‘Scammers out in force’ in wake of COVID-19
Scams are certainly nothing new, and the invention of phone scams likely began shortly after Alexander Graham Bell exclaimed, “Watson, come here!” on the first working model in 1876.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an upshot of all types of scams, multiple government agencies, including the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, have noted that old-fashioned phone scams – sometimes referred to as “vishing” – are on the rise.
“With the passing of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill, cybercriminals around the world are already looking at ways to exploit it,” Edward Labarge, director of CID’s Major Cybercrime Unit, said in an April 6 press release that warned of “a massive uptick in the amount of stimulus- and debt-relief scams.”
Nationwide, the central agency tracking telephone scams is the Federal Trade Commission. In a report posted Wednesday, Paul Witt, lead data analyst with the agency’s Division of Consumer Response and Operations, said: “scammers are out in force.”
“From Jan. 1 until today, the FTC has gotten 18,235 reports related to COVID-19, and people reported losing $13.44 million dollars to fraud,” Witt wrote. “While reports of robocalls are way down overall, we’re now hearing about callers invoking the COVID-19 pandemic to pretend to be from the government, or making illegal medical or health care pitches, among other topics.”
Few times in modern history are better suited for scammers than right now. Consider the following:
— More Americans are living and working at home for extended periods of time.
— More Americans are connected through a variety of communications technologies than ever before.
— For many of these residents, the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in increased stress, including financial stress, worries about work, health, medical and financial threats to loved ones and uncertainty about what the future may hold.
— At the same time, many Americans have received or soon will receive some form of financial assistance from their state or federal government, whether through increased unemployment benefits, stimulus checks or both.
For scammers, this means an abundance of availability, vulnerability and accessibility to prey upon. And while numerous agencies have stressed cyber awareness regarding online data in recent years, such as securing online accounts and limiting the information available on social media, scammers are all too happy to turn to older forms of technology, such as emails and phone calls, to obtain personal, health or financial information they can exploit.
Labarge encouraged people to, “ignore all phone calls, emails and text messages from anyone asking for personal information to receive stimulus aid.”
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is also warning individuals and families to be aware of the rising number of scams related to COVID-19.
They note that “vishing” scammers use similar techniques as email “phishing” artists to acquire personal information – and even limited amounts of information can have a big impact. While it may seem innocuous if a caller learns your birth date or your mother’s maiden name, scammers can combine what they learn with freely available information gleaned from public records and social media, which they can then use to commit identity fraud.
Among the agencies’ recommendations to combat vishing attacks:
— Don’t respond to any calls, texts or emails about checks from the government.
— Don’t reveal personal or financial information by email, text or over the phone, especially if you did not initiate the call.
— Don’t respond to solicitations for donations or information, especially from persons or organizations claiming to be health-care providers, government officials, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or World Health Organization, charities, persons claiming to provide assistance to COVID-19 victims or emergency workers or those claiming to represent military- or law-enforcement-support organizations.
— Ignore calls or online sales pitches offering vaccinations or home testing kits. The FTC notes that “there are no products proven to treat or prevent COVID-19 at this time.”
— Do not accept calls from organizations or individuals claiming that you’ve won a cruise, vacation, money or other prizes. More than likely, you didn’t win anything – especially if you didn’t enter.
— Don’t be afraid to refuse to provide information over the phone, even to legitimate callers. Ask for business to be conducted in writing. Don’t be afraid to ask for an address, website or call-back number, and research that information to make sure they are legitimate. If you suspect you’ve been given fraudulent information, report it.
— Be highly suspicious of calls or other forms of communication that contain a sense of urgency – something that has to be paid, corrected or completed “right now.” Scammers use urgency as a tactic to throw victims off balance.
— Hang up on robocalls.
— Don’t be afraid to hang up on live calls, especially if something doesn’t feel right or “sounds too good to be true.”
Incidents of fraud and attempted fraud can be reported to FTC at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov. Incidents should also be reported to your appropriate state agency. In Missouri, contact the Missouri Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division at https://ago.mo.gov/civil-division/consumer. If living on a military installation, report incidents to the Army CID at www.cid.army.mil.
Courtesy illustration used with permission.
COVID-19 scams happening near you:
The following is a list of known types of scams from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command:
— Medical Supply/ Treatment Scams: Currently, there are no FDA approved home test kits. Ignore social media or other online offers for home test kits or vaccinations to treat or prevent COVID-19. Visit www.fda.gov to learn more. Be cautious when ordering personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer or other medical or health equipment that is in high demand. Scammers will pitch products creating fake stores online and utilizing social media to lure purchases of these items to steal your money and not deliver items promised. Scammers will also offer to sell fake cures, vaccines or COVID-19 test kits.
— Imposter Scams: Don’t respond to texts, emails or phone calls requesting personal, banking or health information. Scammers are also contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors, hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, or demanding payment before treatment can be given. These calls typically try to create panic and rush decision-making. Pressure tactics include threats of repercussions if not paid immediately. Legitimate agencies will not resort to these tactics.
— Charity scams: During challenging times, scammers know people want to help others less fortunate and will exploit this generosity soliciting donations for individuals, groups, or areas affected by COVID-19.
— Stimulus Check Fraud: With the recent approval of stimulus checks, scammers will be especially creative to obtain personal and banking information through the use of imposter schemes, robocalls, emails or texts requesting information to “ensure” payment is received on time. The stimulus check will be a one-time direct payment delivered by the Internal Revenue Service to individual taxpayers mainly through direct deposit based on information in the previous year’s tax return. There is no need to sign up and no one from the IRS will call or email you to confirm personal or bank information.