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While you always need to be wary of scammers and the methods they use, you may want to approach situations with an extra level of scrutiny during the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis. Fraudsters know people are more vulnerable to scams when they're desperate, and use times of crisis as an opportunity to come up with new scams—or new twists on existing scams.
Fortunately, keeping yourself safe doesn't require a lot of extra work. In many cases, the same measures you'd take to protect yourself during normal times apply during a crisis as well.
Basic Steps to Avoid Being Scammed
A few rules of thumb can help you avoid some of the most prevalent scams:
- Be skeptical of incoming calls and emails. People are able to "spoof" and disguise their email address or phone number to make it look as though correspondence is coming from an official source, such as a bank, government agency or charity. Instead of responding to an unexpected call or message, look up the organization's information and initiate a call yourself.
- Keep your personal information personal. Most organizations that have access to your personal information will never ask you to share it with them by phone or email. If you're asked for your Social Security number, mother's maiden name, bank account information, account usernames and passwords, or any other personal information, an identity thief may be making the request.
- Research companies. Before making a purchase that seems too good to be true, research the company first. You could search for reviews of the company, or search for the company's name plus "scam," to see what others have to say.
- Immediately hang up on robocalls. Robocalls have evolved, and new systems may sound real or even have recorded messages that reply to common questions. If you suspect the caller might not be an actual person, don't say anything, don't follow prompts to press a button and hang up right away.
- Be wary of upfront payments and overpayments. Don't make an upfront payment for a product or service that's not from a well-known merchant. Also, watch out if someone offers to buy something from you and "accidentally" sends too much money. They'll often ask for a refund of the difference and then their check will bounce, even if your bank originally accepted it.
- Don't pay by money order or gift card. Scammers may ask you to pay by wire transfer, money order or to send them gift cards as it can be harder to track and cancel these forms of payment.
Following these general guidelines can help you keep your identity and finances safe, but you always need to be on the watch out for the latest scams. Here are a few examples of what's happening in 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic gave scammers a new hook for their pitches, and they have quickly adapted. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released two (part one and part two) overviews of the scams that have emerged. They include:
- Phony messages from scammers posing as government agencies: Identity thieves may pose as a government agency to try to trick you into clicking on a link in an email or text message. This type of attack—called "phishing"—can allow them to install malware on your device and gain access to your personal information. Or, they may say there's an emergency and ask for your personal information.
- Sales and offers related to a cure, vaccine or hard-to-find goods: Some scammers go as far as buying ads to promote their website that sells a fraudulent coronavirus cure or vaccine. Or, they may advertise cleaning supplies, medical equipment or other products that are in high demand. Unfortunately, you may send money and get absolutely nothing in return.
- Investment scams: Investment scams can involve messages about a company that's supposedly working on a cure or vaccine. As people purchase stock, the price increases and the scammers then sell their shares to make a quick buck.
- Charity scams: If you're able to, giving to those in need is laudable. However, it's important to research organizations before sending money. Fraudsters may set up fake websites and charities to collect donations they'll simply pocket.
- Access to government programs: These can take different forms, but scammers look for ways to use the headlines to their advantage. Talk of needing to verify your personal information before sending you a check or offering you a business loan after you pay a processing fee may tip you off that something is amiss.
The FTC has a coronavirus page that you can check for the latest news, blog posts and scams.
An employment scam can target people of all ages and may be difficult to detect because of how much work the scammers put it. You could find yourself going through a series of interviews, including video interviews and performance tasks, before receiving a job offer and employment forms. The job may be described as flexible and remote, which can appeal to a wide range of job hunters.
In addition to collecting your personal information from the application forms, the scammers could ask you to pay them for equipment or training that they say you'll need for the job. Or, they may send you a bad check for too much money and ask you to send back the difference. Unfortunately, it can take several days for you to realize the check was bad, and your bank may even pull the funds out of your account after it initially accepts the deposit.
While the cryptocurrency craze may have settled, it's still the basis for many scams. You may find yourself being promised an incredible investment opportunity, but you'll need to buy a cryptocurrency to claim your stake. Sometimes, this may come during an initial coin offering (ICO). While some legitimate companies have launched this way, scammers will simply take your money and leave you with nothing.
Romance scams aren't new, but they are taking on new forms and becoming more common. The scam often starts on a dating app or social media, where someone will reach out to you and start building a personal relationship. They may pose as someone working an altruistic job, such as a doctor or military member, in a different area so they can't meet in person—although they may promise to visit soon.
After forming a connection, the scammer could ask you to send a wire transfer, gift card, bank transfer or pay for things on their behalf. The ask may be accompanied by an emergency situation, such as a need for medicine, which can add a sense of urgency.
Romance scams tend to target people in their 50s and 60s, and can be aimed at men and women. They also don't always use a romantic angle. Sometimes, scammers build a platonic friendship based on a lie before asking for money.
Online Purchase Scams
Online purchase fraud was the number one scam in 2017, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and continues to be a prevalent scam several years later. One of the coronavirus scams mentioned above is a twist on this scam, and the premise is the same here—you send a payment and never receive the product or service you pay for.
The BBB 2019 Scam Tracker Risk Report says the most common products for online purchase scams in 2019 were clothing/jewelry, home/furniture and medical/nutrition. Often, the scammers sell these goods on marketplace sites or social media. One way to avoid this scam is to make sure you can pay with a credit card because you can initiate a chargeback if the person doesn't deliver.
Continue Monitoring Your Identity
You can take steps to help keep your personal information secure and protect yourself from falling victim to a scammer. However, mistakes happen. Or, through no fault of your own, your information could be stolen in a data breach.
If you've sent someone a wire transfer or gift card, you likely can't get that money back. But you can report the scam to the FTC, which may help other people learn about and avoid similar scams.
You can also monitor your credit reports for unexpected changes, which could help you quickly respond to certain types of fraud. In addition, you could sign up for an identity theft monitoring service, such as Experian IdentityWorksSM, which searches for your personal information in the dark web and alerts you when something is found.