(Updated with new information: 9/24/20)
The vast majority of Americans have really pulled together during the coronavirus pandemic.
But, sad to say, there are still a few dishonest people trying to rip you off by using the crisis to manipulate you and your emotions.
Several scams have popped up since the pandemic began months ago. Some are variations on old scams, while others are new. Either way, it’s always best to be on guard, especially at a time when there is so much information being pushed out to the masses. It’s difficult to know exactly what to believe, and that makes everyone a lot more vulnerable to getting ripped off.
Watch Out for These Coronavirus Scams
Here are some of the coronavirus scams currently making the rounds.
Fake contact tracers. Contact tracers work for state health departments and track people who may have been exposed to Covid-19. They provide a vital function in stemming the spread from one person to another. But some scammers are pretending to be contact tracers and using this ruse as a way to steal your identity and empty out your bank accounts.
A legitimate tracer will contact you to discuss Covid-19 test results, either for you or someone you know. Legitimate tracers will only ask you for limited information (name, address, health information, and names and places you have recently visited). Scammers, on the other hand, may ask you for money, your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card numbers. Do not share your immigration status or download links sent to you from a contact tracer. Legitimate tracers do not work this way. If you think you are dealing with a fake contact tracer, contact your state health department.
Fake stimulus payments. The vast majority of Americans have already enjoyed one round of stimulus payments, and another round may be on the way. But lately, taxpayers have also been flooded by false information, calls, text messages, and emails from scammers trying to steal personal information.
Most people don’t have to do anything to get a stimulus check which is why you need to be concerned if somebody reaches out and attempts to trade your personal information for the promise of a payment.
Here’s how to protect yourself if you have a special situation:
- If the IRS doesn’t have your direct deposit information, you can go to the “Get My Payment” feature at irs.gov/coronavirus and let them know where to send your direct deposit.
- If you don’t usually file a tax return, go to irs.gov/coronavirus to access the “Non-filer” portal and to figure out what, if anything, you have to do to claim your money.
- To check on the status of your payment, you can now use the “Get My Payment” feature at irs.gov/coronavirus.
The IRS will not contact you by phone, email, text message, or social media with information about your stimulus payment, nor will they ask you for your Social Security number, bank account, or government benefits debit card account number.
You don’t have to pay a fee to get your stimulus money and you will never be asked to send back your stimulus money after it’s been sent to you because someone claims you were overpaid.
Fake charities. Now, more than ever, charities are desperate and need help. With the rolls of the unemployed soaring, the demand for services is going to stretch a lot of nonprofits to the limit. Scammers know this and will reach out to you by phone or online to take advantage of your generosity. If you haven’t heard of a particular charity before, research the charity and ask lots of questions before you commit to a donation.
Fake personal protective equipment. Masks, gloves, face shields, and hand sanitizers are in high demand for healthcare professionals, others providing essential services, and consumers. Websites may offer to sell you these items, but after pay for the products, you never get what you ordered. The scam is further legitimized by creating a shell company that sounds official or similar to a well-known provider to gain your trust. In other instances, when PPE equipment arrives, it is either the wrong size or defective, in part because companies substitute products without a customer’s permission.
By law, sellers are supposed to ship your order within the time stated in their ads, or within 30 days if the ads don’t give a shipping date. If a seller can’t ship within the promised time, it has to give you a revised shipping date, with the chance for you to either cancel your order for a full refund or accept the new shipping date.
Fake test kits. Definitely ignore offers for home Covid-19 test kits. Scammers are trying to sell you products to diagnose whether or not you have the virus without proof that they really work. Also, most of the test kits that are being advertised have not been approved by the FDA, meaning that they are not accurate and could be putting you at even greater risk due to giving you a false sense of security with a false negative result.
Fake cures. Let’s be clear upfront. Right now, there is no cure for the coronavirus. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar or trying to rip you off. You’ve probably already seen a lot of different homeopathic, “secret,” or newly discovered ways to treat symptoms. Unless medical experts tasked with finding ways to address the cure tell you what is working, don’t believe what you read. Not only is it not smart, putting your faith in a remedy that does not work could be deadly.
In May, the FTC announced that it had sent out more than 120 warning letters to marketers making false claims about cures for Covid-19.
