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How to Spot the Most Common COVID-Related Scams

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Illustration for article titled How to Spot the Most Common COVID-Related Scams

Photo: fizkes (Shutterstock)

Part of the “new normal” of the pandemic is the uptick in COVID-related scams. More than 200,000 Americans have lost a sum total of around $145 million to them since the start of the year, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Here are some of the common frauds catching people off guard.

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Fake contact tracers 

If you’re contacted about possible exposure to COVID, make sure the person reaching out to you is a legitimate contact tracer. Contact tracers working for state health departments will reach out via phone, text, or by mail and be able to provide their name, agency, and a phone number. They will ask:

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  • For your name and address
  • For your date of birth
  • For your whereabouts on certain dates
  • Questions about whether you’ve experienced any symptoms

Contact tracers will never:

  • Ask for payments or financial information.
  • Ask for your Medicare, Medicaid or insurance policy number.
  • Ask for your Social Security number.
  • Ask about your immigration status.
  • Text or email you weblinks.
  • Threaten you.

Robocalls

According to a recent survey 1 in 5 people have received a robocall regarding COVID. These scam calls are prerecorded messages from people claiming to be contact tracers or agents from government agencies like the IRS or state health departments. Typically, the callers falsely claim to be offering COVID treatment or testing or financial assistance. These messages will ask you to provide personal information, or direct you to press “1” on your phone, which transfers you to a live scammer.

If you get a call like this, do not press any buttons and hang up. Then, report the call to the FTC at donotcall.gov.

Embedded links in texts, or “smishing” 

Police departments across the country have recently issued warnings about malicious links in texts—a form of phishing known as “smishing.” Recently these texts have taken the form of a rash of fake “package pending” delivery notices, but scammers will also send texts claiming to be government workers, tech support, financial institutions or contact tracers.

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Clicking a smishing link results in an attempt to gain your personal information or login details, usually through a fake login screen posing as the institution the scammer claims to represent. In some cases, clicking on these links will lead to scammers uploading malware to your device.

Follow these tips to avoid this scam:

  • Never click on links or download attachments from texts or emails without confirming the source. Beware of invites from unknown senders.
  • Avoid login screens provided in emails. Instead, open up your browser and go to the website directly.
  • A fake login page usually contains an unusual URL, non-functioning links or buttons, and spelling mistakes in the instructions.
  • Always think twice about whether a request for your personal information is appropriate.
  • Ignore and delete emails with links written with poor grammar, confusing inconsistencies and unusual formatting.

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The FTC has more tips on how to report and prevent COVID-related scams, but as a general rule, if you are sure who is contacting you never click on links or attachments!

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How corporations and SMBs can turn competition into collaboration

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We can finally live out our Jetsons fantasies – almost. Pandemic permitting, in a few years we should be able to hire an aircraft to get from A to B. Volocopter’s drone-like, electric-powered helicopters will be cleared to take off with passengers in two to three years. 

During its first public flight in Europe last year, CEO Florian Reuter stated that backing from Daimler gave his company the credibility and traction that his competitors cannot claim to have. CEO of Mercedes-Benz Cars and Chairman of its parent company Daimler, Ola Källenius said that by partnering with Volocopter, Daimler can be part of “the mobility of the future.” Thanks to this collaboration, catching a lift will have a whole new meaning.

So how important are this type of collaboration or partnership to a digital ecosystem? 

What is an ecosystem in the first place? 

A digital ecosystem is always more than the sum of its parts but there are common ingredients among the most successful ones. Founders with problems to solve. Co-founders who believe in their vision. Networking events so they can find each other. Funding from friends and family, angels, VCs, and private equity funds. Support organizations like workplace communities, growth platforms, and networking and membership groups. Venues and co-working spaces. Support programs like accelerators, incubators, and open innovation initiatives.  A qualified talent pool, technical infrastructure like fast broadband, links to education to create a talent pipeline and access to academic research. Backing from local and national governments and big companies that take an active interest in what the smaller ones are doing.

This isn’t an exhaustive list so what do the experts say? Carlos Espinal, Managing Partner at Seedcamp start-up platform, would add tax relief for risky ventures, access to legal counsel, tolerance for failure, and a strong media presence.

Steven Renwick, entrepreneur across London and Berlin and CPO at Regis 24 broke it down to The Next Web in simpler terms. Essentially, in his view, a healthy ecosystem has the presence of both people who are building businesses and of good investors who share ideas and best practices with each other.

The importance of idea validation

 Having all the ingredients present is one thing but sharing ideas and best practices is an action that shouldn’t be reserved for the good investors. Collaboration, especially between smaller businesses and their larger counterparts, is the catalyst that precipitates innovation. That innovation then ripples out, positively affecting other parts of the cluster. 

