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How to Identify and Avoid COVID-19 Scams

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The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has halted activity across the globe. Businesses are closed, flights cancelled, people are required to stay at home, social distancing is the new norm, and widespread fear of contracting the virus is rampant. Sadly, scammers continue to take advantage of people in numerous ways during these complicated times, including using the coronavirus pandemic to develop new schemes to line their pockets. The fraudsters take advantage of any situation that might trick their victims into giving them money, regardless of the repercussions for hardworking citizens and seniors.COVID-19 Scams Target Millions of Americans

The scams change almost daily and are constantly evolving, from robocalls to emails, social media posts, imposter scams, and even door-to-door schemes. All designed to get people to give up their hard-earned and, oftentimes, much-needed money. The thieves follow headlines closely to offer the latest in financial aid, products, fake cures, tests and vaccines that do not yet exist.

This guide will go over the various coronavirus-related scams that have developed with the spread of the virus.

Overview: 

The Rise in Coronavirus Scams

Scammers thrive on fear. They know that people often make hasty or unwise decisions when under stressful situations. The coronavirus pandemic presents the ultimate opportunity for scammers to hoodwink people into buying bogus products, signing up for fake services, and giving out valuable information. Con artists use robocalls and phishing scams to attract victims. While the public is often educated about age-old fraud techniques and scams, the coronavirus pandemic allows scammers to develop new schemes. The results remain the same. Scammers steal information, identities, infect electronic devices with malware and viruses, and trick people into parting with money in the name of relief from the virus.

The FBI reports an increased number of impersonation schemes in the form of email phishing, phone calls, and scam websites. In most cases scammers send out emails and make calls in which they impersonate employees or representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as well as health organizations from other countries.

In one case, scammers used an interactive map of the virus’ spread created by the reputable Johns Hopkins University in order to infect victims’ devices with malware. The map would appear as a downloadable attachment on scam sites and in spam emails. When downloaded the map would infect devices with malware and steal valuable information like usernames and passwords.

The main goal of these scammers is to convince people to click on links that will infect their electronic devices with viruses, malware or spyware and/or divulge personal or financial information such as bank account numbers or credit card information.

Robocalls and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Robocalls continue to be an effective way for scammers to trick people into giving out personal information. Scammers rely on untraceable Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone numbers to get people to pick up the phone. The fraudsters often create phone numbers that appear to be from the local area. They may also spoof phone numbers from reputable businesses or government organizations. Spoofing established phone numbers gives the scammer added credibility and increases the chance of a successful scheme.

Previously, there was little to no recourse against scammers using VoIP services. However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has now taken a more aggressive stance on the issue in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Enforcing the provisions of the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement And Deterrence Act (TRACED Act), which was signed into effect on December 30th, 2019, the two organizations have begun issuing warning letters to VoIP service providers informing them that “assisting and facilitating” illegal telemarketing or robocalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic is illegal. Additionally, the letters being sent cite two civil action lawsuits brought by the Department of Justice against VoIP companies for “committing and conspiring to commit wire fraud by knowingly transmitting robocalls that impersonated federal government agencies.”

The FTC also states that legal action may be taken against the companies if they knowingly assist in violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rules (TSR). Conduct includes:

  • Making a false or misleading statement to induce a consumer to buy something or contribute to a charity;
  • Misrepresenting a seller or telemarketer’s affiliation with any government agency;
  • Transmitting false or deceptive caller ID numbers;
  • Initiating pre-recorded telemarketing robocalls, unless the seller has express written permission to call; and
  • Initiating telemarketing calls to consumers whose phone numbers are on the National Do Not Call Registry, with certain exceptions.

The stronger stance on illegal robocalls is encouraging, however, we know that these scams are still continuing and precautions should be taken.

Common Coronavirus Phone Scams

COVID-19 scams are changing on a daily basis, but the FTC reports the following as being the most common. Most scams related to novel coronavirus will have at least one of the features described below.

Fake COVID-19 Treatments, Products, Tests, and Cures

Colloidal Silver Facebook Post Scam Example

Scammers try to convince their targets that there are a myriad of cures, tests, or supplements to curb or cure coronavirus. The truth is that there are no vaccines or drugs that have been approved to treat or cure the virus. Nor are there in-home tests that can be taken to see whether or not you have the virus. Websites and sales pitches claiming otherwise are scams.

The FTC and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) track such claims. The agencies have issued countless cease and desist letters to companies claiming to have products to prevent or cure  COVID-19. The most common products include natural remedies like essential oils, teas, cannabinol, colloidal silver (an example is pictured to the right), and vitamin-C therapy.

The con artists also offer in-demand items such as test kits, masks, household cleaners, hand sanitizers and more through robocalls, websites, and on social media. Sellers inflate prices or make promises to deliver products that never arrive. Meanwhile, the sellers steal credit card information, addresses and other personal information for their benefit.

COVID-19 Scams Targeting Seniors

Medicare scams continue to plague seniors in the current pandemic via phishing scam calls. In addition to the usual claims of expired cards and suspended benefits, scammers offer additional benefits related to COVID-19. They also offer testing products and “cures” available only to seniors. The senior is asked to verify information including Social Security number, bank account information, and other personal information. None of the programs actually exist. If you receive a call from someone claiming to be a Medicare representative, hang up and contact Medicare directly.

