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Brace yourself for another wave of scams promising COVID-19 cures

Researchers identified two waves of misinformation that have occurred since the outbreak began, and they say another has begun to materialize.

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There seems to be no end to the misinformation COVID-19 can inspire. Drinking bleach or methanol to banish the virus from the body, self-medicating with hydroxychloroquine, the mysterious immunity of children, 5G as the origin; it just goes on and on. Well, strap in, because we’re about to be hit with more.

Researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have identified two waves of scams and generally bad information relating to the pandemic that have cropped up since March, primarily pushing fraudulent financial schemes and fake or unapproved cures. We’re now headed toward a third wave, the team says, as the conversation shifts toward pharmaceutical treatments and the possibility of a working vaccine.

We can’t keep up — Social media platforms have been breaking their backs to stay on top of the rampant misinformation about the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19-causing) virus, but it just isn’t enough. Between March and May 2020, the researchers pinpointed roughly 2,000 posts between Instagram and Twitter targeting consumers with fraudulent information. Much of this was “tied to fake COVID-19 health products, financial scams, and other consumer risk,” says lead author Timothy Mackey.

“We’re in a post-digital era and as this boom of digital adoption continues, we will see more of these fraudulent postings targeting consumers as criminals seek to take advantage of those in need during times of crisis,” Mackey said.

The researchers focused on Instagram and Twitter posts between March and May 2020.JMIR Public Health and Surveillance

The team used research methods they’d previously applied to the opioid crisis to this time track down “fake, counterfeit, and unapproved” coronavirus solutions. From a batch of more than six million tweets and 200,500 Instagram posts, they were able to narrow down to just under 2,000 questionable COVID-19-related product posts.

In a paper published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research: Public Health and Surveillance, the researchers detail their combined use of human power and artificial intelligence to pull out the bad actors.

This study is conducted in two phases beginning with the collection of COVID-19–related Twitter and Instagram posts using a combination of web scraping on Instagram and filtering the public streaming Twitter application programming interface for keywords associated with suspect marketing and sale of COVID-19 products. The second phase involved data analysis using natural language processing (NLP) and deep learning to identify potential sellers that were then manually annotated for characteristics of interest. We also visualized illegal selling posts on a customized data dashboard to enable public health intelligence.

Stay on your toes — We are now many months into the COVID-19 pandemic and as our collective knowledge on the subject transforms, so do the scams. At first, we were tormented with “questionable immunity-boosting treatments” as the world confronted a novel adversary. Then came the “suspect testing kits.” Now, as the promise of a vaccine inches closer, a new wave of fake pharmaceutical treatments is emerging.

There have so far been two waves of COVID-19 scams and misinformation, the team says.JMIR Public Health and Surveillance

“Unfortunately, illegal online sales of COVID-19 health products are likely to continue and possibly accelerate as this health emergency continues to progress,” the researchers conclude in the paper. “A 'flattening of the curve' will not halt the progression of this parallel infodemic, as the public continues to desperately seek access to COVID-19 testing, therapeutics, and an eventual vaccine.

“As legitimate news about promising and new COVID-19 treatments and countermeasures becomes available, scammers and counterfeiters will inevitably seek to capitalize on desperation and high demand from global citizens who simply want to be safe and prepared against this historic disease.”

All we can do as consumers is stay vigilant; be wary of sketchy or too-good-to-be-true offerings, and elevate factual information to beat back the scams.