Protect Yourself from These 10 COVID-19 Scams

How older adults can guard themselves from coronavirus fraud

By Wendy Helfenbaum
 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says, as of mid-April, thousands of Americans have reported nearly $12 million in losses related to alleged coronavirus fraud. Scammers are especially targeting older adults by using their fears about the COVID-19 pandemic to con them into giving up their money and personal information.
 
Various government and fraud investigation organizations are urging consumers to be on high alert for a variety of coronavirus-related scams. Here’s what to watch out for, how to protect yourself, and how to report any suspicious activity.

1. Economic impact payment scams

Fraudsters are calling, emailing, or texting people about economic impact payments and asking taxpayers to sign their checks over to them or share their banking and personal information. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it will either direct deposit your payment into your bank account or send a paper check to the address they have on file for you. They will not call, email, or text.

2. COVID-19 testing and billing schemes

The FBI warns to beware of individuals who contact you in person, by phone, or by email to tell you the government requires you to take a COVID-19 test. These scammers will likely ask for your Medicare or Medicaid number and other personal information and use it to bill the federal healthcare programs for tests and procedures you didn’t receive and pocket the proceeds.

3. Travel insurance scams

If you get a call encouraging you to purchase travel insurance that covers COVID-19-related trip cancellations, it’s probably a scam, says the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. While some travel insurance companies do sell add-on coverage to protect a trip for any reason, most policies do not cover pandemics or any coronavirus-related problem.

4. Errands and supplies scams

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) warns if someone you don’t know offers to help pick up groceries, prescriptions, or other supplies, be wary. Some scammers offer to buy supplies but never return with the goods or your money.

Some online sellers have claimed they have in-demand items, like toilet paper and cleaning supplies, when they don’t. Only order supplies online from a reputable website.

5. Email scams

Phishing schemes may target you via unsolicited emails that offer COVID-19 tests and protective equipment, such as masks. These emails, which often feature a domain name with the word “coronavirus” in it, always request personal information. Usually, these fraudsters intend to install malware on your computer that is activated when you click on a link.

6. Robocalls 

There are many versions of robocalls, but most coronavirus scammers either try to sell you something like bogus health insurance or fake COVID-19 tests, or they impersonate officials from the Social Security Administration or other government offices to collect your personal information and steal your identity.

7. ‘Person in need’ scams

Scammers may call you posing as a grandchild, relative, or friend who claims to have COVID-19 and is stranded in another state or foreign country and ask you to send money. They may ask you to send cash by mail or buy gift cards. They pressure you to act fast and often beg you to keep it a secret. The best course of action is to hang up and call your grandchild or friend’s phone number to see if the story is true.

8. COVID-19 health scams

An increasing number of scams involve phoney cures, vaccines, test kits, or treatments for coronavirus, such as air filter systems. Because there is no vaccine or approved drug for COVID-19, these calls, texts, or emails are always fraudulent. These scammers also place ads that include fake doctors on websites and social media to push their products or offer protective gear. Especially watch out for products that come with no-risk, money-back guarantees.

9. Coronavirus charity scams

In this scenario, scammers call you purporting to represent fake charities and ask for donations. But watch out for phone callers that insist you already pledged a donation and they need your personal information to collect it.

10. Investment scams

COVID-19 fraud also involves investment scams, where con artists flaunt stocks for companies or products that allegedly cure or prevent the coronavirus, citing “research reports.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission cautions that this classic penny-stock fraud can leave investors with huge losses.

How to protect yourself from coronavirus fraud

Being vigilant regarding coronavirus scams can help you from becoming a victim. Here’s how you can protect yourself:

  • If you receive a robocall, do not press any numbers; hang up right away.
  • Avoid engaging potential con artists on the phone, and if you don’t recognize a phone number, don’t answer the call.
  • Never, ever provide your Social Security number or bank or credit card information.
  • Don’t fill out any forms contained in emails with suspicious subject lines or domain names.
  • Ignore texts or emails referring to checks from the government.
  • Never click on links in an email unless you’re certain you know who sent them to you.
  • Don’t reply to online offers for so-called COVID-19 tests or treatments.
  • Do not agree to make a charitable donation in cash, by wire, or with a gift card.
  • Update your computer’s operating system software and use security features.
  • Ask a trusted friend or neighbor to pick up supplies or use an established delivery service to order directly from the store. The Eldercare Locator , a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, can connect you to services for older adults and their families.
  • Only visit reputable sites for up-to-date information regarding COVID-19, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.  
  • Stay current on the latest scams targeted at consumers and investors. You can also receive alerts on scams. The CFPB has free downloadable fraud prevention placemats that detail common scams, and the FTC has posted samples of illegal robocalls you can listen to.
  • If you are contacted about the economic impact payment, the IRS says to be on alert if someone:
  • Contacts you and emphasizes the words “stimulus check” or “stimulus payment;” the official term is “economic impact payment”
  • Asks you to sign over your economic impact payment check to them
  • Asks by phone, email, text, or social media for verification of personal and/or banking information saying that the information is needed to receive or speed up your economic impact payment
  • Suggests that you can get a tax refund or economic impact payment faster if you let them work on your behalf
  • Mails you a bogus check, perhaps in an odd amount, then tells you to call a number or verify information online in order to cash it

How to report fraud

If you think you’ve been a victim of coronavirus fraud, you can call AARP’s toll-free service at (877) 908-3360, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time.
 
If you receive texts, phone calls, social media messages, or emails that you believe are scams, please report them so they can be investigated and hopefully stopped. You can contact the FTC’s complaint department, the IRS, the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline, or the FBI. The FTC also has a Coronavirus Scams resource page to help you recognize, avoid, and report fraud.
 
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