Coconut water and kale cures, rip-off surgical masks and suspicious emails.
These are some of the scams and hoaxes duping panicked consumers as they race to protect themselves from fears of a looming global health crisis.
Two British companies were last week banned from using “misleading, irresponsible and scaremongering” adverts seen via the Taboola network and for face masks which made false claims about the product’s ability to prevent the spread of the virus.
The industry watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that one of the ads from Novads OU for its Oxybreath Pro masks was likely to cause fear “without justifiable reason” and highlighted the use of “alarmist language,” such as referring to the spread of the virus as being “barely controllable” and “this terrifying time.”
Facebook FB, -2.20% and Amazon have also clamped down on false advertising and price gouging.
Rob Leathern, director of product management of Facebook, tweeted on March 7: “We’re monitoring COVID19 closely and will make necessary updates to our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency. We’ll start rolling out this change in the days ahead.”
Amazon AMZN, -1.19% said it had pulled more than 1 million products for price gouging or falsely advertising effectiveness against the coronavirus
Consumers are also being warned to watch-out for coranvirus-themed emails being sent to businesses which have been infected with malaware.
Cyber-criminals are also sending phishing emails and malware deployment schemes in a bid to tap into people’s desperation for information about the virus.
There have been 4,000 coronavirus-related domains, which contain words like “corona” or “covid,” have been registered since the beginning of 2020, according to cybersecurity firm Check Point. Of those, 3% were considered malicious and 5% were deemed suspicious. That means that there were about 320 sketchy websites lurking online, ready to take advantage of people’s fears.
“Concerns about COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, seem to have become as contagious as the virus itself,” Check Point noted in its report, adding that cyber-criminals are “quick to take advantage of these concerns for their own gain.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) put out a statement this week warning consumers that some criminals are “disguising themselves as WHO to steal money or sensitive information.”
Meanwhile the major tech groups are also clamping down on profiteers.
“We’re banning ads and commerce listings selling medical face masks. We’re monitoring COVID19 closely and will make necessary updates to our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency,” Rob Leathern, director of product management, tweeted on March 7.
He added: “We are rolling this out in the coming days, and anticipate profiteers will evolve their approach as we enforce on these ads.”
Amazon last week said it had pulled more than 1 million products for price gouging or falsely advertising effectiveness against the coronavirus. It said third-party sellers must follow its Fair Pricing Policy, which states companies can’t set a price “significantly higher” then seen in other places or sell an item that “misleads customers.”
The proliferation of scams appears particularly acute in mainland China.
Shanghai police last week arrested three suspects for a fraud case related to the COVID-19 outbreak that involves over 13 million yuan (1.86 million U.S. dollars). The suspects sold nearly 1,000 bottles of disinfectants which they marketed as effective in preventing virus and earned more than 70,000 yuan of illegal profits, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.
In Malaysia, unsubstantiated claims that kale, coconuts and lemon could be ward of the virus prompted panic buying of the items after a self-proclaimed wellness coach said that eating them would prevent infection.
Malaysian health minister Datuk Seri Dzulkefly Ahmad urged Malaysians concerned about the Wuhan virus to put their trust in science and medicine instead of quackery, according to a report in the Malay Mail.