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Recognizing COVID-19 Scams

By Julie Hayes | 04/15/2020

As COVID-19 impacts lives around the world, we may feel vulnerable, confused and in need of information, whether on how to keep ourselves and loved ones safe, or how to help support the doctors and nurses who work tirelessly to save lives. Sadly, the uncertainty of the times has also given rise to people who seek to take advantage of this vulnerability and confusion through scams, misinformation and false promises of cures and treatments. Our older loved ones may be particularly vulnerable to these scams as well. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), adults over the age of 60 lose money to scams at twice the rate of people between 20 and 59.

Those statistics can seem extra frightening, especially when coupled with fears we may be having about a loved one’s wellness and financial stability during this difficult time. However, if we arm ourselves with knowledge and know how to spot the signs of a scam, we can better defend ourselves and our loved ones against anyone who may be trying to take advantage of us.

What types of COVID-19 scams have been common and how can we protect ourselves and our loved ones from scammers?

Some of the most common COVID-19 scams have included:

  • Robocalls. Many of these illegal calls have promised information about treatments, donations, social security or other topics people are desperate for knowledge on. They typically ask us to press a button for more information. If we do, they recognize they are receiving a response from a human, and may target us for more calls, or ask us to input personal information.

    If we or our loved ones receive a robocall, we should hang up right away, refrain from pressing any buttons the caller asks us to and avoid providing personal information. According to the Federal Communications Commission, no government agencies are calling to collect personal information at this time. Also, we should be cautious of answering unknown numbers.
     
  • Fake e-mails, texts or social media messages. Also known as phishing, many scammers create e-mails and messages that look authentic or seem to come from trusted sources as a method of stealing information or tricking users to download viruses. During this time, these e-mails may come in the form of communication from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) or the government. If we or a loved one fall prey to these messages, the scammer may collect information like social security or credit card numbers from us.

    To protect ourselves and our loved ones, we should be alert of e-mails or messages claiming to be from the CDC or WHO. Unless we or a loved one has signed up for e-mail updates from these organizations, they will not be contacting us personally. Even if we have signed up for e-mail updates from these organizations, we should double check the e-mail address of the sender before interacting with them. If the e-mail address contains misspellings or strange numbers or letters, they may not be authentic. Moreover, these organizations will also never ask us to send personal information directly via e-mail, text or social media, or without us engaging with them first such as by making a donation. Instead, we should be directed to their secured website to fill out any forms containing personal information.

    Additionally, we should avoid clicking links from unfamiliar sources. Sometimes emails or social media messages will look like they are coming from someone we know, but contain an unexpected request, question or link. We should always be sure to check full email addresses, even when the name appears to be someone we know, as it could be a scammer. When in doubt, we can call the person to verify the message is real and coming from them.
     
  • Fake charities. Some scammers masquerade as organizations in need of money to support the vulnerable during this time. They often solicit payment in the form of wire transfers or gift cards, then pocket the funds for themselves. Other scammers may solicit crowdfunding donations for financial or health issues they may not actually have. Additionally, individuals may claim to be collecting donations to submit to a charity of their choice, but may instead keep the money for themselves.

    To avoid these charity scams, we can research charities and crowdfunding appeals before donating. Charity Navigator has a star rating system for several organizations accepting donations. The FTC also has a guide on safely donating to charities. We may also want to donate directly to a charity rather than through someone collecting donations.
     
  • Fake sellers. With many items, such as thermometers and hand sanitizer, in short supply, some scammers are pretending to sell these items, often at steep prices, then neglecting to deliver them after receiving payment. Scammers may also falsely claim to sell home tests to detect COVID-19.

    We should be cautious when buying from online sellers, and check their reviews and ratings before purchasing. Ignore sellers or offers promising home treatments and tests. The Food & Drug Administration is a good source of information on this as the situation develops.
     
  • Investment scams. With the stock market’s recent volatility, many people are looking to recoup their losses. Scammers are taking advantage of this by spreading false information about companies that are creating methods to detect and prevent COVID-19, suggesting that purchasing stock in these companies will result in great gains. Before making any such investment, we should first discuss with a financial advisor, as well as do research of our own.

Misinformation may also be common during this time. However, the difficult thing about misinformation is that it is not only spread by scammers, but sometimes by well-meaning people who may have heard things from inaccurate sources. We should fact check information through the CDC or the U.S. Government website. As this is a rapidly evolving situation, with new information being presented daily, individual state and national level politicians may not have all of the most recent information at the time, and should still be fact checked.

How do I report a COVID-19 scam?

Many people hesitate to report they’ve been scammed due to embarrassment. In fact, FTC statistics show that people over the age of 60 are the age group least likely to report that they’ve lost money due to a scam. However, reporting scams can be essential to shutting down the scammers and assuring more people aren’t harmed by their exploitation.

To report a COVID-19 related scam, we or a loved one can:

  • Report to the FBI online or over the phone at 412-432-4000.
  • Contact the COVID-19 Fraud Coordinator at USAPAW.COVID19@usdoj.gov or 1-888-C19-WDPA.
  • Submit a complaint through the FTC online.

Moving forward, we can keep ourselves informed of COVID-19 scams by checking alerts from the FTC and staying up to-date with information available through the CDC to avoid the problem of misinformation regarding cures, statistics and preventative measures.