From Tampa Bay to far away, scammers adjust their game for a pandemic

From fake coronavirus tests to come-ons on your computer, scammers haven’t slowed down attempts to get your money or your information.
Pandemic or no, Floridians beware: Scammers want to take your money.
Pandemic or no, Floridians beware: Scammers want to take your money.
Published Sept. 6, 2020|Updated Sept. 6, 2020

For a mere $19, the website said, you could purchase a bottle of “Immune Shot” that would cut your risk of catching the coronavirus nearly in half.

“Is Your Life Worth $19?” the site asked. “Seriously, Is It?”

The ads targeted those 50 and older. And an undisclosed number of people bought it.

Last month, a man in Georgia faced a federal charge that said his “Immune Shot” was a misbranded drug. An FBI agent called it “especially concerning, because the alleged scheme targeted citizens who are most vulnerable to the virus.”

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials say scammers pivot to the latest crisis to try to take your money or information, whether the event is a hurricane, a rocky economy or a worldwide health crisis. Scams have involved fake COVID-19 tests and offers to let you invest in companies they say can cure the virus.

“There’s no limit on the creativity of the scammer, of the ways to deceive the victim,” said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.

A tech support scam has exploded in popularity.

Authorities say it works like this: A pop-up message appears on your computer screen. It says the computer is infected, and the user should click here or call this number to get it fixed. Or someone claiming to be a computer technician calls instead. The scammer may request remote access to the computer and a credit card.

“They want you to pay for tech support services you don’t need to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” says a release from the Federal Trade Commission.

This summer, the Florida Office of the Attorney General warned about social media games people may be playing during the pandemic to stay connected with friends. Some games asked for seemingly-innocuous information — first pet, high school mascot or favorite food. By responding, a player might unwittingly give answers to security questions that allow access to their bank account.

A computer game that asked people to post a senior picture to support students who couldn’t have a ceremony because of the pandemic also was noted. Your high school and graduation year “gives hackers a lot of personal data to work with,” the office said.

Seniors, in particular, get phishing calls from people purporting to be from Medicare, the bank or other legitimate institutions. Callers ask for account numbers or passwords, law enforcement and prosecutors say. The result can be identity theft and financial loss.

As stimulus money was being paid out, federal authorities warned about calls, texts or emails from scammers saying they needed personal information or fees for people to get their checks.

Scamsters have been willing to pluck heartstrings, claiming to be grandchildren in trouble and in need of quick cash. A pandemic version: Pretending to be a friend overseas who got COVID-19 and needs money to pay medical costs before they can leave, Warren said.

Fraudsters can be clever. Last year, Bob Bloom, a retired engineer in Pensacola, got an email from the rector at church. “Father” was in a bind and in need a gift for his niece. Could Bloom buy three gift cards for $100 each, take pictures and email the the pictures back?

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Bloom knew the rector and was happy to help. But when he got another email asking for more, his wife raised a red flag. The real rector said those emails weren’t his. Parishioners’ information had been hacked.

Bloom called it disheartening.

“I think Americans and people in general are very generous, and they’ll help a neighbor or a friend,” he said. “And that’s what they work off of.”

Experts have advice for consumers:

  • Never give out personal information on the phone to someone you don’t know.
  • Be careful about publicly posting personal information.
  • If you have doubts, hang up and call the institution, such as your bank or cable company, that the caller claimed to represent.
  • Be especially leery when there’s pressure to “act now.”

“Pump the brakes,” said Warren. “The urgency is the fraudster’s friend.”

Victims of fraud in Florida and contact the Florida Attorney General’s Office of Citizen Services by calling the fraud hotline at 1-866-966-7226 or filling out an online complaint form at