The Dark Side of the Coronavirus

The rising toll of persons getting infected by the coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread panic worldwide. Individuals are taking precautions in a bid to safeguard themselves from COVID-19, which includes stockpiling on non-perishable food products, hand sanitisers as well as face masks. The increasing demand for sanitary products has likewise created a spike in scams regarding the sale of these products.

While online scams have been a reality for a long time, the shortage of face masks has generated a new slew of potential unsuspecting individuals. In China, these scams have disguised themselves under the friendly personas of WeChat and Weibo.

The depletion of masks in physical stores and on online platforms have made otherwise cautious people willing to try alternative channels to purchase them. As reports of the pandemic surged – Chen, a 21-year-old got swindled on the first day of the Lunar New Year while trying to secure masks for her family. They run a vegetable stall which remained open during the holiday period.

Chen turned to Weibo when her options were few and interacted with a stranger who was allegedly from her hometown. After chatting on WeChat, she decided to transfer 1000 yuan (SGD$202) via the app in exchange for 100 masks which she never received.

Similarly, Steve Mo, a 44-year-old manager at a construction firm in Changde, willingly forked out 600 yuan (SGD$121) for 300 masks on sale via WeChat to help his employees return to work safely. He subsequently received only two bottles of liquid soap, instead of what he thought he had ordered.

Scammers have taken advantage of the tension and desperation caused by an international pandemic for monetary gains. Fraudulent transactions are usually targeted at the young or the elderly, but the net is cast wider during this period and so the demographic for scams have also broadened.

As of February 24, exceeding 7,500 coronavirus-related fraud cases involving more than 192 million yuan (SGD$38 million) have been reported in mainland China, according to a report co-published by China’s Ministry of Public Security and Tencent Holdings, which operates WeChat. Among those cases, 96.9% were related to masks.

Cybersecurity is also at an increased risk as hackers are utilising information about the virus to draw people to click on links with malware and phishing sites. China’s National Computer Virus Emergency Response Center has discovered that hackers have been using topics relevant to new knowledge on the coronavirus to target those who want to find out more about it, compromising personal information and documents on their devices.

In Singapore, people are evidently not unsusceptible to scams. Within the first two months of 2020 alone, 12 people have been arrested for e-commerce scams related to the sale of masks. The e-commerce platform, Carousell, has seen its fair share of attempted fraud. To combat this, the platform has introduced “Carousell Protection” in 2018 – which, as its name suggests, provides security for both the buyer and seller in the transaction.

It offers conflict resolution via the support team if an agreement cannot be made cordially. However, it does not protect one against pre-order transactions or arrangements outside of the app.

Ultimately, amidst all the fear and prevention methods that appear essential to deal with the growing infectivity of COVID-19 – what is really needed is vigilance. Vigilance through the means of proper hygiene and by being cautious and discerning, especially when buying products. Education on the red flags that are indicators of a scam would help to reduce instances of it.

Written by: Samuel Yeung

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