The coronavirus pandemic isn’t just building fear and anxiety across the nation — it’s creating new opportunities for scammers. With many people seeking answers, they could be more susceptible to fraud. Scammers use this uncertainty to trick people, but there are ways to stay one step ahead.
Here are some common coronavirus scams and how to protect yourself:
Stimulus check scams
All eligible U.S. residents will be receiving an Economic Impact Payment, or stimulus check. Scammers are aware of this and have been calling and sending emails posing as the IRS and other government agencies. They try to convince you to “sign up” for your check and then steal your social security number, bank account information and other personal details.
How to protect yourself — First, the government will never ask you for personal or banking information this way. End the call or delete the email right away. Second, you don’t need to sign up for your stimulus check. If you need to update your personal information with the government before the check can be sent, only use forms provided at IRS.gov. For more information, visit the Economic Impact Payment Information Center.
Scammers like to take advantage of people’s generosity. In this case, they pose as a legit charity, a local health service or use a name that sounds real. The ploy is to ask for donations over the phone, email or social media to steal your financial information, or in some cases, food and other donations.
How to protect yourself — If you ever receive a phone call or message asking for a donation, do some research beforehand. You should never feel rushed or pressured into making a commitment. Instead, follow these tips on donating wisely to make sure your money gets to the cause you want to support.
Testing, vaccine and treatment scams
There are currently no vaccines to prevent or drugs to treat COVID-19 approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).1 Still, scammers are contacting people with promises of home test kits and "miracle" cures or vaccines. The purpose of these messages are to steal your personal information, banking information or both.
How to protect yourself — Home test kits and vaccinations are not available, so ignore any offers or promises. If you have symptoms of COVID-19 and are looking for answers, contact your medical provider and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.
FDIC and banking scams
Concerns about money are high for many Americans. To prey on this anxiety, scammers are pretending to call or email from banks or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). They will say that your bank account is locked or your ability to withdraw cash is in danger in an attempt to obtain your personal and banking information.
How to protect yourself — Never respond to any unsolicited request from the government or your bank. If there is an issue with your bank account, you can call your bank yourself and take care of the matter. To learn more, read the FDIC’s press release on potential scams.
Grandparent and military service member scams
Family emergencies can be highly emotional. In this scam, criminals pose as panicked grandchildren or a family member in the military. They’ll say they need money fast to pay for a hospital bill or travel out of a foreign country to safety. The goal is to get money sent while you’re still on the phone before you know it’s a scam.
How to protect yourself — Try to verify the person’s identity with questions only they would know. If that doesn’t work, ask to call back and contact other family members to see if they’re aware of the situation. For more information, read this article on grandparent scams in the age of Coronavirus by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
CDC or WHO email phishing scams
Phishing is an online scam where fake emails are sent that appear to be from a legitimate source. In this case, the sources are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The email tells people to download an attachment with information on the coronavirus. If opened, the attached document will install malware or ransomware on the computer.
How to protect yourself — Look at the sender of the email. If it’s not from an official CDC or WHO account, delete it. And if you feel uneasy at all, don’t ever click a link or download an attachment. For more tips to protect yourself, read this email phishing alert by the CDC.
Ways to report coronavirus scams
Reporting scams is the best way to fight them. Federal and state agencies have stepped up enforcements, but the tips they receive from citizens help them crack down even harder on illegal scams and fraud campaigns. If you’ve been exposed, here are some official government contacts to issue a report:
- Contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Report a scam to the FBI at tips.fbi.gov.
- If it's an online scam, submit your complaint through the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
Keep your guard up
It’s easy to get swept up in the news and updates surrounding the coronavirus. However, now more than ever, stay alert to all potential scams and keep your personal and financial information safe.
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1.) Federal Drug Administration. “Beware of Fraudulent Coronavirus Tests, Vaccines and Treatments.” FDA.gov. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/beware-fraudulent-coronavirus-tests-vaccines-and-treatments (accessed April 15, 2020).