Billions of dollars are estimated to be lost by senior adults each year to scammers, according to the National Council on Aging. Now, with the confusion and fear over the coronavirus, scammers try to capitalize. Federal, state and local officials across the country have alerted consumers, particularly older people, to be aware of several fraud schemes, including those tied to the virus.
Senior citizens have trust in many federal government agencies, and scammers know this. Various fraud watch networks are inundated with calls this time of year about scams involving someone impersonating an IRS agent, Medicare official, Social Security Administration officer, FBI agent or other government worker. Persons over the age 65 often are targeted because they’re more likely to own their home, have retirement savings and/or have excellent credit.
These schemes may include asking for Medicare numbers over the phone, or promising a government grant in exchange for a large sum of money, or stating that a personal social security number has been compromised, and finally, the tried-but-not-true sweepstakes scam that would give the consumer millions of dollars in exchange for fees and taxes before receiving any winnings.
No one should cooperate with a person claiming to be with the federal government who promises prizes or asks for personal information. This is a scam. The government will not call and ask for personal information, as they already have detailed Medicare and Social Security numbers. They will not ask for personal information such as a bank account number, nor will they contact anyone through social media, text or email. Any important information will come through the U.S. Postal Service or a secure email that has already been set up for you. When in doubt, call a known number for an agency directly to confirm its’ validity.
The government will not reach out to offer a federal grant, as grants require an application for a specific purpose. They will not ask for any upfront payment before sending any benefit, grant, or refund, and they will not suspend benefits due because of someone else misusing your identification. Government agencies will not take any payments in prepaid gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency.
Likewise, the IRS cautions elderly taxpayers about telephone scams where the caller threatens to arrest a person for unpaid taxes. The caller usually demands immediate payment with a credit card or a prepaid debit card. The IRS does not call taxpayers without first sending an official notice through the mail, and the agency will not demand immediate payment without allowing for questions or appeal of the amount owed. Nor will they threaten to send police or other law enforcement to arrest anyone for non-payment.
Charity scams are common regardless of what’s happening in the news, but fraudsters follow the headlines, and the coronavirus is a great way for them to claim that they’re gathering donations for families that have been affected by the pandemic. Beware of requests for cash donations: Only donate cash to reputable organizations that have clearly marked donation containers. Never donate by giving gift cards or wiring money.
Research any potential charity. Begin by checking out the information with the Better Business Bureau or with CharityWatch.org; they suggest it is best to direct any donations to one or two charities rather than sending smaller donations to many organizations. Even the best charities have overhead costs related to obtaining and processing your donation. By making a larger gift to one efficient charity instead of sending $20 to 10 different charities, a smaller portion of any donation that is received will be used to cover overhead costs.
As of October 18, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had logged nearly 626,000 consumer complaints related to COVID-19 and stimulus payments, 73% of them involving fraud or identity theft. These scams have cost consumers $588.2 million, with a median loss of $392.
Criminals are using the full suite of scam tools, such as phishing emails and texts, fake social media posts, robocalls, impostor schemes and more; they closely follow current events, adapting their messages and tactics as new medical and economic issues arise.
Cybersecurity firms report a new phishing campaign is making the rounds. Emails are purporting to be from human resources departments requesting workers’ proof of vaccination, or contains links in the message directing potential targets to a fake sign-in page where scammers can gather log-in credentials.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says consumers should be on the lookout for these signs of vaccine scams:
- Requests that you to pay out of pocket to receive a shot
- Ads for vaccines on websites, social media posts, emails or phone calls
- Marketers offering to sell or ship doses of COVID vaccines
Other coronavirus scams to look out for include false vaccine claims or pitches for unproven prevention methods or remedies. Be sure to consult your physician, pharmacy or local health department before beginning any medical treatment for COVID-19.
The FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have sent warnings to companies that sell unapproved products – often through robocalls, texts or social media ads – that they claim are able to cure or prevent COVID-19 or that claim to be selling or offering protective or preventative products such as masks, test kits and household cleaners.
Some fraudsters will call or email posing as professional cleaners or similar service providers and offer to sanitize homes or businesses. While there are businesses that specialize in this service, they are not typically engaged in randomly calling potential customers out of the blue. Reputable businesses don’t engage in hard sells or pressure tactics.
Financial industry scams
With economic anxiety high, scammers are also impersonating banks and lenders, offering bogus help with bills, credit card debt or student loan forgiveness. Small businesses are also being targeted with scammers reaching out to owners with phony promises of help to them in order to secure federal disaster loans or improve Google search results.
The pandemic has also spawned stock scams. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has warned investors about con artists touting investments in companies with products that supposedly can prevent, detect or cure COVID-19. The classic penny-stock fraud called “pump and dump” is when con artists have already bought stocks, typically for less than a dollar. As the excitement grows and the stock price increases, these scammers will dump the stock, saddling other investors with big losses.
The coronavirus pandemic has evolved over the last year and a half, and many people are eager to make sure they have the most up-to-date information. One email scam uses legitimate logos from organizations to trick users into clicking on a button that unleashes malware or that may install spyware that can steal passwords, credit card numbers and other data stored within the web browser. The first line of defense is your computer’s firewall which can detect and block many known versions of malware. Updating and layering your computer’s security systems will help protect from such invasions.
Some con artists aren’t as high tech. One common deception is the “grandparent scam” in which an imposter calls a senior citizen with a fictitious story about a relative in trouble who desperately needs money to fix a car or get out of jail in order to come home. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggests before offering help to someone who claims to be a relative (such as a grandchild or friend) to contact other family members to verify the emergency or urgent request. The Bureau also warns anyone not to provide personal financial information to anyone you don’t know or aren’t positive of who they actually are.