Coronavirus-Related Scams On The Rise; How to Protect Yourself

Skyla Luckey

ST. PETERSBURG, FL — Many St. Pete residents haven't been anywhere in days because of the coronavirus pandemic, instead playing it safe and limiting contact with the outside world. So you're sure to be surprised when your phone pings with a text from your bank asking if you just charged $92 at a gas station in Tampa, and another $100 at a gas station in Largo.

Thieves don't have to physically swipe your debit card to steal, experts say. When you respond with NO back to your bank via text and they block your card from further use, what you're really wondering is how did this thief get your information? And are scams growing during the pandemic? We'll go over some popular scams and how to protect yourself.

Gas Pump Skimmers

With Memorial Day weekend here, travel is likely to pick up, even during coronavirus precautions. And law enforcement agencies routinely say that top tourism states like Florida are prime targets for thieves to place electronic skimming devices on gas pumps and ATMs at outdoor locations.

The Florida Department of Agriculture reports skimmer first began to appear in Florida in 2015 and have grown exponentially since. Card skimmers are small electronic devices illegally installed inside gas pumps that collect information from the magnetic strip on your credit or debit card when it is used during a transaction.

St. Pete Police Department Police Information Officer Rafael Lopez said gas pump skimming usually comes in waves; no current investigations into skimming are under way. Scammers typically target one city and then move onto another region once police crackdown on their operations.

Authorities remind the public to always be on the lookout for skimming devices at a gas pump. However, there are ways for people to minimize their chances of getting scammed.

Protection tips provided by the St. Pete Police Department:

  • Pay for gas inside the gas station or convenience store, or use the pumps that are more visible to the store attendant because they have a lower chance of getting tampered.

If you choose to pay for gas at the pump then be on the lookout for:

  • Loose or damaged card readers
  • Wires sticking out of the card reader
  • The card reader looks different to the other machines at the station
  • Gas stations in Florida also have a tamper evidence seal. If the seal is ripped off, don’t use that pump and let a station employee know.
  • Consumers should also get in the practice of checking their credit card and ATM statements to ensure their account/s have not been compromised.

A report released by the Federal Trade Commission on May 18 stated they have received 49,046 reports of coronavirus-related scams. This is in comparison to the Federal Trade Commission's April 19 statement that stated they had received reports of 22,345 coronavirus-related scams at that time.

Federal Trade Commission reports:

  • More than 28,000 of those complaints are fraud focused.
  • 3,855 of those complaints focus on identity theft.
  • 2,122 of those cases are Do Not Call Violations; 1,454 of those were robocalls and 588 of those were a live caller.

The report shows that the top five fraud or product services are travel/vacation, online shopping, text messages, health care plans and internet information services. The reports do show a rise in coronavirus-related scams compared to a month ago.

Tips from the Federal Trade Commission on how to protect yourself:

  • Hang up on robocalls or don't answer if it's a number you don't recognize.
  • Don’t respond to texts, emails or calls about checks from the government.
  • Watch for emails claiming to be from the Center for Disease Control or World Health Organization.
  • Ignore online offers for vaccinations. There are no products proven to treat or prevent COVID-19 at this time.
  • Do your homework when it comes to donations. Never donate in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money.

E-Skimmer

E-Skimmer means skimming online customer payment data from website checkout forms. Computer Weekly reported data released by RiskIQ show that attacks leveraging Magecart – a credit card fraud technique that skims card numbers in a supply chain attack by injecting malicious JavaScript into online checkout software systems – have grown 20% amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While nothing guarantees 100 percent online shopping safety, here are some tips to help minimize financial damage from your card information being stolen:

  • Use third-party, one-time use payment methods, i.e. Apple Pay, Google Wallet or PayPal
  • Sign up with your bank or credit card company for purchase alerts as well as monitoring services on all cards
  • Disable international credit card purchases
  • Do not shop on public Wi-Fi networks; use personal only
  • Ask your bank if they have a temporary card you can use for online shopping. The way a temporary card works is you'll transfer from your bank account onto the temporary card only the amount of money you plan on spending on Amazon or online retailer of your choice. Never leave left over money on the temporary card, just transfer it back into your bank account.

Online Pet Adoption Website Scams:

A popular scam reported by Fraud.org is fraudsters posing as online pet adoption websites. They report they saw an increase by 42 percent in complaints about pet adoption scams compared to April of last year.

Fraudsters are aware that many people suffer from loneliness during these times of isolation, so they target lonely people by providing a cure for their loneliness with an adorable pet shown on their "website." Beware of these sites that ask for fees prior to the shipment of a pet. These fictitious costs may include “shipping fees,” “inoculations,” “quarantine fees,” “insurance,” or even “COVID-safe shipping crates.” Regardless of the excuse given by the “seller” of the fictitious animal, the aim is always the same: get the victim to continue paying and/or providing valuable personal information until they either catch on or run out of money.

It is recommended to wait and adopt a pet from a legitimate adoption agency where you can go in person such as the Humane Society.

If you would like to be notified of scam alerts, subscribe by email at Fraud Alerts.

This article originally appeared on the St. Pete Patch