Scammers are exploiting concerns about the quarantine by taking advantage of people’s fear and anxiety to perpetrate various cons. Imposters and malefactors prey upon seniors with phishing scams, fraudulent miracle cures, and illegal robocalls in order to profit or steal your valuable information. These scams are so prevalent, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) made a bingo game out of them!
Seniors are often targeted because they usually have money. However, older adults are also very vulnerable to scams because they are isolated or not very tech savvy. This is a time to be extra vigilant and careful. Read on for the most common scams, red flags to look out for, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you are targeted.
Social security scam
Be aware of suspicious communications regarding an alleged problem with your Social Security number, account, or payments. The FTC reports that Social Security beneficiaries are receiving pre-recorded telemarketing robocalls claiming that their Social Security is being suspended. The Social Security Office of the Inspector General reports that beneficiaries are also receiving fraudulent letters through the U.S. Mail threatening suspension or discontinuation of Social Security benefits unless they call a phone number referenced in the letter. Scammers try to lure beneficiaries into divulging private information or providing payment in order to maintain or increase benefits.
Do not be misled. The Social Security Administration (SSA) will not suspend, discontinue, or decrease Social Security benefit payments or Supplemental Security Income payments as a result of recent office closures. They will never threaten to withhold benefits unless you pay a fine or fee.
The Office of the Inspector General warns that “no government agency or reputable company will call or email you unexpectedly and request your personal information, or request advance fees for services in the form of wire transfers or gift cards.”
Scammers are setting up websites to sell bogus products. Quack medicines, fake cures, and phony prevention measures are being advertised on social media and appearing in senior’s inboxes. These unapproved and misbranded products include teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver. Televangelist Jim Bakker is currently being sued by the state of Missouri for touting such a product.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) cautions against convincing testimonials and conspiracy theories, citing one email scam that claims the government discovered a vaccine but is keeping it secret for “security reasons.” Be forewarned that there is no tincture, vaccine, pill, potion, or product on God’s green earth that will prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19. These snake oil peddlers are just after consumers’ money and personal info.
Medical supplies scam
Along these same lines, the FTC reports that online retailers are claiming to have “in-demand products, like cleaning, household, and health and medical supplies.” People are ordering them, but then they never receive anything.
The American Bankers Association(ABA) says some scammers are impersonating health organizations and businesses in order to sell fake COVID-19 test kits, supplies, vaccines or cures. Reports from South Florida indicate the elderly are being targeted specifically, with fraudulent companies offering fake COVID-19 in-home test kits to Medicare recipients. In-home test kits are not currently available through the FDA. This is another ploy for personal info and/or funds.
Stimulus check scams
The lack of detail surrounding Coronavirus relief checks rolls out the red carpet for scam artists. The FTC cautions against telemarketers claiming to be affiliated with any government agency. They can be tricky–even using a fake caller ID number. Obviously you don’t want to sign your check over to anyone, but scammers are creative. They’ll claim they can get you your payment faster; offer to update your information; or even send you a fake check, then says you need to verify your personal information to cash it. Be wary of the terms “stimulus check” or “stimulus payment,” which is a red flag since the government refers to the checks as an “Economic Impact Payments”.
No one from the federal government is going to contact you about the money we’re all getting. According to the IRS Social Security recipients will receive their $1,200 Economic Impact Payment in the same manner that they receive their monthly benefits. This includes people who did not file taxes last year. Furthermore, you don’t have to pay to receive the funds, and you don’t need to verify or supply any personal or bank account information to a stranger to receive your payment. Anyone who claims to have early access to this money is a scammer.
Cybersecurity company Kaspersky warns against malware, that you can get from “virus-tracking apps,” sensationalized news reports, or malicious pdf, mp4 and docx files disguised as educational documents. The file names may purport to contain information on how to avoid getting sick, but really they contain a virus that will infect your computer.
Unfortunately, fraudsters prey upon good-natured people who are trying to help others in a time of crisis. The ABA warns against illegitimate or non-existent organizations seeking donations. Kasperskysays an e-mail circulated from an address claiming to be the CDC that was asking for bitcoin donations to fund vaccine research. However, the real CDC cannot accept donations by law.