There are several direct benefits to the small business. These include investment, project funding, access to corporate information and data.

For Renwick, just as important are the intangible benefits: expertise, guidance, idea validation, connections, and forming strong relationships with existing and potential customers. 

He said: “Small companies need to speak to big companies to find out if their problems are relevant or not. And there’s no accounting for serendipity. You never know who is going to introduce you to an investor or an employee.”

Finding product-market fit

Speaking to the benefits of idea validation is Sebastian Weyer, Co-Founder of Statice, a privacy and compliance start-up. He took part in Data Pitch, an EU-funded innovation program in which corporates share their data with start-ups. By working with the data of a digital health company Weyer was able to confirm Statice’s utility. 

He told The Next Web: “The collaboration went very smoothly as we laid out the project to apply our technology to their data. The final result was to show that the company was able to protect its user data with our software while still enabling them to use the data in a meaningful way.”

Gaining a deeper understanding of a sector is necessary for founders with experience in a different industry as Karl Lorey, a Stuttgart-based Technologist and Investor explained to The Next Web. He said: “Many start-ups are founded by people not from a specific industry so they need to understand how things work there in order to find product-market fit. The way to do it is to talk directly to your customer and understand their needs to build products that corporates want, thus generating sustainable revenue early.” 

Speaking of revenue, Weyer also attested to the fact that collaborations can assist with sales and customer acquisition. He said: “Usually, collaborations are part of our sales process. Quite often these include setting up a proof of concept project with corporates to test our product together. This is usually handled by our salespeople.”

Mutually beneficial partnerships

Christian Deilmann, Co-Founder and MD of smart heating company tado, recognizes first-hand the benefits to the SMB of collaborating but he also understands the pros to the other party. His smart heating and wireless thermostat company has collaborated with energy suppliers including Essen, Germany-based E.ON while participating in Data Pitch. 

He told The Next Web: “Start-ups are very fast in developing and creating new innovations and being very close to the consumers and seeing what their specific needs are. And the large corporations, their products are ready for new innovations. If you put the two together, the corporation has customer reach and innovations.”

Lorey said that from his perspective, collaboration often leads to an acquisition which is a way to bring the agility and innovation of a start-up into the larger company. This form of partnership, buy-outs, and corporate venture capital is long term and not for the commitment-shy. 

The importance of community

Other locations where collaboration can take place are accelerators, co-working spaces, events, and competitions. Other forms of collaboration include procurement, co-development, and free tools. Even investors can play their part as Lorey has been asked to make introductions between fund investors from medium-sized companies and start-ups in order to initiate a project.

The events hosted by or at start-up communities like Google for Startups, Silicon Allee, and Digital Hub Initiative can be fruitful for finding a collaborative partner.

Karolin Hewelt, Head of Hub Agency underlines Digital Hub Initiative’s role as points of interaction between start-ups and corporates in Germany. She says: “Established companies in many industries seldom had access to the great start-up hotspots like Berlin, Hamburg or Munich, although there were sometimes great teams and talents and also start-ups at the excellent universities in their vicinity. But they hardly ever learned about each other.” 

Making connections is a key part of the Digital Hub Initiative mission and the 12 Hubs that form part of its network specialize in various technology areas so organizations that share a sector interest can connect more easily. The Digital Logistics Hub is in Dortmund, Smart Infrastructure Hub in Leipzig, and Media Tech Hub in Potsdam. A young company that is part of the InsurTech Hub in Munich is Smartlane Transport Intelligence. The start-up uses cloud-based software and artificial intelligence to help fleet operators plan and optimize their vehicles’ journeys more efficiently and now counts Deutsche Bahn as one of its customers.

With so much action and interaction in a digital ecosystem, the positive effects of collaboration are felt not just by those who are directly participating. 

According to Deilmann, collaborations are beneficial in general because they highlight opportunities for improvement plus they eliminate inefficiencies in uncertain value chains. From his perspective, there is a multiplier effect when corporations see their competitors working with start-ups on innovation projects and bringing them to market quickly. By observing what others are achieving and seeing customers react well to those innovations, they are stimulated to also seek out partnerships with start-ups and innovate. 

German industries would be left behind in an analog past without collaborations, said Ueberheide, as he believes they would not be able to successfully digitize themselves without those partnerships.

It is clear that many see innovative collaborations as the way for old-school industries and corporations to understand and make use of the technological advances of the future. 

Lorey said: “Start-ups and big corporates have different areas of expertise and can greatly benefit from each other. Especially in Germany, there are many corporates that have understood that they need to innovate in order to survive and many innovative startups with exciting technologies and services. I think corporates need meaningful connections to startups to leverage this potential and to bridge the gap.”

Weyer added that collaborations support sales, product development, and research, and that pooling resources facilitates many technological advances. These aspects of business impact many other areas of the ecosystem. 

