The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has received over 100 recent scam complaints linked to COVID-19, in an April 2, 2020 story. (File photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Fake test kits and other COVID online scams play on public anxiety: fraud centre

VANCOUVER — The new coronavirus has spawned an increase in online and telephone crime, targeting anxious Canadians who are self-isolating at home in front of their computers, experts say.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has received over 100 recent complaints linked to COVID-19, said Jeff Thomson, a senior RCMP analyst.

The list includes false ads for face masks, hand sanitizers or virus home test kits, charity fraud, extortion and so-called phishing scams, where fake emails are sent out from what appears to be a reputable agency.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada, World Health Organization, federal agencies, Canadian government, you name it, they’re mimicking anybody and everybody that is an authority on this matter,” said Thomson.

Crime that plays on public fear isn’t uncommon, he said, noting American law enforcement agencies started stand-alone charity fraud units after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Toronto police charged a man with fraud last week after it was tipped by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about an intercepted parcel, alleging it contained 25 COVID-19 test kits.

Health related products need to be registered with Health Canada and there are no approved home test kits, Thomson said.

“Just like there is no approved vaccines or herbal remedies or miracles cures, you know. You really need to go to your source to get this information. In Canada’s case, it’s the Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada.”

The Better Business Bureau has warned that social isolation may make people more likely to be a victim of crime.

Shawna-Kay Thomas of the Better Business Bureau in southern Alberta and east Kootenay said criminals have been imitating legitimate organizations during the pandemic.

In Alberta, they’re posing as health workers calling to tell people they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and asking for credit card information, she said.

In some cases, Thomas said people who have been to their doctor or had recent blood work may be tempted to call.

The usual cautions apply, don’t answer a phone number you don’t know, don’t click on an attachment and research where you’re buying goods.

Tamara Humphrey, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Victoria, said strong leadership can help prevent people from falling for scams.

The daily updates from public health officials and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ensure people get the right information about wearing masks or if they should be tested, she said.

“What we need to be feeling is that our safety is being looked after by the government and the people in charge are people that we can trust.”

There’s been no indication the general crime rate has gone up.

Halifax police say its average number of calls hasn’t change, although it has received about 160 calls related to the COVID-19 outbreak since a state of emergency was declared, mostly related to physical distancing.

The Toronto Police Service says there’s been a decline in major crime categories since March 16, with the exception of homicides.

Vancouver police reported a 10 per cent drop in most crime as the pandemic restrictions ramped up. There was a spike in commercial property crimes, with offices and stores empty because of COVID-19.

Many retail and commercial operations have since placed plywood across their windows and doors.

Victoria police also reported a spike in break and enters in vacant downtown businesses.

This report by the Canadian Press was first report April 2, 2020.

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