Personal Finance

Don't be fooled: Scammers swooping in amid coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • Several government agencies have warned about an uptick in fraud related to COVID-19.
  • Scammers, among other things, may try to take advantage of news about financial assistance and unemployment benefits during the economic disruption.
  • There are several red flags and things to look out for. 
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Coronavirus scams are on the rise.

Government agencies, like the IRS, the Federal Trade Commission and the Social Security Administration, are warning consumers to be vigilant as fraudsters try to take advantage of them during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Whenever crises erupt, the scammers and fraudsters have a heyday," said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, a consumer advocacy group. "We see so much fraud related to COVID-19 because people need answers, aren't thinking straight and are somewhat confused."

Identity thieves want your tax refund. Some would kill for it

There's been an uptick in financial fraud connected to the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package signed into law March 27.

The measure, known as the CARES Act, will send financial assistance directly to Americans and offer expanded unemployment benefits, among other things.

IRS officials warned of "a wave of new and evolving phishing schemes against taxpayers" in a memo issued on Thursday.

These scams are largely related to the money the Treasury Department is sending to millions of people, in the form of a direct deposit or a paper check, over the next several weeks and months. Individuals will get up to $1,200 and married couples $2,400, plus $500 for each eligible child.  

Whenever crises erupt, the scammers and fraudsters have a heyday.
Sally Greenberg
executive director of the National Consumers League

Taxpayers should be wary of emails, text messages, websites and social media trumpeting messages about stimulus checks or stimulus payments that request money or personal information, the IRS said.

Scam artists may use this information to commit tax fraud, identity theft or steal money from financial accounts.

They may also try to entice unsuspecting victims to click on malicious hyperlinks, which can be used to remotely install malware to "potentially harvest credentials, install key-loggers or lock down the system with ransomware," the U.S. Secret Service told law enforcement and banking officials this week.

"While you are waiting to hear about your economic impact payment, criminals are working hard to trick you into getting their hands on it," said Don Fort, the agency's criminal investigation chief.

Social Security officials also warned recipients this week of providing personal information or payment via retail gift cards, wire transfers, internet currency or by mailing cash to maintain Social Security benefits or receive the Treasury's payments.

"I want our beneficiaries to be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping or somehow changing your Social Security payments, but that is not true," Andrew Saul, the agency's commissioner, said. "Don't be fooled."

Scammers are also trying to trick jobless Americans into forking over some of their unemployment benefits. A record 6.6 million unemployment claims were filed last week, double the week prior, according to the Labor Department.

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Fraudsters posing as a state unemployment officials may contact people and ask for unemployment insurance overpayments to be paid back by credit card or gift card, according to Iowa's unemployment website.

However, individuals who received an over-payment will only be contacted by mail through the U.S. Postal Service, officials said.

Scammers are also using illegal robocalls to pitch things like fraudulent coronavirus treatments, vaccinations, home test kits and work-at-home schemes, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

"There is no treatment to date for COVID-19, no cure and no vaccine, no pills, potions, lotions or other products bought over the counter that are legitimately tested to treat COVID," Greenberg said. "It's all misleading."

Grandparent scams related to the coronavirus are also emerging, the FTC said. In these frauds, attackers may pose as grandchildren who are sick or stuck overseas and need quick cash to help pay a hospital bill or escape a foreign country. 

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Here are some thing consumers should remember to protect themselves against fraud:

• The federal and state government won't ask you to pay anything, such as fees and charges, upfront to get relief money.

• The government will not call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account or credit card number.

• The economic stimulus checks aren't yet a reality. Anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a scammer.

• Never wire money to someone you don't know, through gift card, money transfer, Venmo or Paypal or by any other means. 

• Don't click on links from sources you don't know. Don't respond to texts and e-mails about checks from the government.

• Hang up on robocalls. Ignore online offers for vaccinations and home test kits. The Federal Drug Administration hasn't approved any products to treat COVID-19.