Phishing emails and other COVID-19 scams: Don’t be a victim!

March 17, 2020

By Erwin O. Switzer and Ronnie L. White II

Hacker on computerIt is an unfortunate reality that in trying times some people will attempt to take advantage of situations for personal gain. Be alert to scams including (1) phishing emails that purport to provide help or solutions to the coronavirus/COVID-19 situation, but are actually intended to induce a click that leads to ransomware, (2) price gouging, and (3) fake charities.  

Don’t take the bait!

Most people in the business community have been sensitized the dangers of “phishing” — unsolicited emails intended to induce the recipient to click on a link or attachment that leads to a computer virus, malware, or ransomware, or that induces the recipient to provide personal or financial information. The Missouri Attorney General reports that some emails that purport to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Health Alert Network are actually scams. Even sophisticated users can become careless while attempting to educate themselves on a rapidly changing and complex area such as the coronavirus/COVID-19 situation. With more organizations moving toward or preparing for increased remote working, disruption of an organization’s computer system could be even more devastating.

Use the same cautions with unsolicited emails inviting clicks that you have used (or been advised to use) in the past. When in doubt, go to the purported sender’s website using a search engine, and not any links in the sender’s email. A few of the red flags in scam emails are (a) generic terms (“you” or “your company”), (b) a domain that is typically used for personal emails, or (c) a two-letter country code in the email address indicating it was not sent from the United States. If it looks fishy, it’s probably phishing. 

Price gouging

During emergencies, some resellers will try to sell items in short supply at greatly inflated prices. Most states have laws specifically prohibiting price gouging during emergencies. See 15 CSR § 60-8.030 (Missouri’s Price Gouging Law) and Ill. Admin. Code tit. 14, §§ 465.10–.30 (Illinois Price Gouging Law). Even in states without such laws or if the laws do not specifically apply to the coronavirus/COVID-19 situation, expect state attorneys general to treat price gouging as an “unfair practice” prohibited under most state consumer protection laws. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s Declaration of a State of Emergency on March 13, 2020, included a directive to “the executive agencies of the State of Missouri to monitor and advise the Office of the Governor concerning the pricing of commodities, goods, and services in order to prevent unfair market practices.” In recent statements to the media, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker made it clear that the state of Illinois would be closely monitoring for, and will not tolerate, instances of price gouging for certain goods during this time, particularly for items like hand sanitizer, face masks and similar products.

Very often brick-and-mortar retailers care about their reputations in their respective communities and do not engage in this conduct. But the rise of online retailing has made it easy for an individual to hoard items in high demand to resell them, at higher prices, to desperate people in need.  On March 13, 2020, Amazon released a statement on its website notifying customers that it is “working to ensure that no one artificially raises prices on basic need products ... and [Amazon has] blocked or removed tens of thousands of items.”

Several national media outlets reported that a Tennessee man purchased thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and packs of antibacterial wipes at the beginning of March and tried to sell them on Amazon at increased prices. After Tennessee officials announced that they would be investigating him for price gouging, he donated two-thirds of his supply to a local church and the Tennessee attorney general’s office seized the remaining third of the supply.

Fake charities

We at Greensfelder are always impressed by the generosity of the people in the communities we serve. Scammers try to take advantage of that generosity by contacting potential donors, usually using a name that is similar or identical to a well-respected charity. As with phishing emails, use a search engine to make sure the solicitor is who you think it is and avoid using links provided in unsolicited emails requesting donations.  

Additional information on coronavirus/COVID-19 scams and complaint forms are available at the websites of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. There is no substitute for exercising caution. Be mindful of the potential for deceptive and/or predatory practices in the marketplace.

Erv Switzer is the Greensfelder General Counsel and a former Chief Counsel with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. He is an editor of the State Law chapter for the American Bar Association’s Consumer Protection Law Developments (2nd) and its update.

Link to COVID-19 Resources page

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