COVID-19: Anatomy of a Scam
We’ve all seen it. The image of COVID-19 looks somewhat like a newly discovered planet or like something out of Star Wars with its rather beautiful but potentially deadly anatomy. But COVID-19 isn’t the only danger lurking in our communities.
The criminal element has seized the opportunity to cash in on our fears over COVID-19 and new scams are springing up every day. While the specifics of each scam may vary, the anatomy is the same. All the scams are built around some extraordinary offer, just for you, to allay your fears.
Most commonly, the COVID-19 scams include what appear to be legitimate offers: promises of a cure or access to limited testing or other medical resources, up-to-date tracking tools to keep you informed of COVID-19’s progress, or special offers to defer payments on everything from taxes to utility bills. However, the goal is not to provide us with anything of value, but to take what is valuable to us: our money, our confidence, and our self-worth.
Government agencies including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are watching legitimate companies for signs of COVID-19 related fraud. They aren’t able to watch over the many scammers trying to take advantage of people, many of whom are particularly vulnerable now. Consequently, we must watch out for illegitimate offers and fraud. Here are some tips to protect you from potential scams:
RED FLAGS FOR SCAMS
- Promise of a “quick” cure or “special” access to testing for COVID-19
- “Extraordinary” tools to track and keep COVID-19 away
- Access to “limited” resources if you respond quickly
- Personal Information must be provided to receive the “goods/services” being offered
HOW SCAMS OCCUR:
Scammers use email, texts, and phone contact to reach potential victims because in person communication is discouraged to slow the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19).
Offers via email and text usually include a link to click/activate to get your goods/services. If you click on the link, you will be redirected to a website that requires you enter your personal information to receive whatever is being offered. Clicking on the link may then allow harmful software to be loaded to your computer or tablet that steals your passwords, banking information or provides remote access to your computer.
Examples of current scams include:
- COVID-19 cures
- COVID-19 testing kit, made available ONLY to a select group of individuals such as Medicare beneficiaries
- “Special” data re COVID-19 including local maps with real time tracking and information
- “Special” offers to extend deadlines or offer financial relief, just for “you”
Offers may also be made from representatives of seemingly legitimate companies, organizations, and government agencies to provide the most up to date information on COVID-19. They ask you to either click on a link and/or provide personal information to receive what’s being offered. These organizations don’t call or contact you for your personal information. Examples include:
- World Health Organization (WHO) and other large organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are reporting that individuals pretending to be representatives of these organizations are contacting people by phone and email with offers of COVID-19 updates and requesting personal information to sign them up for this service.
- Individuals claiming to be from the IRS are contacting individuals to advise them of tax filing extensions or office closures, then asking for personal information to “document” that an extension has been granted or to “confirm” banking information.
- Likewise, individuals purporting to be representatives from the Social Security Administration are contacting individuals to advise them that their account has been compromised and they need to “confirm” their personal information and/or banking information to ensure no delay in processing of their disability or retirement payments.
- We are receiving calls and emails from individuals allegedly from utility providers such as Southern California Edison offering free service or deferred payments for a limited time and to a limited number of individuals, first come-first served. You just need to confirm your identity by personal information and payment source so they can note your account.
- Individuals claiming to be from legitimate charities such as Red Cross are contacting individuals to obtain monetary donations or sign people up to donate blood, both of which require disclosure of personal information.
These are just a few of the known scams related to COVID-19. Be vigilant as more scams are sure to appear in the days ahead.
Here are some simple ways to avoid COVID-19 scams:
- Practice SKEPTICISM!
- If you didn’t initiate contact with the person offering goods or services, assume it’s a scam.
- Look for generic greetings such as “Hello, Sir/Madame” indicating the sender is not sure of your gender, indicating the sender is a stranger.
- Be wary of links in email or text messages, even if you recognize the sender. Visit the known web site of the company or organization allegedly offering goods or service rather than click on provided links if anything looks suspicious. .
- Verify the legitimacy of the individual or company/organization making contact:
- Call the known, published number for the company the individual purports to represent and ask for that employee by name
- Visit the known website of the company and conduct your business through this website
- Authenticity and wellness of charities can be checked through watchdog agencies such as Charity Watch (https://www.charitywatch.org/) or Charity Navigator (https://www.charitynavigator.org/)
- Never provide personal, banking, credit card, or investment information over the phone or in an email message UNLESS you initiated the call or correspondence.
- Do not give in to pressure to “act now”. Important decisions regarding health and finances deserve careful thought and analysis. Don’t let your fears about COVID19 drive you to make bad decisions.
If you provided sensitive information to a potential scam, don’t panic. Instead take the following steps to recover:
- Change the passwords for all of your accounts, especially if you use the same password for multiple accounts.
- Set up multi factor authentication for all of you accounts so that you must prove your identity before account transactions or changes can be processed.
- Report Identity Theft to the 3 credit bureaus as follows:
- Experian – Experian.com/fraudalert 888-397-3742
- Transunion – Transunion.com/fraud 800-680-7289
- Equifax – Equifax.com/CreditReportAssistance 888-766-0008
- Activate a credit freeze. If you don’t plan to make a large purchase requiring credit (like a house or a car), you can “freeze” your credit to stop any credit being opened under your identity including credit cards, bank loans, or real estate loans. Placing a credit freeze is FREE in California. You can lift or remove the freeze at any time. For additional details, visit consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0497-credit-freeze-faqs
- REPORT IT! All scams should be reported to the Federal trade Commission at FTC.gov or 877-382-4357