Commission hits out at online COVID-19 scams

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders speaks after the signing ceremony of a voluntary commitment agreement at the EU Commission in Brussels, Belgium, 30 January 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The European Commission has rebuked online platforms including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba and eBay for the alleged “proliferation of deceptive marketing techniques” that exploit consumers’ fear of coronavirus for economic gain.

On Monday (23 March), Commissioner For Justice and Consumers Didier Reynders penned a letter to the platforms, calling on them to cooperate in removing ‘scam’ advertisements for certain products that purport to prevent or cure COVID-19 infections.

“It is in the interest of platform operators like you to keep the environment safe and their users free from the risks posed by illegal commercial practices which may harm EU consumers in a moment where they are most vulnerable due to the tragic current events which are affecting the Union as well as the rest of the world,” the letter from Reynders read.

Reynders urged the platforms to take corrective action to address this issue by “removing illegal content”. EU law obliges platforms that operate in the EU to take such measures when they become aware of certain illegal activity taking place on their websites.

The letter came following a common position adopted by Consumer Protection (CPC) authorities of EU member states last week, in which the network highlighted the most commonly reported breaches of EU consumer law in the context of the recent outbreak of the coronavirus in the EU.

Those included unsubstantiated claims that certain products can aid in the fight against the coronavirus, in addition to pressure selling techniques and excessive pricing of particular items.

Elsewhere, consumers across the EU are being targeted with phishing emails that claim to offer quick-fixes for coronavirus infectees.

This was recently highlighted by the EU Agency for Cybersecurity’s Executive Director, Juhan Lepassaar, who warned in a blog post that “mails that create an image of urgency or severe consequences are key candidates for phishing,” in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.

Further afield, the World Health Organisation has also recently released guidelines, instructing people to be aware that cybercriminals are attempting to impersonate trusted health authorities across the globe.

Meanwhile, the US Federal Trade Commission has also published a broader set of instructions on how people should remain vigilant amid potential coronavirus scams.

Last week US senators Mark Warner and Richard Blumenthal put pressure on the FTC to take measures against Google for its continued running of ads for ‘protective’ masks. The products claim to provide sufficient protection against contracting the coronavirus.

“Google has made repeated representations to consumers that its policies prohibit ads for products such as protective masks,” a joint letter from Warner and Blumenthal read.

“Yet the company appears not to be taking even rudimentary steps to enforce that policy.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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