The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the door for scammers, who are targeting Canadians with a variety of shady “deals” as they spend more time online. In March and April 2020, the Better Business Bureau saw an increase in reports about COVID-19 scams. More worryingly, almost 60 per cent of those reporting scams said that they had lost money — an average of almost $75 per person — and/or had divulged personal and banking information when they filled out application forms that turned out to be fake.
Almost 50 per cent of the COVID-19 scams reported were encountered on a website, the majority of which were created in the past three months. The sites purport to sell sought-after items such as face masks and sanitizers, as well as fake COVID-19 vaccines and cures, discounted travel vacations, gym equipment, video streaming subscriptions, and even pets.
Some of the sites are designed to look like those of government departments, to lure in Canadians trying to apply for various COVID-19 benefits, while others impersonate legitimate businesses.
Social media sites are also helping with the spread of COVID-19 scams, including “investment opportunities” (many of which are illegal pyramid schemes) and listings for home and apartment rentals that turn out to be fake. People between the ages of 35 and 54 have the highest exposure and susceptibility rates.
The BBB is warning people to double-check links and websites found in text messages and emails, as well as those shared on social media. To avoid becoming a victim, here are a few ways to stay safe and not fall prey to pandemic profiteers:
• Only buy from reputable stores and websites: The best way to avoid getting scammed is to buy directly from a seller you already know and trust through having dealt with them in the past.
• Be sure the online store has working contact information: If a company or business is new to you, make sure it is legitimate before divulging personal information such as your name, address, and credit card information. Does it have a real street address (not just a P.O. box), working phone numbers and email addresses, and links that work? If not, pass it by.
• Educate yourself on the requirements for federal and provincial support: The federal and provincial governments have launched a host of benefit and aid programs for Canadian individuals and businesses. If you’re not sure whether something is legitimate, visit the Government of Canada and/or the Government of British Columbia websites for the latest updates and ways to claim assistance. If you are asked to pay a fee to access “free” financial aid, walk away. If you have to pay to claim it, it isn’t free.
• Be wary of unsolicited text messages, emails, phone calls, or messages via social media: Government agencies do not communicate through these channels. Scammers will contact you out of the blue and impersonate the government by asking basic questions under the guise of seeing if you qualify for a grant or program. A common feature of these scams is someone telling you that you need to provide banking information so that they can collect a one-time “processing fee” before depositing your money.
• If something sounds suspicious, confirm it by calling the company directly or checking the company website: Do not click on links or open attachments in an unexpected email, especially one offering jobs or advertising job vacancies. Type the URL for the company into your browser or do a web search to find the right website.
If you have spotted a scam where fraudsters are impersonating local businesses to deceive consumers, report it to www.BBB.org/ScamTracker. Your report can prevent others from being victimized.