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Beware scammers using peoples' fear of virus to con them

Cybercriminals have been quick off the mark, distributing spoof e-mails offering products like masks and fake vaccines that lead to phishing websites.
Cybercriminals have been quick off the mark, distributing spoof e-mails offering products like masks and fake vaccines that lead to phishing websites.
Image: 123RF/dolgachov

Scammers have moved swiftly to exploit people’s fears over the coronavirus, either selling fake cures or convincing unsuspecting targets to part with important personal information or money.

Cybercriminals have also been quick off the mark, distributing spoof e-mails offering products like masks and fake vaccines that lead to phishing websites.

Dr Bevan Goqwana, who is consulting for the Eastern Cape provincial government, encountered a scam in the OR Tambo district which he will be escalating to premier Oscar Mabuyane.

Goqwana said people in the district were wanting to get tested for Covid-19, not so much to find out their status as to access “some form of medicine” that promises to cure the virus.

“Somebody has told them, ‘I can cure this thing [Covid-19]’. I am trying to find out who this person is selling this medicine, but people aren’t telling me,” Goqwana said.

He said it was clear this person was out to make money.

“The problem is that when things get worse for people, they turn to unknown concoctions instead of going to conventional doctors. But the ingredients in these concoctions can interact with each other and you might find that somebody could die.

“People are afraid, so they seek out whoever is going to help them.”  

Goqwana said there could be a marrying of Western medicine and traditional medicine, but this should be done responsibly.  

In June, the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism reported that Transnet had come in for some unwanted attention from cybercriminals. As far back as January, someone purchased the domain name Transnetengineerings.net, which differs from Transnet Engineering’s legitimate domain name, Transnetengineering.net, through the addition of the letter “s”.

Months later, the fake Transnet Engineering site asked for proposals for the supply of 31 Kerfax e400 hospital beds, even going so far as to copy legitimate tender documents. The proposal was later proved to be a scam.

Lower down the tender trough, DA MPL Yusuf Cassim said there had been complaints from some MPLs that companies contracted to provide sanitiser to schools in rural areas had instead supplied methylated spirits. Doctors have repeatedly warned the purple denatured alcohol should not be used as sanitiser as it can cause lasting damage to the skin.

Other notable scams include:

  • The Reserve Bank has warned SA residents against scammers visiting homes to “recall” banknotes and coins they said were contaminated with the virus. The criminals carry fake identification badges and provide false receipts to victims, who are told they can exchange the slips for “clean” cash at any bank.
  • Private health care provider Netcare has cautioned people to be wary of thieves masquerading as doctors screening for coronavirus so they can gain access to people’s homes.
  • The US Federal Bureau of Investigation last week asked people to caution against scammers marketing fraudulent and unapproved Covid-19 antibody tests, potentially providing false results.

Desperation and fear brings out vulnerability, but medical professionals have reiterated there is no “quick-fix” for Covid-19 at this stage.

“There really is only one way to test for Covid-19 in South Africa at present,” said Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, head of Discovery Health’s Centre for Clinical Excellence.

“Whatever claims you read online about quick-results, finger-prick and self-test kits, please be on your guard. A proper test conducted through a registered pathology lab is the only option you should consider reliable.”

In terms of cyberattacks, the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric) describes a process called ­“social engineering” used by criminals to exploit people.

“Social engineering is manipulative and exploits human vulnerability because criminals know that the weakest link in the information security chain is the human being.”



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