Personal Finance

Americans lost $77 million to Covid-19 fraud — and that's just the 'tip of the iceberg'

Key Points
  • Americans have lost $77.4 million due to Covid-19 fraud since the beginning of the year, according to one government statistic. 
  • Fraud is typically under-reported by consumers, so the real tally is likely much higher. 
  • Scammers have targeted federal relief money such as stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, among other things.
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Americans have lost more than $77 million in fraud related to Covid-19, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

But that tally is likely a severe undercount amid an "unprecedented" scope of scams connected to the coronavirus, according to John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, a consumer advocacy group.

"I think the FTC's numbers are almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fraud losses," Breyault said. "We know fraud is historically an under-reported crime."

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Con artists have scammed consumers out of $77.4 million in coronavirus-related fraud since the beginning of the year, according to FTC data through Sunday.  

Consumers reported around 62,400 instances of fraud. Nearly half were linked to some financial loss. The median loss was $272.

Scammers have targeted the billions in aid doled out through new federal programs help prop up individuals and businesses during the coronavirus-induced recession.

Stimulus checks

One prime target has been the one-time stimulus checks issued by the IRS beginning in April.

The checks could be as large as $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples, with an extra $500 per eligible child. About 160 million payments totaling $269 billion have been sent.

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Scammers have tricked Americans into forking over money or personal information, sometimes in the guise of helping them to receive their checks faster.

Fraudsters may also try leveraging news that the federal government is considering a second round of checks to try to rip off unwary consumers, Breyault said.

Unemployment benefits

A huge rise in the number of people filing for unemployment benefits — and extra federal money being supplied to these jobless Americans — has also attracted thieves.

In some cases, they will pose as individuals helping file for unemployment benefits and then steal personal information.

More than 31 million Americans are currently collecting unemployment benefits, according to the Labor Department.

Federal authorities have also uncovered plots by international organized crime rings to file fraudulent unemployment claims in hopes of collecting the weekly payout from states.

Those sums may be especially lucrative given an extra $600 a week the federal government is paying jobless Americans through July.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, meanwhile, a new program for self-employed workers and independent contractors, among others, allows workers to self-certify their need for jobless aid, making that program more susceptible to fraud, according to the Labor Department's inspector general.  

Scammers are seeing this as an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of consumers.
John Breyault
vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League

Americans have also fallen prey to other scams, such as ones tied to fake treatments and cures for Covid-19 and fraudulent threats of utility shutoffs to coax money out of consumers, Breyault said.

"Scammers are seeing this as an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of consumers, who are not only in dire financial straits but are being inundated with information about Covid cures or protections that are dubious at best and fraudulent at worst," he said.

The most common reports lodged by consumers were around online shopping and vacations, according to the FTC.

Price gouging for in-demand products like hand sanitizer, bleach, disinfectant wipes and other cleaning products is likely fueling complaints about online shopping, while an ability to get refunds for airline tickets and hotels is likely a lead contributor to vacation complaints, Breyault said.