Scammers and spammers have gone hog-wild in their attempts to take advantage of fears related to the swine flu outbreak.
In Indiana, residents have been getting telephone calls from people trying to sell them “mandatory swine flu kits.” The callers falsely claim to be from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Missouri, Attorney General Chris Koster says a ruse has emerged involving offers to sell protective devices such as paper masks—pitched as “pandemic respirators”—for hundreds of dollars.
Elsewhere, officials warn about an epidemic of e-mails and websites touting expensive but worthless products to prevent or cure the disease, including a $199 “protection pack” that contains nothing more than soap, shampoo and body lotion.
Within days of the first headlines, more than 250 new websites using the term “swine flu” were registered, according to the Better Business Bureau. Since then, F-Secure, which manufactures security software, has found at least 1,344 such sites.
Expect even more. “Scammers read newspapers, watch TV and surf the Internet, and they know that by using a hook from the day’s top headlines, they’ll be able to catch lots of fish,” national BBB spokesman Steve Cox said in a prepared statement.
Although most incoming e-mails direct users to pharmaceutical websites or pitch worthless products, some can unleash dangerous malware used for identity theft. A program that can steal passwords for online banking and credit card accounts has been found in messages containing a PDF file titled “Swine Flu FAQs.”
McAfee Avert Labs, which also markets Internet security products, tells of spam coming from Brazil that claims to come from that country’s leading TV network and promises photos of “terminal” swine flu patients. But clicking on that link unleashes a program falsely claiming to be from a bank, seeking personal information including credit card account numbers.
To inoculate yourself against swine flu scams:
• Just delete any e-mails related to swine flu. It’s especially important to not click on embedded links, no matter how enticing. You can report the sender’s address to firstname.lastname@example.org or your state attorney general.
• Report flu-medicine claims to the Food and Drug Administration. There are only two drugs approved by the FDA for treatment of swine flu—the prescription medications Tamiflu and Relenza—and they should be taken only under the supervision of your doctor. So don’t believe any phone calls or websites promising “must-have” cures.
• Regularly scan your computer—ideally, at least weekly—with up-to-date antivirus and antispyware software. If your computer becomes infected because of spam, you can report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
For accurate information and updates on swine flu, visit the websites of the FDA or the CDC.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of“Scam-Proof Your Life,” published by AARP Books/Sterling.