Coronavirus scams have cost Americans $39 million so far—here's how to protect yourself

Klaus Vedfelt

Nearly 52,500 Americans have already filed complaints this year with the Federal Trade Commission over fraud related to Covid-19, reporting losses totaling over $38.6 million. Of those submitting complaints through May 21, about 45% reported falling victim to fraudsters, losing about $470 on average. 

Scammers are "ingeniously evil," says Bill Versen, chief product officer for Transaction Network Services, a global provider of data communications that tracks robocalls. "They take topical current events and then weave that into their story to gain your confidence in order to defraud you," he says. TNS has seen a big uptick in fraudsters leveraging Covid-19 related scams right now.

New, sophisticated scams are popping up 

One of the top ways scammers lure victims is through text message, according to the FTC. And there's a new, highly sophisticated robotext scam that could trip up a lot of consumers, Versen says. It starts with a text purportedly from the Internal Revenue Service asking to confirm information for a stimulus payment through a link. 

If you click on it, the link takes you to a realistic-looking IRS web page where you're prompted to provide your name, contact information and Social Security number. Once you enter your personal information, you're then redirected to the real IRS website to make the scam look less suspicious. 

This is a screenshot of a recent robotext scam TNS came across. While it looks like a legitimate IRS website, the URL shows it's false since a legitimate U.S. government site would contain a ".gov" address.
Transaction Network Services

Robocalls are also a huge area for scammers right now, Versen says. One of the most common ones that he's seeing pop up is for fake refunds related to coronavirus. The key to this scheme is that the scammers never mention what the refund is exactly for. With so many companies, from car insurance providers to utilities, offering refunds and discounts, it's easy for consumers to assume it's something like that. 

"The robocall scam will call you up and say: We cannot provide services due to Covid-19, but you have been charged $399, press one to claim a refund," Versen says. 

When you press one, you're asked to provide your credit card information so that you can get the charges reversed or repaid — and boom, that's how the scammers get you, Versen says. "It sounds legitimate," he adds.

How to protect yourself from coronavirus scams

Consumers need to be extra vigilant right now, says Dov Lerner, security research lead at cybersecurity threat intelligence company Sixgill. Don't give credit card or other personal information to anyone over the phone, don't click on unknown links in emails and don't even answer the door for someone claiming to be from the government unless they can show proper identification. You should assume it's a scam until someone proves otherwise, he says. 

Beyond those common ways to protect yourself, here are five additional steps you can take to safeguard against common scam tactics. 

1. Educate yourself on the latest scams

It's important that consumers stay up-to-date on the latest ways scammers are trying to swindle them. The FTC has been keeping on top of the latest schemes and issuing consumer alerts about what they're finding. You can sign up for the emails or simply visit the FTC's coronavirus scam page

Credit building company Self Financial also created a comprehensive list of all the scams connected to Covid-19 and how they work. The list is updated weekly based on information from the FTC, Federal Drug Administration, the Better Business Bureau and other outside sources.

2. Block robocalls

Most mobile service providers, including the 'Big Four' — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — have free software or apps that block robocalls. Some, like Verizon, have software that automatically blocks some of the worst robocalls throughout their network, while others have separate options that consumers can install. 

It's worth reaching out to your provider to see what they offer, Versen says. A cusomer service representative will be able to walk customers through signing up or adding robocall-blocking software or an app to their phone, he says. Some service providers even offer free trials so customers can test robo-blocking apps with all the extra bells and whistles, such as also blocking spam text messages or automatically silencing unknown callers. 

Here are five ways scammers are using the coronavirus to take your money
Five ways scammers are using the coronavirus to take your money

3. Don't respond

Don't respond to unknown text messages or pick up calls from unfamiliar phone numbers. Instead, let them roll into voicemail for further scrutiny. "As with all unknown or unexpected robocalls, it's buyer beware. We recommend consumers ignore them," says Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a company that tracks robocalls.

Illegal robocalls are being used to pitch consumers everything from low-priced health insurance to Covid-19 "cures" to work-from-home schemes, the FTC says. If it's an important robocall, say from a pharmacy or doctor's office, they'll usually leave a message or contact you another way, such as through email or an app. 

4. Reach out through legitimate contacts

If you do receive an email or text message that you feel you do need to respond to, don't click on the link provided. Instead, go directly to the government or company website by typing its name in your browser. Contact it through an official phone number or email address. 

Links in emails or text messages are a particularly common way for fraudsters to gain access or lure you into a scam. Hackers send what's called a phishing email, in which they mimic the look or feel of communications sent by companies or the government, and include a link to a false portal asking for your information.

5. If you are suspicious, speak up

If you're afraid that something is a scam, talk to a friend or relative about what happened. "Bouncing the interaction off of somebody else may help raise a flag," says Ron Schlecht, managing partner at cybersecurity firm BTB Security. The old adage holds true: If something sounds too good or outrageous to be true, it probably is.

Additionally, if you believe you have fallen victim to a fraud scheme, contact local law enforcement, Versen says. "A lot of people who get scammed feel ashamed, they feel embarrassed. Don't. Pick up the phone and call law enforcement," he says. That way, officials can work to shut down these bad actors and stop them from defrauding other people.

"It's a confidence game — the bad actors aren't going away," Versen says. "There's just too much money for them to walk away."

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FTC fighting back against coronavirus scams—Here's how to avoid them
FTC fighting back against coronavirus scams—Here's how to avoid them