On September 8th, as the daily coronavirus case count ticked up to 28,550, the executive editor of The Verge received a strange email. “TC Sottek: We would like to inform you that you have been recorded as leaving your home on 3 occasions yesterday. A fine of $59 has been added to your gov.us account.”
The fine had increased from $35 on September 1st, when Andrew J. Hawkins, a transportation reporter, received the same email. Both were told to visit www.gov.us/coronavirus/penalty-payment/tracking for more information.
Unsurprisingly, this was not the US government suddenly taking a more active role in the pandemic. It was a scam, one not particularly attuned to the Trump administration’s hands-off approach to solving the coronavirus crisis. While the links looked legit, the gov.us URL was only display text. Once clicked, the link took people to su.onamoc.comano.us, a non-government domain, then redirected to a scammy website.
The misstep was on full display when Sottek posted the screenshot in a Verge chat and the responses from my colleagues were, roughly “I’d pay $59 to leave my house three times in one day” and “damn i was hoping [www.gov.us/coronavirus/penalty-payment/tracking] was somehow actually a page.”
Don’t we all! At this point in the pandemic, I would welcome some strict daddy energy from the federal government that would force people indoors if they had coronavirus. Instead, we have a less-than-half-assed approach where small businesses stay shuttered forever and universities welcome students back on campus only to send them home a few weeks later. Because they were throwing parties. Because they are college students.
Back in March, there was another viral myth circulating about the Trump administration issuing a national lockdown. “Please be advised,” it began. “Within 48 to 72 hours the President will evoke what is called the Stafford Act. Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two week supply of everything. Please forward to your network.”
The goal seemed to be to sow panic and fear, and possibly encourage people to stockpile toilet paper before they were barred from entering Trader Joe’s. In reality, the Trump administration foisted lockdown enforcement onto the states, which allowed them to blame Democratic governors for the ensuing economic free fall.
But anyway, back to the scams. The quarantine grift seems to have a couple iterations. One, which was sent to Verge policy editor Russell Brandom, says it’s from a COVID lab. “The results of your recent COVID-19 test are ready,” it reads. “To access your results, please log in to the account you created during registration. You will need to use the Username and Password you created for your personal account at www.theverge.com/covid19test.” This link also redirects to a scary site that has nothing to do with The Verge.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a gift to scammers, who’ve capitalized on people’s confusion and fear to bully them into handing over money. Everyone wants to know about the virus — where it started, how it spreads, when a vaccine might be coming — but very few of those questions have answers. The information void is where scams thrive.
It’s ironic that the giveaway for these schemes isn’t that Brandom hadn’t taken a recent COVID-19 test or Sottek didn’t actually have the virus. It’s that at this point in the pandemic, it’s obvious the administration isn’t that invested in keeping people safe from the disease. In fact, Trump is now focused on reopening schools and calling out Democratic governors who continue to enforce shelter-in-place orders. The president, seeing that there’s nothing to be gained from continuing to talk about coronavirus, seems to have largely moved on. The scammers, ever persistent, have not.
Have you received a scam email or phone call? I want to hear about it! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t, you may be charged $10.