COVID-19 scams and how to avoid them

Living Well | Clare Barry | Posted on 07 May 2020

ACCC urges Australians to be aware of coronavirus scams during COVID-19 crisis.

Scammers and hackers with a nose for opportunity are working overtime to exploit Australians during the coronavirus crisis, from selling fake cures to targeting super funds. 

“We’ve seen a huge explosion of scams related to COVID-19, says Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which operates the government’s Scamwatch website. 

“The basic gist of these scams dosen’t change that much – but the scammers recast them to attach to topical issues so it adds that air of legitimacy.”

Person typing on a computer


Delia says that of particular concern right now are ‘phishing’ scams that trawl for personal information via unsolicited text messages and emails, and cold-callers trying to steal from super funds now that the federal government has allowed Australians early access to some of their superannuation.

“We’ve had a number of complaints about that and it’s particularly concerning – that’s a big pool of money and a big payday of $10,000 a go for the scammer.”

Fake investment scams are now touting for finance for coronavirus-related products, while online shopping scams abound, some offering non-existent COVID-19 vaccinations, cures and home test kits. Other scammers are putting a COVID-19 spin on persistent rackets including puppy scams and romance scams, using the crisis as an excuse to ask for more money.

Fundraising scams are “doubly bad”, says Delia, “because not only is the person being scammed but also the charity that would do good work with that money is not receiving the funds.

“It’s terrible at times like this that scammers are exploiting people, particularly those in financial hardship. It’s completely contemptible.”

Delia has simple advice for anyone receiving unsolicited calls, emails or messages. 

“First of all don’t click on links, even if you’re seeing something that says it’s from the government. Go and put the correct web address in your browser and do it manually so it’s not diverted off to a scam.

“If somebody has contacted you out of the blue, do not provide any personal details, particularly not banking or other account details. And don’t ever give anyone who contacts you out of the blue remote access to a computer, no matter what their reason.” 

She also warns that Australians working from home may be more vulnerable to cyber-crime, with less-secure home devices than those they would use at work.

“They may not have the same firewall, anti-malware and anti-spyware software,” says Delia. “It’s really important to ensure if you are working from home that you keep your computer secure, that you’re not sharing passwords and you keep your passwords strong.”

Three coronavirus scams to look out for

Superannuation scams during the COVID-19 crisis

What’s the scam?

Scammers are taking advantage of people under financial pressure by trying to steal their superannuation or charge them a fee for a service they don’t need, particularly in relation to the federal government’s superannuation early-release measure. (Under new hardship rules, Australians affected by COVID-19 can withdraw up to $10,000 of their super in the current financial year, and another $10,000 after 30 June.)

How does it work?

Scammers cold-call people claiming to be from a superannuation or financial service and try to get information about their accounts in order to fraudulently access the victim’s super fund.  

Give me an example

ACCC has received reports of callers offering to help people access their super, or to ensure they’re not locked out of their account under the new rules, or saying that they’re checking whether a super account is eligible for various benefits or deals. 

How do I avoid it?

  • Never give out information about your superannuation or finances, especially account numbers or passwords, to someone who contacts you out of the blue.
  • Hang up and verify their identity by ringing the organisation directly. Find the contact number from an online search or on a bill or statement.
  • Never follow a hyperlink to reach the myGov website, which is where Australians apply for early-release superannuation access, or links sent in an unsolicited text message or email. Type the address into your web browser yourself. 

Phishing scams during the COVID-19 crisis

What’s the scam

Scammers are ‘phishing’ for personal and financial information through text messages and emails that claim to be government agencies and other organisations providing information and support related to COVID-19. 

How does it work?

Victims receive a text message or email from a government agency, bank or business inviting them to click on a malicious link or attachment. Victims who click through may be tricked into revealing information like a bank username and password, or may unwittingly download malware that infects their computer. 

Give me an example

One scam text message reported to ACCC tells the recipient to click on a link to find out when to get tested for COVID-19 in their area, another offers a $750 economic support payment, one claiming to be from a bank asks recipients to update their personal details, and another pretending to be from a major supermarket chain says it is giving away $250 grocery vouchers.

How do I avoid it?

  • Don’t click on hyperlinks in a text, social-media post or email, even if the source seems trustworthy.
  • When logging on to a government or banking website, go directly through your browser by typing in the website link yourself.
  • Don’t respond to unsolicited messages or calls that ask for personal or financial details. Delete them or hang up.

Online shopping scams during the COVID-19 crisis

What’s the scam?

Scammers have been touting everything from cures and vaccinations for COVID-19 to face masks. Others are ramping up scams ‘selling’ luxury items or popular clothing and electronics at low prices. 

How does it work?

Scammers set up a fake online store to sell non-existent products, often via social media. Victims lured by big claims or low prices part with their money but receive a fake item or nothing at all. 

Give me an example

A new online store pops up on a social media feed looking the part with sophisticated design and a ‘.com.au’ domain name. It might offer hand sanitiser, face masks or low-priced luxury or brand-name goods that never arrive.

How do I avoid it?

  • Search for reviews before buying.
  • Beware of sellers asking you to pay by money order, wire transfer or pre-loaded money card. 
  • Beware of sites with limited information about privacy, terms and conditions, dispute resolution or contact details.