As millions of Americans are ordered to stay at home, quarantine or work from home due to the nation’s ongoing coronavirus outbreak, scammers are recognizing and seizing a big opportunity to capitalize on a nation’s anxiety, fear and emotions.
Their opportunity: Just about everybody is home and able to answer their phones. That’s especially true of the elderly, the scammer’s favorite targets.
On average, scammers cost Americans $1.5 billion each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Now, the coronavirus crisis in the United States is creating new ways for scammers to take advantage of residents as they use phones, email and even door-to-door visits to peddle everything from miracle virus cures to medical supplies to fake charities.
The FTC is reporting these scams related to the new coronavirus outbreak:
Undelivered goods: Online sellers claim they have in-demand products, such as cleaning, household, and health and medical supplies. You place an order, but you never get your shipment.
Fake emails, texts and phishing: Scammers use fake emails or texts to get you to share valuable personal information — such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, or your login IDs and passwords. They use your information to steal your money, your identity, or both. They also use phishing emails to get access to your computer or network.
Phone scams: The American Association for Retired Persons is receiving increased reports of the grandparents scam, a tactic used by scammers to target older Americans. The AARP also has received reports of callers claiming a person’s Social Security payments have been discontinued due to the coronavirus, and then asking for Social Security or banking information.
Robocalls: Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes.
Misinformation and rumors: Scammers, and sometimes well-meaning people, share information that hasn’t been verified.
Fake charities: A natural response to something like the coronavirus will prompt a desire in you to help, and scammers will take advantage of your generosity by creating fake charities and asking you to donate money.
The Trump administration and U.S. Senate this week are negotiating a $500 billion economic stimulus package that could potentially provide Americans with direct payments of $1,200 per adult and $400 per child. This type of scenario is ideal for scammers, according to Colleen Tressler, a consumer education specialist with the FTC.
“With our experience, the minute something like this is announced, it provides more fodder for scammers to glom onto and go after people with,” Tressler said. “Anyone who tells you they can get you this money now is a scammer. Bottom line.”
There are reports of scammers doing this by calling people across the United States and claiming to be from the federal government, then asking for bank account information to deposit what they’re calling “Trump dollars,” according to Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs with AARP.
It’s important to only pay attention to sources that you trust,” Stokes said. “Be very cautious in what information you are taking in and sharing.”
Americans should also be mindful of misinformation and do their best to not feed the rumor mill. One such example came from Chicago, where an alleged warning from a police official warned residents of a nationwide shelter-in-place order and National Guard deployment. The report turned out to be bogus, but not before it was widely shared.
The coronavirus makes it easier than ever for scammers to cash out, according to Stokes.
“Scammers know how to take advantage of a person and get them into a heightened emotional state to get what they want,” Stokes said. “With coronavirus, most of us are already in that heightened state of emotion, so half the job of these scammers is already done.”
This makes it more important than ever to know how scammers are targeting Americans and what we can do to protect ourselves.
HOW TO PROTECT OURSELVES
There are fundamental ways consumers can protect themselves from losing cash or giving out sensitive personal data. Here are some tips from the FTC on how to avoid coronavirus scams:
Hang up on robocalls. Don’t press any numbers. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes. The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might instead lead to more robocalls.
Fact-check information. Scammers, and sometimes well-meaning people, share information that hasn’t been verified. Before you pass on any messages, contact trusted sources. Visit What the U.S. Government is Doing for links to federal, state and local government agencies.
Know who you’re buying from. Online sellers may claim to have in-demand products — such as cleaning, household, and health and medical supplies — when, in fact, they don’t.
Don’t respond to texts and emails about checks from the government. The details are still being worked out. Anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a scammer.
Don’t click on links from sources you don’t know. They could download viruses onto your computer or device.
Watch for emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or experts saying they have information about the virus. For the most up-to-date information about the new coronavirus, the FTC recommends visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Ignore online offers for vaccinations. There currently are no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure the new coronavirus.
Do your homework when it comes to donations, whether through charities or crowdfunding sites. Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card or by wiring money, don’t do it.
Some states are taking a proactive approach in battling scammers. On Friday, the state of Virginia announced the creation of the Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force, composed of federal and state law enforcement leaders and fraud investigators. The mission of the task force is to identify, investigate and prosecute fraud related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in Virginia.
However, it remains important to be vigilant as an individual and recognize scams when you see them. In fraud cases such as those stemming from the coronavirus, every American is susceptible, and anyone can be a victim.
In this time of heightened emotions, Stokes said it’s best for everyone to engage with their “inner skeptics.” Don’t answer the door, and let calls go to voicemail in order to screen them. Then, do your best to make an educated decision to pursue the matter further.
Tressler agreed, adding it’s paramount that you take a step back.
“Everyone is feeling urgency, anxiety, confusion and fear right now, so it’s really important to take a moment,” Tressler said. “If you are approached by anyone and it doesn’t seem right, talk to other people about it and trust your gut.”
The FTC is keeping up-to-date data on coronavirus scams and how to avoid them. Learn more by visiting www.ftc.gov/coronavirus.
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