So it seems collaborations are necessary for the innovation required for company survival, and with those corporations serving as one of the pillars of a digital ecosystem, the importance of partnering cannot be understated.

This article is brought to you by the Digital Hub Initiative.

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Duolingo’s bilingual true crime podcast will entertain you while you learn Spanish

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Language learning app Duolingo is debuting what it says is the world’s first bilingual true crime podcast designed for people learning Spanish. El Gran Robo Argentino (The Great Argentine Heist) tells the story of the 2006 robbery of a Banco Rio bank in Buenos Aires, where five men stole a fortune worth $20 million.

It’s quite the riveting drama; without giving too much away, the robbers became folk heroes in Argentina, and the heist was the subject of a movie — El Robo del Siglo— in Argentina earlier this year. For more, read Josh Dean’s great retelling of the tale in GQ (but obviously, spoiler alerts).

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The Duolingo podcast will be a serialized season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, which is geared toward Spanish learners and has 39 million unique downloads, the company said. The six-episode season includes interviews with real people who were part of the heist, including journalists, investigators, and even one of the bank robbers. The episodes will be narrated by podcast host and journalist Martina Castro.

Duolingo launched its Spanish podcast in 2017. El Gran Robo Argentino marks its ninth season, and its first presented in a serialized format. In addition to its Spanish-for-English-speakers podcast, Duolingo has a French podcast for English speakers and an English podcast for Spanish speakers.

For the Spanish podcast episodes, native speakers tell stories in easy-to-understand Spanish alongside English narration by Castro. The bilingual structure, which alternates between Spanish and English, lets English speakers follow along with the story without getting lost. Duolingo works with each storyteller, coaching them on speaking more slowly than they normally might, and the vocabulary in every episode is mapped out so it meets the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) — the international standard for measuring language proficiency — for a speaker of intermediate-level Spanish.

El Gran Robo Argentina launches today, wherever you get your podcasts.

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WoHo wants to make constructing buildings fast, flexible and green with reusable “components”

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Buildings are the bedrocks of civilization — places to live, places to work (well, normally, in a non-COVID-19 world) and places to play. Yet how we conceive buildings, architect them for their uses, and ultimately construct them on a site has changed remarkably little over the past few decades. Housing and building costs continue to rise, and there remains a slow linear process from conception to construction for most projects. Why can’t the whole process be more flexible and faster?

Well, a trio of engineers and architects out of MIT and Georgia Tech are exploring that exact question.

MIT’s former treasurer Israel Ruiz along with architects Anton Garcia-Abril of MIT and Debora Mesa of Georgia Tech have joined together on a startup called WoHo (short for “World Home”) that’s trying to rethink how to construct a modern building by creating more flexible “components” that can be connected together to create a structure.

WoHo’s Israel Ruiz, Debora Mesa, and Anton Garcia-Abril. Photo via WoHo.

By creating components that are usable in a wide variety of types of buildings and making them easy to construct in a factory, the goal of WoHo is to lower construction costs, maximize flexibility for architects, and deliver compelling spaces for end users, all while making projects greener in a climate unfriendly world.

The team’s ideas caught the attention of Katie Rae, CEO and managing director of The Engine, a special fund that spun out of MIT that is notable for its lengthy time horizons for VC investments. The fund is backing WoHo with $4.5 million in seed capital.

Ruiz spent the last decade overseeing MIT’s capital construction program, including the further buildout of Kendall Square, a neighborhood next to MIT that has become a major hub for biotech innovation. Through that process, he saw the challenges of construction, particularly for the kinds of unique spaces required for innovative companies. Over the years, he also built friendships with Garcia-Abril and Mesa, the duo behind Ensamble Studio, an architecture firm.

With WoHo, “it is the integration of the process from the design and concept in architecture all the way through the assembly and construction of that project,” Ruiz explained. “Our technology is suitable for low-to-high rise, but in particularly it provides the best outcomes for mid-to-high rise.”

So what exactly are these WoHo components? Think of them as well-designed and reusable blocks that can be plugged together in order to create a structure. These blocks are consistent and are designed to be easily manufactured and transported. One key innovation is around an improved reinforced cement that allows for better building quality at lower environmental cost.

Conception of a WoHo component under construction. Photo via WoHo

We have seen modular buildings before, typically apartment buildings where each apartment is a single block that can be plugged into a constructed structure (take for example this project in Sacramento). WoHo, though, wants to go further in having components that offer more flexibility and arrangements, and also act as the structure themselves. That gives architects far more flexibility.

It’s still early days, but the group has already gotten some traction in the market, inking a partnership with Swiss concrete and building materials company LafargeHolcim to bring their ideas to market. The company is building a demonstration project in Madrid, and targeting a second project in Boston for next year.

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