Ofcom sees a rise in Coronavirus Fake News, as police warn about Covid-19 scammers

A survey by the UK’s communications services regulator, Ofcom, is helping to bring to light dangers posed by misinformation currently spreading online. Many online sources have raised concerns for internet users who are self-isolating - due to the major increase in both the amount of coronavirus-related fake news currently circulating and the increase in scams aimed at taking advantage of vulnerable and concerned citizens. We look at the Ofcom findings and give you some tips for staying secure online during the lockdown.

 

Coronavirus fake news is sweeping the UK

The UK’s regulator, Ofcom, has published a report that indicates members of the general public are being misinformed about Coronavirus. According to the UK’s regulatory body, British citizens have been exposed to false information about Covid-19 that could potentially cause confusion and harm. 

Following a survey conducted by the regulator over the previous two weeks, Ofcom has published a report that claims half of UK adults are currently misinformed about various aspects of the deadly virus.

Of those who were surveyed, 35% believed information seen online that claimed drinking more water can flush out the infection. 24% of the British public had seen false information regarding the gargling of saltwater to help combat the virus. In addition, 24% of UK citizens had come across information online that claimed avoiding cold foods could help to avoid catching the virus.

These statistics reveal the viral manner in which fake news about Covid-19 is currently spreading online, and is a reminder that all concerned citizens must be extremely careful about where they source advice. The best advice? To only source news and medical advice from official government sources, and via official channels that are providing well-sourced and legitimate medical advice. 

The survey conducted by Ofcom reveals that there is some limited good news. Around 55% of the British public claim that they are purposefully ignoring false information making the rounds online. Of those people, around 15% are turning to fact-checking sources, such as the BBC’s website, to verify the claims they see. Another 14 % are turning to family and friends to double check any false claims.

However, 52% of citizens aged between the ages of 18 and 24 have admitted that they are finding it hard to differentiate fake advice from genuine news about the virus. This is a reminder that citizens who use the internet to seek out information as their primary source must be cautious to double-check any information they read online or that is forwarded to them by friends and family.

Coronavirus scams are on the up

In addition to fake information and advice relating to Covid-19, UK police are warning that online scams have sky-rocketed by 400% due to the virus. According to the authorities, there has been a dramatic rise in targeted phishing emails and text messages that are using Covid-19 as a way to trick victims into parting with their sensitive personal information.

One of those scams involves a text message from HMRC offering a one-time crisis payment to help deal with the loss of earning caused by self-isolation. That smishing (SMS Phishing) campaign is designed to trick people into handing over their financial information to the fraudsters, who will then use those details to charge their accounts. 

Another scam text appearing to come from the government asks the recipient to pay a £35 pound fine after being caught leaving the house 3 times. This scam is, again, designed to fleece victims of their payment details - allowing the scammer to perform card fraud.

In addition, cybersecurity experts are warning that there has been an explosion of fake websites claiming to sell personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. Those websites appear to sell genuine protective equipment, but in reality, they are shell-websites owned by criminals. Those phishing websites are designed to fleece people of both their personally identifiable information and their financial details.

How can to avoid Coronavirus scams?

The UK government has gone on the record to remind all British citizens that it will not be contacting them to ask for their financial information, even if they are expecting to receive a call in regard to a benefit award.

All internet users must remain vigilant to ensure they are not victimized by a scam website, email, phone call, or text message. Any unsolicited message that arrives in your inbox should be treated with extreme caution. If the message asks you to provide any personal information this is an obvious warning sign - and if it leverages your emotions in an attempt to make you act quickly, this should instantly ring alarm bells.

If a message or email contains links, these are best ignored. They could forward you to a malevolent website that causes you to become infected by malware. And, if you see a deal that seems too good to be true, it is likely that you have received an advert for a fake deal or have stumbled on a fake website advertising products that don’t actually exist.

The best thing that you can do is to stick to official website portals for recognized outlets only, as this will ensure that you are not victimized by the multitude of online scams that are currently circulating. If you do happen to stumble on a website that you are worried about, you can use our Covid-19 scam website checker tool to see if the website has been previously flagged as malicious.

ProPrivacy's Coronavirus Scam Site Checker

Our research hub represents the largest repository of data related to malicious activity surrounding the pandemic on the web. In partnership with WHOISID and VirusTotal, we have identified and analyzed more than a quarter of a million domains and we're opening this data up to the research community as well as providing a simple tool for the public to access it. 

However, please bear in mind that no tool can claim to be 100% foolproof. So, if you come across a website that seems suspicious, we recommend avoiding it and sticking to officially recognized outlets instead.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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