BusinessMarch 29, 2020

Covid-19 scams: Here’s what you need to look out for


Scammers have been making the most of Covid-19 by preying on people’s fear and doubt. Here are some calling cards of the con artists.

With most New Zealanders tucked up at home, digital devices are proving to be critical tools for staying connected with each other. However, this dependence is providing an avenue for those looking to trick people concerned about Covid-19 out of their money and data.

Messages and apps

According to the Commission for Financial Capability, these scams are increasing overseas and are usually disguised as Covid-19-related messages and apps. While few New Zealanders have been targeted so far, the CFFC expects the number of cases here to increase.

The messages vary in appearance and delivery but the CFFC has provided examples of how the scams work and what they do.

  • Phishing emails or texts pretending to offer information updates or access to testing centres, requesting recipients to enter personal information or click on links. The links install malicious software, enabling scammers to find passwords, access email accounts and download personal information such as bank account details.
  • Offers of a ‘coronavirus map’ app to track the pandemic but which instead downloads malware into your device.
  • Cold calls with offers of investments in industries experiencing heightened demand due to the virus, such as pharmaceuticals, or in “safe havens” such as gold.
  • Phone calls from scammers pretending to be health officials asking for your personal information, or saying they have test results but need your credit card details to process a payment.

CFFC’s fraud education manager Bronwyn Groot said the fraudsters used sophisticated networks and techniques to fool people and the scams were “more likely to succeed when people are distracted or stressed”.

She advised people to be vigilant about phishing by hovering the mouse over the email address and seeing whether the address that pops up is the same as the one presented in the sender bar.

People should never click on links or attachments included in the message, however, and if in doubt the email should be deleted. Suspicious emails could be reported to the government cyber security agency CERT.Phone calls

The CFFC has also provided some useful tips for anyone who receives suspicious or unfamiliar phone calls.

  • Cold calls with investment offers are illegal in New Zealand. Hang up and report the number and business name to the Financial Markets Authority.
  • Health officials will not ask for passwords or expect payment for tests. If you receive a request like this in any form, delete it or hang up.
  • If you’re suspicious of any caller, hang up and call the official number of the organisation they say they represent to check if the call was genuine.

Non-profit online safety organisation Netsafe also has some useful tips for staying safe during lockdown, including encouraging people to change passwords on websites and accounts and ensuring that the new combinations are complex and varied. They could also clean up their digital footprint by becoming familiar with their privacy settings and deleting personal information from social media, and ‘declutter’ their devices by clearing the cache on browsers and deleting rarely-used apps.

Fake news

Netsafe also advised New Zealanders to be wary of fake news and hoaxes by treating them in the same way they would suspicious messages. The news story should be fact-checked and not be shared if it contains unverified information.

“It can be hard to tell the difference between real and fake news,” Netsafe said in a statement, “so it’s important to ask yourself: is what I’m reading clickbait, is the source trustworthy, are the photos real, and where can I fact check this info?”

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