At the time of this writing, more than 1.5 million people across the globe are infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Chances are that number will be higher by the time you read these words.
The pandemic is, obviously, challenging and scary in its own right: For many, both physical and financial health are in serious danger.
But the situation is made that much worse by scammers, who are using this unprecedented situation as an earning opportunity. In this article, we’ll discuss how to identify and avoid coronavirus scams — so you’ll have one less thing to worry about.
Several types of coronavirus-related scams have been identified. Here’s what to look out for.
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1. You get a call, email or text from the IRS
The magic of digital and telephonic communication is one of the main things keeping us together during this trying time — but it also offers scammers an easy way to trick people into giving up important information.
Phishing is a crime in which a scammer calls, text messages or emails a target claiming to be a legitimate institution in order to gain access to sensitive financial details.
Specifically, with regards to coronavirus, scammers have been posing as the IRS and requesting direct deposit information, ostensibly for the purpose of depositing a government stimulus check or getting the money to you more quickly. Of course, that same information can also allow scammers to take money out of your account, which is what they aim to do.
The IRS will never contact you directly by social, text message or email asking for this information. In the majority of cases, no action is required to receive the stimulus check; the money will be directly deposited based on the banking information used in recent tax returns. If the IRS does not have the information on file, a paper check will be mailed to the on-file address.
Telltale signs of coronavirus phishing scams:
- Direct contact by the so-called IRS via email, text message or social media — the IRS doesn’t contact consumers in this way
- An inclusion emphasis on the words “stimulus check” or “stimulus payment”; the official government term is “economic impact payment”
- A request that you sign over the economic impact check to a third party for any reason
- A request for personal banking information, even for verification purposes, and the statement that such verification is required for the issuance of the economic impact payment (which it is not)
- Promises of receiving the economic impact payment faster
Also, in general, if an offer sounds too good to be true — and personal information is required to initiate or finalize the offer — it almost assuredly is.
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2. You receive a ‘stimulus check’ that requires further action
Chances are you’ve received a “check” in the mail before as an advertisement, perhaps for a life insurance policy or car trade-in.
Scammers may also send similar ads doctored to look like the coronavirus stimulus check, or checks with instructions to call a number to verify personal information in order to cash it.
Again, in most cases, eligible taxpayers will receive their checks automatically without having to take any action. Checks will begin going out in April and will be either directly deposited or mailed as paper checks.
If you earned up to $75,000 as an individual or $150,000 as a married couple filing jointly, you’ll receive the full amount of $1,200 per person (i.e., $2,400 for couples); those who earn up to $99,000 as individuals or $198,000 as joint filers are eligible for a reduced payment.
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3. You’re prompted to download a ‘virus scanner’ online
Malware, or malicious software, has been a problem since well before the pandemic started — but the coronavirus has given malware developers a new theme to work with.
For example, an Android app called “corona live 1.1” was posing as a live virus tracker, ostensibly utilizing the legitimate information offered by Johns Hopkins University.
However, the app’s true purpose was to track its users; mobile security company Lookout said that the app included SpyMax, a type of surveillance software that gives scammers access to a variety of sensitive information including real-time location data and even the ability to use the camera’s phone and recording devices.
Other such programs are sure to crop up and may spread through virulent emails that could infect a desktop computer, laptop or tablet. As always, exercise caution when opening a file attached to an email, and next time you download an app, seriously consider taking the time to read the fine print — yes, really.
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4. You’re contacted about student loan ‘forgiveness’
Student loans are already a major source of stress; especially considering the loss of income so many people are experiencing as a result of quarantine measures. Worse yet, there are student-loan-related scams that could make your complicated finances even more complicated during the pandemic.
For instance, some companies may offer to make changes to your repayment plan for a fee or offer false promises of forgiveness or forbearance.
As a result of the virus, federal student loan payments have been suspended until the end of September 2020 — but this does not apply to private student loans. If you’re struggling to keep up with payments that aren’t abating, we recommend reaching out to your loan servicer directly to ensure you’re making a legitimate deal.
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5. Someone promises a miracle cure-all
Some scammers are preying on coronavirus fears by offering the promise of a test, vaccine or cure — for a price, of course.
At this time, there is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19, and no at-home testing is available. Anyone who contacts you offering these products is a scammer.
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6. You see lofty prices in stores or online
From individuals hawking overpriced toilet paper and hand sanitizer to chain stores offering a pair of face masks for $39.95, price gouging has been a significant problem in reaction to the consumer rush to stockpile for quarantine.
Fortunately, many online platforms, like Amazon and Ebay — which so many of us have turned to in order to follow social distancing guidelines — have been taking steps to protect customers from price gouging. That includes restricting certain items (like N95 masks) from being listed at all.
But don’t be too quick to accept the prices you see online. Some illegitimate websites are offering free or low-cost essentials that have been hard to find, like hand sanitizer or toilet paper. To be safe, never buy from a website you don’t know or trust, and always check the URLs for misspelled words or grammar mistakes — two key giveaways for fake websites.
If you see price gouging out in the wild, officials recommend snapping a picture and then contacting your local police department or attorney general. And if possible, avoid reinforcing the behavior by giving that retailer your business.
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7. You get contacted by a charity you don’t recognize
While donating money to charity can be a great way to give back and help out during a time of crisis, it’s important to ensure that the charities you’re supporting are legitimate — especially if they initiate contact first. Scammers will sometimes pose as charitable organizations in order to get money from generous “donors,” so it’s worth doing your homework before signing over a check.
Another thing to watch out for: phone calls “following up” on a donation you don’t recall making. If you get such a phone call, research the organization, no matter how convincing the representative is. There’s a good chance the charity itself, along with your supposed previous donation, is bogus.
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What to do if you’re the victim of a scam
If you have fallen victim to one of the scams above — or another — there is some recourse. Here’s what to do.
Report it. If you’ve received a suspicious email, text message or social media correspondence related to the government-issued stimulus checks, the IRS requests you forward documentation to email@example.com. The IRS also has a protocol in place for reporting charity scams.
The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is the government agency responsible for tracking complaints about most scams. You can file a complaint online at the FTC website or by calling its consumer response center at (1-877-382-4357).
Freeze your credit. If you suspect a scammer got their hands on your credit information, freezing your credit card is one option for mitigating the potential damage. It’s free, doesn’t affect your credit score and restricts access to your credit report, which could keep an identity thief from getting the information they need to commit fraud.
To place a freeze on your credit, you’ll need to contact each of the three nationwide credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and Transunion, directly. If someone offers to freeze your credit for a fee, this is also a scam.
Monitor your identity. One of the best ways to get ahead of identity theft is to be on the lookout for it ahead of time. Consider using an app like My LendingTree, which now offers a free ID protection service that will alert you whenever your email is found online after a data breach. Knowing about suspicious activity as soon as it happens gives you the opportunity to take immediate action.
Warn your friends and family. It’s a lot easier to see a scam for what it is if you know what to look for — so if something happens to you, give your loved ones a heads up!
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