Face mask frenzy during coronavirus outbreak could lead to scams, BBB warns
Published Friday, January 31, 2020 2:21PM PST Last Updated Thursday, February 6, 2020 2:13PM PST
VANCOUVER -- With stores in Metro Vancouver selling out of face masks and global concerns about coronavirus increasing, the Better Business Bureau is warning consumers to be wary of possible resale scams.
Stores were already selling out of face masks weeks ago and since then, B.C. has confirmed cases in the province and the World Health Organization has declared coronavirus a global health emergency.
"The headlines about the growing number of fatalities have led to an increasing demand for the masks to help reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, even though they were not designed for this purpose and do not actually offer significant protection," the BBB said in a news release issued Friday.
Healthcare professionals have made similar remarks about the effectiveness of face masks, saying they're most useful for preventing sick people from transmitting their illness to others.
"Where it's not known is how effective wearing a mask in the community is when you are not sick yourself," said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer. "The masks may give you a false sense of security. The most important thing you can do in the community is wash your hands regularly."
Even so, the BBB said "millions of consumers" have taken to looking for the masks online, which could lead to "shady businesses" taking advantage of potential customers.
"Generally speaking, online shopping comes with the risks of stumbling into scammers and when purchasing these masks, the dangers are no different," said Karla Laird, manager for community and public relations at the Mainland B.C. BBB branch.
"Consumers need to be on the lookout for fake websites harvesting credit card information, sponsored ads posted by fraudsters that offer prices that are too good to be true, deceptive posts disguising malicious links and fake social media business profiles that take your money and give you nothing in return."
Laird said the coronavirus panic has created a "perfect storm" for scammers, who tend to follow the news and try to take advantage of people's fears.
"Every time there is an issue of global concern, scammers start to take advantage of it," she said. "It really comes down to the scare."
In fact, the BBB said promotion of unapproved and fake remedies was so common that it prompted a warning from the U.S. government.
"Face masks may be the first phony product to crop up in the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s likely not the last," the BBB said. "It's likely that scammers will use the coronavirus as another chance to market products falsely claiming to cure the disease."
To avoid falling for one of these scams, the BBB offers the following tips:
Look for a physical address, or contact information
This one is probably the easiest. Look for the "contact us" section and see if there’s an address that “you could go to Google maps and find,” Laird said. Some companies even have a live chat option, “so you can talk to someone to make sure that you’re understanding what they’re deal is, and what the prices are.”
Use your credit card
When you’re ready to pay, using your credit card is much safer, Laird said. “If you make a fraudulent transaction, or if you purchase something and it never gets to you,” said Laird, “dispute the charges.” An investigation will be launched into the payment and you may end up with some or all of your money back.
Do your research
If this is a product the entire world is looking for, there will be a variety of places you can order the product. In this case, make sure what you’re looking at is offered elsewhere and check the prices. “Look out for prices that are too good to be true,” said Laird. “If it seems too good to be true, it more than likely is.”
If you use websites like Craigslist
Laird warned websites like Craigslist come with a much higher potential that something could go wrong. “You want to make sure you actually go and visit that product, or see that product first hand,” she said. Especially if you are going to e-transfer funds, make sure you know what you’re buying. And, she added, “make sure someone else knows where you are.”
Check with your doctor first
But if you are tempted to buy an unproven health product or one with "questionable claims," the BBB suggested you check with a doctor or other healthcare professional before opening your wallet.