Social Security scams similarly continue to be a huge problem for seniors at this time. Scammers know that seniors and the disabled rely heavily on their monthly checks. Like Medicare scams, callers say they are representatives from the Social Security Administration. Claims include the need to update information in the system, expired or suspended benefits, or additional funds available due to the pandemic. Again, the claims are false. Check the Social Security website for more information on Social Security-related scams and how to file a complaint.

COVID-19 Scams Targeting Small Businesses

Many businesses are struggling to remain open and survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the changes in the workplace that coronavirus has created there’s now a number of new scams targeting non-essential employees who are working from home. This has led to an increase in CEO scams and IT scams.

In the CEO scam an employee gets a call from someone claiming to be the CEO, owner, or an executive at the company they work for. They ask that a wire transfer be issued for a certain amount of money. Employees are falling more for this scam because not only are they not in the office, but there have also been a number of refunds, canceled orders, and other atypical financial transactions during this period.

In the IT scam an employee will also get a call, but this time from someone claiming to be in their company’s IT department. They’ll ask the employee for sensitive information such as database and payment login and password information.

Thirdly, telecommuting employees are more likely to answer calls from unknown numbers which puts them at a higher risk for robocall scams.

Essential workers and businesses are also vulnerable to scams. As many essential businesses struggle to find supplies such as masks, gloves, and cleaning products they are often falling victim to fraudulent companies. The companies will claim to have the supplies the essential business needs only to steal credit card information.

CARES Act Stimulus Check Scams

Many Americans are awaiting stimulus checks made possible under the federal CARES Act. The CARES Act offers individuals some economic relief due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The IRS and FTC report a dramatic increase in phone calls, emails, websites and social media posts offering assistance with stimulus payments. They may offer to expedite payment for a fee. The scam involves signing over a check and providing sensitive personal and financial information.

The procedure for receiving an official “economic-impact payment” is as follows:

  1. Do nothing. If you filed federal taxes for 2018 and/or 2019, the IRS will send the payment automatically. People using direct deposit on their taxes will have the funds deposited into their bank accounts. Those using a mailing address will receive a check, although it will take longer.
  2. If you have not filed taxes for 2018 or 2019, you will have to fill out a simple tax form on the IRS website. The IRS will never call, text or email. If you have questions or concerns communicate with the IRS at irs.gov/coronavirus.
  3. Do not “sign up” to receive a stimulus check. The IRS has the information it needs to process and send the payments. Scammers say otherwise and will ask for information like your Social Security number, bank account information, birthdate, PayPal account, or other information.
  4. Checks will not arrive until May at the earliest. Anything stating otherwise is a scam. Be wary of fake checks, particularly if the sender asks for a financial return. Fake checks can leave you owing money to your bank with no recourse against the scammer.
  5. The check is not in the mail. Reports say that paper checks – for people without direct deposit – will start arriving in May at the earliest. So, if you get an economic impact payment, stimulus, or relief check before then, or you get a check when you’re expecting a direct deposit, it’s a scam.
  6. The IRS does not send overpayments. The government will never require return payments in cash, on gift cards or via wire transfer.

How To Protect Your Money From Coronavirus Scams

Scammers dislike informed people. Protecting yourself against scams is more difficult than ever but the following tips will help to keep you safe.

  1. Use a reverse phone lookup app. If you receive a call from an unknown number, let it go to voicemail. Search the number to ensure it’s legit.
  2. If the caller claims to be from a government agency, hang up. Government agencies do not call, text, or email. They send letters. If you receive a letter, verify it directly with the agency before responding.
  3. Do not sign up on any website that is not directly related to a government agency. Double check the URL.
  4. If anyone asks for any sensitive information, hang up and block the phone number.
  5. Some robocalls give the option to “opt out” of receiving calls. This is part of the scam. Simply hang up.
  6. If a product sounds too good to be true, it probably is and should be avoided. Do your homework and get information from reputable sources.
  7. Discuss suspicious calls, texts or emails with friends and family. You may avoid being scammed and preventing the same from happening to loved ones.
  8. Ignore online ads for products and services offering treatments or cures for COVID-19.
  9. Don’t donate to charities without conducting a thorough investigation.
  10.  Ensure that your electronic devices are protected with antivirus software and cybersecurity measures.

Reporting Coronavirus Phone Scams

No one likes to admit being scammed. However, the FTC exists to protect consumers. Reporting activity helps to curb illegal activity. If you have been the victim of a scam, file a consumer complaint online or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357). You should also notify your state’s Office of the Attorney General.

Final Thoughts

The number of robocalls, phishing emails, and ads for products related to the coronavirus outbreak makes it difficult to decipher what is true and factual. Well-meaning sources spread misinformation, which can cause people to be taken in by false claims and scams. Before giving out any personal or financial information, investigate the claims being made. Fact-check all information with reputable sources to stay safe and protect your finances.


Also published on Medium.