Last updated on March 25th, 2020 by Chris Griffin

Amid the uncertainty around COVID-19 and the economy, business owners are pivoting to make their services available online. With social distancing and the temporary closing of “non-essential” businesses, email is an easy way for a traditionally in-person business to quickly connect with customers. Unfortunately, that convenience is also available to the bad actors who are looking to exploit a vulnerable consumer population during this global crisis. It’s already started.

Last week, to shine a light on the recent rise of COVID-19 email scams, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a warning to consumers to be wary of interacting with businesses and other organizations through email. As the FTC put it, “anyone can set up shop online under almost any name,” and consumers should take the necessary steps to ensure they know who they’re dealing with.

Things like confirming that a sender’s email address is registered to the business they’re claiming to represent is sound advice for consumers. But it’s also wise for business owners, especially those that are just setting up shop online, to make sure they have these things sewn up on their end. Or risk appearing like the businesses the FTC is actively warning customers to avoid.

While the FTC’s warning was in direct response to COVID-19 email scams, the overall message was nothing new. Email has always been ripe for exploitation and consumers have always needed to be cautious. 

Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that email scams earn almost $2 billion a year. Consumers know this and it’s not a shocker that it’s important to appear like a legitimate business online. But as more physical storefronts temporarily shutter and move online, professionalism might become key to survival. The rise in competition online coupled with the increase in scamming is making it tougher than ever to reach customers through email.

If you’re looking at how to build your business online in light of the coronavirus pandemic, start with the basics. Take this warning to consumers as an action item for your business. If your business appears like those the FTC is warning consumers not to do business with, make a change.

Business Outreach Takes Off 

In light of coronavirus, businesses are taking to their mailing lists to update customers on how they’ll continue to operate in safety. While it’s both comforting and hopeful to see these businesses continue to work, the flood of emails is too much.

Corporate outreach has grown to the point where it’s become Twitter fodder, and it shows just how crowded the customer communication space is. What’s worse for small businesses and those just getting online is that the majority of the brands flooding inboxes are large and established. Whether the recipient’s reaction to the outreach is positive or negative, they’re usually not questioning the authenticity of the sender. That’s because established brands typically take steps to ensure there’s no question that they are who they say they are. 

Emails from these companies come from a branded address, they include proper contact information, and they give recipients an option to opt-out.

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FTC Tells Consumers to Do Their Research

In the COVID-19 warning, the FTC advised consumers to do a search for the names, email addresses, and other contact information included in emails to confirm the authenticity of the sender. This is in line with what the FTC has always told consumers about business email interactions. Check out the FTC’s guidance for recognizing and avoiding phishing and other email scams.

Again, this stuff isn’t new. Google “how to tell if an email is a scam” and the first result you’ll get is a 6-year old blog from computer security company McAfee. The blog advises consumers to, among other things, look out for businesses using Gmail, Yahoo!, and other free email addresses.  

Online Consumers Have Always Been Skeptical

Consumer skepticism on the internet also isn’t a new phenomenon. Regardless of how comfortable one might be online, there’s still a natural sense of caution when it comes to making a transaction. Sure, you probably don’t think twice when making a purchase on Amazon, but when engaging with a company for the first time, especially if it’s in response to a cold outreach, you’re going to be at least a little skeptical.

Last month, before the rush to stop the spread of COVID-19 temporarily shut physical storefronts across the world, we asked 500 consumers about the importance of a business’s digital presence. It’s no coincidence that their responses resonated with the points the FTC made in its warning. Online, a business needs to appear like a professional outlet, or it risks losing potential customers.

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Separate From the Scammers

Digital presence has become a buzzword to refer to a company’s website and social media. But in reality, building and maintaining a website is a real investment. And making a significant impact on social media doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why so many businesses rely on email to make an instant impact. 

It’s also why the FTC focused on email in its message to consumers. You can directly contact and solicit large groups of consumers, regardless of the intent, via email. You can’t do that with a website.

With the surge in nefarious email activities amid the coronavirus crisis, a business must invest in establishing credibility. For those that are now pivoting to digital to keep their business going, use this checklist to ensure that you build a complete professional online presence. And start with an easy win, like getting branded email addresses for you and your team.

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Originally published 23rd March 2020 12:08:37pm, last updated on March 25th, 2020

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