Don’t fall for a COVID-19 scam: How scammers are trying to take advantage of people looking for financial help during the pandemic.
With the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation, federal, state and city governments have enacted legislation to help people with their finances. But with these helpful initiatives have come bad actors trying to use the opportunity to steal the identities of people looking for help.
Be on the Lookout for These Scams During the COVID-19 Pandemic:
COVID-19 Scam #1: Stolen Federal Stimulus Payments
Federal stimulus payments have become an easy target for scammers. In April, the Internal Revenue Service debuted a tool to help in distributing funds. Through this portal, eligible persons who did not file taxes in 2018 or 2019 can enter basic identifying information so the government can easily distribute their stimulus payments.
Per IRS guidelines, users have been asked to provide a range of personal information, including:
- Full name, current mailing address and an email address
- Date of birth and valid Social Security number
- Bank account number, type of account and routing number, if you have one
- Identity Protection Personal Identification Number (IP PIN) if you received one from the IRS earlier this year
- Driver’s license or state-issued ID, if you have one
- For each qualifying child: name, Social Security number or Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number (ATIN) and their relationship to you or your spouse
Though helpful for many Americans filling out the form, the limited and basic nature of this information makes it easier for scam artists to claim checks that are not their own. Basic personal information can be stolen in many ways, including through data breaches, fake websites asking for personal information, scam calls and phishing emails.
COVID-19 Scam #2: Scam Artists Impersonating Government Agencies
Knowing the true person behind a phone call or email can be difficult. In fact, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has reported a rise in fake emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other organizations offering Coronavirus information.
The FBI warns not to click links or open attachments from senders you do not recognize. By clicking or opening these things, malware can be unlocked, which gives scam artists access to your personal information. They could also lock your computer and demand payment. Criminals are using fake websites claiming to track COVID-19 cases to deliver malware to phones and personal computers.
COVID-19 Scam #3: Delivery Scams
Many people may be unable to pick up items like groceries or necessary medications in person and need them delivered to their door. Ordering from a trusted source online is a safe way to do so, but beware if someone you don’t know well offers to help.
Some scammers offer to purchase and deliver your supplies but never return after taking off with your money. The safest way to make sure you aren’t scammed is to ask a friend or family member for help or to use a trusted delivery service.
COVID-19 Scam #4: Waylaid Donations
There are many charitable organizations that can use your help during this time. But the FBI has noted an increase in phishing emails asking for donations to hospitals and charities, and claiming to have access to fake testing kits, cures or vaccines. As a general rule, don’t click on anything in an email from a person you do not know or recognize.
Before donating money, research the charity. Paying in cash, by gift card or by wiring money should not be done as a means of transaction, as scam artists tend to use these forms to steal. Websites like givewell.org and charitynavigator.org can be used to verify locations. For more information, the Federal Trade Commission’s website provides guidance on avoiding donation scams.
COVID-19 Scam #5: Fake Zoom Invitations
Some people have taken to sending fake Zoom invitations in an attempt to steal passwords. It is important to note how the messages you receive are worded. If someone “demands your presence” or threatens to terminate you if you don’t attend, chances are it’s a scam. Confirm that any video conference invitations you accept are coming from members of your workplace.
If you do open the link in a bogus message, you are generally directed to a website that looks similar to a legitimate Zoom meeting screen but, in reality, is a page designed to get you to input your email password. Carefully review any messages sent from unfamiliar accounts and the webpages of any links you open. Reach out to your employer for clarification if you sense something is suspicious about a Zoom invitation.
COVID-19 Scam #6: Bogus Offers for Vaccinations and Home Test Kits
There is no federally approved vaccine or home test for the Coronavirus, but that hasn’t stopped scammers from peddling fakes. If you think you may have contracted the virus, contact your doctor and ask about testing availability in your area. To help protect your identity, do not share your medical information, Social Security number or health insurance details over the phone.
How to Better Protect Your Identity from COVID-19 Scams
While you can never guarantee that your identity will be fully protected, here are five steps you can take right now to ensure your identity is better protected:
1. Frequently check your savings, checking, credit card and other key financial accounts for unauthorized charges or withdrawals.
Constantly checking the status of your financial accounts is one of the best ways to help protect your identity. Setting aside five minutes every week to review transactions can make a difference in recognizing a threat to your identity early on. For your bank and credit card accounts, sign up for email or text notifications for instant notifications.
2. Contact your bank as soon as you notice any suspicious activity on your account.
Contact your bank the moment you see something of concern in your account. Explain your situation and ask about your options, which may include canceling your active credit or debit cards and being reissued new ones. Talk with your bank or credit card lender for more information on the specific remedies available to you.
3. Frequently change your online passwords to better protect your information from data breaches.
An unintended consequence of using platforms to shop and communicate with friends from home during the pandemic is your personal information is now stored on more platforms than ever. If hackers access these systems, they could obtain your secure information without your knowledge.
To fight this issue, set up strong, unique passwords for each account with more than eight digits and contain upper and lower case letters, numbers and at least one symbol. Set a reminder to change all passwords periodically, whether that’s annually, once every six months or as frequently as you can reasonably manage.
4. Remove personal information from your social media accounts.
The more information scammers can obtain from looking at your social media accounts, the easier it can be for them to steal your identity. Review the privacy settings for your accounts and update them to remove excess information. Keeping your mailing address, email address, phone number and other personally identifying information private significantly reduces the risk that someone will be able to successfully impersonate you.
5. If your identity has been used to cash your stimulus check or apply for unemployment or other benefits, file a dispute with the relevant authorities.
Identify thieves have tended to target people most in need of financial help during the pandemic, according to reports. If you think you have not received the aid you are eligible for because you are a victim of identity theft, contact the relevant local or federal authorities.
It’s a shame people’s identities are being stolen in the middle of a pandemic, but by following these steps, you should steer clear of bad actors trying to take advantage of you.