North Rhine-Westphalia halts coronavirus aid payments over fake websites

The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Thursday halted emergency payments for freelancers and small businesses hit by the coronavirus crisis after discovering fraudsters were using "fake websites" to trick applicants.

North Rhine-Westphalia halts coronavirus aid payments over fake websites
A shop in Berlin displaying a closed sign. Many businesses are affected by the corona crisis. Photo: DPA

The regional economy ministry of Germany's most populous state, in the west of the country, 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 €9,000 and €15,000 after entering personal details including their name, address and tax and bank account numbers.

The cash is aimed at helping people through the current coronavirus pandemic as public life has almost slammed to a halt.

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.

The measures are battering Europe's top economy, which experts believe will shrink by around five percent this year.

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‘People liked the silence’: How Berlin’s club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Berlin's clubs are suffering from staff shortages, a lack of guests... and neighbours who've grown used to the silence, representatives for the scene say.

'People liked the silence': How Berlin's club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Some operators from Berlin’s club scene are bracing themselves for a difficult autumn. For months now, people have been allowed to dance again and life has returned to normal in the dark corners of Berlin’s famous nightlife scene.

But the clubs have far from recovered from the pandemic. They face staff shortages, rising prices and the prospect of a return to Covid restrictions in the autumn.

“We go into the autumn with huge fear, because the omens are totally unfavorable,” said association head Pamela Schobeß.

Spring and summer went anything but smoothly, she said. “There has been an oversupply of events. People aren’t going out as much, and some are still afraid to move around indoors.”

Money is also an issue. “A lot of people are afraid of rising energy prices.”

The industry lost workers during the pandemic and it’s hard to convince them to come back with the outlook for the autumn looking so gloomy, Schobeß says.

Her colleague Robin Schellenberg tells a similar story. People have switched to various other jobs and would even rather work on a supermarket checkout, which may have been considered less sexy in the past. Now, he says, some have learned to love not having to work nights.


Schellenberg runs the Klunkerkranich, a small club on a parking garage deck in Neukölln. Because a number of things have become more expensive, they have also had to increase their admission prices.

His impression is that people are going out less often and are deciding more spontaneously. In addition, people in the neighborhood are now more sensitive to noise. “Many people found the silence very enticing,” he said.

Some in the industry wonder what will happen next. Will club admission have to become much more expensive? Will that exclude people who can no longer afford it? And what happens if Covid infection numbers rise sharply?

If masks become mandatory indoors in October, Schobeß believes that would be bad for the clubs. “Even if we don’t get shut down by the state, we’ll actually have to close down independently ourselves,” she reckons.

Masks take all the joy out of the experience, she says. People have drinks in their hands and are “jumping around and dancing” and then security guards have to tell them “please put your mask on.”

The federal government is considering whether states should be able to make masks mandatory indoors starting in October. Exceptions should be possible, such as at cultural and sporting events, for people who have been tested, recently vaccinated and recently recovered.

In the event that Covid numbers soar, the states could then be allowed to tighten the rules and eliminate all exemptions.

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