Coronavirus scammers dupe people out of $4.77 million as videos selling fake vaccines, masks flood YouTube
The coronavirus pandemic has given way to a new problem - online scamming. A report throws light on how scammers are exploiting the YouTube platform to advertise face masks and bogus vaccines. There are currently no vaccines or cures approved for the disease.
The report entitled "YouTube Enabling (Maybe Validating) Shadowy Sellers of Medical Masks and Bogus Vaccines" found multiple examples of videos on YouTube where sellers claim their products, including potential cures, can protect buyers from coronavirus.
"It's not only spreading misinformation but in the end, it's contributing to people's anxiety and fears," Digital Citizen Alliance (DCA) executive director Tom Galvin told Business Insider. "We've come to expect that from scammers and price gougers…but we did not expect YouTube to help them," he added.
The DCA wrote that YouTube has the responsibility of making sure its platform does not aid scammers. "With nearly 1.5 billion people using YouTube daily, the company has a responsibility to stand by its word and to protect consumers from fake healers and medicine men," the report said.
To bring out the report, the DCA teamed up with the Coalition for a Safer Web to carry out an after an 18-day investigation from March 6-24. They reached out to sellers via email or WhatsApp.
Even as experts are racing against time to develop safe and effective treatments, some sellers used YouTube to peddle potential cures and vaccines. The investigators believe that they had ample reasons to believe the offers for masks were dubious as well.
For example, one of the sellers on YouTube named "PharmaChem", sold face masks, cures, and vaccines. Researchers asked a representative from the company about vaccines and masks. The investigation revealed that the company was selling 100 masks for 180 USD and a vaccine for 135 USD.
What is more, the representative acted as a pharmacist, recommending the best medicines to buy. He said MMR/Varicella was the best vaccine for COVID-19. This vaccine has been approved to protect against measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox. There is no evidence to support the idea that the vaccine works against the new coronavirus.
"Other sellers didn’t even try and pretend to be legitimate. One seller simply goes by the name “Real ID Card Fake Passport Producer” also used YouTube to offer COVID 19 Drugs," the report said.
YouTube was not the only platform. Its parent company, Google, has also come under the scanner after its platform is being used to advertise bogus items. "Google was serving ads for dubious coronavirus-related products in online search results, Google said that it would formally ban ads for protective facemasks. But the ads didn’t stop," the report said.
These scams are not new. Ever since the new coronavirus emerged, scammers have been trying to make profits from preying on people's fears. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an organization tasked with protecting American consumers, has received more than 7,800 coronavirus-related reports from consumers, as of March 31.
What is worse, scammers have looted $4.77 million from consumers, according to the FTC. The organization is tracking complaints related to coronavirus and is urging people to come forward with their grievances.
On March 14, two US Senators -- U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Richard Blumenthal -- wrote a letter to the FTC, slamming Google. It said that Google's platform continued to advertise ads for face masks, despite announcing a formal ban on it.
"If Google is shifting blame for these videos to the people who find them, they are treating this like PR problem, not an internet safety problem," Galvin told BusinessInsider.