COVID-19 Schemes, Scams, and Misinformation


Stephen Barrett, M.D., William M. London, Ed.D., M.P.H.
July 18, 2020

Thirty years ago, as AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome came to national attention, John Renner, M.D. observed that most of the quack cancer clinics began offering the same “treatments” for AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome—a tendency he coined “rascal rollover.” Today, dubious pitchmen have “rolled” into COVID-19.

Here’s a handy compilation of advice, enforcement actions, and trustworthy information sources related to the coronavirus pandemic. For up-to-date news and scientific developments, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Fraudulent products can be reported to FDA-COVID-19-fraudulent-products@fda.hhs.gov. Other COVID-19 frauds can be reported to FTC Complaint site or the Disaster Fraud Hotline at (866) 720-5721. The FTC publishes a running total of COVID-19-related complaints it receives. To see the latest total, click the most recent date.

Terminology
  • COVID-19, which is short for Coronavirus Disease 2019, is the name of the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2).
  • “Asymptomatic” is a medical term that means “no symptoms.”
  • Asymptomatic spread” refers to the fact that people who are infected can transmit the virus before they feel sick.

An article in the International Journal of Biosciences describes how the COVID-19 outbreak developed.

Schemes and Scams
  • Prevention scams: Many individuals and companies are claiming that their dietary supplements, herbal, and/or homeopathic products can prevent disease by “supporting,” “boosting” or “strengthening” the immune system.” Many chiropractors and acupuncturists are making similar claims about their procedures. All such claims should be ignored.
  • Testing Scams: Scammers are selling fake at-home test kits or going door-to-door performing fake tests for money.
  • “Mask exemption” cards. Scammers are selling mask mask exemption cards that claim that the card-holder has a disability that prevents wearing a mask. Such cards may include the seal of a government agency. No such card is government-supported or has any legal significance..

  • Treatment scams: Scammers are selling fake vaccines, medicines, tests, and cures for COVID-19. Ignore electronic offers for a COVID-19 vaccine, cure, or treatment. Remember, if there is a medical breakthrough, you will not hear about it for the first time through an email, online ad, or other unsolicited sales pitch.
  • Supply scams: Scammers are claiming they have in-demand products, like cleaning, household, health, and medical supplies.  When an order is placed, the scammer takes the money and never delivers the order. To avoid being victimized, check online reviews of any company offering COVID-19 products or supplies. Avoid companies whose customers have complained about not receiving items
  • Telemedicine frauds: Scammers are cold-calling people, claiming to offer free telemedicine visits, braces, or medicine in an attempt to get insurance information they can use to submit false insurance claims.
  • Charity scams: Scammers are fraudulently soliciting donations for non-existent charities to help people affected by the COVID-19 crisis.  Scammers often use names that are similar to the names of real charities. Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving. Remember, an organization may not be legitimate even if it uses words like “CDC” or “government” in its name or has reputable looking seals or logos on its materials. Be wary of any business, charity, or individual requesting payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card, or through the mail. Do not send money through any of these channels. The (FTC) Web site has additional tips on avoiding charity frauds.
  • Phishing schemes: Scammers, posing as local contact tracers or national and global health authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending fake emails or texts to trick the recipient into sharing personal information, including account numbers, Social Security numbers, or login IDs and passwords. Never give your personal or financial information to someone unless you are absolutely sure they are legitimate. Make sure that the anti-malware and anti-virus software on your computer is operating and up to date. Do not click on links or open email attachments from unknown or unverified sources.  Doing so could download a virus onto your computer or device. If you are eligible for a payment, you will receive a payment directly from the IRS. Do not pay anyone who promises that they can expedite or obtain a payment or a loan for you. If you are eligible for relief, you will not need to make any up-front payment or pay any fee to receive a stimulus payment. You will not be charged any “processing fees.”
  • App scams: Scammers are creating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and steal personal information.
  • Provider scams: Scammers pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19 and demand payment for that treatment.
  • Insurance scams: These include (a) low-cost “corona insurance,” (b) additional Medicare coverage, (c) worthless travel insurance, and (d) fake policy-cancellation notices intended to gather personal information or lead to links that install malware.
  • Investment scams: Scammers are promoting the stock of small companies, which have limited publicly-available information, using false or misleading claims that the companies’ stock will increase dramatically due to the COVID-19 outbreak, such as claims that a company can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is warning about online promotions, including on social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly-traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure coronavirus and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result.
  • Grandparent scams: Scammers pose as panicked grandchildren in trouble, urging you to wire money immediately. They’ll say they need cash to help with an emergency – like paying a hospital bill or needing to leave a foreign country. Resist the urge to act immediately no matter how dramatic the story is. Verify the caller’s identity by asking questions that a stranger couldn’t possibly answer. Call verifiable contacts to check the story. Don’t send money you can’t get back from scammers: cash, gift cards, or money transfers.
  • Taxpayer relief scams: The Internal Revenue Service urges taxpayers to be on the lookout for emails, text messages, websites, and social media attempts that appear to come from the IRS and ask you to verify or provide your financial information so you can get a coronavirus economic impact payment or your tax refund faster. Scammers may use words like “Stimulus Check” or “Stimulus Payment.” They may mail a bogus check, perhaps in an odd amount, then tell the taxpayer to call a number or verify information online in order to cash it. Suspicious messages that appear to be from the IRS or an organization closely linked to the IRS, such as the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), should be forwarded to phishing@irs.gov. For more information go to the Report Phishing and Online Scams page and the Coronavirus Tax Relief page on IRS.gov.
  • Price gouging: Individuals and businesses selling essential goods, like hand sanitizer, for significantly higher prices than in a non-emergency setting.
Misinformation about Masks

Infected individuals can spread the virus before they develop symptoms. Thus, to protect others, a mask should be worn whenever you might come in close contact with other people. This picture illustrates how masks work:

Unfortunately, many incorrect ideas about supposed “dangers” of mask-wearing have been circulating. I have posted one article about this and have another in progress.

Customs Enforcements

As of May 4, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents have opened over 315 investigations nationwide; seized over $3.2 million dollars in illicit proceeds; made 11 arrests; executed 21 search warrants; analyzed over 19,000 COVID-19 domain names; and worked alongside U.S. Customs and Border Protection to seize 494 shipments of mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited COVID-19 test kits, treatment kits, homeopathic remedies, purported anti-viral products (such as diluted cleaning solutions), and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Other U.S. Federal Civil Actions
Criminal Prosecutions
State and Local Actions
Foreign Actions
Untrustworthy Information Sources (Investigative Reports)
Trustworthy Information Sources


Dr.London is a professor of public health at California State University, Los Angeles, editor of Consumer Health Digest, and a scientific and technical consultant to the Committee on Skeptical Inquiry.