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COVID-19 Scammers Are Hitting The Public In Time Of Crisis

Alan Randall

Federal Investigators recently discovered a group of scammers who set up a phony website that appeared to be affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University's very popular map that shows all the COVID-19 cases in the world.  

Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur says the website was designed to lure the public into an informative graphic and then "it would infect the person’s computer with malware."

Once the malware affected a computer, Hur says, hackers could get to all kinds of information.

"The real map is of course an important resource," and this is the kind of scam that even more sophisticated people might fall prey to, he says.

"Scammers and fraudsters are often using the veneer of those legit organizations to gain your trust and urge you to click on places that you really shouldn’t be."

That website has been taken down, but Hur says it’s a strategy that he expects to see again. So, he urges people to get information from reputable sources like the Center for Disease Control, the state health department or Johns Hopkins University, directly.

People are justifiably scared and vulnerable to false information and hackers or scammers are taking advantage of that. 

"We received complaints about emails reporting to come from a local hospital here in Maryland hawking a so-called coronavirus vaccine," Hur says. " There is no such thing as a coronavirus vaccine yet, but people are trying to prey on the public’s fears in order to make money and steal money."

There are some “automatic tells”  that it’s a fraudster, Hur points out:

Did they ask for prepaid credit cards or gift cards instead of cash or checks?

Do they want to "confirm" even the last four digits of your Social Security number?

One part of the population is particularly vulnerable, Hur says. Many are worried about the physical health of the elderly right now, but "elderly victims are often the ones who fall prey to this financial fraud - they may be more isolated now than before."

Of the 6 million Marylanders in 2019, a little more 15 percent were over the age of 65, according to Census Data.  

It’s not just federal investigators who are seeing scams. A spokesperson for Baltimore Gas and Electric Company says customers have told them they’ve received reports that scammers are offering cash or credit incentives from BGE in order to receive personal information.

At a time when people are worried about their health, their jobs, or making their mortgage payments, Hur says, it’s dangerous to underestimate the creativity of fraudsters and hackers. 

You can report claims such as these to: 

The National Center for Disaster: 866-720-5721

Justice Department's Elder Fraud Hotline: 833- FRAUD-11

Or file an online complaint form on the Federal Trade Commision's website: ftc.gov 

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.