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Protect against coronavirus scams

Amid the turmoil of spring 2020, we are more vulnerable to fraud. We release more personal information so state, federal and private authorities can reach us quickly. We share more stuff online because we want to connect: screens are our lifelines.

We may be raw and trusting, but we do not have to be targets.

Interview with Joanne McNabb

I asked Joanne McNabb, founder of the California Office of Privacy Protection[*], to share how consumers can better protect themselves during our collective crisis. Joanne and I talked on Tax Day, April 15th:

SD: Thank you for taking the time today, Joanne.

JM: My pleasure. I really hope your clients and friends are healthy and well. This is an unprecedented time for all of us.

SD: You’ve been on the frontlines of California’s privacy efforts since 9/11. What is the biggest privacy challenge you see as we shelter in place in April 2020?

JM: Being complacent online. Remember, our two main rules of thumb are more important than ever: 1) If it looks too good to be true, it is; and 2) The internet is forever.

SD: Right – the whole “digital tattoo” thing. What scams are people likely to see during this crisis?

JM: Phishing email scams, but with some new coronavirus twists; fake charity and Go Fund Me scams; scraping social media for identifying information; stalking and “bombing” online meeting apps. Phishing emails aren’t new, they’re a common weapon of identity thieves. These are emails that look legitimate but aren’t, that ask for your personal information such as bank account or credit card numbers. These days the emails may pretend to be from the government, maybe asking for your bank information so that you can get a $1,200 relief check from the government. Or they may be offering “cures” for COVID-19 that you can buy with your credit card.

SD: That is overwhelming. How do we make these invisible goblins stay away? How do we protect ourselves?

JM: I wish we could make them go away and never come back, but that’s not realistic. The trick is to set privacy protection as your natural default during this crisis and after. Here are 3-tips that you can immediately incorporate into your daily routine:

  1. Initiate the contact.
    Financial institutions and government agencies like the IRS will not send you an email or call you on the phone to ask for your account number. If you think you need to give them information, you should initiate the contact. Get contact information from another source (online search, for example), not from the email.
  2. Don’t overshare.
    Resist the temptation to play “get to know you” games on your social media platforms. Most likely you use your high school or your mother’s maiden name for security questions and passwords.
  3. Consider freezing your credit records.
    This is a way to protect yourself from new accounts being opened in your name by a thief using stolen identifying information. See how to do this on the Attorney General’s website.

SD: Simple but not easy. Some of those scammers look and sound official and intimidating. Plus, we like sharing stuff with our friends online.

JM: I know. But if you make it a habit to pause before you respond or post, you’ll feel more in control, and that’s a great feeling.

SD: You’re so cool. Thanks. What are the best sites can people visit for privacy protection information during this crisis?

JM: You are welcome! Here you go:

COVID-19 Privacy Press Releases

California Office of the Attorney General:

Electronic Frontier Foundation:

About Joanne McNabb

Joanne McNabb is a privacy consultant, providing organizations with research and recommendations on privacy issues and practices.

McNabb was Director of Privacy Education and Policy in the California Attorney General’s Office for five years, prior to retiring from state service in 2017. In that position, she developed policy papers and educational programs for individuals and businesses on a broad range of privacy topics.

From 2001 until 2012, Ms. McNabb directed the California Office of Privacy Protection, which was a resource and advocate on privacy issues. She is a frequent speaker at privacy conferences and forums.

Before her career in privacy, she worked in public affairs and marketing, in both the public and private sectors, including five years with an international marketing company in France.