In late July, the Federal Trade Commission actually filed charges against two companies for making false remedy claims. The companies, Golden Sunrise Nutraceutical, Inc., and Golden Sunrise Pharmaceutical, Inc. advertised dietary supplements that claimed these products were “uniquely qualified to treat and modify the course of the virus epidemic.” This was false, claiming the FDA had approved the products for use, which was not the case.
Nursing homes and stimulus payments. In some cases, people living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities have been forced to sign over their stimulus payments if they are on Medicaid. Homes are claiming that because the person is on Medicaid, the facility gets to keep the payment. Wrong! Those economic impact payments are a tax credit under the CARES Act. Tax law says that tax credits don’t count as “resources” for federal benefits programs such as Medicaid. If a facility has taken your loved one’s check, contact your state attorney general for help.
Phishing, fake emails, robocalls, and texts. Scams that were popular before the pandemic are still popular among thieves. Scammers will use fraudulent emails and text to try and induce you into sharing valuable personal information. Be highly suspicious of any requests to share account numbers, Social Security numbers, passwords, and other information that makes you vulnerable to losses.
As economic conditions have worsened for many people, scammers are now pitching all sorts of remedies ranging from work at home schemes to low priced health insurance.
Phishing emails may induce you to click on a link, often appearing to be from a legitimate organization (state or federal government agencies, The World Health Organization, etc.). When you click on a link, a scammer can install ransomware or programs that lock you out of your computer or steal your personal information.
Scammers have also used personal computer access to install and infect computers with malware. Recently, malicious websites used the real Johns Hopkins University interactive dashboard of coronavirus infections and deaths to spread password-stealing malware.
Another recently revealed phishing scam was uncovered, showing scammers impersonating the World Health Organization. The scammers offered a fake e-book to victims, and when they attempted to access the book, malicious code for a downloader called GuLoader was instead installed on their computers.
Student loan forgiveness. There have been a lot of discussions about helping students with relief from burdensome student loans during the crisis. At this point, the only thing that has happened is that student loan payments have been suspended as part of the recent stimulus package passed by Congress.
Scammers are relying on your fears about paying your student loans and may reach out with an offer that promises you student loan forgiveness if you pay an upfront fee.
The federal government can forgive or restructure student loans through public service loan forgiveness or income-driven repayment. But private companies cannot cancel student loan debt, so don’t fall for it.
How to Protect Yourself
It is impossible to track every scam. So, you need to heed general precautions to protect yourself:
- Never give out personal information over the phone. If a charity contacts you to donate, check out its background first. Use a credit card instead of cash or a check to provide yourself with more protection.
- Hang up on robocalls immediately. No exceptions. Don’t press any numbers for more information, either. That tells the robocaller you might be interested and will likely result in more robocalls.
- Never pay upfront to get money or help from the government. Also, the government will never call and ask you for personal information (i.e., Social Security number, birthday, credit card numbers, etc.).
- No private student loan company can help you with loan forgiveness. If you’re approached about this, you are being scammed.
- If you’re buying in-demand products, know who you are buying from. Online sellers may claim they have cleaning, household items, medical and health supplies available when they do not.
- The same rule applies to charities. Do your homework and verify that you are going to donate to a legitimate charity. Or, donate to a well-known and established charity like the Red Cross. You can also keep your donations local and give to a food bank, shelter, or other community-based nonprofit to keep your assistance close to home.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees consumer fraud in the United States. You can subscribe to alerts for consumers and businesses to keep up with the latest scams. You can also like the FTC Facebook page.
What to do If You’ve Been Scammed
If you feel you have been the victim of a coronavirus scam, you can contact your state attorney general.
You should also report any scams or suspicious claims to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.
Also, file a criminal complaint with your local police department. It may not have the resources to help you directly but can provide valuable tracking information to state and federal law enforcement agencies who can then more accurately direct resources to fight coronavirus scams.
Contact your banks and credit card companies to be on the lookout for fraudulent activities in your accounts. Also, change your password information and try to use different combinations for different sites. Closely monitor your credit on a regular basis (daily is not too often these days), in case a scammer has gained access and used your information.
Consider contacting national credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) as part of a strategy to maintain and access your credit reports. You can also freeze your credit, which prohibits anyone from viewing your credit report.
If you don’t want to freeze your credit, consider requesting a fraud alert instead. You only need to request an initial fraud alert with one of the three bureaus, and that agency will pass along your request to the other two. An initial fraud alert stays on your credit reports for 90 days. You can renew it as many times as you want. You can also place an extended alert that will last for seven years.
Corona virus image provided by CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS