Don't Fall for These Coronavirus Scams

Rachel Hartman


With high levels of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, thieves are pouncing on the opportunity to trick Americans to fall into their traps. The FBI issued an alert warning Americans of an increase in fraud schemes related to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Scammers are on the hunt for money and personal information they can use to access accounts.

Watch out for these coronavirus scams:

-- Tests for Medicare recipients.

-- Social Security suspensions.

-- Economic impact payment information requests.

-- COVID-19 emails.

-- Coronavirus donation requests.

-- Work at home targets.

-- Fake websites.

To avoid falling prey to a coronavirus scam, the first step is to identify the warning signs that signal fraud. Understanding these red flags can help you keep your funds and identity details safe from financial danger. Here are some of the most common coronavirus scams and how to steer clear of them.

Tests for Medicare Recipients

If you are on Medicare, be aware of anyone who offers you a COVID-19 test. Fraudsters are calling Medicare beneficiaries, knocking on their doors and making announcements on social media, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The thieves state they have a COVID-19 test available for Medicare patients, but you'll need to first share your personal information, including your Medicare number. Once they have your information, scammers may use your medical identity to bill health care programs.

If anyone asks you for your Medicare information, don't share it right away. Instead, contact your doctor directly with any concerns about coronavirus and your health.


Social Security Suspensions

The Social Security Administration warns of fraudsters sending letters stating your Social Security benefits will be suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. These statements are false, as the SSA will not discontinue or reduce benefits as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. If you receive a suspicious letter or message about your Social Security, report it online at oig.ssa.gov.

Economic Impact Payment Information Requests

In this scam, thieves send a message claiming to be a bank or major financial institution. They state they have received your coronavirus stimulus check, but need your personal information to verify your account and send you the funds. "Remember the IRS will not call, text you, email you or contact you on social media asking for personal or bank account information, even related to the economic impact payments," says Jon Bottarini, a senior security solutions engineer at HackerOne in Tucson, Arizona. The stimulus payments will be automatic for most taxpayers.

COVID-19 Emails

Fraudsters are sending out fake emails about coronavirus concerns to lure readers into sharing banking or personal data. These emails might offer a hefty discount on face masks or hand sanitizer. "Some even offer cures for COVID-19," says Paul Lipman, CEO of BullGuard, a consumer cybersecurity company based in San Francisco. Other fake emails claim to have coronavirus advice from the government. You might even see an email that states it is from the World Health Organization and offers information on how to stay safe.

If you see an email that asks you to share a password or your banking information, don't respond to the message. Also avoid clicking on links in emails that claim to take you to a site where you can receive more details. If you see an email claiming to be from your bank or a local government agency, don't respond to the message. Instead, call the organization directly to report suspicious activity.


[Read: How to Access Social Security Benefits During the Coronavirus Pandemic.]


Coronavirus Donation Requests

Scammers are urging Americans to assist those who are suffering as a result of the outbreak. "Some of the crime-based COVID scams we're seeing include fake charitable donation requests with the saddest looking images looking for banking and credit card data," says Tom Patterson, chief trust officer at Unisys, an information technology firm. If you receive a phone call or email asking you to donate to a sickness-related cause, don't share information to make a payment immediately over the phone or online. Instead, verify the organization in a separate search online. Research charities thoroughly before offering any monetary assistance.

Work at Home Targets

Many employees are working remotely for the first time and may be unfamiliar with security-related issues for their organizations. Thieves are jumping on this chance to send phishing emails with malicious links. Employees of critical infrastructure organizations like banks, transportation companies, energy firms and government agencies are especially at risk. "Adversaries craft a very real looking business email aimed at getting the employee at home to click and open an access door," Patterson says. "This allows the hacker to take over the entire company."

When working at home, use the security measures provided by your employer to stay safe. "Be careful of downloading attachments you don't recognize, and when it doubt, do not reply back to the sender," Bottarini says. Instead, contact your company's IT or security department to inform them of the message.


[Read: New Retirement Account Rules in Response to Coronavirus.]


Fake Websites

More than 51,000 coronavirus-related domains have been registered since January 2020, according to Check Point Software, a global cybersecurity firm. Some of these are backed by fraudsters claiming to be a real organization. They may include official-sounding names in their domain, such as "Netflix" or "World Health Organization," and include a special offer, such as a treatment for coronavirus or a special television deal. Some sites also advertise a coronavirus-related app which could take over your device when you download it.

Look carefully at domain names to check for spelling mistakes, as errors may indicate a fake site. Avoid sharing any financial information with suspicious-looking retailers or organizations. Only install apps from legitimate stores such as Apple's AppStore and Google Play.