The ABA says to watch out for people impersonating medical personnel claiming to have treated a relative or friend for COVID-19 and demanding payment for treatment.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is spreading awareness to investors about internet promotions (including on social media), often masquerading as “research reports” that claim a publicly-traded company is going to shoot up in value because they have the solution to COVID-19. The “investment opportunity” may even predict a certain “target price.”
Everyone and their mother has emailed us about the recent quarantine. And with all this time at home, we have plenty of time to go through and click “unsubscribe.” The ABA explains phishing scams as “fraudulent emails, texts, phone calls, and websites to trick users into disclosing private account or login information.” The FTC warns of circumspect emails from senders claiming to be from the CDC or so-called experts. Kaspersky says that even if the domian name looks convincing, they could be trying to steal your e-mail credentials.
How to avoid being a victim
Keep the scammers at bay with the following tips.
Protect personal information
Never give out sensitive information such as SSN, DOB, driver’s license numbers, account numbers, medical history, etc. The SSA recommends telling anyone who contacts you asking you to verify your information that you will contact them through their customer service channels. They also note that, “If anyone pressures you to provide information or money over the phone, it’s a scam and you should just hang up.” See more tips from the SSA here.
Catch a phish
If you don’t know who sent the email, don’t open it. The ABA warns against clicking hyperlinks or opening “any attachments or pop-up screens from sources you are not familiar with, and NEVER give your password, account number or PIN to anyone.” They say fraudulent links are often similar to the actual URL, so you should hover over suspicious links to see what URL the link is actually sending you to. Kaspersky recommends looking “carefully to spot wrong addresses, misspelled domains, URLs with misleading labels, and other signs.” The cybersecurity site also says that no website should ask you for email login. So if you see that, you know it’s a hoax.
Protect against malware
The ABA recommends protecting your computer from viruses by “having the latest security software, web browser, and operating system.” Additionally, you can spot phony files by checking the file extensions. Things like .pdf, .doc, and .jpg are usually fine. Stay away from .exe, which is the file extension for an executable file format. Instead of clicking on shady links that offer enticing information, get your info from reliable sources.
Many may advise to hang up on robocalls, but our advice is to not answer them in the first place. Picking up the phone just encourages them to keep calling. Let any number you don’t know go to voicemail or the answering machine. If it is a phone scam, block the number. If you accidentally pick up on one, don’t press any numbers—just hang up. Make sure your phone number is registered on the National Do Not Call Registry. It is free, just call 1-888-382-1222 (TTY: 1-866-290-4236) from the phone you want to register.
Do not donate
Until you’ve done your research, that is. The ABA urges donors to “Be wary of any business, charity or individual requesting COVID-19-related payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card or through the mail.” The FTC says not to “let anyone rush you into making a donation. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, don’t do it.” See more FTC tips on how to donate wisely here.
Stay up-to-date on the latest scams
You’re obviously doing your homework now, but keep an eye out for emerging scams on the FTC’s coronavirus page. Rely on official sources such as the CDC, WHO, and your state’s health department to keep track of the latest developments surrounding the pandemic.
Nix magic elixer
Be wary of any company claiming the ability to prevent, detect or cure coronavirus. The FDA has not approved any vaccines, drugs, investigational products, or home test kits to diagnose, treat, or prevent COVID-19. Here are more tips from the FDA on health fraud scams.
Online shopping tips
The BBB says to make sure the company is legit, with contact info, a street address, and perhaps a positive BBB Business Profile before entering your name, address, and credit card information to make a purchase.
What to do if you suspect you’ve been victimized
If your personal information has been lost, stolen, or otherwise exposed, contact your bank and follow these identity theft recovery steps. If you feel you’ve been the target of a scam, contact law enforcement and your local Area Agency on Aging.
Report Social Security scams to the Office of the Inspector General or call the fraud hotline at 1-800-269-0271.
Defrauded via illegal telemarketing calls? Report other imposter scams related to the Coronavirus to the FTC by filing a consumer complaint online or calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357). Billed for merchandise you never received? That’s also an FTC matter.
Report suspected or confirmed crimes of the computer variety to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
If someone claiming to be from the IRS tried to take you for a ride on your Economic Impact Payment, report it to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
Report all scams, no matter how successful, to the BBB.