Protecting Yourself from Coronavirus Scams

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Like everyone else, scammers follow the news, and the coronavirus pandemic has given them an opportunity to take advantage of people’s worries and fears. Scammers know how to “work” a crisis and they’ve been busy. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has received more than 28,000 complaints related to the novel coronavirus, including reports of fraud and identity theft, between January 1 and April 28, 2020. The total amount of loss due to fraud has reached over $20 million. 

How these schemes work may vary, but the goal is to get you to send money or share sensitive personal data so that they can get to your money by some other nefarious means (e.g., identity theft).

Let’s take a look at some common scams and learn how you can avoid them. Even if you feel pretty savvy when it comes to spotting them, you may want to read and share this information with your parents and other relatives who may be prime targets of these scams due to their age. Scammers may consider older adults to be more trusting and easier to target online.

Five common coronavirus-related scams

Scammers can target potential victims by phone, email, text message, mail or a malicious web link. While their “script” may vary from scam to scam, they’re usually trying to get you to send money or give up sensitive personal data.  

Here are five common coronavirus scams you and your loved ones may want to look out for. 

1. Coronavirus stimulus payment scam

The IRS economic impact payment (or more commonly referred to as the “stimulus check”) has sparked a variety of scams.  

The scam might go something like this: A scammer may contact a potential victim claiming to be an IRS or other government official, offering services to help you get your stimulus check for a fee or offer a way to get the money early. 

Scammers could also try to convince you to give up your personal information, such as your tax identification number, date of birth or bank account, so that they can “assist” with your IRS stimulus check. They may even try to get after your information by directing you to a bogus IRS payment website. 

People who have already received their checks can also be targets. One type of scam may involve asking recipients to return some of the stimulus money because they’ve been overpaid. 

Good to know: Always remember that the IRS will not call or email you asking to verify personal information to receive the stimulus payment. Nor will the agency ask you to send the money back using cash, gift cards or wire transfers.  

Here are a few more tips to consider:

  • Only use the IRS official website to check on the status of your payment.
  • Never share personal information over the phone, text, email, social media or a “phishy” website.
  • Never pay any “fees” to get your stimulus money – that’s not how it works. See the IRS FAQs for more information on the economic impact payments.

2. Banking scam

Scammers have also been trying to scare consumers into handing over their bank account information. 

The scam might go something like this: The scammer, pretending to be a bank or FDIC representative, may say that your account or ability to access your money is in danger and ask for your banking and personal information to resolve this urgent matter. Don’t fall for it: This is an attempt to steal your identity. 

Good to know: The FDIC does not send unsolicited correspondence asking for money or sensitive personal information.

Some tips to consider:

  • Never share your bank account, credit/debit card numbers, PINs, passwords or other personal details with anyone on any unsolicited calls or over email.
  • Watch out for suspicious letters, emails or websites. Not sure if a communication from your bank is legit? Call them directly to verify by using the phone number that’s on the back of your debit/credit card. Or you could look up their customer service number directly. Don’t click on any links or download attachments from unknown sources.
  • Contact the FDIC call center at 1-877-ASK-FDIC to report any suspicious incidents.

3. Coronavirus charity scams

Many Americans are stepping up to help both neighbors and strangers during this global health crisis, volunteering their time and making donations to food banks and other charitable organizations. 

But scammers have found a way to take advantage our goodwill by setting up fraudulent charities.  

The scam might go something like this: A scammer may pose as a representative from a charity – real or fake – and ask you to give money. This could be a charity you’ve legitimately donated to in the past, and the scammers are pretending to “follow up” for an additional pledge.

Good to know: The key to avoiding this type of scam is to do your research. The FTC recommends  the following organizations to help with your research and identify legitimate charities: GuideStar, CharityWatch, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance.  

Some tips to consider on how to avoid this type of scam.

  • Don’t make your donations with cash, gift cards or via wire transfers – this is a typical tactic used by scammers.
  • Keep a record of your donations – paying by credit card or a check can help with recordkeeping.
  • Pay attention when donating online and be on the lookout for any suspicious links or redirects.

The FTC also warns against donating to organizations that promise you guaranteed sweepstakes winning if you donate – this type of exchange is illegal. 

If you’ve come across a suspicious organization or potential scam, you may report it to the FTC.

4. Person-in-need or “grandparent” scams

Older adults tend to be the targets of this scheme where a scammer poses as a relative (e.g., grandchild) or friend in need, asking you to send money right away to help them out of a jam.

The scam might go something like this: A scammer may call or email pretending to be a grandchild or another relative who is stuck in an emergency situation and they need you to send money immediately. The type of emergency can vary. For example, they could pretend to be sick in the hospital, stuck overseas or in jail. These scams rely on emotional appeals, usually urging older adults to send money to help cover necessary medical or travel expenses. 

Good to know: Of course, we may be inclined to help whenever a family member or loved one is in trouble, but we also want to make sure the person is who they say they are! 

So here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t panic if you get an urgent call from someone you know asking for help. You want to make sure that the request is legitimate. 
  • Contact the person who asked for help directly to make sure they really do need assistance. If you cannot get in touch with them right away, try calling another relative or a mutual friend to verify the story. 
  • Do not send money until after confirming the identity of the person contacting you and that the emergency is real.

5. Covid-19 testing and treatment scams

There is currently no known vaccine or cure for Covid-19. But scammers know people are worried about their health are exploiting this fear by offering phony products, treatments and cures. 

The scam might go something like this: A scammer may call (or advertise online) to try to sell you a new testing kit or special equipment that could supposedly kill the novel coronavirus. They may even pretend to call from a government agency to offer free testing and ask you for your personal information to help schedule an appointment. 

Good to know: Covid-19 testing is available through your local and state government. Any calls, emails, letters or text messages about at-home test kits or “pop-up” testing sites are a scam.

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Beware of any unsolicited offers related to Covid-19 testing or medical supplies.
  • Protect your personal information such as your Social Security number, date of birth or Medicaid/Medicare numbers – beware of unsolicited calls, emails or visitors requesting these personal details. 
  • Contact your doctor if you have any concerns or questions about your health and Covid-19. 
  • Email the National Center for Disaster Fraud at [email protected] if you’ve encountered any potential fraudulent schemes.

Parting thoughts

The coronavirus pandemic has brought on widespread financial hardship, and social distancing rules have kept many people isolated in their homes. This provides a perfect mix of conditions for scammers to exploit: Many people are scared, confused and alone. 

Specific details of the scams may vary from person to person and evolve over time. But at the end of the day, scammers want your money, and if they can’t get the cash directly, they will try to use your personal data to get to it. These scams may come through the mail, phone calls, emails, text messages, social media platforms or bogus websites. The FTC recommends that you ignore and report any suspicious solicitations. 

If you have older parents or relatives, it’s your turn to teach them about “stranger danger” – help them understand these potential scams and why they may be attractive targets. This isn’t to scare them but to empower them. 

Information can move and change quickly during a national crisis. And scammers know how to manipulate the misinformation that’s out there to weasel their way into your wallet. 

The bottom line: It’s more important than ever to remain vigilant.

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This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Articles on this site were commissioned and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs®, but may not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions.