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FBI warns people of surge in cryptocurrency-related fraud during COVID-19

The US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has warned users to be on alert for a surge in cryptocurrency related fraud, including blackmail, work-from-home, and investment scams, as fraudsters are “leveraging increased fear and uncertainty” during the COVID-19 pandemic to steal people’s money and “launder it through the complex cryptocurrency ecosystem”, the FBI said. It’s unclear what triggered the FBI’s warning.

Cryptocurrencies have become commonplace, more merchants now accept them for payments, there are more exchanges, and thousands of cryptocurrency kiosks across the world. This makes their usage higher, as well as the potential for misuse, higher.

The FBI warned that such scams can unfold as people claim to have “dirty secrets” and access to people’s personal information, some scams involve donations, and others involve the getting people to make payments for non-existent products. Scammers can send threatening emails or letters claiming to have access to people’s personal information and “dirty secrets”, and demand payment in Bitcoin to prevent releasing the information publicly. “With the advent of COVID-19, there is a new twist on this scam. The correspondence claims that the writer will both release your information and infect you and/or your family with coronavirus unless payment is sent to a Bitcoin wallet.”

Fraudsters can ask people to accept a donation of funds — which is stolen money — into their own account and deposit them into a crypto kiosk. People can also be lured from trusted e-commerce sites offering products that claim to prevent COVID-19 to unrelated and unregulated messaging sites to accept payments in cryptocurrencies for non-existent products.

Although there are legitimate charities, investment platforms, and e-commerce sites that accept payment in cryptocurrency, pressure to use cryotcurrencies is a “significant red flag”, the FBI said. The US federal agency warned users to be avoid providing bank account information to others, and verify that a vendor is legitimate and accepts cryptocurrency before sending payments/donations.

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Thieves have managed to steal $2 million in cryptocurrencies from panicking users in Asia seeking to purchase Personal Protective Equipment. Scammers posted supplies on trusted e-commerce websites such as Amazon, eBay, and social media marketplaces, and then lured customers to messaging platforms where they took payments in cryptocurrencies in exchange for a phony shopping label as receipt of the purchase.

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