phone rings, you answer, and the caller says, “Hello, I am with the World Health Organization, WHO. You may be aware we are fighting COVID-19? We are making progress in defeating it, but please understand we are a charity organization and we are short of funds. Everyone needs to do their part for the world to combat COVID-19. We were given your number because you have given to other charities in the past, so we would like to invite you to generously donate to WHO. You can be on the right side of history by making a donation, and your name will be on the WHO website as someone who stepped up to help us defeat COVID-19. To get started, can I verify your full name and address?”


If you take the bait, after the caller verifies your name and address, he or she will then extract other information from you, asking you how you want to donate, through credit card or bank transfer. Once they have these details, the crime is complete – they will steal your money and run.


WHO does not solicit funds in this manner. 



Malware is “malicious software.” It is malicious because it will damage your computer. Malware includes computer viruses, worms, spyware, ransomware, etc. 



Customers in the United States received this email, allegedly from Costco (similar to Shoprite):



From: Costco.com

Subject: help from Costco


Dear valued Costco customer,


We are offering $100 in freebies from Costco. This is our Covid-19 stimulus package for all loyal Costco members! All we ask is that you fill in the customer survey and click send:




If a recipient of this email clicks on the link, it unleashes malware inside your computer, which can steal your personal information and corrupt your files with a virus.


Now what?

The above examples are just a few of the fraud and scam scenarios that are spreading faster than the actual COVID-19 virus itself. There are also App scams, investment scams, and even door-to-door salespeople who claim to be doing house calls with test kits ready to test you for the virus. 


What is clear is that COVID-19 has distracted all of us and caused a heightened sense of anxiety. We are also for the first time WFH on a large scale, so we have our work computers at home with us and we are online many hours during the day. If you do not have a proper firewall or antivirus software on your computer, you are at risk of not just exposing your personal details to cyber criminals, but also at risk of exposing your company, as malware can penetrate all the way back to company-wide servers. As we have already seen, because we are still learning about COVID-19 and do not yet understand everything about it, the vacuum caused by the lack of information is sometimes filled with inaccurate information. During times like these, online con artists take advantage of us, using fear, and offering solutions, help and advice. Beware! 


Common elements to all of the fraud schemes and scams are:


  1. They are unsolicited
  2. They offer a quick fix
  3. They sound too good to be true
  4. They appear to be from a trusted source (like Red Cross)
  5. They have a sense of urgency
  6. They cause you to feel emotional
  7. They ask for money or personal information
  8. They ask you to fill a survey in exchange for free gifts or free delivery of products


What to do? Do not click on any links, and delete the message. Simple. 


Be careful out there!


Always, with best regards, stay safe, Semper Gumby


Dawn Dekle, PhD

AUN President (Vice-Chancellor)


Teaser: stay tuned for the next letter from the desk of the AUN President, on the topic “COVID-19: Man in the Mirror”