Every day, millions of Americans watch their local and national news channels for the latest updates on the coronavirus pandemic. The news outlets regularly share the latest government announcements, updated pandemic statistics, and stories about how communities are coming together to build solidarity during this crisis. However, as much as we try to stay informed, coronavirus misinformation abounds, and it can be hard to separate truth from falsehood.
In a time where new information about the pandemic comes out every day, scammers have been taking advantage of these uncertain times by spreading fraudulent information and hoaxes about COVID-19. These hoaxes have been used to steal personal information, banking account numbers, and thousands of dollars from Americans.
The best way to prevent falling victim to these scams is to be more aware of them and share that awareness with friends, family, and your community. With that said, here's a step-by-step look at some of the latest COVID-19 hoaxes and how to avoid them.
Common Coronavirus Scams
Over the last few months, a range of hoaxes have emerged to take advantage of the misinformation and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. There are many different COVID-19 scams that target every consumer in the country, but in particular, there are also malicious scams aimed specifically at active adults and homeowners.
Scams that attempt to deceive and extort active adults include Social Security and Medicare scams. Scammers might pose as officials from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and try to steal your social security number or bank account information. These scams might threaten your benefits, ask you to verify information, or pressure you to wire or send money.
Some of the COVID-19 relief scams specifically target homeowners by offering faulty foreclosure relief, mortgage relief, or home improvement grants. In these scams, imposters try to steal banking information with the promise of securing thousands of dollars for your home. Active adults who own homes should be on the lookout for any of these scams.
One scam recently reported in New York, for example, targeted homeowners through mailed postcards that advertised for home repair grants during the pandemic. The postcards appeared to come from the National Residential Improvement Association (NRIA). However, the NRIA is not a government program and does not have a valid business license. This homeowner hoax demonstrates how fraudulent scams try to impersonate real or real-sounding agencies.
Economic Impact Payment Scams
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently began distributing economic impact payments designed to support individuals during the coronavirus pandemic. These payments are a key part of the $2 trillion CARES Act, an economic relief package signed into law in March 2020.
While the IRS sent the first of these payments in mid-April, most qualifying Americans will likely receive their checks over the next few months. As many people eagerly await these stimulus checks, scammers have tried to trick consumers into sharing their banking information in return for the promise of economic relief payments.
To avoid scams related to the economic impact payments, know that for those who expect to receive their payments via mail, those checks are not expected to arrive until mid-May. If you receive a check before then or you receive a check for a larger amount than expected, it’s likely a scam. Additionally, the government will not charge you a fee to access the funds, call to verify your banking information, or send overpayments and request you to return the surplus funds.
Coronavirus Phishing Scams
Specifically, phishing scams have increased in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Phishing emails are designed to impersonate trusted organizations and trick consumers into clicking them, but in reality, these emails can steal your personal information and infect your devices with malware. These days, phishing text messages can function in the same way.
These emails may appear to come from organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), phishing emails have posed as the WHO to steal consumers’ usernames and passwords, which are then used to take sensitive information and even money.
Since many trusted organizations have started sending emails about their coronavirus relief efforts, it can be even more challenging to spot phony emails. Make sure to verify email addresses and websites, delete suspicious emails, and think before you click. If claims seem too good to be true, they probably are.
COVID-19 Scams on Social Media
In addition to email phishing scams, cybercriminals have started infiltrating social media, such as Facebook. While sites like Facebook take precautions to ban this type of activity, scammers still find ways to operate under disguise. On social media sites, con artists spread false information as a way to capitalize on uncertainty. If you use social media to receive news, make sure to only trust reliable news outlets and official government websites.
Online advertisements for fake COVID-19 vaccinations, bogus at-home testing kits, and cleaning supplies with highly inflated prices have also infiltrated social media. During these times, try to only make online purchases from trusted retailers in order to protect your payment information. And as far as any claims about vaccinations or testing kits, these are too good to be true. There's currently no vaccination for COVID-19 and no official home testing kit.
Warning Signs of Scams
New scams continue to emerge at both the national and the local level, which makes it as important as ever to continuously be aware of these hoaxes and to protect your private information. Fighting against hoaxes, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have collected information to help consumers understand some red flags that warn of scams. Here are some common signs to look out for, especially over the next few months.
- Phone calls, text messages, and emails from individuals claiming to be representatives from the IRS. Remember: The IRS will not contact you by these methods to request your personal information.
- Any communication where individuals ask you to pay a fee in order to receive your economic relief payment or any grants. You do not need to pay any fees to receive your stimulus check, and you should never pay to receive a grant.
- Phone calls, text messages, and emails from individuals offering grants or relief funding for home repairs. Known organization names used for this scam include the Federal Grants Administration and the National Residential Improvement Association.
- Posts on social media where people claim to have received thousands of dollars from organizations that provide grants to homeowners.
- Any advertisements in magazines or newspapers that claim to provide “free grants.”
In addition to these warning signs, consumers have to take extra precautions against scams that specifically relate to the coronavirus pandemic.
- Phone calls, text messages, and emails requesting your personal information in order to receive checks from the government.
- Mailed checks with thousands of dollars, followed by a phone call from IRS imposters who ask you to keep a certain amount and then return the rest of the funds through money transfers or gift cards. The IRS will not send overpayments for the economic impact payments.
- Any phone calls, text messages, emails, or postcards from an organization claiming to be the IRS and asking you to verify your banking information in order to receive a payment. The IRS will not contact you to collect personal information.
- Online advertisements for COVID-19 testing kits or vaccinations. Ignore any offers for products that claim to treat or prevent coronavirus.
- Online or print advertisements requesting donations. Make sure to do your research about any organization that asks for donations. You should never feel pressured or uncertain when making a donation.
How To Avoid Scams
For consumers, the best way to avoid hoaxes is to be aware of scams and remain skeptical of anyone who wants access to your personal information. The more we can raise awareness about scams and warn family and friends, the more we can decrease our own risk of exposure to COVID-19 hoaxes. There are also tried-and-true strategies you can use to protect yourself and learn how to avoid scams as best as possible.
- Do not answer phone calls or respond to text messages if you do not recognize the number. Hang up on robocalls that start with recorded messages; engaging with these illegal scam calls can steal your personal information and your money.
- Ignore or block any social media posts that make claims about receiving money through grant programs.
- Never share any personal information over the phone, including your Social Security number, taxpayer identification number, baking information, or Medicare number.
- Never share any payment information to companies that claim you need to pay to receive a grant.
- Do not wire money, transfer cash, put money on gift cards, or send cryptocurrency to anyone who you do not know. According to the IRS, any time you are asked to send money this way, it is a sure sign of a scam.
- Protect your computer from malware or phishing scams by keeping your computer software updated, using additional security software, and backing up your data.
According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), “the IRS will not call, text you, email you, or contact you on social media asking for personal or bank account information, even related to the economic impact payments.” The IRS will not request any personal or identifying information via phone calls, text messages, or emails. Similarly, the IRS will not send you anything that claims to have special information about the economic impact payments or refunds.
Where To Find More Information & Help
For the most up-to-date and accurate information, refer to government websites such as Coronavirus.gov, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service. The FTC offers Consumer Alerts that warn of the latest scams. Local and national news outlets communicate reliable information on any new hoaxes and how to best protect yourself.
Above all, remember that if you're experiencing these scam attempts, your family and friends may also be experiencing them. Remain an informed consumer and share information with your community to best protect yourself and your loved ones during these uncertain times.
If you would like to report a scam to help protect others, contact any of these agencies.