Wednesday, July 15, 2020
July 15, 2020

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In Our View: Warning: Scammers prey on fears, desire to help

The Columbian

Crises can bring out the best in us, from neighbors helping neighbors to the health care providers and grocery store workers and truck drivers who have been essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But crises also can bring out the worst of humanity. As financial and public health worries abound because of the coronavirus outbreak, officials warn of scam artists trying to take advantage of our fears or our desire to provide assistance.

“In this unprecedented situation, many of us are searching for ways to help. Unfortunately, scammers look for ways to prey on Washingtonians’ good will,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson noted last week. “If you see any suspicious or fraudulent solicitations, file a complaint with my office.”

The FBI office in Oregon also has issued a warning, urging the public to be on the lookout for con artists seeking money and personal information, or those hawking fraudulent products. “Be wary of websites and apps claiming to track COVID-19 cases worldwide,” the federal bureau warned. “Criminals are using malicious websites to infect and lock devices until payment is received.”

Such warnings are applicable during good times and bad. You should always be cautious about opening email attachments from an unknown source, and never provide personal information such as bank account numbers or Social Security numbers unless you are certain of the recipient. As Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said: “Take your time and ask the right questions to make sure they are a legitimate organization before you give them your money.”

While decent people view the pandemic as an opportunity to help out, a small minority see it as an opportunity for nefarious activity.

As the site of the initial coronavirus outbreak in the United States, Washington is a particularly popular target for scammers. In an interview with CBS News, Herb Stapleton of the FBI Cyber Division said this state, California and New York have been fertile ground for illegal schemes.

Notably, experts say that nearly all coronavirus-related cyber-attacks against the United States are originating from overseas. U.S. Attorney General William Barr has directed the Department of Justice to prioritize the detection and prosecution of virus-related scams. Saturday, the department filed a civil complaint against operators of a website claiming to sell a World Health Organization COVID-19 vaccine kit.

To be clear, no vaccine yet exists. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Jody Hunt said: “We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers.”

That is good news. But the most important step to stopping scammers is for individuals to employ caution. Confirm information regarding the virus rather than believing what somebody tells you when they are asking for a donation; investigate the history and background of any organization before donating money; and, again, never give out personal information over the phone or online.

Perhaps the best defense for anybody who wants to donate during this time of crisis is to keep those donations local. Many Clark County organizations are providing food or assistance for those in need and would welcome your help. So would a neighbor who might be unwilling to leave their house and could use some assistance.

A crisis, after all, calls for the best in us.