As the novel coronavirus pandemic rages and the world shelters in place, scammers are seeking to capitalize on public fear and uncertainty, requiring brand owners to be ever vigilant in monitoring and protecting their intellectual property.
Many of the early pandemic-themed scams relate to "phishing," a tactic involving the use of websites, emails, text messages, or other links that, on their face, appear innocent, but instead lead to bogus products or services or contain malware designed to harvest private data and information. The messages often use well-known brand names (or iterations thereof) to give a false impression of reputability by cloning websites, mimicking names and logos, and registering domain-name variations.
Multiple instances of phishing have been identified during the current crisis. Already, scammers have used the trademarks and domains of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—organizations leading the effort to combat the spread of coronavirus—to trick users into clicking links or downloading apps that infect devices with malware. The links appear legitimate and coincide with a request for immediate action. In an email that appeared to be from the CDC (signed "CDC-INFO National Contact Center"), for instance, a scammer sent a purported link to information about new coronavirus cases in a recipient's hometown. That link appeared to be an actual CDC web address. Some phishing campaigns also rely on coronavirus-based domains to infect unsuspecting users with malware.
Other phishing scams during the coronavirus outbreak have used the trade names, trademarks, and domains of legitimate companies and organizations to masquerade as an entity the public trusts. Scams like those have used legitimate names or marks as the display name in the "From" field, but a closer look reveals that the display name is a cover-up. A recent scam sent emails that claimed to be from "Gates Foundation," but the email address next to that display name had a typo in its domain ("gatesfonudation.org"). Obviously, the unauthorized use of an organization's trademarks in this manner can damage an entity's reputation and trademarks.
In this environment, with fraudsters seeking to exploit widespread fear and panic, companies and organizations must remain vigilant in policing and protecting their trademarks to prevent unauthorized use. Brand owners can take several steps to protect their marks and mitigate damage in the event of a scam. For instance, the Department of Justice is encouraging reports of fraudulent activity involving COVID-19 to the National Center for Disaster Fraud, the FBI, and the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Brand owners can also pursue cancellations or transfers of improperly registered domain names through the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), a relatively inexpensive and swift process. More traditional trademark lawsuits with requests for expedited relief are also available. And, of course, brand owners will want to consider corrective messaging, warning consumers of the scam and making clear that they are not the source.
Brand owners should also bolster efforts to protect their trademarks through robust registration practices, which will help facilitate and expedite relief in the event of a scam. Those enhanced practices may include registering domain name variations scammers might use for phishing and registering important marks in strategic geographic areas, both in and outside the United States. These actions may prove particularly important for those organizations working on the front lines in the fight to flatten the coronavirus curve, as demonstrated by the examples above.
Companies and organizations are facing extraordinary challenges during the novel coronavirus pandemic, including to their brands. Our experienced intellectual property attorneys are available to help monitor and protect brands to guide clients through this unprecedented crisis.