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'Prime opportunity for enterprising criminals': Secret Service warns about online scammers seizing on coronavirus outbreak


'Criminals are opportunists'

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The U.S. Secret Service is warning people to be on the lookout for online scammers looking to take advantage of the ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus — formally known as COVID-19 — through efforts to swipe their money or personal information.

"Criminals are opportunists, and as seen in the past, any major news event can become an opportunity for groups or individuals with malicious intentions. The Coronavirus is no different," a Tuesday press release from the federal law enforcement agency said. "In fact, the Coronavirus is a prime opportunity for enterprising criminals because it plays on one of the basic human conditions…fear."

One way that online grifters have been trying to take advantage of others is through emails that appear to be from "legitimate medical and or health organizations," but are really just trying to gain access to people's personal information and computers, according to the Secret Service.

"In one particular instance, victims have received an email purporting to be from a medical/health organization that included attachments supposedly containing pertinent information regarding the Coronavirus," the release said. "This led to either unsuspecting victims opening the attachment causing malware to infect their system, or prompting the victim to enter their email login credentials to access the information resulting in harvested login credentials."

While the Secret Service is best known for its mission to protect the president and other high-ranking government officials, the agency's mission also includes the investigation of cyber crimes.

Another emerging trend that the agency warns against is that of fraudsters employing "social engineering tactics" to tug at heartstrings through social media websites in order raise money for phony charitable causes related to the virus outbreak. As a result of the trend, "Increased caution should be exercised when donating to charitable organizations," the release warned.

The agency also warned people to be on the lookout for "non-delivery scams," where criminals pose as a vendor advertising a medical product related to the virus, demand upfront payment for it, and then never follow through on delivering it.

In order to protect themselves from these sorts of online schemes, the Secret Service advised that people not open attachments or click links in emails from unrecognized senders and enter website domain names themselves.

The warning comes as other federal officials have also taken separate measures to combat coronavirus-related opportunism in recent days.

Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to seven different companies "for selling fraudulent COVID-19 products," which they said were "unapproved drugs that pose significant risks to patient health and violate federal law." The Department of Justice has also warned companies against violating antitrust law in the wake of the virus outbreak in a Monday announcement.

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