Coronavirus: Scammers fleece Kiwis of millions of dollars in COVID-19 hoaxes

Scammers are preying on Kiwis' fears around COVID-19 and have been fleecing them of millions of dollars since the virus took hold. 

Some are posing as recovery agents to target victims more than once, and there are concerns their efforts will ramp up with the vaccine rollout.  

Lockdown emptied New Zealand's streets and Kiwis' schedules, but it wasn't just work or play - for many, the internet was a lifeline. 

"People have lost their jobs because of COVID and they're looking for that next investment opportunity," says Bronwyn Groot, an expert on frauds and scams at QRisk.

Many thought they had found opportunities online and were sucked into investments with an advertisement, an online survey, or even a Google search. The websites are slick, and even have professional graphics and a 'trustworthy voice' at the end of the phone.

"I've had cases where they've lost over a million, quite a few over $250,000," Groot says.

The scammers are then posing as recovery agents to double-dip their victims.

"It's really heartbreaking. These people have considered self-harm, relationships have broken up," she says. 

During the first lockdown last year, scam reports were up 74 percent compared with the same time in 2019. Sextortion also increased by 39 percent and romance scams by 69 percent.

Even more alarming was how quickly scammers used COVID-19 to target victims. 

"People had a need for PPE when there was a shortage, people were looking for support in terms of income. All of these things create opportunities to create false offers and draw people into them," says Martin Cocker, CEO of Netsafe.

There were emails posing as the World Health Organization, the United Kingdom's National Health Service, and the United Nations Development Programme. And it didn't stop after lockdown. 

"In the first half of this financial year, New Zealanders have reported $15 million of losses from scams. In the previous total financial year, they reported $19 million," Cocker says.

But that's just the losses reported to Netsafe. Cocker says nine other agencies also deal with scams when there should be just one.

"The issue for us is that all of the information that's gathered by those agencies isn't gathered into one place, so we don't really understand the size of the problem."

And it's confusing for victims, especially as text and email vaccine scams have started to roll in. 

"In all of them, the common theme is that they are trying to get New Zealanders to pay money to get the vaccine," says Nadia Yousef, incident response manager at CERT NZ.

"We know from the Ministry of Health that New Zealanders will not be asked to pay for the vaccine."

The advice now is to only follow official advice and to investigate before you invest.