FRANKFURT, Germany (AFP) — The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Thursday halted emergency payments meant to help freelancers and small businesses through the coronavirus crisis after discovering fraudsters were using bogus websites to trick applicants.
The regional economy ministry of Germany’s most populous state said it filed a fraud complaint with police after “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 of 9,000 to 15,000 euros after entering personal details including their name, address and tax and bank account numbers.
According to early investigations by the police cybercrime unit, fraudsters have been using 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: https://soforthilfe-corona.nrw.de.
“We ask those applicants who are currently waiting for their money transfer for understanding and patience,” the ministry said.
The cash handout, which is available nationwide, is part of a massive rescue package by the German government to shield 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.
The measures are battering Europe’s top economy, which experts believe will shrink by around 5% this year.
© Agence France-Presse