As Covid-19 Scams Run Rampant, Google Launches a Scam-Spotter Quiz

Image: Scamspotter.org
Image: Scamspotter.org

Since the outbreak of covid-19, Google has been working to suppress ads from profiteers peddling low-quality, high-cost PPE and health elixirs, trying to get their hands on stimulus checks and credit card information. The company started a covid-19 task force which has prioritised, among other things, thwarting unemployment benefits scams. It’s made some noticeable changes: as of this writing, “unemployment benefits” no longer pulls up ads on the second page of its results, but rather returns a spread of government agencies on Twitter followed by links to state sites.

The latest development in Google’s fight against online scammers came today, when the company put out scamspotter.org, an illustrated fact sheet and a five-question quiz informing consumers on the ABCs of scams. Don’t pay upfront for stimulus checks; consult doctors rather than spring for a market vaccine; as always, beware the catfish.

As Gizmodo’s Shoshana Wodinsky has reported, Google’s playing eternal whack-a-mole: the scammers easily find their way into the ad network with tactics like “cloaking” links by redirecting consumers to a different page than the URL in the ad. And the scammers are beating down the doors. In April, Google claimed to have spotted over 18 million covid-19-related phishing and malware emails, daily, over the course of one week, on top of 240 million daily covid-19 spam messages. Also in April, the company said that it blocked “tens of millions” of ads related to coronavirus scams.

As of Tuesday, the FTC reported that Americans claimed to have lost over $US40 ($61) million to coronavirus-related fraud since January 1 of this year, and hucksters have ridden virtually every covid-19-related panic wave. The majority of FTC scam reports fall under travel refunds and cancellations, with a median loss of over $US450 ($682). As unemployment rose in March, scammers camouflaged offerings for purported credit score checks with information about benefits. Lately, scammers have pivoted to phishing with supposed information about contact-tracing apps. Throughout, they have advertised bogus vaccines and test kits.

Given the longevity of “act fast!” robocalls, a quiz won’t likely save us. But easily digestible information can’t hurt. In the press release, Google VP and internet father Vint Cerf asks readers to share the quiz with seniors, who are prone to lose the largest sums on internet fraud. Not everyone reads tech news, and we all know someone who’s been swindled.