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COVID-19 vaccine scams don’t have to be a threat

We’ve all become resigned to email and telephone scams. Unscrupulous profiteers preying on the unsuspecting, catching them at a weak moment, their victims giving out their credit card numbers, wiring cash, sending e-transfers, giving up personal information. Or, click on a link that opens the door to malware. 

Software providers do their best to stay one step ahead of spam and malware in the background, while employers do their best to educate employees of potential threats – to their company and to the individuals working for them. 

While most scams result in financial loss and identity theft – which is bad enough – there’s a new threat. COVID-19 has brought vaccine scams into the mix. And they can do serious harm to people’s health, both financially and physically. 

COVID vaccine scams prey on one of the greatest human triggers: fear 

Psychologists have identified five key reasons people fall for scams.  

We’ve all looked back at an instance when a friend or family member was fooled and think, “How could they have been so gullible?” 

In 2019, Americans lost over $667 million to fraudsters…and those numbers rose in 2020. That’s a lot of “gullible”…right? 

However, one of the most powerful – and universal – reasons for believing in a scam can be chalked up to what they’ve labeled “FOMO” or, fear of missing out. And it doesn’t make us gullible…it simply makes us human. 

We have an innate fear of being left out…so when a scammer presents us with an opportunity for a product or investment that’s going to pave the way to riches, for example, we’re afraid of being left behind. We jump at that opportunity. We don’t take the time to do the research, consider the source, consult with friends or family, nevermind a lawyer, accountant, or financial advisor. 

Now, imagine playing on that trigger with someone’s health.  

If you are presented with the inside track on a scarce vaccine, for a price, your instincts tell you to enter your credit card information or send an e-transfer. In the absence of a coordinated national roll-out schedule, you can’t be blamed for trying to safeguard your life or the lives of your loved ones. 

One of the other psychological triggers is the Principle of Similarity. Put another way, “They just seemed so nice!” So, when someone reaches out to you with kindness, offering the inside track on a vaccine against coronavirus, your instincts tell us to seize the opportunity. You invest an unwarranted trust in the seller. 

Scammers follow the headlines 

Like any successful scam, the people who design and orchestrate vaccine scams are following the headlines very carefully. This isn’t a hobby, it’s their living. They are adept at tapping into regional and national headlines, adapting quickly, targeting their audience, and setting the bait. 

Antivirus software and malware protection can prevent your employees from being inundated with emails containing offers for the vaccine, but can you galvanize them against the offers that come on their personal email, or on their cellphones? 

You might assume that these offers come with a hefty price tag and think, “There’s no way one of my employees would be fooled into paying $1000 for a vaccine. They’d know something was up.” 

You’re probably right, but here’s where scammers have an edge on the human psyche. They aren’t asking for thousands of dollars. One of the most highly-publicized schemes revealed that the “Pfizer” vaccine could be purchased for just $79.99, before widespread distribution through government health channels. 

Like many scams, the seller was going for volume. They understood that far more people are willing to spend under $100 for a “nothing to lose” or “maybe it’s real, but if it isn’t, no great loss” scenario than a $1000 investment. So, your employee might make the $79.99 investment and think nothing of it…but they haven’t actually purchased a vaccine. 

Scammers aren’t targeting the demographic you might think 

When you draw an image of a fraud victim in your mind, chances are you think of some grey-haired widow or widower in a care home or living alone in an apartment, gullible, lonely and craving any contact from the outside world. 

But that’s not the case. Millennials in general, and males in particular, are predominantly the victims of scams…and the vaccine scam is likely no exception. They’re progressive risk-takers, they have disposable income, and they have a long life ahead of them. The opportunity to jump the line and get the vaccine before the general public had access would be very appealing. 

And, a report from CheckPoint exposed threat actors using dark web forums, WhatsApp, and Telegram to advertise false COVID-19 vaccines. Not your Grandma’s backyard. 

What does this mean for your company? It means that, beyond ensuring you have the most up-to-date protection to safeguard against cyber-threats to your company and its employees, you have to make information and tools available so they can assess and avoid potential fraud. 

The Better Business Bureau has a Scam Tracker that highlights COVID-19 scams. And, while the numbers might look low the AARP and FTC caution that, given the recent history of fraudsters pivoting to respond to the headlines, the vaccine scams are likely to escalate. 

They focused their attention on faulty PPE, fake charities, and unproven preventative medicines early in the pandemic, but as the vaccine rolls out in the US and internationally, their attention will shift to triggering the same fear of missing out and similarity to profit from the cure. 

We can help you safeguard your data, protect your network, and prevent your team members from falling victim to email scams. You have an opportunity, to use Amaxra’s security expertise and solutions, to build a knowledge-base and keep your employees informed of potential scams they might experience on other platforms. 

With the majority of your team working remotely, this is important now more than ever. 

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Feedback and comments are always welcome. If you have any questions, you are welcome to contact me at jp.odonnell@amaxra.com You can also connect with me via LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/jpodonnell2.

about the author

JP O'Donnell

Results driven leader who is able to quickly understand the business situation, create the strategic plan to address it, build consensus, then go execute it. Expertise developing strategy, tactics, and team members. Proven ability to drive revenue through new business acquisition and existing client management.

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