How to Identify and Avoid Coronavirus Scams

Don’t fall victim to a COVID-19 scam.

With the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak limiting people's ability to earn a living and threatening their health, many Americans are finding themselves in financial trouble or other dire straits. Scammers are taking advantage of people’s desperation; con artists might try to take your stimulus check, sell you a bogus coronavirus treatment, or trick you out of your personal information so they can steal your identity. And they'll try to do so in various ways, like through the mail, email, phone calls, social media, and texts. In this article, you’ll learn about different coronavirus scams that you might encounter through one of these channels so you can avoid them.

Stimulus Check Scams

Scammers are, of course, trying a wide variety of methods to get their hands on Americans’ coronavirus stimulus money. Be on the lookout for:

  • suspicious “checks” you receive in the mail asking you to verify information online or call a phone number to cash it
  • communications from people claiming they can expedite the process of getting your stimulus payment
  • phony websites that supposedly help you get your stimulus check, and
  • calls or emails from someone claiming to be working for the government or your bank, asking you to verify your account number so you can get a direct deposit.

Scammers use these tactics to try to get you to give them your confidential personal information like your Social Security number, bank account number, login IDs, and passwords. The scammer then uses that information to steal your money, your identity, or both.

Most people don’t have to take any action to get their stimulus money, and the government won't contact you by phone, email, or mail asking you to verify your information. If you submitted a tax return for 2018 or 2019, the government most likely already knows where to send the payment. If the government doesn’t have your bank account information, you can use the IRS Get My Payment application to let them know where to send your direct deposit. (Though, it’s been reported that the system has glitches, like giving users multiple error messages and locking others out of the system.) If the government doesn’t have or can't get your bank account number, it will mail a check to your last known address. The U.S. Treasury Department stated it will start mailing stimulus checks sometime later in April, so any supposed government check you get in the mail before then is most likely fake.

Also, beware of any communication or website that refers to the payment informally as a "stimulus check." The official name of the payment is an "economic impact payment." You can find legitimate information about the stimulus payments on the IRS website.

Work-From-Home Schemes

With the COVID-19 national emergency limiting many people’s ability to work, you might be among the millions of people who suddenly find themselves unemployed or underemployed. Scammers might offer you a job that pays a lot for a small amount of work that you can do from home.

If you respond, the scammer might ask you to send a small amount of money for training or special equipment. Or the scammer could ask for your bank account information to directly deposit your pay. But instead of giving you a job, the con artist takes your money or the information you provided and uses it to take whatever money you do have left or steal your identity.

Coronavirus Treatment and Product Scams

Some scammers claim to have COVID-19 experimental treatments you can buy. You might also receive emails, texts, or calls offering a coronavirus vaccine. Ignore them. No scientifically proven treatment or vaccine exists at this time.

With certain items—like hand sanitizer, cleaning products, and toilet paper—in short supply, con artists have been creating fake websites offering these products for sale. But after you send the money, you won’t receive anything. To avoid becoming a victim of this type of swindle, be careful about where you do you shopping. It’s best to stay away from websites you don’t know. But if you decide to buy from an unfamiliar site, research the company first to make sure it's legitimate and look for the padlock symbol next to the URL bar and the “s” in “https,” which means the site is encrypted, and your payment information will be secure.

Fake Charities

Charity scams are common, especially when a major event like a natural disaster (such as a pandemic) happens. Before donating to a charity online, check with the Better Business Bureau to find out if the charity is real and trustworthy. You can also look to see if a charity is tax-exempt at the IRS website; donations to these charities might be tax-deductible. Also, be sure to follow the instructions to donate on the company's official website—not information you got in an unsolicited phone call or email.

Debt Reduction and Foreclosure Relief Scams

If you’re facing a financial hardship due to coronavirus, many banks, credit card companies, mortgage lenders, and other service providers are offering different forms of assistance to their customers. Scammers, too, are offering “help.”

Debt Relief Scams

A scammer might offer you debt relief services, like debt consolidation, debt settlement assistance, or a debt management plan. But, in many cases, for-profit companies selling these kinds of services are swindlers who provide little or no help after you've paid them. Even if a debt relief company does try to help you, you'll have to pay a lot for something that you could do yourself or would be better off paying to an attorney or respectable credit counseling company, like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

Foreclosure Rescue Scams

Foreclosure rescue companies often send emails or letters (though they might call or text, too) that promise to save your home from foreclosure. The communication will probably say something like "Stop Foreclosure Now," "Get a Loan Modification," or "Save Your Home From Creditors." If you’re behind on your mortgage payments, these letters might sound like a lifeline.

But this kind of scammer uses lies, exaggeration, misinformation, and pressure to get you to sign up for foreclosure rescue services. The different scams vary a bit, but pretty much result in the same thing—the con artist pockets your cash, and you end up no better, and maybe even worse, off than you were before. (Learn more about common foreclosure rescue scams in Beware of Foreclosure Rescue Scams During the Coronavirus Crisis.)

Fake Emails From the CDC or WHO

Be careful with emails that claim to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), or experts that supposedly have information about the coronavirus, like universities or doctors. These messages might have malicious attachments. If you click on a link or open an attachment, it might install ransomware or other programs that can lock you out of your data. Or a link might take you to a fraudulent website designed to trick you into revealing sensitive information.

So, avoid clicking on links in unsolicited emails and don't open attachments. And make sure your device, browser, apps, antivirus, and anti-malware software are all up to date.

For the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus, go to the official webpages for the CDC and the WHO.

Reporting Coronavirus Scams

If you suspect you're a victim of a coronavirus scam, contact:

  • the Federal Trade Commission (877-FTC-HELP)
  • your state Attorney General’s Office, and
  • your local Better Business Bureau.

By reporting a foreclosure rescue scam, you might be able to help someone else avoid becoming a victim.

If you become aware of a scam related to stimulus check, report it to the IRS online and the FTC.

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