Swine Flu and Census Scams Exploit Fear and Ignorance

Crooks are first and fast to spot con trick opportunities like the swine flu and the upcoming Census: Internet Scambusters #337

In today’s Snippets issue, we explain how scammers have seized on the swine flu alert and the start of data collection for the 2010 US Census as opportunities to bilk the public.

After all, the swine influenza scare and the upcoming census are topical events that are ripe for exploiting with scams and fraud.

They’re either after your money for stuff you don’t need or doesn’t work or they’re after your personal financial information for identity theft.

Swine Flu and Census Scams Exploit Fear and Ignorance

If there’s one area where scammers truly excel, it’s in playing on our fears — as the alert over swine flu has demonstrated these past few weeks. Scores of con tricks were launched within hours of the news break.

They also know how to exploit our ignorance about one-off and special events by using them as a hook to fool us into disclosing personal details about ourselves. The recent start of information gathering for the 2010 US Census is a good case in point.

So, this week we look more closely at the spate of scams behind these two high-profile events and show you how to spot the crooks and side-step their evil schemes.

Swine flu scams

The threat of catching swine flu is bad enough, without us also having to worry about whether someone is going to make us pay twice — once with our health and the second time with our wallets.

In just the first weekend after the alert was announced, almost 150 website domains containing “swineflu” were registered, and a week later that figure had just about doubled.

Many of them are just what the security specialists call “opportunistic” — offering information and advice either online or in downloadable publications, especially in the event of a pandemic outbreak.

Others will sell you a safety mask, goggles and a Tyvek suit and gloves for $40. How much these would help in the event of a swine flu epidemic is open to question.

The definitive source of information on the outbreak in the US are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. See their h1n1 flu page for more info.

Moving into more shady territory, overseas pharmacies that offer supposedly cheap medications have started pushing counterfeit drugs they claim can either prevent or cure swine flu.

Millions of spam emails are being churned out every day promoting these meds. They accounted for 1 in every 25 spam messages in the first week of the alert.

Truth is that there’s no effective drug on the market — at least there wasn’t in the early weeks after the outbreak. At best, anything you buy from these con artists won’t work. At worst the drugs or the “swine flu vaccine” could make you sick.

Most likely is that you’ll receive nothing at all — except an uncomfortable feeling that someone not only has your money but also, perhaps, your credit card details.

Simply put, don’t ever respond to spam pharmacy offers. If and when genuine treatment becomes available, you’ll know. And you won’t have to send money to someone in Russia to get it.

A cunning variation of this scam, one particularly targeted at businesses, is the sale of so-called “swine flu kits.”

Con artists, claiming to be from the Department of Homeland Security, have been telling firms it’s compulsory to buy the $400 kits.

It’s not clear if the kits exist at all or whether the scammers are just trying to get money. Either way, don’t go for it.

Another worrying and big scam is the use of fake swine flu stories to lure people into downloading viruses, Trojans and spyware.

Messages drop into your email inbox with subject headings claiming well-known people like President Obama or pop singer Madonna have contracted the illness.

You’re offered either an attachment or a link supposedly to a story on the subject but, instead, these upload the malware onto your PC.

Again, don’t believe these rubbish stories. If you really do want to check news tips out, don’t click on the link but do a Google search, or visit a well-known news site like CNN, major newspapers or your local media websites.

Finally, this isn’t part of the flu scam warnings, but experts recommend that the best prevention includes that you wash your hands in warm soapy water for 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, such as Purell, when soap and running water are unavailable. Many hand sanitizers don’t have alcohol, so read the label carefully when you shop.

Census scams

Did someone call at your home recently to ask questions about the upcoming US Census?

Maybe they wanted to know if you had another home — like a vacation place or a casita in the backyard.

That’s fine. US Census Bureau people have already been out door-stepping to verify addresses and other info and will continue to do so over the next year.

The Census is a count, every 10 years, of everyone living in the United States. It is a confidential data gathering exercise which relies, in the main, on you filling in a form, not telling it to someone over the threshold of your property.

The Bureau will mail out the form in March next year (2010). If you don’t complete and return it, they’ll send a second one. If you still don’t reply, they’ll come knocking at your door.

They’ll want to know about every person living at each address including name, age, gender, race, ethnic origin, birth date, marital status, employment status and other relevant data.

And you’re legally obliged to tell them.

But if they seem to be seeking more detailed, personal information about you, be very wary. It could be a scam.

Of course, the scammers are hoping you won’t know that and are already out in force.

Obviously, it makes sense to return the form because, then, apart from the verification process, the Bureau won’t come calling.

So, how can you tell if the person you’re dealing with, face-to-face, on the phone or by letter is genuine?

Well, here are a few clues:

  • Genuine census workers will not ask for your Social Security number or any confidential, personal financial information like bank account and credit card numbers.
  • They won’t ask you for money or claim that you owe it.
  • The Census does not involve collection of data either by email or through online websites; the Census Bureau may communicate with you via email but will not ask for information or ask you to click a link or attachment.
  • Genuine Census workers carry official identification, a confidentiality notice and, often, a handheld computer.
  • They won’t ask to come into your home — and don’t invite them to do so.

For more helpful information about the 2010 Census, visit the official Census site.

You can find details about Census security and scams on their Are You In a Survey?: Phishing, Email Scams & Bogus Census Web Sites page.

A small sample of people are legitimately asked more detailed questions as part of the Census. So, if you have any questions about whether a form or person is legitimate, you should contact your US Census Bureau Regional Office.


Experience shows that news break tricks like the swine flu and Census scams are at their most effective in the early days, before people get to know what the crooks are up to.

Like right now.

You can help stop them dead in their tracks not only by applying our advice but also by passing it on to others who might be targeted.

And stay in touch, both with the official website and with Scambusters.

Whether it’s your finances or your physical condition, we want you to stay in good health!

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.