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Study finds increase in fake posts and scams tied to COVID-19

Researchers found thousands of financial scams and fake posts linked to COVID-19 on Twitter and Instagram

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Thousands of posts for coronavirus-related scams have circulated on social media during the pandemic, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Public Health and Surveillance.

After analyzing content on Twitter and Instagram, the researchers found nearly 2,000 posts containing dubious claims about products or “treatments” related to the virus. Most of the scammers were peddling products with no verified health benefits, while others were selling unapproved testing kits or other unproven COVID-19 related cures. 

The researchers said these untested products and purported cures could put consumer health at risk and dupe people out of money.

"From March to May 2020, we have identified nearly 2,000 fraudulent postings likely tied to fake COVID-19 health products, financial scams, and other consumer risk," wrote lead author Timothy Mackey, an associate adjunct professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

More are likely to show up

Mackey and his colleagues said another wave of posts for fake testing kits or unproven cures is likely to crop up when officials announce an effective COVID-19 vaccine or treatment.

"We're in a post-digital era and as this boom of digital adoption continues, we will see more of these fraudulent postings targeting consumers as criminals seek to take advantage of those in need during times of a crisis," Mackey said in a news release.

To spot a posting for a fraudulent product, Mackey advises consumers to check for the following red flags: 

  • Mentions of bulk or rapid sales, cheap pricing, and questionable claims, such as FDA approval or specific certifications.

  • Products, such as COVID-19 testing kits, imported from abroad. Mackey says purchases from abroad “should be considered risky.” 

  • Business being conducted through social media direct messaging or a communications app, like Skype or WhatsApp. The researchers say this way of conducting business usually indicates a scam. 

The best course of action for those concerned about contracting COVID-19 or those who want to be tested for the virus is to "first work with their personal health care provider or local public health agency to ensure safe access to testing or treatment,” Mackey said. He added that any suspicious activity should be reported to federal authorities.

"Our hope is that the results from this study will better inform social media users so they can better decipher between fraudulent and legitimate posts," he said. "We conducted this research with the goal that eventually it will lead to improved tools and policy changes so that social media can be used as a force for good."

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