Fake COVID-19 testing kits and lockdown puppy scams: how to protect yourself from fraud in a pandemic


Cassandra Cross, Queensland University of Technology

Fraudsters are ruthless and will use any means necessary to gain financial advantage.

Earlier this year, as Australians were battling the devastating bushfires, fraudsters were tailoring their approaches to exploit the good intentions of citizens wanting to help victims.

And come March and the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, offenders have seamlessly shifted their approaches to take advantage of yet another crisis.

Online fraud on the rise during COVID-19

Given the known links between natural disasters and fraud, it is unsurprising offenders are using COVID-19 to target potential victims. While there are limited statistics on crime rates during this period, evidence suggests fraud and other online scams have spiked.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) issued an alert this week warning of a dramatic spike in identity theft, with some 24,000 reports of stolen personal information this year, a 55% increase over the same time last year.

Further, Scamwatch has received more than 3,600 reports specifically mentioning COVID-19, with victims so far claiming losses of about $2.3 million.

Fraud costs millions of dollars annually, as shown in the ACCC’s latest Targeting Scams report. It found that in 2019, Australians reported losing more than $634 million to fraud, a dramatic increase from $489 million in 2018.

Fraud is an underreported crime, so these figures are likely to be a fraction of the actual losses incurred by victims. In addition, there are many barriers to victims reporting scams. They might not realise they are a victim, for example, or might not know where to report such crimes. Some people also feel a strong sense of shame and embarrassment at having been deceived.

The government is putting more attention on the threat of fraud and other cybercrime with its newly released cybersecurity strategy, which will see a record $1.67 billion invested in cybersecurity and cybercrime prevention over the next decade.

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What types of fraud are occurring now

There is nothing new in the ways offenders are targeting potential victims at the moment. Rather, we are seeing well-established schemes reappearing under the guise of COVID-19.

Online shopping fraud

With more people at home during the pandemic, there has been a substantial increase in online shopping. Consequently, there has also been an increase in online shopping fraud.

Some of these schemes involve fake websites and social media pages being set up to sell goods to people that never arrive, including personal protective equipment and even puppies.

There has also been a rise in online sales of products that simply do not exist or work as promised, such as coronavirus testing kits or supposed cures for the virus.


Fraudsters use phishing emails and text messages as a means of getting personal information from victims, like bank account details and passwords. Phishing attempts usually come from what appear to be legitimate sources, persuading recipients to click on a link or reply with required personal information.

In the context of COVID-19, phishing attempts are being launched under the guise of government departments. Some messages claiming to be from health authorities say the recipient has had contact with a known case of the virus, for instance, while others advertise the need for testing.

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Others have pretended to be the Australian Taxation Office with offers of tax refunds or the availability of government benefits or support payments.

In addition, offenders have also used the pretext of legitimate businesses like Coles and Woolworths, appearing to offer services or discounts to those who are struggling. Other approaches are using the Australia Post logo to ask people to pay additional fees for delivery of purchased items.

Increased vulnerability to fraud

These examples highlight how offenders exploit anxiety to take advantage of people in uncertain times. They play on people’s fears and anxieties.

Everyone is vulnerable to fraud. Research suggests there is “no typical fraud victim”. However, COVID-19 has arguably made more people vulnerable to fraud across large sections of society.

Isolation and loneliness can increase vulnerability. Without the presence and accessibility of support networks (such as family and friends), individuals may be more responsive to fraudulent approaches.

Economic hardship could also make people more susceptible to fraud. Offenders do not need to offer outrageous returns for their approaches to be attractive to potential victims. People are more motivated than ever to improve their financial situations, which plays into the hands of fraudsters.

How you can protect yourself

It is important people understand how fraudsters work and are using the crisis to their advantage, so they can take the necessary steps to protect themselves. Here are a few tips to prevent becoming a victim.

  • Stay connected to family, friends and colleagues, even in a virtual environment. Offenders relish the isolation of victims to increase the success of their attempts.

  • Talk about what is happening. Ask someone directly if they have received any strange emails or phone calls. Offenders rely on secrecy and shame to keep people silent about their victimisation.

  • Be vigilant with emails, phone calls, texts and even those who knock on your door. Do not feel you have to respond to anything immediately and take the time to think about and seek advice. Offenders rely on immediate responses from people that overcome any rational thought.

  • Report any fraud attempts or losses you may have incurred to Scamwatch or ReportCyber. Also, contact your bank if you have lost money, or a service like IDcare if you have had your identity compromised. It is important for these organisations to be able to gain accurate figures on the prevalence of fraud during these times.

COVID-19 has thrown the world into uncertainty. But one thing that’s clear is fraudsters will remain active and continue to target victims. We need to recognise this changing environment, support each other and collectively do as much as possible to guard against fraud victimisation.

