How to protect your data as COVID-19 scams soar

As the world is grappling with a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, fraudsters are trying to capitalize on the state of panic and even the goodwill of others.

More than 1,400 coronavirus-related domains were registered over the past three months, many used for phishing scams, misinformation, or as an interface for fraudulent sales of counterfeit goods such as masks or hand sanitizers. In the UK, victims of online scams have lost £960,000 in 105 coronavirus-linked cases since the beginning of February.

ProtonMail has implemented a number of long-standing features to protect both your personal and business communications. However, there is no such thing as a perfect system — that’s why in this post we’ll describe the most common COVID-19 scams and remind you how to protect against data or financial theft.

Types of coronavirus email scams

Most phishing attempts impersonate a legitimate organization that is offering a benefit (money, products, or information) or is asking for donations or support. As a general rule, scammers try to create a sense of urgency so that you will act without thinking too much. The first warning sign is the alarmist tone, which official institutions wouldn’t use to avoid spreading panic. 

According to the UK’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, one of the most common coronavirus email scams is sent by criminals pretending to be the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The emails claim to provide the victim with a list of active infections in their area. To access the information the victim needs to either:

  • click on a link which redirects them to a credential-stealing page, or
  • make a donation of support to a fake account 

The World Health Organization (WHO) also alerted people of criminals impersonating the organization to steal money or sensitive information. One of the emails contained a purported document with tips on preventing the spread of the virus, redirecting users to a website taking their credentials.

WHO coronavirus email scam

Other victims received a link to a fake map that delivered malware by imitating the real coronavirus map created by Johns Hopkins University.

The US Security and Exchange Commission has warned since February of a number of so-called pump-and-dump schemes trying to lure inexperienced investors into buying stocks, particularly of smaller companies. They claim the company’s products or services can prevent, detect, or cure coronavirus and cite fake research reports that predict a high stock price. 

In Italy, online sales jumped by 75% in the first weeks of the coronavirus, providing an opportunity for fraudsters trying to sell tests, treatments, or prevention. Sales of counterfeit face masks and hand sanitizers have been reported across the world, with some even containing ingredients banned for human use or others simply failing to arrive at their destination.

A fake email from the UK tax authority, HMRC, has also reached mailboxes in recent weeks. The scam asks users to click on a link to claim a tax refund. In the US, the FTC has been notified of similar scams related to the checks program.

HMRC coronavirus tax refund email scam

Companies and organizations have also been attacked. While companies may be targeted for financial and data purposes, government employees are at risk too. The Brno University Hospital in the Czech Republic was hit by a cyberattack right as the COVID-19 outbreak erupted. 

Protect your data and your wallet 

With the number of data breaches tripling in the 10 years prior to 2019, ProtonMail has invested from the start in strong security systems that detect and filter out spam or potential attacks.

All email accounts benefit from DMARC protection and link confirmation. There are extra steps you can take to avoid receiving spam emails. You can add a “+” alias to your ProtonMail address when registering new accounts; then if you receive an email to a non-alias address, you know to be on alert for scams. You can also use spam filters, whitelists, and blacklists

However, you are always the best spam filter. You can avoid the vast majority of spam and phishing attempts by following these simple steps: 

  • Never respond to unsolicited messages that ask for your personal or financial details, and never share your username or password to access information. 
  • Verify the sender’s email address and compare it with the official website URL before opening attachments or clicking any links from unknown senders. If you cannot verify it, notify the organization and ProtonMail of a possible phishing attempt. 
  • Research before making online donations. If you are based in the US, review the Federal Trade Commission’s page on Charity Scams for more information, or check the organization on GuideStar.
  • Don’t accept prizes, grants, or funding from unknown senders. 
  • Generally, do not accept help from cold-callers. Contact local authorities if you need help to obtain food or medicines. 
  • Research before making online purchases, especially from companies or people you don’t know or trust. Use a credit card for the purchase. Most credit card providers insure online purchases. 
  • Install the latest software and app updates to protect your devices from the latest threats.
  • Be wary of emails containing spelling and grammar mistakes, using generic greetings, and those demanding immediate action.

Official sources of information on Covid-19

For up-to-date, fact-based information about the coronavirus, follow official websites such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization

You can also find out the latest local news by visiting the websites of your local authorities. For example, each country’s Ministry of Health website should include a link to an authoritative source or a section about the coronavirus.

Thank you for your support. Stay safe,
The Proton team

You can get a free secure email account from ProtonMail here.

We also provide a free VPN service to protect your privacy.

ProtonMail and ProtonVPN are funded by community contributions. If you would like to support our development efforts, you can upgrade to a paid plan or donate. Thank you for your support.

About the Author


We are scientists, engineers, and developers drawn together by a shared vision of protecting civil liberties online. Ensuring online privacy and security are core values for the ProtonMail team, and we strive daily to protect your rights online.

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