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UCSD researchers see rise in fraudulent COVID-19 posts on social media

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is seen isolated from a patient.
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Researchers from UC San Diego’s School of Medicine found nearly 2,000 fraudulent COVID-19-related posts tied to financial scams and possible counterfeit goods, according to a new study.

During the pandemic, social media platforms have played a major role in conveying information from health care leaders and government officials about how to help stop the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Yet, according to the study, as quickly as new and accurate information on the virus becomes available, so, too, do counterfeit health products, such as illegal or unapproved testing kits, untested treatments and purported cures.

In the study, published Aug. 25 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Public Health and Surveillance, researchers looked at thousands of social media posts on Twitter and Instagram.

“We started this work with the opioid crisis and have been performing research like this for many years in order to detect illicit drug dealers,” said Timothy Mackey, associate adjunct professor at the UCSD School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “We are now using some of those same techniques in this study to identify fake COVID-19 products for sale. From March to May 2020, we have identified nearly 2,000 fraudulent postings likely tied to fake COVID-19 health products, financial scams and other consumer risk.”

According to Mackey, the fraudulent posts came in two waves focused on unproven marketing claims for prevention or cures and fake testing kits. He said a third wave of fake pharmaceutical treatments is materializing and will worsen when public health officials announce development of an effective vaccine or other therapeutic treatments.

The researchers identified suspect posts through a combination of natural language processing and machine learning. Posts were transferred into a deep learning algorithm to detect fraudulent ones. The findings were compiled to provide reports to authorities, including the World Health Organization and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“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.

He provided three tips to help identify a fraudulent post or scam:

• If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Look out for mentions of bulk or rapid sales, cheap pricing and questionable claims such as FDA approval or specific certifications.

• Beware of importing products from another country. If you’re a U.S. consumer, it is likely illegal to import products such as COVID-19 tests. Such purchases should be considered risky.

• Watch for illegitimate contact methods. If the seller is conducting business or a transaction through social media direct messages or another non-traditional communications application, including Skype or WhatsApp, it probably isn’t legitimate.

“We recommend that anyone concerned of contracting COVID-19 or hoping to be tested first work with their personal health care provider or local public health agency to ensure safe access to testing or treatment, and report any suspicious activity to federal authorities,” Mackey said.

“Our hope is that the results from this study will better inform social media users so they can better decipher between fraudulent and legitimate posts. We conducted this research with the goal that eventually it will lead to improved tools and policy changes so that social media can be used as a force for good.” ◆