Read more:
Beware of bushfire scams: how fraudsters take advantage of those in need

The Conversation

Cassandra Cross, Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Law, Cybersecurity Cooperative Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Beware of bushfire scams: how fraudsters take advantage of those in need

Australians were also cheated out of A$400,000 last year in charity scams.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Cassandra Cross, Queensland University of Technology

There’s been an overwhelming outpouring of love and support around the world for those impacted by the bushfires, from social-media donation drives to music concerts to authors auctioning off their books.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, we’ve also seen a number of scams directed at those who want to help, as well as victims of the fires.

In recent days, the ACCC set up a hotline dedicated to the reporting of scams associated with the bushfire crisis. The agency notes some 86 scams have been reported since the fires started in September – and counting.

While it’s difficult to believe offenders would seek to profit from other people’s generosity and heartache, this is entirely to be expected.

What types of scams are common

Research has found natural disasters are a catalyst for increased fraud schemes globally. This was the case after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2011 Japanese tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, just to name a few.

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How to donate to Australian bushfire relief: give money, watch for scams and think long term

In Australia, the current bushfire crisis has led to the creation of fake fund-raising websites, fraudulent door-knocking donation campaigns and fake calls from banks offering disaster relief funds.

In addition to the ACCC, several other consumer affairs agencies have issued warnings about these schemes.

The ongoing problem of fraud

In 2018, Australians lost over A$489.7 million to fraud. While a large part of this was through investment and romance fraud schemes ($146.5 million), Australians were also cheated out of A$210,000 in charity frauds. This increased to over A$400,000 in 2019.

The key element to fraud is lying for financial gain. Offenders will use whatever means possible to manipulate and deceive people into giving them money. This can involve obtaining money directly from a person, or by convincing victims to provide personal information to get cash through identity theft.

In charity frauds, offenders sometimes use the legitimate name of an organisation or individual to secure donations from victims, or they might use the pretext of a natural disaster or other negative event to obtain cash.

Harnessing the goodwill of strangers

Fraudsters use natural disasters in a variety of ways. They take advantage of our sense of sympathy and desire to help victims struggling through terrible events unfolding before our eyes. They also convey a sense of urgency aimed at convincing people to immediately part with their cash.

Importantly, offenders also exploit the fact people are highly motivated during times of disaster to donate money they ordinarily would not consider giving.

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It’s not about money: we asked catfish why they trick people online

Social media enables offenders to readily advertise their fraudulent schemes. With online fraud, it is often difficult for victims to authenticate email accounts, websites, individuals or organisations soliciting money. Offenders often create fake documentation to support their schemes, as well.

Social media can also be used by fraudsters in disinformation campaigns. As these posts are shared across platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, offenders can generate traction for their “charity” pitch before it is identified as fraud. By this stage, it can be too late.

Victims vulnerable in disaster recovery, too

It’s important to note the risk of fraud is not limited to the time of the actual disaster, or the immediate aftermath.

Many of those who have experienced loss or damage in the bushfires, for instance, face a long road to recovery and could be susceptible to scams at any time.

Research indicates negative life events can make a person more vulnerable to fraud. Those affected by the bushfires may find themselves the victims of fraudulent investment opportunities, romantic relationships and other schemes claiming to help them get their lives back on track.

For example, offenders may offer to assist with the negotiation of mortgage repayments with banks, obviously for a fee (large or small).

Protecting ourselves against fraud

There are steps people can take to protect themselves from scams as the bushfire crisis is unfolding – and into the future.

In the short term, it’s important to think about how we donate financially to those in need. There are many appeals that have been set up by registered charities and organisations (such as the Red Cross, the CFA, and the RFS). These are the safest ways to send money. Remember requests through social media channels and other platforms may not be genuine.

Importantly, the internet is not the only way offenders operate. Fraudsters still use the telephone and even face-to-face communication to collect money.

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From catfish to romance fraud, how to avoid getting caught in any online scam

Only call organisations you have researched to donate money and always ask for identification from those door-knocking for donations. If in doubt, don’t feel pressured to say yes and simply hang up or walk away.

In the longer term, we also need to be aware fraudsters take advantage of people when they are isolated, so it’s important to rally around family members, friends and others who are facing significant losses and feeling alone.

We need to better understand how fraud works and acknowledge anyone can be targeted. We also need to be able to talk about our vulnerabilities more openly in our homes and communities.

Fraud is an ongoing challenge globally. The current Australian bushfire crisis is simply the latest way for fraudsters to target our generosity and cause additional grief.The Conversation

Cassandra Cross, Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Law, Cybersecurity Cooperative Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.