German state halts COVID-19 aid over fake websites

FRANKFURT AM MAIN (AFP) – The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia yesterday halted emergency payments meant to help freelancers and small businesses through the coronavirus crisis after discovering fraudsters were using “fake websites” to trick applicants.

The Regional Economy Ministry of Germany’s most populous state said it had filed a fraud complaint with police following “indications of fake websites that appear prominently in search results”.

The websites mimic the official state site where small business owners can apply for cash handouts between EUR9,000 and EUR15,000 after entering personal details including their name, address and tax and bank account numbers.

According to early investigations by the police’s cyber crime unit, fraudsters have been using the spoof application forms to get hold of data “presumably for criminal purposes”, the ministry said in a statement.

It said it had agreed with police to “stop the payouts for freelancers and small businesses for the time being” while the investigation continues.

But it stressed that small business owners in North Rhine-Westphalia could still apply for aid, taking care to use only the official website:

“We ask those applicants who are currently waiting for their money transfer for understanding and patience,” the ministry added.

The cash handout, which is available nationwide, is part of a massive rescue package by the German government aimed at shielding companies and workers from the fallout of the pandemic.

Like other countries, Germany has closed schools and businesses and confined millions of citizens to their homes in a bid to slow the outbreak.