Ever ready to feed off the next news cycle and the financial distress of others, scammers are taking full advantage of current affairs to launch crooked schemes designed to empty our pockets and steal our personal information. Adjusting their tactics as events evolve and wielding simple-to-use tools like Caller ID spoofing and voice recordings, their grifts often appear legitimate to those who aren’t prepared. We’re featuring a few popular scams making the rounds this season, so that you and those you care about aren’t caught off guard.
The Better Business Bureau and Federal Trade Commission as well as a number of government agencies have raised the alarm about fraudulent communications related to the coronavirus, ranging from callers purporting to offer cash payments, to phony letters regarding the loss of Social Security benefits. Here are a few coronavirus cons to stay alert to:
Promises of stimulus payments, debt relief or loans: In one common ploy, you may get a phone call, email, text or social media message from someone feigning to be from the Treasury, or another government department or agency, to inform you that you are entitled to a cash grant, debt relief or quick loan approval due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tells us, if you respond, you may be asked for money to pay for an advanced fee, or to share personal information, or both. Consumers have also received phishing messages regarding checks that are supposedly ready for pickup. In all cases, these are scams.
Note that the government will not call, text or contact anyone on social media regarding these matters. Also keep in mind that it’s quite easy for a scammer to use phone spoofing technology to make it appear as if the call is coming from somewhere associated with official government business, such as Washington D.C or Sacramento. And if you click on a link in a message, there is a good chance you could download malware onto your device, or get directed to a bogus and malicious website. Ignore these offers, except to consider reporting them to authorities such as the state attorney general or FTC. Find a list of appropriate investigative agencies for specific types of fraud at the Department of Justice here.
Contact tracing confusion: It’s important to remain cautious if you’re contacted by someone who tells you that you may have been exposed to COVID-19. Although a contact tracer from your state health department may call you for this reason, don’t forget that fraudsters aren’t overlooking the opportunity to exploit efforts to find and identify people that have been in close contact with an infected person. Be aware that contract tracers should not ask for a Medicare number, bank account or credit card information, your Social Security number or your immigration status. Nor will they ask you for money to set up a COVID-19 test for you. For a cheat sheet to help you steer clear of contact tracing fraud, check out “Contact Tracing Call? 5 Things to Know” from the FTC.
Solicitations for vaccinations and home test kits: If you or someone you love is a Medicare beneficiary, be sure to refuse any offers for items such as home COVID-19 tests or vaccinations that purport to come from a Medicare representative. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General has announced that scammers are reaching out to Medicare beneficiaries to peddle products such as “COVID-19 kits” or “Coronavirus packages,” etc. These unapproved services are a front to get the would-be victim to reveal their Social Security or Medicare numbers, bank account information, street addresses and other personal identifiable information. Learn more from HHS.
Threats regarding the loss of Social Security benefits: In another scam targeting seniors, Social Security beneficiaries have received letters through the mail stating that their payments will be suspended or discontinued due to office closures resulting from COVID-19. To remedy the situation, they are told they must call a phone number provided in the letter. Once they place the call, they are told that to keep their benefits coming, they must provide personal information or make a payment via gift card, wire transfers, cryptocurrency or cash. But as the Social Security Administration has assured the public, the office will not suspend or discontinue benefits because their offices are closed for in-person visits. For details on this scam, visit their site.
As the upcoming 2020 election draws closer, you can expect an uptick in various related schemes to bilk voters out of their money and unintentionally disclose their personal data. Watch out for the following, in particular:
Phony fundraisers: In general, it’s best to make a donation to a campaign directly through the official website or at a local campaign office. There is simply too high a risk that someone who solicits donations over the phone or in a text is a scammer wanting your personal or financial information. Furthermore, as Bethany Davis points out in “Better Business Bureau warns of election-related scams,” the fact that the caller is not fraudulent does not necessarily mean that they don’t represent a poorly run organization (you can check out if a group is accredited at give.org). The Saturday Evening Post also reminds us that scammers can set up fake websites that appear legitimate as a result of a quick online search. Before making a donation to a candidate or PAC (Political Action Committee), the publication advises using whois.com to find out who owns the website you are using to make the donation (hint: a website owned by someone in Russia is likely a bad sign).
Polling tricks: Although pollsters may ask you about what could certainly be considered personal information about your demographics or political affiliations, they should not ask you for your Social Security number, or your credit card or banking information. What’s more, legitimate polling firms won’t offer you a prize or reward for taking their survey. Bethany Davis explains that fraudulent pollsters have been known to start a phone call by asking you what seem to be valid questions, and then switch gears to ask for your credit card details in order to pay for shipping and taxes to claim your prize. If this occurs, hang up.
Registration rackets: Be advised that your city or town clerk will not call you on the phone to tell you to re-register. As with the other scams we’ve highlighted, this is a trick to get you to turn over sensitive information. If you’re concerned about your voter registration status in the state of California, you can confirm it easily online.
Even in times of economic growth, scams related to unemployment are considered to be among the riskiest according to the Better Business Bureau. With Americans struggling with unemployment due to coronavirus shutdowns, they are as prevalent as ever. One of the most popular types of these scams involves fake checks. Under this scheme, the job seeker is told to deposit a check, then to take care of a business expense , sometimes by transferring money through a payment service like Venmo, Zelle or Western Union. The check then bounces as the fraudster collects the money from the transfer. In another variation, the scammer asks that reloadable gift cards be purchased to pay for the expenses. In other cases, the person posing as an employer will direct the “employee” to use the money to pay a “vendor” for equipment or supplies to start a work-from-home position. A scammer may also profess to hire an individual to process checks, stating that checks should be deposited, and the worker should subtract their compensation before sending back the remaining amount of the check.
As commonplace as scams regarding checks and money transfers are, keep in mind that they are not the only type of con a person may encounter in their job search right now. For instance, bogus employment ads are also being used by criminals to collect a person’s sensitive information, whether for their own personal use or to sell it to criminal networks. For tips on how to prevent becoming a victim when looking for work, check out “Common Job Scams and How to Avoid Them” from The Balance.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the need to keep track of the various scams continually cropping up in these uncertain times? If so, you’re in good company, and may be glad to know that the FTC has created a way to make this easier. By signing up for their Consumer Alerts, you can stay connected to what you need to know about recent fraudulent activities. You can also find a wealth of information on fighting fraud, what to do if you were scammed, and how to report it at ftc.gov/imposters.