Twitter and Instagram being used to sell fake COVID-19 drugs and diagnostics kits, study finds

The latest scam taking over social media involves taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to sell fraudulent COVID-19 drugs, treatment kits, and therapies, a new study found using artificial intelligence. This trend may be one of the most dangerous internet/social media scams in recent times, as it endangers public health and not just financial loss.

The study, led by UC San Diego’s School of Medicine professor Timothy Mackey, involved the use of artificial intelligence to identify posts that could be promoting COVID-19 related scams, Forbes reports. Mackey’s team scanned for Instagram posts between February 5 to May 7 and Twitter tweets between March 3 to April 11 for the term “Covid-19”. This process of scanning web pages is called “scraping,” a technique commonly used for analytical or archiving purposes.

The team identified more than 6 million tweets and 200,000 Instagram posts that promoted possible scams involving COVID-19 treatment and products. The scams they found using AI ranged from dung remedies to do-it-yourself diagnostics. The team identified a total of 1,271 tweets and 596 Instagram posts that promoted scams and passed that data to the FDA (U.S. Food and Drugs Administration).

“If you are a cybercriminal and you are a fraudster, you cannot be in the business of COVID-related fraud,” says Timothy Mackey. “There was very little testing at that time  in the traditional marketplace, scammers were very responsive to what the needs there were, much more responsive than the legitimate supply chain would be.”

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The FDA even set up task force in July with the aim of reporting fraudulent postings of unproved COVID-19 treatments. The task force “has already contacted numerous parts of the online ecosystem to request that they be vigilant in removing unapproved, unauthorized, and uncleared products with false and misleading COVID-19 claims from their Internet sites.”

The team even found products such as a “Portable Hospital Machine” being promoted, claiming to use negative ion currents that can cure COVID-19. Many scams also involved claiming that the products/treatments were FDA-approved. Libby Baney a senior advisor to the NGO, Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, says: “We know there is illegal sale of medicines, substandard products, claims of fake cure and treatments on the internet, but quantifying that is really hard.”

Timothy Mackey advises three tells to look out for when identifying fraudulent products/treatments.

  1. If it’s not available in the general marketplace, it probably is not available online.
  2. If the post is asking you to contact the person directly via email or applications, it should raise red flags.
  3. If the product is marketed and sold directly to consumers by manufacturers, it’s a sign that the product is likely dubious.

You can also visit the CDC’s website for official information regarding COVID-19 drugs and treatment.

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