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Oregon business group warns that criminals are using fears of the novel coronavirus to cheat victims out of money and personal information

KaneDon't be fooled. There is no approved vaccine or treatment for the novel coronavirus or the disease it causes, COVID-19.

Scammers might tell you otherwise, or they might try to sell you toilet paper or cleaning supplies but not deliver after taking payment.

Don't bite, says Danielle Kane, the Oregon State Director of the Better Business Bureau.

Even searching online for "coronavirus symptoms" can bring up fake websites claiming to offer treatment, she said.

"When crisis hits, scammers and con artists thrive," Kane said. "They prey on people's vulnerabilities while they are in panic mode, and bank on the fact that people are too scared or busy to think twice, check who is calling or verify that voicemail, that check or the legitimacy of that website. But these are the times where it is critical for consumers to pause and check facts."

Kane emphasized that consumers should never give personally identifiable information to anyone over the phone.

During this crisis, Kane warns consumers not to "panic buy" from websites they cannot vet.

Kane is concerned that fake check scams might become the biggest problem once the federal stimulus package is approved. She urges everyone to make the effort to understand the stimulus bill approved by Congress.

"Know what it means for you, if any money can be expected, and when to expect it," Kane said.

One way scammers might take advantage of the stimulus is by mailing fake checks that look like they're coming from the government, she said. They claim they accidentally sent too much money and request some back from recipients. The fake checks will bounce and victims will be out of any money they send back.

Other prevalent scams are taking root locally and nationally, Kane said.

• Online scams for N95 masks. "We've been getting the most reports about this," Kane said. "People looking for the N95 mask and buying it from phony retailers. They order it, they are charged and the mask never comes or it's not at all what it looked like online."

• Miracle produce claims. "We're seeing this become a problem on social media as advertisements pop-up for oils, pills, supplements, etc., that are said to cure or prevent the virus," Kane said.

The Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently issued warning letters to seven sellers of "unapproved and misbranded products" that claim they can treat or prevent COVID-19. Companies sent those warning letters were GuruNanda LLC, Herbal Amy LLC, the Jim Bakker Show, N-ergetics, Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd., Vital Silver and Vivify Holistic Clinic.

The FTC reported those companies each adjusted their advertising after receiving the warning letters, but the FTC website urges consumers to remember that any product or company claiming to cure the coronavirus are frauds.

• Imposter phone calls. A Better Business Bureau employee received a recorded scam phone call offering to review their health plan to make sure they are covered should they catch the coronavirus.

"Really it's just a ploy to get your personal information, payment and possible even health history," Kane said. "This could also come in the form of a scammer pretending to be with the CDC."

The FBI and other government agencies emphasize that he best source for up-to-date information about the COVID-19 pandemic are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the federal government's Counterfeit products can be reported to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The Better Business Bureau also has a website devoted to the conronavirus.

Other scams on the BBB radar, Kane said, include a fake test kit scam and student loan scam. Those seek personal information, such as Social Security numbers.

The Better Business Bureau is not alone in warning about ongoing virus-related scams.

Oregon FBI agents recently reported an increase in coronavirus-related scam reports, mirroring a national statement from the FBI on March 20 warning citizens about fraud related to the pandemic.

"As cases of coronavirus continue to grow in the Pacific Northwest, Oregonians should remain calm, but vigilant," Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement released March 9. "Scammers will try to take advantage of your fear and anxiety to deceive you. Hopefully, you'll think twice and will not fall for it."

The basic rules for cyber safety are especially vital during times of crisis, when scammers look to prey on fear. Do not click on links or open attachments you don't recognize.

Among the coronavirus related scams to watch out for according to the FBI are:

• Websites and apps claiming to track worldwide COVID-19 cases. The FBI says criminals are using fake websites to infect and lock devices and demand payment.

• Phishing emails that ask to verify personal information in order to receive a economic stimulus check from the federal government. Government agencies will not send emails seeking private information.Such fake emails might suggest financial relief, charitable contributions, airline refunds, fake cures and vaccines or fake testing kits.

• Counterfeit treatments or safety equipment. Scammers are selling fake sanitizing products and personal protective equipment including N95 respirator masks, goggles, full face shields, gowns and gloves.

• Fake emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control or another agency offering information about the virus. Links in such emails are used to deliver malware to your computer.

Paul Danzer
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