INTERPOL warns of financial fraud linked to COVID-19

Criminals taking advantage of coronavirus anxiety to defraud victims online

INTERPOL is encouraging the public to exercise caution when buying medical supplies online during the current health crisis, with criminals capitalizing on the situation to run a range of financial scams.

With surgical masks and other medical supplies in high demand yet difficult to find in retail stores as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, fake shops, websites, social media accounts and email addresses claiming to sell these items have sprung up online.

But instead of receiving the promised masks and supplies, unsuspecting victims have seen their money disappear into the hands of the criminals involved.

This is one of several types of financial fraud schemes connected to the ongoing global health crisis which have been reported to INTERPOL by authorities in its member countries.

COVID-19 fraud schemes

Scams linked to the virus include:

  • Telephone fraud – criminals call victims pretending to be clinic or hospital officials, who claim that a relative of the victim has fallen sick with the virus and request payments for medical treatment;
  • Phishing – emails claiming to be from national or global health authorities, with the aim of tricking victims to provide personal credentials or payment details, or to open an attachment containing malware.

In many cases, the fraudsters impersonate legitimate companies, using similar names, websites and email addresses in their attempt to trick unsuspecting members of the public, even reaching out proactively via emails and messages on social media platforms.

“Criminals are exploiting the fear and uncertainty created by COVID-19 to prey on innocent citizens who are only looking to protect their health and that of their loved ones,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“Anyone who is thinking of buying medical supplies online should take a moment and verify that you are in fact dealing with a legitimate, reputable company, otherwise your money could be lost to unscrupulous criminals,” concluded the INTERPOL Chief.

Blocking and recovering fraudulent payments

Monetary loses reported to INTERPOL have been as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single case, and these crimes are crossing international borders.

INTERPOL’s Financial Crimes Unit is receiving information from member countries on a near-daily basis regarding fraud cases and requests to assist with stopping fraudulent payments. Targeted victims have primarily been located in Asia, but the criminals have used bank accounts located in other regions such as Europe, to appear as legitimate accounts linked to the company which is being impersonated.

In one case, a victim in Asia made payments to several bank accounts unknowingly controlled by criminals in multiple European countries. With INTERPOL’s assistance, national authorities were able to block some of the payments, but others were quickly transferred by the criminals to second and even third bank accounts before they could be traced and blocked.

To date, INTERPOL has assisted with some 30 COVID-19 related fraud scam cases with links to Asia and Europe, leading to the blocking of 18 bank accounts and freezing of more than USD 730,000 in suspected fraudulent transactions.

INTERPOL has also issued a Purple Notice alerting police in all its 194 member countries to this new type of fraud.

Warning signs

If you are looking to buy medical supplies online, or receive emails or links offering medical support, be alert to the signs of a potential scam to protect yourself and your money.

  • Independently verify the company/individual offering the items before making any purchases;
  • Be aware of bogus websites – criminals will often use a web address which looks almost identical to the legitimate one, e.g. ‘abc.org’ instead of ‘abc.com’;
  • Check online reviews of a company before making a purchase – for example, have there been complaints of other customers not receiving the promised items?;
  • Be wary if asked to make a payment to a bank account located in a different country than where the company is located;
  • If you believe you have been the victim of fraud, alert your bank immediately so the payment can be stopped.
  • Do not click on links or open attachments which you were not expecting to receive, or come from an unknown sender;
  • Be wary of unsolicited emails offering medical equipment or requesting your personal information for medical checks – legitimate health authorities do not normally contact the general public in this manner.

Interpol.int (March, 2020) INTERPOL warns of financial fraud linked to COVID-19