How to avoid coronavirus scams

Fraudsters are always looking for a new angle to use to trick you out of money. The coronavirus outbreak seems to have prompted several new scams. What do you need to be on the lookout for?

Fraudsters are always looking for a new angle to use to trick you out of money. The coronavirus outbreak seems to have prompted several new scams. What do you need to be on the lookout for?

David Edbrooke
Sub editor
minute read
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Posted 18 NOVEMBER 2020

Coronavirus and fraud

Throughout the pandemic security experts have reported on a spike in email scams and malware focussing on coronavirus-related themes.

In the first month of lockdown alone, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau identified 21 reports of fraud where coronavirus was mentioned, with victims’ losses totalling more than £800,000.

Ten of the reports were made by victims who attempted to purchase protective face masks from fraudulent sellers. One person reported losing over £15,000 when they paid for face masks that were then never delivered.

There have also been multiple reports sent to security experts about coronavirus-themed phishing emails. These emails try to trick people into opening malicious attachments that might download malware onto their computer. And other phishing emails try to con them into revealing sensitive personal and financial information. 

Phishing emails 

One common tactic used by fraudsters is to email potential victims. The fraudsters pretend that they are from a health or research organisation working with the World Health Organization (WHO), or the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  
The methods of these fraudsters include fake requests for donations and email attachments that supposedly grant you access to lists of people in your area with the virus. Clicking on the list takes the user to a malicious website designed to harvest personal and payment details. 
Some emails have attachments that are supposedly health information but are, in fact, trojans that can load malware onto your computer. 

It has got so bad that the WHO has issued a warning on its website. It makes it clear that the World Health Organisation will: 

  • never ask for your username or password to access safety information 
  • never email attachments you didn’t ask for 
  • never ask you to visit a link outside of  
  • never charge money to apply for a job, register for a conference, or reserve a hotel 
  • never conduct lotteries or offer prizes, grants, certificates or funding via email. 

The only call for donations the WHO has issued is the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. If you want to donate, go directly to the World Health Organisation page.

Fake cures  and Track and Trace

While we received promising news in early November 2020 about the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine being issued by the end of the year, emails continue to circulate claiming there’s a cure or a vaccination for coronavirus that governments aren’t telling you about. Again, they ask you to click through for more information, taking you to a malicious website that could infect your machine with malware.

You should rely on Government and NHS websites for health information during the crisis and delete any spam emails, ideally without opening them.

One of the more shocking scams that has appeared during the pandemic has involved the NHS Test and Trace service. Action Fraud says criminals are preying on an anxious public by sending phishing emails and links falsely claiming they’ve been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. These lead to fake websites that are used to steal personal and financial information or infect devices with malware.

Tax refunds and financial support

Criminals have created a variation on an existing fraud – an email that looks as if it comes from the tax office, saying you’ve overpaid and are owed a refund. The new variation says the refund is due because of coronavirus. It asks you to click a link to access your funds, again leading to a fraudulent site that puts you at risk. 
Don’t click on these emails: delete them immediately. This is not how HMRC would tell you about a potential refund. 

Criminals are also sending fake government emails offering support grants of up to £7,500. The emails contain links that steal personal and financial information from victims.

There have also been reports of official-looking emails offering a ‘council tax reduction’. These emails, which use government branding, contain links that lead to a fake government website, which is used to access personal and financial information.

Fake online retailers 

With panic buying and supermarkets running out of some goods, fake websites are being set up to 'sell' the things people are looking for, from hand sanitiser to masks. Here, you could be doubly defrauded, first by paying money for products that don’t arrive and secondly by your card details being stolen.  
Make sure you buy from a supplier that you trust or who has been recommended to you by someone reputable. 
If you decide to go ahead with a purchase, use a credit card if you have one, as most major credit card providers insure online purchases. 

How to protect yourself