Scams Promising to Kill Coronavirus Spread on Crowdfunding Platforms

Persistent efforts will be required as sellers discover new ways to covertly market their goods

Image: Nora.Care/Kickstarter

TTeas, homeopathic tinctures, and essential oils are being hawked online as coronavirus treatments. One such seller promoted an herbal brew called “Coronavirus Protocol.” Another claimed that drinking harmful colloidal silver could strengthen the immune system. None have been approved by the Food and Drug and Administration.

On Monday, the FDA issued warning letters to seven sellers of such fraudulent COVID-19 products — like the herbal tea and colloidal silver merchants — who now face legal recourse. But the FDA action was an exception: More often, the frontline defenders against profiteering schemes are the digital platforms where they are funded, advertised, and sold.

How to moderate an outbreak of phony products is a formidable task for websites already teeming with medical disinformation. Last month, Amazon removed more than 1 million products claiming to cure the disease. Others are scrubbing items that even mention “coronavirus.” Etsy removed hundreds of such listings, from crochet virus art to shirts saying “I Survived Coronavirus 2020,” according to BuzzFeed News. Meanwhile, eBay has enforced a full ban on face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes to discourage unfair pricing, and is also removing products that contain the virus’s name.

For most online platforms, persistent efforts will be required as sellers discover new ways to covertly market their goods. A OneZero review found that some coronavirus schemes are already slipping through the cracks. Despite eBay’s full ban, as of Tuesday, there were still dozens of sellers offering hand sanitizer and N95 masks (one box of large hand sanitizers is priced at $200). On crowdfunding websites — where virtually anyone with an idea and internet connection can advertise a product — numerous items promise to kill or prevent coronavirus with no indication of having been approved for such use, and people are soliciting money for “future” medical bills.

On Indiegogo, a mask sterilizer using “germicidal ultraviolet to kill Flu or Coronavirus” has raised more than $1,600 of its $5,000 goal. The sterilizer’s fundraising page claims that its UV-C (far ultraviolet C) light technology is suitable for inactivating pathogens that might be lurking on a face mask. The device was posted by NORA.CARE, which calls itself a nonprofit organization against “global coronavirus and flu outbreak.” (It was also listed on Kickstarter, but that platform deactivated the listing last week after it raised more than $1,000.) While there is some evidence that UV-C can kill airborne microbial diseases — a 2018 study led by Columbia University Medical Center researchers found an aerosolized form of the H1N1 virus could be neutralized by UV-C light under very specific conditions — there are currently no FDA-approved therapeutics to treat COVID-19 or other coronaviruses, and people should be wary of products making similar claims. (Already, other UV light sterilization startups have seen an uptick in sales according to Crunchbase.)

Elsewhere on Indiegogo, a phone-connected hand sanitizer, a plague mask, and even patented airplane pocket liners are all soliciting funding. While not as egregious as the mask sterilizer, each listing contained “coronavirus” in its description — something that would warrant a takedown on eBay or Etsy.

When OneZero brought these products to Indiegogo’s attention, a spokesperson for the company said it is “actively monitoring these campaigns,” and “for any campaign that violates our terms, we will take actions like preventing them from being discovered on our website and/or suspending them.” The mask sterilizer’s page now contains a message saying the item is “under review,” and contributions have been suspended.

Meanwhile on GoFundMe, the world’s largest crowdfunding website for individuals, more than 3,100 campaigns include the word “coronavirus.” GoFundMe takes a passive approach to moderating fake campaigns, which the company says it relies on users to report. Some fundraisers are genuine, like the one organized by the Wuhan University Alumni Association of Greater New York, which met three-quarters of its $1 million goal. Others are clearly jokes or attempted hoaxes, such as several fundraisers for “future bills” resulting from someone’s “inevitable” infection or the treatment of pets allegedly diagnosed with the virus. (None had raised any money.) For some campaigns, it’s hard to tell the difference, as is the case with the many campaigns claiming to raise funds for Italian hospitals that are handling outbreaks of the virus.

The crowdfunding of medical costs isn’t a new phenomenon — a third of the money raised on GoFundMe in 2017 went toward health care, per the New Yorker — and perhaps some coronavirus patients are indeed fundraising on the website (most of those patients’ names have not been released), but the presence of campaigns such as “Debunk the coronavirus” shows how easily bad actors can take advantage of online platforms.

GoFundMe did not respond to OneZero’s multiple requests for comment.

A more widespread problem is price gouging on popular products, as evidenced by hand sanitizer going for hundreds of dollars on Amazon, a violation the company now says will be met by prosecution. Last week, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey wrote in a letter to Jeff Bezos that “Internet-based retailers such as have a particular responsibility to guard against price gouging in current circumstances,” and while Amazon’s Fair Pricing Policy generally advises sellers against inflating their prices, Wired reported that the company’s ability to influence its merchants’ behavior has become a “sensitive issue.” There have also been reports of price gouging on Craigslist forums.

A pandemic of dodgy products is the last thing authorities need as they try to contain the actual virus. As of Tuesday, the CDC has confirmed 647 U.S. cases of COVID-19.

“That uncertainty vacuum that makes it possible for bad actors to come in and say, ‘This is what’s going to happen, this will protect you,’” said Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor and misinformation researcher at the University of Washington. “Those can feel appealing compared to the vast range of uncertainty.”

“There are so many different sources of disinformation and misinformation coming out around the virus,” Bergstrom added. [The sources you’d think it would be] “easy to get a handle on are from people trying to sell you something. It makes sense that platforms facilitating that would have some obligation to provide a bit of cover.”

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE

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