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Scammers are at it again, riding on COVID-19 scare

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - March 18, 2020 - 12:00am

Cyber-scams are again rampant during this COVID-19 scare. Money is stolen from panicky people looking for a cure or preventive. Alert your relatives and friends, especially the less sophisticated among them.

Adapted from America is a very legit-sounding female voicemail saying, “Hello, this is Nurse Jen calling to follow up on your tests from yesterday. Unfortunately you did test positive for coronavirus. No need to panic, but call us back with your credit card handy so we can overnight you your antibiotics. It’s important that you and any family or roommates stay home. Call us so we can get you your meds and give you further quarantine instructions.”

The aim is to extract credit card and other personal data. Calling back, the victim will be sweet-talked to self-isolate. With the card details, the scammer will then purchase jewelry, watches and other valuables. The card company won’t be able to verify the purchases with the victim, who is shut off from the world. Especially targeted for fear factor are the elderly.

All sorts of bogus virus protections are being sold online. One hot item is the “virus shutout necklace” made in Japan. Complete with instructional illustrations, it supposedly shields wearers from viruses, planktonic bacteria, and airborne particles. Target victims are the sickly, elderly, and those who minister to them or stay long hours in hospitals. Effectivity is only 30 days, so online buyers are duped to buy by boxes, with prices inclusive of home delivery. Incredibly among the buyers, as revealed in chat groups, are doctors. There are even images of President Rody Duterte and cabinet members (Photoshopped?) wearing lanyards very similar to the product.

Hong Kong authorities declared it “a total hoax,” thus banned in most Asian countries yet openly sold in shops in the autonomous city. Used to sterilize hard surfaces, the highly corrosive active ingredient chlorine dioxide can irritate the eyes and nose, and burn the skin.

Revived is the old SMS warning to turn off all gadgets “tonight between 11:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m.” as alleged cosmic radiation from the sun or planets or satellites can damage the brain. That scam went around last Jan. during the Taal Volcano eruptions, and in aftermaths of past earthquakes. It began in the United States as far back as 2008. Cyber-criminals aim to extort from victims by claiming that one’s friend or relative has been hospitalized or met an accident or was kidnapped. The target won’t be able to verify as the friend or relative’s phone and email are off. It’s like the “dugo-dugo gang” using landlines in the 1980s-1990s.

Old phishing scams are being modified to prey on the virus panic. Seemingly official or innocuous emails or mobile phone texts trick recipients into volunteering personal info and passwords, and malware attachments steal files when clicked. The emails and texts are made to look authentic via real names and logos, like World Health Organization, and authoritative language. Victims are made to pay or donate cash, reveal bank accounts, and refer others. Since Jan. 2020, when the virus began to spread outside China, cyber-security firm Check Point has discovered at least 520 COVID-19-related malicious domains, and is investigating more. Kaspersky Labs has confirmed 2,673 attempts to dupe users of its anti-spam software.

A phishing solicitation going around is for cash donations for a foundation that purportedly mass-produces Covid-19 test kits. Variations come with depository bank account or toll-free numbers or websites.

How not to fall prey? Be skeptical, experts advise, especially if you personally don’t know the sender. Replying, dialing the toll-free number, or clicking the website may link you to the fraudsters. Never send personal and financial info via email. Hover the cursor to the “from” address to reveal the real electronic name of the sender. If they don’t match, it’s a fake. Never click on suspicious links or attachments. Protect your devices. Install and update in home computers anti-spam, anti-spyware, anti-virus software. Report suspicious emails to the spoofed organizations for investigation, then delete from your mail.

There are genuine online solicitations, however, for facemasks, hazard material (haz-mat) wear, and disposable operating room caps and shoe covers (booties), etc. They truly need aid, but skeptics may ignore them. For easy verification, solicitors would do well to post video messages with verifiable organizations, addresses, phone and bank account numbers. Or they can seek help from reputable media personalities and outlets. Also, for Good Samaritans carefully to check first before donating and convincing others to do the same.

The name of the Dept. of Science and Technology has been used for false fundraisings and other frauds. Sec. Fortunato dela Peña said:

“We urge the public to be wary of false narratives being circulated in the social media that the national government is short of funds to address the national health emergency, thereby creating apprehension and panic among the populace.

“We assure our people that we are prepared to use to the fullest the resources of the government to arrest the spread of the disease and secure the safety and health of the citizenry.

“DOST categorically states that it is not in any way involved in the call by some groups for donations regarding access to test kits. Sufficient funds are available.

“For those in the private sector who wish to donate funds, we suggest they coordinate either with the Dept. of Health, Philippine General Hospital, Dept. of Social Welfare and Development, or the LGUs to ensure its rightful receipt and best use.”  

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives: www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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