Q & A: How Scams Proliferate in the Age of COVID-19

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April 24, 2020

A recent investigation by BuzzFeed News and the George Washington University Institute of Data, Democracy and Politics (IDDP) discovered that a rapacious online affiliate marketing apparatus sent over a billion misleading emails offering disposable facemasks for 10 times their usual market price.

E-commerce entrepreneur Ricardo Jorge Pereira de Sousa Coelho offered the product, SafeMask, at $39.99 for a pack of two. (Comparable respirators normally sell for about 75 cents a unit.) There was also an option to buy a three-year warranty—implying that the mask was reusable for that period of time.

Many of the emails advertising SafeMask were targeted toward subscribers to right-wing newsletters, while others used email lists from survivalist blogs and Horoscope.com. Ricardo de Sousa told BuzzFeed the emails came not from him but from affiliate marketers, third-party marketers who receive commissions for directing traffic to a product.

Craig Silverman, media editor for BuzzFeed News and the IDDP’s inaugural Knight Fellow, wrote the article for BuzzFeed with IDDP researcher Trevor Davis. GW Today spoke to Mr. Silverman about the investigation, the downfalls of affiliate marketing and the parasitical scam economy arising with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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