Avoiding Scams during Uncertain Times

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Author: Christian Maino Vieytes, Doctoral Student, Division of Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Uncertain Times

We find ourselves in a tenuous climate. The world is gripped by a rapidly spreading and deadly viral pandemic. Stress and anxiety have reached new highs. Stressors may relate to issues in health, finances, childcare, or loved ones that accompany those struck most severely by this environmental disaster. Many will seek out solutions to their problems with even greater desperation than before during these troubling times. This type of desperation lends itself to vulnerability. Simultaneously, this is an opportune time for scams to take hold. An increase in scams was also a phenomenon observed during the 2008 recession, which was characterized by high financial stress for many Americans.

Fraud

Fraud has become rampant during this unprecedented and very sensitive time. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has observed and reported a spike in fraudulent unemployment insurance claims complaints related to the pandemic (1). Scammers are stealing personally identifiable information (PII) and using it to solicit these claims. The methods employed by scammers in these transactions relate to a generalized increase in cybercrime, which has accompanied the other consequences of the pandemic (3). Moreover, with the growth of social media, these fraudulent operations have become more accessible for scammers to implement and, consequently, more prevalent in our society (4).

Scammers

Scammers will take advantage of the demographics of the populations that they target. In essence, they exploit behaviors related to a person’s age, gender, or education status (5). Unfortunately, victims of this type of scamming are often unable to distinguish the fraudulent nature of these scams from more benign messages they receive online (6). It is therefore important to recognize that anyone amongst us can become a victim of fraud. Academic research on the subject of scams and the types of psychology that perpetuate them have found that an individual’s emotional state when they come across a fraudulent message is also predictive of whether or not they choose to engage with the message (7). In other words, being in a state of heightened emotion, as we find ourselves in now, may make someone more vulnerable to fraud.

Identifying a Scam

We can take steps to become more aware of fraudulent messaging and minimize our likelihood of becoming victims of a scam. The focal point is that we need to be more aware and mindful of their online presence. Phishing attacks, which means the way scammers try to acquire personal information from their victims online, will usually be in the form of an email, text message, or phone call. Never disclose personal information to an inquiring individual unless you can confirm the messenger’s authority. The Department of Homeland Security provides several guidelines for identifying fraudulent messages (8,9). In general, it is essential to be wary of:

  • Sender’s address (Is it one you recognize? Or is it suspicious?)
  • Nonspecific greetings (Does the message address you as “Sir” or “Ma’am?”)
  • Embedded hyperlinks (It is crucial not to click any suspicious hyperlinks contained in a message)
  • Spelling (Does the message contain multiple instances of grammar mistakes?)
  • Attachments (Does the email request that you download an attached file?)
  • Promotions that appear too good to be true
  • Fake websites

The above are all clues that aid the proper identification of malicious and fraudulent messaging. However, the best advice is to, at all times, be skeptical of any individuals trying to acquire your information or of any suspicious messaging (10). If you suspect that you are the victim of a scam or fraud,  take the necessary steps to report your situation to the relevant authorities. Despite the downsides of the current climate, there has never been a more opportune time to evaluate our online presence and be proactive in minimizing our online fraud risk.

Nutrition-Related Scams 

With the advent of mass-communication and the internet, there is also a growing field dedicated to misleading the public on topics relating to health and nutrition. You may have heard of various ‘fad’ diets that promise a silver bullet or elixir remedy to all of your health quandaries and that may provide you unbridled weight loss. Examples include, the low-carb diet, the grapefruit diet, the snake diet, among a [very] long list of others. Many of these diets are all similar in that they lack the scientific evidence to substantiate their effectiveness and practicality. In a similar light, the supplement industry, which is not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration, is known to tout unproven benefits of their products. Therefore, extreme care is required when evaluating the claims made by certain health/fitness ‘gurus’ as well as any misleading marketing claims relating to supplements. These individuals are known for targeting vulnerable populations, desperate for answers for solving their illness, weight status, or other health conditions.

Overall, we must maintain the same degree of wariness and suspicion when an individual approaches us with a product that is said to be a ‘silver bullet’. Looking to the guidelines laid out by government agencies (such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans) or by other reputable non-governmental bodies (such as the American Institute for Cancer Research) is the approach we should take. These entities have done their homework and have worked hard to develop guidelines based on the existing body of scientific evidence. 

 

References

  1. Chen, B. (2020, May 13). A Guide to Pandemic Scams, and What Not to Fall For. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/13/technology/personaltech/pandemic-scams.html
  2. Dorris, B. (n.d.). Coronavirus Pandemic Is a Perfect Storm for Fraud. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.acfe.com/press-release.aspx?id=4295010491
  3. FBI Sees Spike in Fraudulent Unemployment Insurance Claims Filed Using Stolen Identities. (2020, July 06). Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://agenparl.eu/fbi-sees-spike-in-fraudulent-unemployment-insurance-claims-filed-using-stolen-identities/
  4. Harrison, B., Vishwanath, A., Ng, Y. J., & Rao, R. (2015). Examining the Impact of Presence on Individual Phishing Victimization. 2015 48th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. doi:10.1109/hicss.2015.419
  5. Jagatic, T. N., Johnson, N. A., Jakobsson, M., & Menczer, F. (2007). Social phishing. Communications of the ACM, 50(10), 94-100. doi:10.1145/1290958.1290968
  6. Lallie, H., Shepherd, L., Nurse, J., Erola, A., Epiphaniou, G., Maple, C., & Bellekens, X. (2020, June 21). Cyber Security in the Age of COVID-19: A Timeline and Analysis of Cyber-Crime and Cyber-Attacks during the Pandemic. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://arxiv.org/abs/2006.11929
  7. Norris, G., & Brookes, A. (2020). Personality, emotion and individual differences in response to online fraud. Personality and Individual Differences, 109847. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.109847
  8. Schaffer, P. (2020, May 18). For Scammers, a Pandemic is Just Another Opportunity. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.securitymagazine.com/articles/92410-for-scammers-a-pandemic-is-just-another-opportunity
  9. Security Tip (ST04-014). (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://us-cert.cisa.gov/ncas/tips/ST04-014
  10. Williams, E. J., & Polage, D. (2018). How persuasive is phishing email? The role of authentic design, influence and current events in email judgements. Behaviour & Information Technology, 38(2), 184-197. doi:10.1080/0144929x.2018.1519599

 

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