Scammers take advantage of COVID-19 fears with calls, texts, emails

When Windsor resident Jo-Ann Robinson received a text message from the Canadian Red Cross claiming to offer free face masks, she immediately knew to be wary. 

Rather than clicking on the link included in the message or responding to the message itself, Robinson reached out to her daughter-in-law, who also expressed skepticism about the message. 

“I just don’t open them, I just get rid of them,” Robinson said. “If my friends or family are sending me something, then I know it’s legit, but something that I have no idea what it is? I’m not going to open it.”

Robinson’s story is familiar to LaSalle Coun. Mike Akpata. 

A former Windsor police officer whose expertise was fraud, Akpata — who’s currently in Florida — said he’s also received a number of fraudulent phone calls to his cellphone related to COVID-19.

Akpata said right now — while concerns about COVID-19 are at their highest — is when fraudsters and scammers are most likely to prey on victims, especially seniors. 

A screenshot of the message sent to Jo-Ann Robinson. The link directs to a website that offers a box of face masks for a $5 delivery fee, just as long as users submit their address, email, phone number and credit card information. (Connie Robinson/Facebook)

“They are targeting people who are the most vulnerable or those who are at risk,” he said.

A quick search on social media reveals that a number of Windsor-Essex residents have received some kind of spam message connected to COVID-19, including spam phone calls and spam emails. 

According to a Chatham-Kent police media release published on Monday, one Wallaceburg, Ont. resident even received a phone call informing her that someone would soon visit her home to offer in-person coronavirus testing. 

In response, Chatham-Kent police issued a media release informing residents that there is no door-to-door COVID-19 testing currently taking place in the community. 

And though more and more people are choosing to avoid going outside to avoid the risk of COVID-19, Akpata said that likely won’t stop fraudsters.

“On the internet, they can reach out to anybody and everyone,” he said.

Akpata emphasized all Canadians should remain vigilant when it comes to potential scam communications.

“Simply put, if you didn’t ask for it, right now you’ve got to be very cautious and cognizant that people may be trying to defraud you,” he said. 

Some tips to avoid COVID-19 fraud:

  • Beware of false or misleading information.
  • Beware of high-priced or low-quality products.
  • Beware of unsolicited medical advisory emails with links or attachments.
  • Beware of miracle cures, herbal remedies or other questionable offers, such as vaccines or faster tests.

For their part, the Canadian Red Cross has already issued a statement on scam offers connected to face masks. 

“The sender claims to be the Red Cross and is offering to give away or sell face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads an excerpt from a Canadian Red Cross media release issued on March 15. “This is not a valid offer and the Red Cross advises anyone who receives this message to delete it immediately. Do not click on the link or respond.”

“If you suspect you have been a victim of fraudulent activity, please contact your local police authority.”

A spokesperson for the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), a federal agency that helps report and respond to fraud, said the organization has also received reports of scams and frauds connected to COVID-19 and is aware of the issue. 

The CAFC has made a number of recommendations for how to protect against COVID-19 scams, including being aware of false or misleading information and being aware of miracle cures, herbal remedies and other “questionable offers,” such as vaccines and faster tests.

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