Personal Finance

Covid-related fraud has cost Americans $382 million

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Key Points
  • Fraud linked to Covid has cost Americans $382 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Seniors reported the largest losses related to coronavirus scams. The median loss for those in their 80s was $900.
  • Criminals have stolen money via a number of scams: those related to stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, Covid vaccines, fake virus cures and charities, for example.
Visoot Uthairam | Moment | Getty Images

Fraud linked to the Covid pandemic has cost Americans $382 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

As of Tuesday, more than 217,000 people had filed a coronavirus-related fraud report with the agency since January 2020, according to federal data. The median loss was $330.

However, losses skewed higher for seniors — $500 for people in their 70s and $900 for those in their 80s.

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Criminals have used multiple avenues to steal money from unsuspecting Americans, including crimes around financial relief like stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, fake treatments for Covid-19 and fraudulent charities.

"While people are scared about their health and finances, con artists are having a field day," Lucy Baker, a consumer defense associate at advocacy group U.S. PIRG told CNBC.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fielded 542,300 complaints in 2020, a 54% increase over 2019.

Americans began submitting more than 3,000 complaints mentioning coronavirus keywords nearly every month starting in April 2020, according to the Bureau, a federal agency that polices financial wrongdoing impacting consumers.

"The pandemic has been among the most disruptive long-term events we will see in our lifetimes," said Dave Uejio, the CFPB's acting director. "Not surprisingly, the shockwaves it sent across the planet were felt deeply in the consumer financial marketplace."

Credit and consumer reporting complaints represented more than 58% of overall complaints, followed by those related to debt collection (15%), credit card (7%), checking or savings (6%), and mortgages (5%). Not all these complaints were necessarily related to Covid.

Identity theft has also been a frequent problem relative to unemployment benefits collected during the pandemic.

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Around 60,000 people reported identity theft to the FTC since last year. The U.S. Labor Department on Monday launched a website for Americans whose personal data was stolen and used to claim fraudulent unemployment benefits.

Americans are also falling prey to scams related to the rollout of Covid vaccines.

An "early access vaccine" scam has been the most common cyber scam during the pandemic, according to Rublon, an online security firm. Con artists send e-mails, texts and phone calls claiming to have access to a vaccine before official government sources.

The FTC's $382 million figure likely understates the scope of fraud, since it's based on incidents detailed by consumers. Many may have gone unreported.

"We all need to be on our guard," Baker said. "Before you click, pause first.

"Do your research and ask yourself if that website, email, text, direct message or call is legit," she added. "Be wary of handing over your money or personal information."