Personal Finance

If there's coronavirus relief money, scammers will try and steal it

Key Points
  • Several government agencies have warned about an uptick in fraud related to COVID-19.
  • Small business owners, unemployed Americans and individuals receiving stimulus checks are among the groups being targeted by scammers.
  • There are several red flags and things to look out for. 
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Coronavirus scams are on the rise — and thieves are targeting your financial relief from the government. 

Federal agencies like the IRS, Federal Trade Commission, Social Security Administration and FBI have warned consumers and business owners in recent weeks 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," Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, a consumer advocacy group, told CNBC earlier.

VIDEO4:1604:16
How scammers are targeting your stimulus checks

There's a been a surge in financial fraud related to the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief law enacted in late March.

The law included one-time stimulus payments to American households, billions of dollars in low-interest loans to small businesses and greater unemployment benefits, among other things.

Americans lost $13.4 million to coronavirus-related fraud from the beginning of the year through mid-April, according to the FTC.  

The scope of fraudulent activity may be significantly higher since the FTC report is based solely on consumer complaints. 

Small business loans

The FBI and Small Business Administration issued a warning on Friday for business owners to be on the lookout for scams related to two loan programs — the Paycheck Protection Program and Emergency Injury Disaster Loan.

The coronavirus relief law created the former program, which offers forgivable loans to small businesses, and expanded the latter by extending emergency grants of up to $10,000 to entrepreneurs. 

The federal government has provided PPP funding in two tranches so far — $349 billion in the first round and $310 billion in the second.

Thieves may try stealing personally identifiable information, accessing bank accounts, or installing ransomware or malware on a business owner's computer via loan-related attacks, according to the FBI.

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Entrepreneurs should be on the lookout for phishing schemes (electronic scams often perpetuated via e-mail or text message) and others that utilize the SBA logo, according to the FBI. 

Federal attorneys charged two businessmen on Tuesday for allegedly submitting fraudulent loan applications to the Small Business Administration, seeking roughly $540,000 in forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program. 

The individuals — David A. Staveley, 52, and David Butziger, 51 — were the first in the nation to be charged with fraud related to the loan program. 

Stimulus checks

Con artists have also taken aim at the stimulus payments Americans began receiving from the IRS last month.

Individuals are eligible for up to $1,200 and married couples could get up to $2,400. Families receive an extra $500 per eligible child.

Bad actors may try to ensnare the unwary through nefarious means like fake-check scams, phone calls and e-mail phishing scams that aim to steal consumers' personal information, officials warned.

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

Google reported seeing 18 million daily malware and phishing e-mails related to COVID-19 over a one-week period in mid-April alone. 

"While you are waiting to hear about your economic impact payment, criminals are working hard to trick you into getting their hands on it," according to Don Fort, the head of criminal investigations at the IRS.

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.

VIDEO2:1302:13
So who's getting the stimulus checks?

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

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.

There's been a 209% increase in criminals' use of senior citizens' personally identifiable information to commit fraud, according to the firm IDology, which largely attributes the uptick to Covid-19. The company compared averages over August-January and February-March.

Unemployment

Scammers are also trying to trick jobless Americans into forking over some of their unemployment benefits.

More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits over approximately the last month and half. 

Con artists are seizing on the pandemonium of people rushing to file for unemployment benefits.

Amid the schemes is one in which scammers offer to help individuals file for unemployment insurance benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General. 

The CARES Act boosted weekly unemployment pay, increased the duration of benefits and extended it to previously ineligible groups like the self-employed.

Fraudsters posing as a state unemployment officials may also contact people and ask for unemployment insurance overpayments to be paid back by credit card or gift card.

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

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Protect yourself

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.

• 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.