In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought people together. Despite social distancing, there have been creative efforts to develop virtual connection and continuous reminders that no one is in this alone. Unfortunately, scammers have gotten creative, too, and they see the pandemic as a gold mine for stealing people’s money and data. Coronavirus scams are now a growing problem, especially as people seek financial relief in the wake of mass unemployment and ongoing shutdowns.
Fortunately, you can avoid being a victim of coronavirus fraud by knowing what to look for:
Fake Treatments and Cures
At this time, there are no silver-bullet cures for the coronavirus or the disease it causes, COVID-19. Experts say a vaccine is more than a year away. Although some pharmaceutical drugs are being studied for treating the virus, there are no over-the-counter or prescription products that can prevent or cure COVID-19 specifically. That includes fake treatments such as oregano oil and colloidal silver. If you see a trusted Instagram or Twitter personality promoting coronavirus treatments, beware. The products are likely illegitimate, and even the most innocuous treatments are unproven.
How to protect yourself: The best course of action right now is still to stay home as much as possible, wear a mask when you go out, and maintain 6 feet of distance from other people when you can. Steer clear of products that promise you immunity from the virus.
Economic impact payment scams
Many Americans already have or will receive a $1,200 stimulus payment, either through direct deposit or a paper check. If you’re eligible for this program and your address and account information is already on file with the Internal Revenue Service, you don’t need to do anything to receive the funds; payment will be sent to you automatically. Scammers have been calling people asking for personal and financial information they say is needed to “release” the money, but these are fraudulent calls.
How to protect yourself: Do not respond to any phone call, email, or text message from someone claiming to be a government agent who is requesting personal details or payment information. When in doubt, call the government agency in question directly and ask what the policy is for distributing funds or whether it needs information from you. If you need to update your contact or account information with the IRS, do so at irs.gov.
IRS and immigration scams
Scammers have long posed as IRS officials on phone calls, trying to con unsuspecting citizens into sharing personal information such as their addresses and Social Security numbers. The threat from these scammers remains all the more concerning during the pandemic, when known coronavirus scams have ranged from demands for immediate “tax” payments to threats promising to revoke immigration status. Fraudsters will also pose as members of other government agencies or will claim to be from official-sounding organizations that don’t actually exist.
How to protect yourself: The IRS will not use email, social media, or text messages to contact you about your taxes or stimulus payments. The agency primarily contacts taxpayers by mail. Requests for specific payment types — such as gift cards and wire transfers — indicate that you’re talking to a scammer as well, as the IRS does not do this, nor does it demand immediate tax payments. Anyone who tells you that he or she will revoke your immigration status, or any business license is also a scammer, and you should hang up immediately if someone claiming to be from the IRS threatens you in that way.
Text and robocall scams
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) warns there will be an increase in scams promising people work-from-home employment opportunities, debt consolidation options, and student loan repayment assistance. Additional scams offer diabetic patients free COVID-19 and free diabetic testing kits, along with text message links to a “mandatory” online novel coronavirus test.
How to protect yourself: Do not click any links you receive via text from numbers you don’t recognize. Regardless of who the sender claims to be, don’t follow the links to create an account or provide any information. If you get a call regarding a work-from-home opportunity or a debt consolidation program, ask for the company’s name and then research it online. You can also report scammers to the FTC online.
Utilities shut-off scams
In many areas, state and local officials have suspended utilities shut-offs and late fees as people grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic. But that hasn’t stopped scammers from calling residents and threatening to turn off their utilities or requesting payment in exchange for a “discount.”
Some Colorado residents reported that people posing as utility workers showed up at their homes to read their meters, a practice that’s been suspended by some utilities companies in order to maintain social distancing.
How to protect yourself: If someone calls you regarding your utilities payments, call your utility provider directly. A representative from the utility company will know whether you were contacted by a scammer, and he or she will be able to walk you through all of your rights and options. Do not give out personal or financial information when someone calls you out of the blue.
If utility workers come to your home, do not let them in until you have called the utility company and verified that it sent employees to your home. Ask for the employee’s name and identification as well, to make sure the people at your house are who they say they are. Take all precautions if you must be in contact with them, including wearing a mask and keeping at least 6 feet of distance between you and them.
Scammers are sending out emails that appear to be from reputable organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in an effort to get people to provide their data or click malicious links. You may also see texts or emails that are allegedly from your bank or financial lenders urging you to follow a particular link or submit personal information.
How to protect yourself: Verify any information you receive by searching for the organization’s website, rather than clicking through from your email. Do not download attachments or files from people you don’t know, as they might contain malware that will be downloaded onto your computer. Avoid clicking on suspicious-looking ads, as these can also be used to transmit malware or capture your information.
Trust your instincts, too. If something feels “off” about the communication or there are strange phrasings and spelling errors, assume it’s from a fraudster and do not respond.