Fraudsters are targeting shoppers, businesses, government agencies and financial institutions with a wave of scams. Fraudsters craft these schemes to snare victims by exploiting topics they’re worried about right now: Their health, finances and ability to find useful information about the pandemic.

Rafael Lourenco

Rafael Lourenco, executive vice president and partner at ClearSale

The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus is creating worry and uncertainty for business owners and consumers, especially in or near areas with confirmed outbreaks. Unfortunately, where the public and governments see a health crisis, criminals see an opportunity.

Fraudsters are targeting shoppers, businesses, government agencies and financial institutions with a wave of scams. Fraudsters craft these schemes to snare victims by exploiting topics they’re worried about right now: Their health, finances and ability to find useful information about the pandemic.

Here are some scams everyone should be on alert for now and in the weeks ahead, and how to avoid being victimized.

Coronavirus scams targeting online sellers

Surgical masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies that can kill the coronavirus are in short supply in many countries. That’s not only because there’s more demand but also because the outbreak in China interrupted the production of masks and other items.


When merchants have these items in stock, they must carefully screen orders for fraud. We’ve seen online retailers recently lose orders of masks to fraudsters paying with stolen credit cards. The thieves got the masks—presumably to mark up and resell. The merchants lost the value of the sale and faced costly chargeback fees from their banks. Until the crisis passes, it may be wise to adjust automated fraud screening rules and add a manual review to large or high-value orders of COVID-19-related items.              

Online sellers who run marketplaces need to be vigilant about what their marketplace sellers are offering. Amazon has been aggressively removing counterfeit and unproven products that claim to detect, treat, or cure COVID-19. In early March, an Amazon representative told U.S. House members that the company has pulled more than a million such items from its marketplace.

That’s good news for Amazon shoppers, but it may mean that scammers look to other, smaller marketplaces to hawk their fake wares. Marketplace owners and managers should regularly review the items on offer, to protect shoppers and keep their trust. If buyers are scammed or harmed by faulty products they buy through a marketplace, they’re likely to blame the marketplace brand, not the individual seller.


Fraudsters aren’t just exploiting merchants. They’re going after as many potential victims as possible with a variety of scams.

COVID-19 scams that target consumers (and everyone else)

Until the shortages pass, people seeking infection-control items should be suspicious of unfamiliar sites that offer plenty of masks, hand sanitizer and other in-demand items—especially if the site requires you to buy in bulk. Fraudulent websites offering these items have stolen more than $1 million from U.K. residents during February and early March.

Fake cures and treatments aren’t just a problem for online marketplaces. Some scammers are promoting teas and herbal remedies for coronavirus on their own websites. The Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to seven online sellers in mid-March because of the COVID-19 claims they make about their products. The FTC’s advice to consumers is, “ask yourself: if there’s been a medical breakthrough, would you be hearing about it for the first time through an ad or sales pitch?”


Sophisticated fraudsters know that people are more likely to fall for scams if they seem to come from sources they trust. The most insidious COVID-19 scams right now use impersonation to trick victims into thinking they’re dealing with trusted health agencies, charities and even family members’ health care providers.

INTERPOL is warning the public that fraudsters are targeting individuals by phone, “pretending to be clinic or hospital officials” who need immediate payment to treat a sick relative. Investigators with the agency say worried victims have been tricked into transferring as much as “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to criminals’ bank accounts.

Other scammers are exploiting people’s concern for others by impersonating charities and even the World Health Organization (WHO) to ask for donations. WHO says these attempts at fraud are being sent “in the form of emails, websites, phone calls, text messages and even fax messages.” WHO doesn’t solicit donations or ask for personal information or payment card data.

Fraudsters are also using malware to steal account credentials and banking information from people who are looking for the latest information on COVID-19. Phishing campaigns that impersonate health agencies (including WHO) are asking email recipients to click links or open attachments to see news about the virus. Instead, these actions install malware on the victim’s device to steal banking credentials, credit card numbers and other financial information.


Many fraudsters have also set up fake sites that look like the popular Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard, which features a map showing where the virus is active. Researchers say the malware these sites use can steal login credentials for websites, payment data, cookies and browsing history. It can also install other malware on victims’ devices.

Staying safe from coronavirus fraud

Some of the best advice for avoiding COVID-19 fraud is simple but effective, similar to the health advice about handwashing to slow the spread of the disease. When you’re shopping, researching, or answering messages online: 

  • If you see a coronavirus claim that’s too good to be true, it probably is. 
  • Don’t trust links or attachments from unfamiliar senders, whether they’re discussing COVID-19 or something else. 
  • If the sender or website seems familiar and reputable, but the message is about coronavirus, double-check. One cybersecurity firm found that websites with the terms COVID or coronavirus in the domain name are “50% more likely to be malicious” than other websites. 

Taking steps to protect yourself, your loved ones and your business from COVID-related fraud may seem like an added burden when many of us are focused on safeguarding our health and that of the people around us. But by staying alert to scams, you can avoid the extra stress of dealing with fraud, financial losses, or identity theft during this public health crisis.

ClearSale provides online retailers with fraud-prevention technology and services designed to protect against chargebacks.