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The 5 most common coronavirus scams still circulating

April 8, 2020, 4:14 PM UTC

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As Adam mentioned yesterday, they say you should never let a crisis go to waste—and scammers are taking that advice to heart.

Crooks are using the coronavirus pandemic as a springboard for all sorts of money-swindling schemes. They’re peddling overpriced masks, fake charities, and misinformation. One enterprising fraudster even tried to sell the world’s tallest statue, a towering monument—almost twice the size of the Statue of Liberty—in Gujarat, India, claiming the funds would go to pandemic relief efforts. (Presumably, the Brooklyn Bridge was already off the market.)

Coalitions of scam-squashers are, thankfully, taking on the scoundrels. One such initiative, the COVID-19 Cyber Threat Coalition, has more than 3,000 participants and counts companies such as workplace messenger Slack, code-sharing site Github, and chip-designer NVIDIA as sponsors. The alliance was started by Sophos, a British cybersecurity firm that just last month was acquired by Thoma Bravo, a Chicago-based private equity firm, for nearly $4 billion.

Marc Rogers, co-leader of another coronavirus threat league, which I profiled last week, describes these disparate efforts as “like different units or battalions from the same army.” Their goal: Beat back the thieves.

Baddies’ tactics are evolving. Chester Wisniewski, Sophos’s principal research scientist, says the last time he could recall as many crisis-related scams was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At that time, Wisniewski says, scammers tended to exploit search engine optimization techniques to get newly created, malicious websites prominent rankings on Google, thereby luring and duping people searching for information online.

“That’s not impossible but you don’t see as much of it anymore,” Wisniewski says, noting that Google has gotten a lot better at delisting fraudulent sites in the 15 years since Katrina. Nowadays, he says, “every lure pretty much starts with email.”

Wisniewski shared a selection of his team’s findings with Fortune. I’ve culled his list down to the five most common email scams which were still circulating as of April 3.

Here are their email subject lines, plus background about what the messages contain. Don’t fall for them.

  • “Feeling helpless against corona?” and “forget a vaccine for corona” and “corona worse than ebola?” These scam emails open by noting that “Gwenith [sic] Paltrow and Kate Hudson have both taken selfies wearing the mask N95.” The message proceeds to say these masks do not protect people’s eyes from sneeze-propelled pathogens. “What can you rely on? Only this,” the author says, linking to a webpage selling supposedly protective eyewear.
  • “The mask that can prevent coronavirus now” and “coronavirus is spreading, this specialized mask can control it” These emails advertise masks branded as “OxyBreath Pro.” The message says, misleadingly, “here is how you can protect yourself from getting sick form [sic] airborne diseases.” It’s spam.
  • “Corona is spinning out of control…” This email ultimately asks people to pay to download a scammy video. “The stupidest thing you can do right now is rely on your government/big pharma to protect you,” the message admonishes. It continues, “If you don’t want your children ripped from you”—as the note falsely claim is being done in Wuhan, China—”you MUST watch this urgent video.”
  • “The 3 plants you need to throw in your shopping cart to fight coronavirus” This email purports to sell a book of “natural remedies” that can “fight viruses, including coronavirus.” The sender says that “there is a huge rush to buy this book right now” and “if you can act fast, you might still find a copy reserved in your name.” Yeah, right.
  • “Top 10 best coronavirus prepper gear” This email opens asking, “Are You Prepared To Survive The Pandemic?” It proceeds to urge people to buy so-called prepper gear “that you must keep at hand to tackle any emergency situation effectively and keep yourself protected.” Buyer beware.

If you come across any of these scams—or variations, as they’re bound to evolve—be skeptical. When in doubt, send it to the junk folder and let your friends and family to be on the lookout too. (For a more comprehensive list of scams, check out this helpful advisory from the Federal Trade Commission.)

“These criminals have no line in the sand and will not allow an opportunity to profit off of our fear pass them by,” Wisniewski says. “Sending your money to people exploiting this crisis will only make things worse.”

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

Email: robert.hackett@fortune.com

THREATS

Pay it forward. In response to the proliferation of COVID-19 misinformation, especially in India, Facebook's WhatsApp is testing a fact-checking button and reducing the ability to forward frequently forwarded messages to just one person or group at a time, down from five prior. The company previously cut the number of forwards it allows from 20 to five last year. The Verge's Casey Newton suggests that Apple's iMessage should follow suit. India, meanwhile, is asking Facebook and China's TikTok to boot misinformation-spreaders.

Nothing but the truth. Facebook isn't the only tech company combatting a recent surge in misinformation. Google's YouTube says it has taken down thousands of videos promoting medical misinformation, including ones from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's channel. Researchers at Oxford University warn that Twitter is struggling to do its part, leaving nearly 60% of debunked, false claims up without any warnings or labels

Billions and billions. Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates said he would throw billions of dollars at the development of potential coronavirus vaccines through his charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Meanwhile, Twitter and Square cofounder and CEO Jack Dorsey said he plans to donate $1 billion—about 28% of his wealth, he said—to charity, starting with pandemic relief efforts

Doom and gloom—and Zoom. A Zoom shareholder has filed a class action lawsuit against the company, accusing it of overstating its security and privacy standards. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a memo obtained by Reuters that Zoom is being responsive to people's concerns. For those who think otherwise, here are alternative services.

I se-EU. The European Union appears poised to adopt a mobile app-based approach to monitoring the spread of the coronavirus using people's location data. The "toolbox," as one EU official described it to Reuters, would use anonymous, aggregated data that will be deleted once the pandemic ends.

Flushing privacy down the toilet.

ACCESS GRANTED

How can America slow the spread of the coronavirus? One solution is "contact tracing," or basically tracking people using location data sourced via cellphones' GPS and Bluetooth sensors. By finding out who may have been exposed to the virus, authorities can target alerts at people who should go quarantine. Of course, there are potentially unsettling privacy implications, as The Atlantic's Derek Thompson notes

Ramesh Raskar, a computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab, is working on an app that uses GPS to create maps showing the movements of people recently diagnosed with COVID-19. “In an early version, you might see a map with hot spots—2 p.m. at Starbucks, 3 p.m. at the library—that would tell you where people with the disease had recently been,” Raskar told me. “All the government has to do is demand that every test facility release the trails of infected people in an anonymous manner, so that healthy people know where to avoid.”

FORTUNE RECON

Jack Dorsey pledges $1 billion of Square stake for coronavirus relief by Sophie Alexander and Kurt Wagner

As work from home becomes the norm, companies get more comfortable hiring fully remote employees by Anne Fisher 

Does 5G cause or spread the coronavirus? Here’s what experts say by Aaron Pressman

When jazz musicians aren’t live-streaming owing to coronavirus, they’re scrambling to rebook lost gigs by Morgan Enos

SoFi acquires banking tech firm Galileo for $1.2 billion by Jeff John Roberts

What the U.S. can do to remedy the coronavirus PPE crisis by Ryan Petersen

TurboTax launches tool to get stimulus checks to people who don’t pay taxes by Chris Morris

Airbnb gets a $1 billion lifeline by Lucinda Shen

ONE MORE THING

Attend the tale of Boris Morros, a Hollywood producer, Soviet spy, and FBI double agent. Truly Adventurous, a longform storytelling outfit, has this rip-roaring read of a real-life spy thriller. An interesting tidbit from the piece: Henry Wallace, one-time Vice President and challenger of Harry Truman for the presidency in 1948, was persuaded to run for office by another Soviet spy. No collusion though!