Whenever tragedy strikes, many people pitch in to help, but there are often a few less-than-honest people that show up to try and make money off the tragedy. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that the U.S. is crawling with coronavirus con artists as virus itself spreads. Beware of opportunists looking to part you from your money or even harm your health. Here are the top scams and how to protect yourself.
1. Vaccination, Medication or At-Home Testing: Don’t Buy It
The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that there are currently no vaccines, medications, alternative health products, prescriptions or over-the-counter aids to treat, prevent or cure Coronavirus (COVID-19). There are no FDA-approved home test kits for the disease.
But there are plenty of people willing to capitalize on wishful thinking and fear. Don't purchase these — at best, you'll have spent money for nothing. At worst, you could develop a false sense of security and expose yourself and others while believing that you are virus free.
2. Bogus Home Cleaning Promotions
Look out for opportunistic home cleaning companies that charge hundreds or thousands to make your home "coronavirus-free for 90 days" by spraying or fogging it with a virus-killing substance. While fogging can kill the virus (airlines, cruise ships and other public places include fogging in their cleaning routines now), it's just one of many products and processes that these businesses use to disinfect their surfaces. And they do it often; airlines fog after every international flight, in fact.
Fogging does not prevent any virus for 90 days, and you can buy the product that airlines use, Calla 1452, for a lot less. It is included on the U.S. EPA’s List N of disinfectants for use against SARS-CoV-2. You can add it to your other deep cleaning processes. Just don't believe that it kills the virus continuously or guarantees you won’t get sick.
3. Work-From-Home ‘Opportunities’
In addition to the fear of infection, many are suffering from economic hardships. If you are expecting to be laid off or have recently lost a job, a work-from-home opportunity might be really attractive. However, many of these require you to purchase "startup kits" or pay for "training." Sometimes, they’re false business opportunities that drain time and energy you could have used to make actual money.
Some of the most problematic, says the FTC, include these businesses:
Online ‘Business Startups’ or Employment
Online businesses might involve performing searches, completing surveys or filling out online forms. The scammers typically charge you for "training and coaching" or maybe just a small "set-up fee." But you discover that there is no legitimate company. And your "employers" could even be running up your credit card and stealing your identity.
Envelope stuffing "business" is a classic dupe — even in this age of email, e-payments payments and online advertising. You just have to pay a small fee to get started. But you'll never stuff an envelope for wages. Instead, you get paid by convincing other people to buy into the same "opportunity" or another product. The only way to earn your money back is to double down on the scam itself.
Craft work or product assembly seems legitimate when you consider that many products manufactured in China have not been making it to the U.S. because of the virus. But this is usually a scam as well. First, you typically have to buy some sort of equipment and supplies. You make the product and send it back, but you don't get paid. The "employer" decides that your work does not meet its standards. No one's work ever meets its standards. You're out both time and money with this one.
Rebate processing is another business that could make sense because today so many are canceling plans, and rebates and refunds are flying out of many business' doors. Sadly, however, scammers promoting rebate or refund processing businesses are just out to take your money for "training" and "set-up." And guess what? You can complain all you want, but you're unlikely to get a rebate or refund from these con artists.
Medical billing is another work-from-home job solicitation that's probably bogus. You might pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for training, software and a list of potential clients. However, the medical billing field is extremely competitive, and margins are thin. That means successful companies do it on a very large scale and not piecemeal using home-based individuals. A look at job site Indeed.com reveals the pleas of many individuals who completed "medical billing school" and are desperately looking for jobs.
While it's unlikely in this time of sheltering in place and avoiding unnecessary trips, mystery shoppers do also work online. How do you spot the genuine opportunity and avoid the scam? It's easy — no one has to pay to take on a genuine work assignment or accept a real job.
Multi-level marketing (MLM) runs the gamut from legitimate businesses in which a hard worker can be successful to fraudulent claims. For instance, envelope-stuffing businesses could qualifies as fraudulent because you don't earn money by providing a product or service, only by enticing others into a scheme.
Trying to generate money while providing no actual service or product and relying on others "downstream" to create profits for you is an unsustainable plan. It's commonly called a "pyramid scheme." You can recognize a pyramid scheme when the salesperson suggests that recruiting, not providing a great product, is the primary or best way to make money.
Legitimate Work From Home
There are legitimate ways to work from home. You can find them on reputable job search sites by filtering for your skill set and indicating that you only want remote opportunities.
Contact large companies with a substantial online presence directly on their own sites and look for opportunities. Amazon, for example, does hire many home-based service agents. Demand is huge, so try out companies whose business is stable during the outbreak.
4. Avoiding Coronavirus Scams for Charity
Charity scammers are always checking the news and looking for ways to play on your emotions. They use social media, email and telemarketing to appeal to your best instincts. They may display a link implying that one or more of your social media friends donated, and so should you.
Some scammers use names that are similar to those of real charities, or links that are very close to those of the actual reputable charity involved. Others might include the logo of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or other government agencies.
However, you can find legitimate charity organizations helping in the coronavirus fight because the government does decide which organizations are legitimate non-profits and eligible for tax-deductible donations from you.
Don't Be Part of the Problem
How do scams cause widespread damage? It happens when people:
- Unknowingly pass on misinformation regarding cures, vaccines and protective measures
- Promote fearful but unlikely scenarios from unreliable sources
- Create more fear by hoarding or ignoring social distancing mandates
- Ignore epidemiologists' recommendations to stay home
Stay home if you can, exercise reasonable shopping behavior and try to relax. Stop constantly and obsessively reading COVID-19 reports, passing on rumors and frantically searching for tips on surviving the global pandemic. Do some exercises or meditation. Cook something different. Call someone you know who is calm and practical.
Best Practices to Avoid Coronavirus Scams
You can avoid coronavirus scams the same way you'd sidestep fraudsters in normal times. Consider these tips from the FTC like hand washing — something you should have already been doing, but may have a little more incentive to do now:
- Never press a number when you get a robocall. Hang up and block the number if possible.
- Ignore unsolicited online offers.
- Don't pass on unverified information via social media or other means. Check your facts with reliable sources like government agencies, reputable organizations (like the American Medical Association), distinguished publications (like the highly-regarded journal Science) and universities.
- Avoid online sellers pushing products people are hoarding like toilet paper and antiseptic wipes. Many of them don't even have the products but will happily take your money and then put you on "backorder." Don't contribute to the problem by hoarding yourself.
- Texts and emails stating that you are eligible for a check from the government are not legitimate. While a coronavirus stimulus package bill has been passed, you shouldn't expect a text regarding these funds.
- Never click on links in an unsolicited email. If you’re interested in what the email has to say, look up the company web site and go directly to its contact page yourself. Links in emails could download viruses onto your computer or mobile device.
- Be skeptical of emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization. Go directly to the CDC or WHO instead.
- Do your homework when it comes to donations, whether through charities or crowdfunding sites. Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, don’t do it.
Gina Pogol is an acknowledged personal finance expert specializing in topics that affect consumers. A 25-year veteran in tax, mortgage, bankruptcy and investments, Gina enjoys breaking down complex financial topics to give consumers more confidence in their financial decisions.
Clark. “Military Work Home Guide.” Accessed March 27, 2020.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “List N Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-Cov-2.” Accessed March 27, 2020.
FTC Consumer Information. “Coronavirus Scams, Part 2.” Accessed March 27, 2020.
FTC Consumer Information. “Coronavirus Scams: What Is the FTC Doing." Accessed March 27, 2020.
FTC Consumer Information. “Work at Home.” Accessed March 27, 2020.
Indeed.com. “Community: Medical Billing From Home Jobs.” Accessed March 27, 2020.