The COVID-19 virus has affected just about every aspect of our lives. Government and health organizations have cautioned us to protect ourselves physically, but these are not the only safety measures to take. The Federal Trade Commission reports an increase in scams and fraudulent activity that hurt us financially and expose our personal information to identity theft.
Some of the most recent scams include:
— COVID-19 test kits and treatments – Scammers are advertising COVID-19 treatments and tests. Many of these advertisements claim to provide treatments for Vitamin C and D infusions, stem cell therapy and immunity boosting shots. However, these advertisements showcase no evidence that they work against coronavirus. More than 160 companies advertising such treatments have been identified and reprimanded by the FTC.
— Crowdfunding donations and the COVID-19 “Global Empowerment Fund” – The FTC has identified a particular scam fund called the “Global Empowerment Fund” that allegedly sends individuals money to help cover COVID-19-related expenses. You should not respond to solicitations from this false organization.
— Employment benefits – Imposters are obtaining personal information to file unemployment benefit claims for people who have not filed such claims. These schemes are often unmasked when employers or state unemployment benefits officials contact scam victims to ask about the recent claim filed on their behalf. Sometimes, the unemployment benefits will be dispersed to the victim’s account. If this happens, imposters may try to contact victims to get the money, even by saying the money was sent by mistake. The state government will never ask you to repay money this way. Do not pay any money, but instead report the incident to the Missouri state unemployment agency.
— Auto stimulus checks – Some scammers are sending out “COVID-19 Auto Stimulus” checks with space to endorse the check on the back. Disregard these checks if you receive one in the mail because the government is not using car dealerships to give out economic impact payments. Scammers use these checks to obtain personal information. You should be advised that any economic stimulus payment will come to you from the Internal Revenue Service.
— Cryptocurrency demands – You may get an email from someone telling you to pay them money via cryptocurrency or through your mobile money apps or else they will publicize sensitive information that they have accessed. You should report this type of criminal activity to the FTC as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation right away.
— Face mask exemption cards – Many states require face coverings in public places. Scammers have created cards bearing the seal of the U.S. Department of Justice or other federal agencies. The cards say that the holder has a disability preventing them from wearing a mask and that it is illegal for a business to ask them to disclose their condition. These cards are not issued or endorsed by the government and cannot be used to get out of wearing a face covering.
— University financial department emails – There is a circulating phishing scam email sent to university students from scammers posing to be from the financial department of the university. The email includes a link to get a message about the students’ COVID-19 economic stimulus check. That link leads you to a portal for students to input their user name and password. If they “login,” students then could be giving out their user name, password and other personal information. It is also possible that malware will be downloaded onto their devices.
— Offers to work from home – The economic impact of the coronavirus has left many people without jobs, stuck at home in quarantine. Scammers have taken advantage of this vulnerability to advertise opportunities to work from home to obtain personal information.
— Online shopping – Quarantines and social distancing have reduced our abilities to shop in stores and made it nearly impossible to purchase some necessary items. Scammers have capitalized on this deficiency and created fake or fraudulent companies that claim to sell these items but then fail to ship goods at all or send products below their promised quality.
— Lowering credit card rates – False credit card companies may contact you with promises to lower the interest rate on your credit card. Carefully research these companies before accepting this kind of offer. The FTC recently opened a complaint against an Orlando, Florida-based company that promised to lower their clients’ credit card rates for a fee. Instead, the company opened new credit card accounts with low introductory credit card rates in their clients’ names without asking permission.
— Scams targeting service members – The Department of Defense Military OneSource Program reported that imposters may pose as legitimate military sites to trick troops into revealing confidential information. They may appear to be debt collectors and pressure service members into paying nonexistent debts. Another reported scam targeting service members involves offers to monitor the credit of deployed service members. These scams steal personal information for identity theft purposes.
Recognizing and Avoiding Scams
Red Flags Indicating you are likely dealing with a scam:
— You are being pressured or rushed to make a donation or pledge.
— Emails from businesses and organizations you are not familiar with.
— You cannot find any information about the company or organization.
— Emails, texts or calls threatening to expose your personal information if you do not comply with demands.
— Charity organizations that ask you to pay by cash, money transfer, gift card or Bitcoin.
— Advertisements for coronavirus-related products, treatments and tests.
— Individuals, emails, phone calls or texts asking for Social Security Numbers, driver’s license information, bank account and credit card numbers and birthdate.
Actions you can take to keep scammers from stealing personal information include:
— Do not respond to texts, phone calls or emails from sites or organizations you do not recognize.
— Hang up on calls from a robotic voice.
— Never make a donation without researching where your money is going. Do not donate in cash, gift cards or money wires.
— Research the organization or agency before responding to their request for donations or information. The FTC suggests that research be augmented by typing in the group’s name plus the words “scam,” “complaint” or “review.”
— Check your credit report frequently. For the next year, AnnualCreditReporrt.com is allowing individuals to check their credit reports weekly, free of charge.
— Go to reliable sources for information on the coronavirus such as coronavirus.gov and usa.gov/coronavirus.
Contact from the government
The government will not call, text, email or message you on social media asking for your personal information. They will not offer to help you get your Economic Impact Payment faster. Government employees and agents will not ask you for cash, gift cards, wire transfers or cryptocurrency.
Report scams to:
— The Federal Trade Commission – ftc.gov/consumercomplaint.
— IdentityTheft.gov – this site can help you with important recovery steps when your identity is stolen. They also can place a free 12-month fraud alert on your credit, get you free credit reports and close fraudulent accounts opened in your name.
— Missouri State Unemployment Agency – You can report fraud to this agency. An online report will likely be the quickest way to get help. Contact the Missouri Attorney General’s office to file a report at ago.mo.gov/app/consumercomplaint. If you do need to file for unemployment or are contacted by a potential unemployment claims office, remember that the official website is uinteract.labor.mo.gov.
The FTC will continue to provide updates and advice regarding protecting you and your family against scams. However, the Fort Leonard Wood Legal Assistance Office can help if you have been involved in a scam and would like advice on what to do. Call 573.596.0629 to make a telephonic appointment.
(Editor’s note: This article was submitted to the GUIDON by Olivia Maynes, a law student and intern at the Fort Leonard Wood Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.)